David, Goliath, Charlie Wilson’s War, and American Culture

The film “Charlie Wilson’s War” is about an American Congressman who in the 1980s organized the clandestine funding to fight the Russian Occupation of Afghanistan. Wilson arranged for over $1 billion to be sent to Afghan groups fighting the Russians on the idea that anyone who would fight the United States’ Cold War enemy was America’s friend, including the admittedly courageous fighters who would later become Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and who got their start on large dollops of money Congressman Wilson sent their way. The film itself describes how three renegades: Congressman Wilson a politician previously known mainly for his womanizing, drug use, and alcohol consumption; Gust Avrakotos, a disgraced CIA agent; and a manipulative Houston socialite Joanne Herring who had a passion for evangelizing Central Asia, arranged to have Mujahaddin groups supplied with and trained to use Stinger missiles to shoot down the Soviet Air Force then occupying Afghanistan.

Each of the three main protagonists have motives rooted in the emotions of the moment— Wilson’s heartstrings are pulled on by meeting Afghan refugee children maimed by war; Herring comes from the evangelical Christian right and wants to stop Communism; and Avrakatos is a staunch anti-Communist with experience in Greece, and three years of Finnish language who resents his demotion to the Afghanistan desk by higher ups at the CIA fed up with his bad temper. Notably, none of the three bring any particular cultural expertise to their understandings of Afghanistan—only a shared passion to kill the Russians who in turn were carrying out a brutal occupation of Afghanistan. The film correlates the use of the Stinger missiles Wilson and his friends funded with the withdrawal of the once mighty Soviet Air military from Afghanistan in 1989, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union itself over the next months.

“Charlie Wilson’s War” is a classic David and Goliath story in the sense that the little guy—the Afghan Mujahaddin—come out on top; albeit only with the assistance that the oddball American friends. The film though ends on a laconic note. In the penultimate scene, Wilson asks his Congressional colleagues to appropriate $1 million to build schools in Afghanistan. The request is dismissed—the same committee which had poured over $1 billion for military assistance to fight the Russians, would not offer 1/1000 of that to build schools. The film then goes onto imply that the end result of this failure is the victory of “the crazies”, i.e. the Taliban extremists.

I would urge you to see the movie; it is done well and is entertaining. Tom Hanks plays Congressman Wilson, and Julia Roberts is the socialite Joanne Herring. The story itself is based on a true story, and since Wilson, Herring, and Avrakotos all cooperated with the filmmakers, I assume that it is a pretty good representation of how they saw themselves, warts and all. But for the more anthropologically inclined, the bigger lesson is in the back story, which is about American world view, and how policy emerges out of the backslapping, favor-trading, ego-stroking world of Washington DC power politics. This world of course has little to do with the Afghan refugees who have roles as gun-waving walk-ons, or the Muijahaddin fighters who finally shott the Soviet Air Force out of the skies using American Stingers. Indeed, there is little indication of why the Afghans fought in the first place. Nor there is there any indications about the bigger questions anthropologists might ask, such as how alliances are formed, or about the tug between religious and secular forces that Afghanistan wrestles. Rather “Charlie Wilson’s War” frames the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as simply another case of a foreign policy best fixed with American military technology.

So for anthropologists, the real lesson of “Charlie Wilson’s War” is not just the explicit David and Goliath story. Rather it is about how American culture persistently frames foreign policy dilemmas as being best addressed with technological rather than cultural know how. The odd twist in the story is that the filmmakers seem to believe that such technology is best wielded by renegades able to buck the system—even though they themselves are very much products of that system.

After all, where else but in Washington with all its wealth and self-absorption could three such oddball characters be considered heroes, and even be given credit for defeating the Russians in Afghanistan? That this happens says little about Afghanistan, or the nature of military force. But it says a lot about the American culture and the strange fascination of a super-power on David and Goliath stories.

