Culture wars

By PETER PIATETSKY  |  March 16, 2009

A place at the table
Barfield recalls a conversation he had with an Army officer in 2003, back when ideas for an HTT-type program were just beginning to brew. "I'm tired of killing people — there must be a better way to do this," the officer told him. Barfield was willing to help, but being flown out for a single advising trip involved so much paperwork and bureaucratic haggling that he never went.

Still, Barfield does see a useful role for cultural anthropologists in the defense sector — though not necessarily in the field. Nothing will be accomplished, he says, as long as anthropologists are "hired as the flunkies, given instructions to go find something. Anthropologists should be talking to people who make policy, to generals — we should be talking to the National Security Council, to [Obama administration diplomat to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard] Holbrooke, we should be there at the table when they say, 'We should decentralize Afghanistan,' or 'We should give the tribes weapons.' It would be good to have someone at the table for whom the country is not an abstraction."

That message may be getting through to the military in other ways. The Army is making efforts to integrate native speakers into its ranks with a recently launched recruiting initiative (separate from HTT) aimed at enlisting less picky cultural ambassadors: skilled immigrants. With a quicker path to US citizenship dangling at the end of the line, Green Card holders who have been living in the US for more than two years can suit up and receive US citizenship within six months. But these recruits would be low-ranking soldiers, not policy advisors.

Anthropologists, on the other hand, are well suited to helping formulate policy because they are both politically and culturally aware, yet many have been reluctant to join the HTT program.

The debate about the morality of the HTTs is "a red herring," says Barfield, who contends that arguing over the fine points of fieldwork and data storage only allows the anthropological community to avoid the real question of whether anthropologists will continue to sit on the sidelines or begin to play a role in public policy. "Anthropologists are always complaining about being ignored," he adds, "but now someone is listening to us and people are getting cold feet."

Asked if he himself would work with the program, Barfield says that he "would not deal with the Human Terrain Teams unless they treated me as an equal, as someone who sets policy." For both anthropologists and the US military to be effective, he says, "We need to set basic policy, because that is where the greatest mistakes are made and the greatest opportunities lost."

Peter Piatetsky can be reached at ideaprovider@gmail.com.

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