Occupying Hearts and Minds

Thursday, 30 April 2009 16:35 By Dahr Jamail, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

Occupying Hearts and Minds
An anthropologist and Army medics work at a medical clinic in the Shabak Valley in Afghanistan. (Photo: Tomas Munita / The New York Times)

    One of the definitions of the word "occupation" is: the action, state, or period of occupying or being occupied by military force. Throughout history, areas or countries occupied by military force have always resisted, and this resistance has caused the occupier to devise more suitable methods of subduing the population of the area being occupied.

    The US military has sent shock troops, which also donned helmets and flak jackets - anthropologists, sociologists and social psychologists, with their own troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of 2007, American scholars in these fields were embedding with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a Pentagon program called Human Terrain System (HTS), which evolved shortly thereafter into a $40 million program that embedded four or five person groups of scholars in the aforementioned fields in all 26 US combat brigades that were busily occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Two years prior to this, the CIA had quietly started recruiting social scientists by advertising in academic journals, offering salaries of up to $400,000. The military's goals for the HTS was to have them gather and disseminate information about Iraqi and Afghani cultures. These embedded scholars, contracted through companies like CACI International, work in the project that is described by CACI as "designed to improve the gathering, understanding, operational application, and sharing of local population knowledge" among combat teams.

    This new form of psychological warfare is deeply disturbing. Throughout my five years of reporting on the occupation of Iraq, when I've asked Iraqis what they feel the most damaging aspect of the occupation is, I have been told that the occupation is "shredding the fabric of Iraqi society and culture."

    Anthropology, in particular, has been referred to through history as the "handmaiden of colonialism," thus putting anthropologists, at least those with a moral conscience, on guard against anything that smells like exploitation or oppression of their subjects. Roberto Gonzalez, an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and leading member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, told Time magazine that the militarization of anthropology will cause the field to become "just another weapon ... not a tool for building bridges between peoples." Anthropology has core professional ethics standards that require voluntary, informed consent from subjects, and that anthropologists do no harm. How likely do you think these will be adhered to by the flack-jacket-wearing, gun-toting, embedded anthropologists working directly with regimental combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    In an article titled "When Anthropologists Become Counter-Insurgents," published in September 2007, and co-authored with David Price, author of the book "Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Abuse of American Anthropology in the Second World War," Gonzalez and Price wrote:

"Although proponents of this form of applied anthropology claim that culturally informed counter-insurgency work will save lives and win 'hearts and minds,' they have thus far not attempted to provide any evidence of this. Instead, there has been a flurry of non-critical newspaper accounts in publications including the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor that portray these HTS anthropologists as heroically serving their nation without bothering to report on the ethical complications of this work. Missing are discussions of anthropologists' ethical responsibilities to disclose who they are and what they are doing, to gain informed consent, and to not harm those they study. Portraying counter-insurgency operations as social work is naive and historically inaccurate.

"In fact, David Kipp of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas describes HTS teams as a 'CORDS for the 21st Century'-a reference to the Pentagon's Vietnam-era Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support project. The most infamous product of the CORDS counter-insurgency effort was the Phoenix Program, in which CIA agents collected intelligence information used to 'neutralize' (read assassinate) suspected Viet Cong members. Between 1968 and 1972, more than 26,000 suspected Viet Cong were killed as a result, including many civilians.

"Kipp's comparison of HTS and CORDS begs a series of ethical questions which have gone unanswered. If anthropologists on HTS teams interview Afghans or Iraqis about the intimate details of their lives, what is to prevent combat teams from using the same data to one day 'neutralize' suspected insurgents? What would impede the transfer of data collected by social scientists to commanders planning offensive military campaigns? Where is the line that separates the professional anthropologist from the counter-insurgency technician? Although the answers to these questions are not clear, the history of anthropology should give us pause. During World War II and the Cold War, US military and intelligence agencies tended to use anthropologists' work to help accomplish immediate goals, and discarded all other information that was counter to their beliefs or institutional models."

