'Academic Embeds': Scholars Advise Troops Abroad Under a new Pentagon program, teams of anthropologists are being paired with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Guests discuss the controversial idea of "academic embeds" and what social scientists can do to assist American troops at war.
NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15124054/15124156" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Academic Embeds': Scholars Advise Troops Abroad

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15124054/15124156" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Last week, the New York Times reported on a Defense Department program to embed anthropologists and social scientists with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The American military has long been accused of relying too much on firepower, and the story quoted officials who said that the advice they received from anthropologists made them more effective and reduced violence.

Critics cite misuse of social scientists in counterinsurgency campaigns in Vietnam and Latin America and worry that scholars will be seen as intelligence agents.

If you're an anthropologist or a soldier or if you have questions about academic embeds, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And we begin with Montgomery McFate. She's a senior social science adviser with the U.S. Army's Human Terrain program. And she's been kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A.

Thanks very much for coming in.

Dr. MONTGOMERY McFATE (Senior Social Adviser, Human Terrain System): Thank you for having me on the show.

CONAN: And what is the Human Terrain Program?

Dr. McFATE: The Human Terrain System is an experimental proof-of-concept project, which is run by the training and doctor in command of the U.S. Army. The idea is to put teams of social science advisers on military staffs who can then provide commanders with knowledge about the local societies in the brigade's area of operations.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And give us an example. Some of these are underway.

Dr. McFATE: Currently, there are teams, five of them, who've been deployed to Iraq and there's currently one team in Afghanistan. We have the request from the military to put teams at every brigade and every division in Iraq and Afghanistan.

CONAN: At every brigade - there are 15 brigades in - combat brigades…

Dr. McFATE: Correct. Mm-hmm.

CONAN: …in Iraq, yeah. So what did these people do in the field?

Dr. McFATE: What they do in the field is that they are embedded with the brigade staff. They serve in what's called a tactical operation center. The idea of having these teams there is to help the commander and all of the commander staff understand their environment better so that they're able to make better decisions and make better plans in order to get the effects on the population that they want.

For example, if the goal - and this is a classical goal of counterinsurgency warfare - is to develop a support for the host nation government and the coalition and reduce support for the insurgency whether that's the Taliban or al-Qaida in Iraq, the traditional way in which the military tends to do its business is through lots of lethal firepower.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. McFATE: However, a more effective way of getting a village to support the stability goals that the United States has is perhaps not rounding up all the villagers and taking their guns away, but asking them what they need. Do they need better security? Do they need a well? Do they need more volleyball nets -which I'll talk about in a minute.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, go ahead and talk about it.

Dr. McFATE: Okay. We went out to Afghanistan to visit with the human terrain unit was there - just come back from a 50-day trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. And the brigade commander in Afghanistan - we asked him what, in fact, did he did think that the human terrain team had had on his brigade. And he said I believe that the human terrain team has helped me reduce my lethal operations by between 60 and 70 percent with a corresponding reduction in military and civilian casualties.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. McFATE: And so we asked, you know, how did that happened? And he gave us examples, and we confirmed this with all of the staff members in with HTT. And so I'll just tell you one story, which is kind of compelling.

There was a village outside of - forward the operating base and the Taliban were using this as a staging platform for rockets and mortars, shooting them into the base.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. McFATE: The brigade's natural response to this was, you know, let's go round up everyone in the village and take their guns away and question them…

CONAN: About who was coming in and firing them directly.

Dr. McFATE: Exactly. And the human terrain team said, well, have you guys actually gone out there and talk to the village and ask them why they are allowing the Taliban to operate there? And they, said, huh, no. So, the human terrain team said, right, let's go. Let's go talk to the villagers. So they went out there. And they said to the villagers, you know, why are you allowing the Taliban to operate here? And during a shura of a bunch of village elders…

CONAN: A council?

