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The Military "Leveraging" of Cultural Knowledge

Wikileaks just released the December 2004 “Army Stryker Brigade Initial Impressions Report on Operations in Mosul, Iraq.” This document was produced by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Ft. Leavenworth, and provides an internal view on the Army’s late-2004 self-perception of how the occupation was going and outlines perceived military shortcomings in Mosul. Given David Petraeus’ role in the occupation and management of Mosul, some elements of the document prefigure Petraeus’ push for increased reliance on cultural knowledge for counterinsurgency.

The report’s six chapters cover the topics of: Command and Control, Digital Systems, Non-Lethal Operations, Stryker Vehicle Performance and Survivability, Intelligence, and Operations. Much of the report evaluates how specific hardware is performing in Iraq; other discussions focus on the lack of theatre specific training, or evaluate the merits of building new interrogation centers instead of using preexisting structures. While the shortcomings of specific military gear can be dealt with by replacements, retrofits and redesigns, the cultural shortcomings of the occupation present more serious obstacles. The report’s residual image is of a pelagic military only beginning to become aware of the depths of their own ignorance of the complex environment they are attempting to occupy and dominate. Even at this early stage the Army had reasons to know it was in over its head.

The report remarks on the military’s weak understanding of the culture they are occupying, but it also documents that the military understood how to use members of the media, and it praises the compliance of embedded media for not reporting on the failures of American occupiers. The report recounts that,
“An embedded media representative was staying with elements of the brigade and had been granted access to an event where school supplies were to be handed out to needy students. The unit took the reporter to a school which they had recently built. When they arrived they were surprised to find that no children were present and that an Iraqi family was homesteading in the building. The Iraqi police were unwilling to remove the family and no school supplies to be issued. Fortunately the reporter elected not to cover the event, which could have made us look bad, since we didn’t know what was going on with the school after we funded its construction.the reporter understood what had happened and had other good coverage to use [rather] than airing any of this event.”
The section’s “Lessons Learned” summary concludes that “assisting the media in getting the type of coverage they want will ultimately enhance the opportunity for more favorable coverage.”

The most anthropologically interesting section of the report is chapter five’s Topic M: Cultural Differences’ discussion of the management of tactical information. This section’s chief observation is that “cultural differences have created a challenging environment for the Stryker brigade.” It was this sort of “cultural differences” and “challenging environments” that would later provide the impetus for establishing Human Terrain Teams now deploying anthropologists and other social scientists to assist in the military’s occupation of Iraq.

The “Cultural Differences” section discussion states that:

“Real-world experience for intelligence analysts and collectors is irreplaceable. Cultural differences have created a challenging environment for the Stryker brigade. The tribal multi-ethnic and historical alliances and allegiances have made it difficult for HUMINT [Human Intelligence] and SIGINT [Signal Intelligence] collection. Communications channels, linguistic dialects and slang terms and cultural customs and courtesies make collection even more challenging. These barriers also affect the analysis of intelligence. Use of theater and national level assets has helped the brigade overcome many challenges. Attached and reach-back capabilities aided analysis and collectors overcome a steep learning curve. Many analysts and collectors argue no training could fully prepare an intelligence professional for the challenges. Real-world experience for intelligence analysts and collectors is irreplaceable. Training of this caliber cannot be replicated at national training centers. Hired interpreters have enhanced the capability of intelligence professionals in both collection and analysis. Databases developed in country and via production from theater and national level assts in CONUS [the Continental United States] on topics such as tribes, the spelling of names and regional affiliations were used as resources to assist the brigade with intelligence production.

Insights/Lessons Learned:

* Cultural understanding is an endless endeavor that must be overcome leveraging whatever assets are available.

* Cultural training prior to deployment, reach-back capabilities, and a resourceful and knowledgeable use of assets available in country is the key to overcoming challenges.”

This section observes that the military’s occupation is weakened by the sort of lack of cultural knowledge that Gen. Petraeus would later focus upon. It recognizes that the Stryker brigade’s cultural ignorance weakened their day to day effectiveness and the interfered with the collection and interpretation of intelligence. The recommended solution for these shortcomings is increased training with “real-world experience” and the development of “reach-back capabilities aided analysis.” This “reach-back” analysis refers to the development of remote high-tech databases located off the battlefield (on a stateside base such as Ft. Leavenworth) that can be consulted and supplemented from the battlefield. This call for a U.S. based cultural database with information on tribes and regional information describes the sort of reach-back databases now being compiled and used by Human Terrain Teams in Iraq.

The “lessons learned” component of this section provides a clear view of the military’s expectations of how anthropological or cultural knowledge is to be used to meet military needs. In observing that “cultural understanding is an endless endeavor that must be overcome leveraging whatever assets are available,” the military’s choice of “leveraging,” beautifully clarifies how the military conceptualizes anthropologists and others providing occupying troops in Iraq with cultural information: they are seen as priers of knowledge; tools to be used for the extraction and use of knowledge (“assets”) in ways that military commanders see fit.

It was concerns over this sort of “leveraging” (the functional use of anthropologists as pry-bars deployed to act upon human and cultural “assets” used by the military) that recently led the American Anthropological Association’s Executive Board to declare its disapproval of the military’s Human Terrain Systems as “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.”

Obviously, the limited scope of this 2004 Center for Army Lessons Learned report precludes addressing fundamental issues raised by the Bush administration’s reliance on false pretenses to illegally invade Iraq. Such issues are not among those included with the designated “Lessons Learned”-because at this level, the army follows rather than sets policy. But the same cannot be said for the free-agent anthropologists and other social scientists who are not part of the military and are now working as contractors on Human Terrain Teams “leveraging” culture in service of the military occupation of Iraq. These individuals willfully choose to ignore the ethical alarms being sounded by their peers as they voluntarily surrender their disciplinary skills to better “leverage” cultural “assets” for whatever ends the military dictates.

Given the problems identified in this 2004 report, it makes sense that the army would strive for a more culturally nuanced occupation; after all, it is the nature of occupying armies to seek to subjugate and occupy nations (legally, or illegally) with as little trouble as can be arranged. But anthropology’s abetment of this cause slides it askew from any central ethical principles of the field, and it reveals something of the lesser demons of the field’s nature. Granted, anthropology’s past has plenty of shameful instances of anthropologists applying their skills to leverage occupied peoples in colonial and neocolonial settings, but the common contemporary understanding that such manipulative leverages are part of a shameful past does not influence those seeking their fortune outside the ethical standards of their discipline’s mainstream.

I do like the notion of a “Center for Army Lessons Learned,” but the existence of such a center controlled by the army dooms any prospect that the learned lessons might ever be anything beyond minor tactical or technological adjustments. There is no hope of learning more important lessons about not becoming mired in imperial quagmires or unjust wars. I suppose if one were to conjure a Center for Anthropological Lessons Learned, its central findings might include admonitions to not betray or “leverage” the people one studies and lives amongst.

Although those who directing the war appear to have discovered ways to use anthropology to more efficiently achieve their goals, they don’t care that anthropology becomes what it is used for. As a member of my anthropological moiety, Kurt Vonnegut, once noted, “Shrapnel was invented by an Englishman of the same name. Don’t you wish you could have something named after you?”

DAVID PRICE is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, will be published next month by Duke University Press. He can be reached at dprice@stmartin.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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