Message to HTS Anthropologists: You Need an Experimental Control

Colonel Martin Schweitzer testified before two House Armed Services Committee Subcommittees on April 23 about the Human Terrain Team operating in Afghanistan. After reading it, I was not sure whether to jump up and down and yell yippee! because the military is discussing the role of culture in rural Afghanistan, or simply groan because so little of how social scientists think seem to have gotten through yet.
The statement was interesting for outside social scientists to read for a number of reasons, especially for how the military talks about culture, how the military’s understanding of culture works, and general social science research methods.

The first thing that struck me was the language of the military sub-culture. Much of what Colonel Schweitzer writes is an attempt to force what he and his HTT observe into pre-existing ways the military defines social situation. The terminology is replete with references to the military sub-culture, and their views of Afghanistan as being the focus of first security concerns, rather than issues of human relationships, power, kinship, ritual, etc., and other issues social scientists usually think about first But, the oddest terminology for me was his frequent reference to “kinetic operations” which by and large goes undefined, except to note that HTT cultural knowledge means that you have fewer of them. (I think that kinetic operations though has something to do with a type of search and seizure action that the military orders on its own criteria, and then conducts).
Moderately surprising for me was Colonel Schweitzer’s revelation that there might be more than one source of authority in a village, clan, etc. Apparently the army has always assumed that only one particular village elder is “the boss,” and Colonel Schweitzer’s pleasure—and surprise—that approaching a mullah is also effective. This struck me as Anthro 100 level stuff, but if a five member HTS team is what it takes to get across the idea that authority in “tribal” communities might be diffuse, ok, great. After six years in Afghanistan, it is about time that the military understood that such communities do not necessarily operate using the same type of command structure found in an American police force, for that matter, the US Military.
But, the biggest question I had after reading Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony was whether the HTS concept worked or not. Despite the fact that he is speaking to Congress as an advocate for a program which celebrates the use of social science, the data he presented were only anecdotal, and do not reflect systematic evaluation. It may well be that the decline in the number of “kinetic operations” is due to HTS. But, as they say in research methods classes, “correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” Meaning, that just because two things happen at the same time, one does not necessarily cause the other. The classic example illustrating this principle is that you may eat carrots at dawn, and two hours later see more clearly, but it does not necessarily follow that the carrots cause improved eye sight. In the case of a reduced need for kinetic operations, the causes for that over the last year might have included bad weather, poor crops, good intelligence, bad intelligence, new commanders, a switch in Taliban strategy, switch in American strategy, etc. etc. The point being that just because the number of kinetic operations declined, it does not follow that it was caused by HTS.
The odd thing is that in a pilot program such as HTS, a “natural experiment” is easy to develop. The question to ask is, did the number of “kinetic operations” decline any quicker in the area controlled by the brigade, than it did in areas controlled by brigades which did not have HTS? This would presumably be easy to do in Afghanistan where not only are there more than one American brigades, but other countries also have a military presence. Such other sectors as a “control” and then draw conclusions about HTS effectiveness. Such data is also open to the perils of interpretation, but using it is far better than relying on the vague feelings and anecdote alluded to in Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony. The data is probably already in military files somewhere. I hope that it is analyzed before the next Congressional testimony on HTS.

Human Terrain System: Too Little, Too Late, and So What?

Ok, Mark Dawson finally wrote often enough about the Human Terrain System for me to investigate what this military program actually is. I have some sympathy for the idea of using anthropology in the military because I have seen too many anthropologically incorrect lieutenants proclaiming to the press something along the lines of “You gotta be here to understand the bad guys. All the bad guys understand is strength/power/force/money. It is just their culture. And you never show weakness, or they will kill you. It’s that simple…” I have always been disappointed that the military encourages press representatives to mouth such simplistic rot, and that the press uncritically reports such uninformed ‘anthropological’ opinion. I also have an enduring wish that every soldier in Iraq would be exposed to a good course in anthropological theory in which the nature of military culture, American culture, Iraqi culture, and insurgency would be discussed. In this respect, I agree with the military that they would be much more effective if they were better aware of the “human terrain.”