    Adding credence to the points made by Price and Gonzalez is the fact that one of the top ten US defense contractors, Science Applications International Corporation, which has been operating in Iraq since the beginning of the occupation, describes anthropology in its job advertisements as a "counter-insurgency related field."

    Marcus Griffin, an anthropology professor, while preparing to deploy to Iraq at part of an HTS team, boasted on his blog, "I cut my hair in a high and tight style and look like a drill sergeant ... I shot very well with the M9 and M4 last week at the range ... Shooting well is important if you are a soldier regardless of whether or not your job requires you to carry a weapon."

    Nevertheless, proponents of the program attempt to dismiss any ethical dilemma encountered by the embedded scholars. Montgomery McFate, a Navy anthropologist, described HTS as an effort to anthropologize the military, not militarizing anthropology, told Time, "The more unconventional the adversary, and the further from Western cultural norms, the more we need to understand the society and underlying cultural dynamics."

    The program is nothing new, neither for the US empire nor other empires throughout history. As far as the US empire project is concerned, there were two programs from the Vietnam era that involved anthropologists.

    Project Camelot, in 1965, organized by US Army intelligence, recruited anthropologists to assess the cultural causes of war and violence. Despite the misleadingly benign sounding name, the project used Chile as a trial run while the CIA was engineering the election of Eduardo Frei as president in 1964 to prevent the election of Socialist leader Salvador Allende.

    The second program from that era, known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), was formed to coordinate the US civil and military pacification programs in Vietnam. CORDS used anthropological data to map human terrain and identify individuals and groups that the military believed were sympathizers of the Vietcong, who were then targeted for assassination.

    It is easy to imagine HTS teams in Iraq being used to exploit existing fault lines between Sunni and Shia, Kurd and Arab, and even differences within each group, in order to invoke the classic divide-to-conquer strategy. For example, the Sahwa (US-created and -backed Sunni militia) clashing with the US-backed Maliki government in Iraq is a classic example of Iraqis being effectively turned against one another so as not to unite against the occupier.

    Another example would be the effective creation and exploitation of the myth of sectarianism in Iraq, which has lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and threatens to do so once again.

    Documentary filmmaker Jason Coppola is directing and producing a film titled "Justify My War." In the film, an introspective Coppola explores the question of rationalization of the wars being waged by our government, from Wounded Knee to Fallujah. I asked Coppola for his perspective about the ongoing use of anthropologists by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    "This seems to be the most powerful weapon against indigenous cultures today. Much more powerful than F-16s and M-1 tanks. We see how well it worked against our own indigenous culture. You need to know a people before you decide what can corrupt them, what can be used to confuse, divide and conquer them. The strongest defense against occupation is an undivided, culturally rooted people, but empires don't like that."

    Commenting on experiences from his recent trip to Iraq, Coppola adds, "A country can rebuild itself after an invasion, but it is much more difficult to rebuild a culture after it has been invaded. I realized this seeing young girls walking the streets of Sadr City, on their way to school in their traditional hijab carrying their books in a backpack with a blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie design on it. Confusion is sewn throughout the Iraq occupation, nobody trusts anybody. And as I looked up in Baghdad or Fallujah or Sadr City, and stared at 'Apache' helicopters flying overhead ... I couldn't help but to think - mission accomplished - certainly for the Apache people. But what about the Iraqis? We still don't know."

    Price and Gonzalez, along with several other scholars, felt the problem serious enough to have formed the Network of Concerned Anthropologists and drafted a "Pledge of Non-Participation in Counter-Insurgency" to boycott anthropological work in counterinsurgency and direct combat support operations. They took their stand against "work that is covert, work that breaches relations of openness and trust with studied populations, and work that enables the occupation of one country by another."

    Similarly, in October 2007, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association issued a statement that warned its members that activities such as involvement in the HTS program are likely to violate the code of ethics. As it should have, for it is impossible to imagine the lethality of a massive conventional military coupled with unconventional scholarship made into a weapon for use in combat, as it is in the ongoing US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last modified on Friday, 01 May 2009 09:55