Anthropologists in the Military – A First-Hand Account by Jeff Bristol

A few weeks back, Kambiz posted an article, ‘US Army is Embedding Anthropologists’, which discussed whether or not it was prudent, or even desirable for trained anthropologists to assist the US military in its current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; last night I read what I consider to be an outstanding addition to the discussion of this issue, in a post to Anthro-L, which was submitted by Jeff Bristol. Having obtained the author’s permission to reproduce it here, I hope this will add a unique perspective to the many words that have been said and written on this subject over these past weeks.

I’m an anthropology student who has recently left active duty in the US Army and who served as a Farsi linguist, so while I am definitely not quite yet a professional in our field, I think I still have somewhat unique perspective on this issue. I was also deployed to Afghanistan on active duty and served in Iraq as a civilian contractor in order to finance finishing my degree. I’ve read a lot of the articles that have been recently published about the HTS/HTTs (the military acronym for the anthropology teams in the field) and I have to agree with Ken’s statement that a boycott of counter-insurgency efforts would be a great loss, not just to the military and the US, but to anthropology and the countries we are occupying as well. Whether we like it or not, the wars and actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are a reality and it seems to me that the US gov’t has made a real reach out to enact better, more enlightened policy through the hiring of ‘experts in culture.’

It seems to me that the anthropology community can either take up the offer and try to help make what may be called a very unpalatable situation better by extending the insights that only it can provide, or sit back on its hands and let the gov’t execute its policies that even if well-intentioned would be otherwise misinformed. I think we can all agree that misinformed action is the worst thing that can happen not just for our country, but for the civilians in the occupied countries as well. It is inarguable I think that their lives that are more impacted by decisions made over there than ours.

Until this initiative started the only ‘experts in culture’ in the countries were people like myself who received language training at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey. While I and my military linguist former colleagues receive an undoubtedly high level of language training at the DLI, our cultural training extends only so far as what the native teachers there impart to us and what those of us who are honestly interested in the culture of the people who speak our respected languages (not necessarily in the majority, but not a small minority by any stretch of the imagination. Many of them are much like myself: people who joined the military and picked this particular career field either because we are interested deeply in foreign cultures and wanted some ‘real world’ time and a break from school or because we are interested in language and linguistics) pick up on our own.

While this may not be an inconsiderable level of knowledge, which is certainly added to by the practice of working with the language and its native speakers on a daily basis while deployed, we certainly do not have an anthropologist’s knowledge of cultural theory and foundations. For my part I had always intended at the end of my five-year contract to get out of the military and pursue anthropology. While my time as an ‘expert in culture’ was nice in the sense that it gave me to a chance to learn and grow in my understanding of the languages and cultures of Middle East and Central Asia and play the anthropologist in a sense, I could not have provided the insight I think I can now and will be able to provide with greater utility in the future.

If anthropologists boycott the occupations in the Middle East, nothing overseas will change. Institutions in the two countries we are attempting to build stability in will continue to be built on lines which may or may not be compatible with the cultural and social systems in existence within them. If these systems are not in harmony with the cultural environment in which they are created they will accordingly fail. On the other hand, if anthropologists enter the mission there, perhaps their greater insight will lead to more compatibility and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan as the reforms and reconstruction efforts will be guided in such a way as to allow for the social needs and norms of the people we are trying to help (and do not be mistaken, the soldiers, sailors, arimen and marines and their officers overseas want to help the people in those countries if for no other reason than because they want to come home and not go back).

It should be noted that in the beginning of our occupation in Iraq (I was in the military then and served from June 2001 until June of 2006) the insurgency was almost nonexistent. Soldiers and marines on patrols would often stop by neighborhood cafes for a coffee, hand candy out to kids and had a relatively strong dialogue with the local people. All things that every soldier, sailor, marine and airman in Iraq want.

Unfortunately (and most soldiers who were in country, not myself but many friends of mine, will blame, shout and curse Paul Bremmer for this) the reconstruction policy in the country started off on the wrong cultural foot. In an effort to sweep out the old and bring in the new, almost every shaykh in the country was arrested for one reason or another, creating massive destabilization in the traditional tribal power structure and forcing people, as a result of the disruption of power structure in place and operating even under Saddam, to side with insurgents and other elements in direct reaction against the disrupting influence. This also led to the idea that things may have been better off before. This is a reality that most people on the ground now understand and regret, and one reason why anthropologists are being brought into the fight. If they had been there in 2003 maybe things would have remained relatively peaceful, and Iraq could be a very different country today. Afghanistan has obviously been more successful, but the native power structures in that country were left more intact and less was intrinsically altered.

As for the anthropologists playing an ‘Emily Post’ role in the military, for now I am sure that is the case. That was often the role my fellow linguists and myself found ourselves playing, so it is to be expected the anthropologists currently serving are seen in their cultural capacity as ‘super-linguists’ in a way. The difference obviously is, in many cases (I would like to think I was an exception), Emily Post was the only role my fellow linguists and myself were able to play, not being versed in the theories of culture, but rather only its practice. The good thing here is that the army will adapt as it gains a better understanding of the ‘skill set’ (to use the military term) that anthropologists can bring to the mission, and the military will. The one thing I have noticed about dogmatic systems having spent six years, including my time as a contractor, immersed in them is that when told to learn how to use a new tactic or tool and apply it, it will be learned. The military has a surprising number of bright people to figure it out.

As for the anthropologist in uniform carrying a weapon, it is a wide piece of Army philosophy that regardless of a person’s job specialty he or she is a soldier first, meaning that he or she must be prepared to defend both themselves and their comrades should the need arise. While I am surprised the anthropologist was in uniform as there are ways around that requirement, they would never be allowed to enter a possibly dangerous situation without one. One a cultural note, however, being armed in Afghanistan has no negative connotations in the minds of the people there. In fact it would be expected of anyone associated with the military.

I never had any negative reactions while I was in the country for having a weapon and I was often with the populace and found myself generally carrying two. I always found most of the people where I was, which was not in the south where heavy fighting occurs, to be generally genuinely friendly, especially when they learned I spoke Persian. In fact, my Tehranian accent usually led to interesting questions about which member of my family was Iranian (I am very Northern European-looking and always identified myself as an American). Contractors on the other hand are not necessarily required to be armed (for myself I would want at least a pistol which is easily concealed if I were in a war-zone, but I guess in some sense once a soldier always a soldier), so perhaps that would be a better way to go. Who knows, but I’m sure it’s one thing the military will figure out as this program develops. For one thing, the pay would be a lot better. I know there aren’t many anthropologists if any making the kind of money contractors do overseas.

In any case, it may be a while before we start to see the results of this change in policy in the two countries; maybe as much as a year or longer. It will take a while for the anthropologists to get fully integrated into greater military strategy, and then a little longer until the projects they begin and advise on start to build in momentum and importance, but I think nothing bad can come of it. The US isn’t leaving Iraq and Afghanistan because the AAA decides to boycott (in fact, let’s be honest, it may not even be a blip on the radar), so it’s either let the association’s members do what they want, or keep valuable help away not just from the gov’t, but also from the people in the countries which we all would like to rebuild.

Jeff Bristol

Rather than add comments of my own to Jeff’s post, I’ve decided on this occasion to post this ‘as is’, in the hope that those with more insight regarding this contentious issue, will feel prompted to add comments of their own to this post. Tim

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