So finally, as Mark suggested in his last post, I typed in Human Terrain System (HTS) and had a look at some of the top seven or eight hits. Judging by what the military writes about the program, I have some good news for those concerned about the ethics of HTS: It will not make much difference one way or the other. Everything I know about the nature of culture, and the nature of bureaucratic organizations (like the army), tells me this ain’t gonna work. No matter how well qualified the anthropologist might be—and in Markus Griffin it looks like they have a good one—the amount of resources, the nature of the military, and the nature of anthropology mitigates against even the most minimal goals of the project being successful.

The Human Terrain System involves assigning five-member teams of culturally sensitive people to a brigade headquarters. Three of these five are military people, and two can be civilians. Five teams were assigned in 2006 to test the idea. They report directly to the commander of a brigade (typically a brigadier general). Currently, with the surge, there are about twenty brigades in Iraq. Depending on their responsibilities, each brigade has somewhere between 2000 and 5000 soldiers who are roughly the same age as many of my undergraduates at Chico State. Since each HTS team includes only two anthropologists, that makes twelve anthropologists among tens of thousands of soldiers whose primary training is in logistics, weaponry, discipline, combat, and the other things that make an army go.

Just how little will be accomplished by HTS can be seen by looking at how anthropologists do what they do in the university. University classes are typically 45 hours in a semester, and the professor has the power to assign reading designed to get a student to think anthropologically. Typical sections are from 25-40 students. And for some (not all) students, this makes them more culturally sensitive, and able to think past the cultural over-generalizations of my hypothetical lieutenant about good guys and bad guys in an insurgency. In contrast, all the HTS team is likely to get is a weekly consultation and memo to a busy brigadier general. Such consultation will have little effect on our lieutenant briefing the press who will continue to get anthropological wisdom from the military’s own sub-culture. It will do even less for the thousands of enlisted men and officers in the brigade who man road blocks, protect convoys, search houses, patrol, and engage cross-culturally (and sometimes violently) with the Iraqi people. These interactions will be the source of the military’s folk anthropologies as they are now, not the under-staffed and isolated HTS teams at brigade headquarters.

Also unrealistic is the job description for the HTS anthropologists. According to the military, the civilian anthropologists hired will be the Indiana Jones of Cultural Anthropology. They will have an advanced degree, speak the local language, have lived in the local culture, published about the local culture, and be ready to embed themselves in the military. They will be able to use the instant high tech access to other specialists in Washington and the United States, presumably in order to fill in the blanks in their Kurdish-English dictionary (apparently this is more reliable than asking the Kurdish cook next door). This is in addition to the implied requirements that they pass the military security clearance, walk away from their job and family for a year, and be among the 30 or 31% of the American public who are sympathetic to the Bush Administration’s goals in Iraq. I got some bad news for the military. Indiana Jones is a movie character, and most cultural anthropologists are not that versatile. It takes at least a year of full cultural immersion to master an exotic language for street use (or as HTS describes it “field research”), and little such systematic immersion has been possible in Iraq since, hmm, let’s see…sometime before the coup of 1968, or maybe 1980 when the war with Iran began?

To bring an anthropological perspective to the military is going to take much more than the Human Terrain System. Generating a culturally-competent military is not about adding one more technical unit called “human terrain system” to deal with a system called “culture.” Culture is not reducible to a bureaucratic unit in the same way as logistics, mechanics, weaponry, prisons, and so forth. But this is how the army and its HTS program treats culture. Rather a culturally-competent military implies a new type of soldier who understands that power and legitimacy are not solely dependent on weaponry. Such soldiers would also need to understand that Iraq is not neatly divided into good guys and bad guys, and that cultural sensitivity is more than a public relations exercise. Bringing this to the military will involve much more than the occasional roving anthropologist reporting to a brigadier general.


The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century at http://www.army.mil/professionalwriting/volumes/volume4/december_2006/12_06_2.html

AAA resolution of October 31, 2007 about the Human Terrain System http://www.aaanet.org/blog/resolution.htm

Anthropologist Marcus Griffin’s blog from Iraq http://marcusgriffin.com/blog/2007/05/the_human_terrain_system_1.html