On the Cover of the Rolling Stone

Well, not really.  Not on the cover, anyway.  And not in Rolling Stone.  But I love that song!

But hey hey, anyone see this? HTS makes it into Newsweek, and I’m intrigued all over again. Seems it’s not being as valuable a program as it could be, at least in part because the social scientists who would be most equipped to help the military in Iraq—think: those who speak relevant languages and/or have spent significant time in the Middle East, or (gasp!) both—are under suspicion from the military, and so are unable to be as effectively embedded in troops as those whose prior research experience is among less relevant groups, like goths in the U.S. The military seems to think that knowing the methodology of anthropology is enough, that content knowledge will come as it’s necessary, and that interpreters can “fill in the gaps.” Now, even those of us who are doing applied work, or short-term work, need to have some background. There is something to be said for ethnographic authority. It is not just about the methodology. It’s about the commitment to a deeper understanding of a place, and Yes, about being in that place long enough to start to Get It.  And even if not all of the social scientists working with HTS start off as experts, you would think that actively driving off those experts who are willing to work within the program was Not a Good Idea.

If this program is to be done (and that’s a whole ‘nother ethical discussion, still hanging over us from the 2007 AAAs), it should at least be done well, should be done so that it is effective, and it doesn’t appear to be, at least, not yet—and I wonder, if ever. With the military’s determination that those with experience in the Middle East are also irrevocably stained with their association with same, and therefore untrustworthy, it’s hard to imagine just how they propose to use anthropology and anthropologist in truly constructive ways in Iraq (or anywhere else).

Marcus Griffin, still in the field (and with his blog under construction), is quoted in the article, as well as Matt Tompkins, who has now returned from Iraq, and whose fiancée, Zenia Helbig, was not only one of the academics whose background in the Middle East made her suspect to the military, but also one of the scholars who addressed the AAA meetings about HTS last fall.

I particularly like this bit at the end:

“Thomas Johnson, an Afghan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Johnson served in Afghanistan on a pilot Human Terrain team last year. A Pashto speaker, he spent much of his time there interviewing Afghans in their homes. “If you don’t have a good knowledge of the actual country and language, all the methodology can go for naught,” he says. Johnson was shocked to hear Human Terrain had received a huge funding increase while other military programs face cuts. He says it shows just how much faith Pentagon planners have in the idea that real experts can help America win the war in Iraq. If only someone would make the effort to find them.”

4 thoughts on “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone

  1. Alas, the article is frustrating for people actually involved in the program to read. But, as I am not the official word on the program, I am going to have to keep my hands folded.

  2. I was somewhat befuddled by the photo in Newsweek of an anthropologist wearing a military uniform (including helmet). This may be an excellent method to try to understand the culture of the military itself through participant observation. Indeed, after World War II, there were a number of good psychological and anthropological studies done of soldiers by soldiers.

    But it seems like a pretty weak way to try to deal with the Iraqi civilian population (or any civilian population). Civilians inherently do not trust guys with military uniforms, especially when they carry a gun. My general approach to police and military roadblocks has always been to warn my kids not to say anything, and then respond only to the questions asked in as brief a fashion as possible. (This is particularly the case when shared language skills are weak). In other words, just the opposite of what an anthropologist seeking field data generally wants.

  3. P.S. The comment that Zenia Helbig submitted to ASA, and is cited here, is a good one. http://blog.wired.com/defense/files/aaa_helbig_hts.pdf It discusses both the need for social science methodology in the military, and the limitations of the military in dealing with civilian academics. There is a long way to go, but I guess you need to start somewhere.

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