The Pentagon’s Culture Wars: An Article in NATURE for Oct. 2008

Sharon Weinberger’s article in Nature is behind a pay wall. I will provide some extracts and summaries below. The title of the article is “Military Research: The Pentagon’s Culture Wars” and was published online in Nature News on October 1, 2008 (complete details can be found on the Bibliography page).


Weinberger’s article, like so many others these days, is a recapitulation of much that has already been published, updated with some recent comments and more perceptive questions (more perceptive than others perhaps). For example, at the outset of the article, Weinberger takes us through the kind of anecdote we have become accustomed to, of how a Human Terrain Team explains local realities to soldiers, possibly saving the life of a person wrongly suspected of being a jihadist (by McFate’s own implict admission in the article, U.S. forces would otherwise have killed the man on the spot?):

Analysts working for a ‘human-terrain team’ informed a US commander that the ‘jihadist’ literature discovered in the village of Banat al Hassan, about 30 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, was ordinary religious teaching material, and the weapon – a riflescope – was for a pellet gun that beekeepers in the area use for shooting birds. The suspect was promptly released, and his family ended up helping US forces by revealing the location of a large improvised explosive device.

Montgomery McFate is quoted by Weinberger, in connection with this “upbeat anecdote” as saying: “a story about how a little respect, culture and compassion can save human life.” Weinberger then asks — asking us, the readers, it seems rather than McFate:

What if, for example, the literature had indeed been jihadist literature? Would the human-terrain teams, which include civilian social scientists, then be helping the military to target insurgents?

Weinberger states that last year the Pentagon provided $60 million to the Human Terrain System (it appears that these numbers change depending on the article — Weinberger’s former colleague at Danger Room, Noah Shachtman, claimed that $131 million had been paid to HTS — perhaps the time frames are different). In addition, in an outline of HTS, she outlines that it includes:

deployed teams that directly advise military commanders in the field, specialized software for cultural ‘mapping’ plus personnel based in the United States conducting research. According to official figures provided by the army, there are now sixteen five-person Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) deployed in Iraq and five in Afghanistan, along with about 40 people in ‘research reachback cells’ in the United States. The teams are supposed to provide deployed military forces with “direct social-science support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis”.

Weinberger also does a better job than Shachtman in at least acknowledging with more specificity the range and depth of criticisms by anthropologists, noting that the executive of the American Anthropological Association condemned HTS on ethical grounds, noting as well that the work of HTS anthropologists “endanger[s] other anthropologists by bringing suspicion on their activities.” Finally. In a third paragraph devoted to anthropological criticisms of HTS, we read the following:

Critics say the current work flies in the face of everything anthropology represents, from transparency of research to informed consent (for example, the social scientists on the HTTs do not submit their research to an institutional review board, as would be normally required for human research). “I don’t think there’s a place for embedded anthropologists with combat missions,” says Roberto Gonzalez, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is working on a book about the Human Terrain System. “It runs completely counter to anthropology’s ethical framework, something that’s come about over a long, bitter period that goes back to the First World War.”

In response, Weinberger treats us to what is possibly one of the most foolish statements yet made by Montgomery McFate in public (accompanied by the usual photo of a smug and leering McFate), a statement that works to further discredit her personally and professionally (if there was any more distance for her to travel in that regard), while casting a shadow on her mentors at Yale:

“Why should anthropology be some leftist religion?” she asks. “I mean, it’s supposed to be a science; it’s not supposed to be a political platform, a substitute for the Peace Corps, or a cult.”

This is from someone who boasts of a Ph.D in anthropology from Yale. Is this what Yale produces? People who think there are “leftist religions”? People who speak scornfully of “cults”? People who naively embrace badly outdated notions of “science” as somehow not political? Still opposing, in 19th century style, Comtian positivism against mysticism and superstition…and that’s her anthropology? Not even natural scientists embrace the silly and churlish idea that science is unmoved by politics and social context, which tells me that she really has not kept up with “science” beyond the Victorian era to know anything about it. In response, the lone commenter on the article writes:

Is McFate’s position so indefensible that she has to dismiss legitimate ethical and professional concerns as “leftist religion”? Even leaving aside the complete lack of evidence for any tangible benefit to embedding social scientists, one would think that there is an intellectually consistent position one might take to address these very salient questions raised by other anthropologists. McFate appears to have none. She speaks the cant of the current Presidential administration well enough, though, which likely explains how far she has gotten in spite of so little success (again, just like the current administration).

Echoing some of what John Stanton also found, it seems that McFate has largely failed to appeal to anthropologists, and that hiring is in shambles:

The Pentagon, however, has had a hard time recruiting and keeping qualified anthropologists. Of 35 social scientists based in Iraq and Afghanistan, only about half have PhDs, and only seven of those deployed are anthropologists. One social scientist hired to work on a HTT was identified during screening as a convicted criminal (and dismissed prior to deployment), another was found medically unfit, two were let go because of security clearance issues, and two were fired for performance issues.

Fortunately, Weinberger also interviewed Zenia Helbig and Matt Tompkins, who were in the program and since leaving/being forced out have detailed some of the follies and ineptitude of program leaders such as McFate.

Interestingly, Adam Silverman, a political scientist who is one of the Human Terrain Team members stationed outside Baghdad, explains that among the sources of information he gathers as part of his field research is “academic sources and the Internet.” This adds weight to one of the statements by one of my correspondents who has accessed HTS’ allegedly open access database (the same one whose log in procedures ask you to identify yourself as a “civilian partner” of HTS), only to find scraps of random data, including material derived from what is freely available on the Internet. As the correspondent explained: “the material I have seen on the  [HTS] sharepoint sight is totally underwhelming – none of it (as of a month ago) was produced by them; it’s merely a collection of random, open source material and a rather poor collection at that.”

