The U.S. military has been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq for six years. But a sizeable chunk of academia is still stuck in Vietnam. And that could undermine some real progress that our armed forces are making in their twin counterinsurgency fights.Take Iraq. After a bloody start to 2007, violence was down by about 60 percent at the end of the year. A major reason: American forces started using the social networks that underpin the country. In Anbar province, for example, U.S. troops have allied themselves with Sunni tribes-after years of ignoring them, or seeing them as enemies-and together, they've helped rout local jihadists.Arabic translators and specialists in local culture have become increasingly common components of U.S. combat units. That (along with a little cash) is helping sway tens of thousands of men to sign up as neighborhood watchmen, keeping an eye out for insurgents in their communities. Back in 2005, when I was first in Baghdad, I saw a company commander scream "jihad, jihad" at just about every Iraqi he could. When I returned this summer, military leaders on the ground went out of their way to linger at local shops, asking residents how they could help out.But getting attuned to local culture has meant reviving some military disciplines with often troubled histories. As a result, many in academia are freaking out.One group in particular is the American Anthropological Association. It has come out, full-throated, against the Army's new "Human Terrain System," which brings social scientists to the battlefield to serve as cultural advisers. Commanders credit the first of these teams with helping to reduce violent activities in western Afghanistan by nearly 60 percent. But to the AAA, the project is downright devilish. Since Human Terrain re-searchers might help in "identifying and selecting specific populations as targets of U.S. military operations," the Association's executive board recently declared, any information derived from the program would violate the social scientist's ethical code, which demands that "those studied not be harmed."
"Psyops" conjures up visions of freaky experiments and mind control.
It's an understandable concern, especially if the program is seen through Cold War lenses. In the 1950s, the CIA used knowledge of local culture in the Philippines-specifically, a fear of vampires-to help put down a rebellion. In the mid-1960s, the military launched Project Camelot, an effort to use anthropologists and others to influence social change in other countries. It created an uproar, and academic social scientists vowed never to work with the Pentagon again. By 1968, anthropology was being referred to as "the child of imperialism." And that's made it harder for the military to recruit social scientists.Now, 40 years later, the U.S. military is fighting insurgents again, and turning to anthropology once more. "We're great at killing people and breaking things. But if we want to be relevant in the 21st century, we have to adapt," says Steve Fondacaro, a retired Army colonel, who heads the Human Terrain program. "I can kill those five guys. And every time I do, I create 50 more. This is a competition for the support of the population. So we've got to understand how the society is hardwired."The AAA is not convinced. At a recent meeting, a former Human Terrain researcher blasted Fondacaro's management-but praised the idea of raising the military's cultural IQ. She was treated so viciously by the audience that she began to cry.Psychological operation-"psyops"-conjures up visions of freaky experiments and mind control, and with good reason. Pentagon psyops reports from the Vietnam era are filled with talk about creating moments of "heightened suggestibility" through "physical discomfort," "excessive stimulation," and "neurological disruption." Yikes.Today in Iraq, however, psyops is far more mundane. Basically, it means crafting pro-America advertisements. And that can't be done without understanding Iraqi culture. The psyops soldiers I met in Fallujah had spent nearly three years there, on and off. They seemed to know every sheikh and every imam in the town. And when local radicals killed a leading cleric, the psyops soldiers understood exactly how to use that cleric's words to get the people of Fallujah to turn against the extremists.Of course, the subtle art of propaganda raises some uncomfortable questions. "Do we really want an army that's good at population control?" one lieutenant colonel asked me. Maybe not-but since we're in the business of controlling populations, pamphlets are better than bullets.