Silverman tells Weinberger that “field research has been difficult to conduct.”  He adds: “We don’t interview anyone per se – we do try to talk with anyone who will talk with us.”

Weinberger does not believe McFate’s “upbeat anecdote” either, and for good reason:

it is not clear whether academic social scientists are even the key feature in successful human-terrain teams. McFate’s story about a team defusing the situation in Banat al Hassan was confirmed by Major Philip Carlson, who led the team in question. But the recommendation to let the man go wasn’t from a social scientist; it came from Carlson and an Iraqi-American analyst. There wasn’t even a social scientist on that team at the time.

Simply put: McFate has been caught in another lie to the media.

Weinberger notes that “few, if any, definitive numbers exist by which to measure the programme’s effectiveness.” Indeed, the oft repeated tale from Col. Martin Scweitzer in Afghanistan, about the work of HTTs in reducing violence by 60-70% in one region (a number that has surely been reversed by now anyway), was directly disputed by anthropologist David Price who filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the reports to substantiate that number. There was no study, no report to substantiate the numbers.

The Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative also appears in Weingerger’s article, for roughly the last quarter of the piece. Once again, unfamiliar numbers are offered: It has $100 million in funding for a five year period, of which half is slated for the National Science Foundation. Here again Weinberger is careful to note some (some of the lesser) criticisms made by anthropologists of the Minerva program, specifically about peer-review as voiced from the head of the American Anthropological Association. More interesting was the comment by Hugh Gusterson, already made before, but presented with more clarity by Weinberger, concerning potential scamming:

[Gusterson] notes that a government contractor recently contacted several colleagues, “shopping” for an anthropologist so that they could bid on Minerva, which requires university participation.

This section of the article details some of the concerns of those like Gusterson about the weight of the national security state in redirecting research, and taking anthropologists away from a position of advocacy on behalf of the poor and the powerless. Weinberger also speaks of similar trends in national security research occurring elsewhere, for example, the recent rerouting of counterterrorism studies in the U.K. through the Economic and Social Research Council.

The article ends with a dismissal of criticisms by McFate:

McFate, for her part, puts the criticism down to a small but vocal group. “It’s just a very small segment of the anthropology community,” she says of the critics. “We’re not going to draft them.”

I am afraid that she appears to be very right on this score: she is not going to draft us, and there are very few of us, especially among anthropology bloggers who seem quicker to show sympathy for even the trashiest blog propaganda written by HTS personnel than they do for the many criticisms that continue to go unanswered.

9 thoughts on “The Pentagon’s Culture Wars: An Article in NATURE for Oct. 2008

  1. I think “the social scientists on the HTTs do not submit their research to an institutional review board, as would be normally required for human research” was the scariest part.

    That and McFate’s willingness to shrug off all professional accountability as “leftist religion” from “a very small segment of the anthropology community.” If it wasn’t bad enough that McFate is a hack, she’s a hack who is hurting her discipline and likely the people HTS personnel are studying as well. I don’t think I’ve ever been this angry with someone in the discipline. Clearly I haven’t been paying enough attention.

  2. Thanks for the comments Cobalt. There is definitely a lot more I could say about McFate from that article alone, for example, that she is a liar, a megalomaniac, and a fascist. Strictly speaking she is not in the discipline, but she likes to pretend that she speaks for it — hence the attempted marginalization and trivialization of the opposition, as if her view were more in tune with the broad mass of anthropologists. That her victorious mission against the discipline has not resulted in more than a handful of anthropologists joining, speaks for itself. Her program is primarily about domestic propaganda — rehumanizing military forces that have racked up a ton of charges for human rights violations, pretending that the U.S. is now fighting “smart” and thus winnable wars, and trying to quell opposition from intellectuals. I noted that the article consisted mostly of counter-charges against anthropologists, rather than real nitty-gritty detail from Iraq, and that is in line with the last statement. Thanks in the meantime for speaking up and being part of this “vocal minority”!

  3. If only there were some large, reputable organization within the discipline that agreed with us marginal naysayers. Like… like the AAA! Yeah. That’d be crazy.

  4. The funny thing is that even when the AAA did produce statements and reports criticizing involvement with HTS as violating ethical principles upheld by the association, the accusation was still that it was a minority who opposed the program. One serious problem is that the vast majority of anthropologists who are somewhat aware of these debates are largely remaining silent, and one way or another they are doing serious damage by continuing to spectate or debate in private.

  5. If Montgomery McFake really thinks that it is a minority of members within the AAA who oppose HTS, she needs to get off of her cowardly over paid ass and submit a resolution to the AAA membership stating that the AAA members support Human Terrain Systems.

    McFate talks big, but she knows she’s lying.

  6. Exactly Lance, she should go forward with such a resolution if she thinks she has the support. Excellent suggestion. Then she can also move for a total re-revision of the AAA’s code of ethics to better suit HTS (I assume that the current Code would be replaced by a series of blank pages). Thanks very much for your visit.

  7. wow. Now I totally want to go to Yale… 0.o

    let me get this straight. that guy is googling his sources?

  8. LOL cherry! — Yes, going all the way to Iraq to do Internet research, and get paid $300,000, and then maybe come back and lecture the rest of us about how we should be “scientists” and focus on collecting “data.” These people are frauds.

    HTS researchers are not meant to be taken seriously as researchers. That is not the point of the program. The point is domestic propaganda and domestic stabilization. It is get voters to think in terms of winnable wars, smart wars, and humane wars. It is also meant to shut up critical academics, with the hope of luring some from their ranks with outrageously supersized salaries at a time when more Americans are living in tent cities.

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