Prof. McFATE: …A council, yeah, a neighborhood council, you might call it - the village elder said, well actually, it's not us that's doing it, it's the Taliban, and the reason why is because you live 30 meters away from us, but you never show your face here. And so the Taliban are free to do whatever they want to do. Why don't you - and the only time we ever see you, you Americans, is when the rough men come at night. In other words, the Special Forces A team, the Operational Detachments Alpha.

And so the human terrain team said, well, okay, so what you're asking for is security presence patrols, correct? And they said, yes, that's what we'd like. And if you do that, we'll make the Taliban unwelcome here.

And then as they were leaving, they said, is there anything else that we can do for you? Do you need, you know, a better well? Do you need schools? What do you need? And the villager said, actually, what we really need is a volleyball net. We have volleyballs. We just don't have a net. And if you could please, you know, give us the security presence patrols and provide us with the volleyball net, we would make the Taliban unwelcome in our village.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. McFATE: And that's exactly what happened. And there had been no more rockets attacked on the FOB for past three months.

CONAN: And I know you're going to - we're going to hear this allegation, but I mean - what's the difference between collection information like this and advising military commanders as the way to go ahead - these are scholars after all - and military intelligence?

Dr. McFATE: Military intelligence traditionally is focused on the identification of enemies, whether that's a person, place or thing. And it's generally - military intelligence is generally geared towards targeting. What we're doing is not intelligence in that sense at all. It's information about the local culture and society to help a commander make better decisions and hopefully use less firepower and achieve the same effects.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, let's get another view on this.

Well, joining us now is Roberto Gonzales, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and part of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, a group that hopes to stop anthropologists from working with the military.

And Professor Gonzales, thanks very much for being with us today.

Professor ROBERTO GONZALES (Anthropology, San Jose State University; Member, Network of Concerned Anthropologists): Good afternoon. Thank you.

CONAN: And how do you respond to this program? What are your objections?

Prof. GONZALES: Well, just a point of clarification. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists of which I'm a part is not seeking to prevent anthropologists from working or consulting with the military. That's a very common misperception.

CONAN: Okay.

Prof. GONZALES: We are opposed to anthropologists working on counterinsurgency teams or for counterinsurgency operations, and this would include things like the human terrain systems teams.

Now, in terms of our objections, there are two really important ones that I would like throw out there. The first has to do with issues of transparency. One of the things that is true of anthropology that's very different from other academic fields and other social science fields is that we really rely on relationships of trust and openness with our research participants. And it's not at all clear that this standard of informed consent and full disclosure is being met with these human terrain systems teams' anthropologists.

Now, what does that involve? What do we mean when we say informed consent and full disclosure? Well, that means first of all that the confidentiality of the research participants can absolutely be assured to them. Secondly, that the potential risks to the research participants are made transparent and clear before we even begin talking with them. These are - these would include short-term and long-term risks. This would include a willingness to share the end results of our research and data with informants. And then finally, the issue of voluntary consent is an absolutely essential part of these ideas of informed consent and full disclosure.

Is this happening with the human terrain system teams? It's unclear. And this is one of our real concerns with the entire program. Now, one of the things that I think is important to ask ourselves here is if these anthropologists are actually in the battlefield, carrying arms, which has been reported in a number of articles, can we really even expect there to be voluntary consent on the part of, let's say, an Afghan villager or an Iraqi under those circumstances? And so this is a real concern.

Now, the second area or the second set of criticisms that we have has to do with what such programs might do to the entire discipline of anthropology over the long run? If anthropologists on a global scale begin - particularly American anthropologists - get the reputation of being collaborators with intelligence teams or in counterinsurgency efforts, this is in many ways potentially going to undermine the entire discipline over the long run.

After all, who would want to speak to an anthropologist if they - if we have the reputation of being, in essence, a secret - well, not secret collaborators, but collaborators in counterinsurgency efforts.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well let me ask you if, as Montgomery McFate said, the commander of the brigade in Afghanistan said he's been able - as a result of these human terrain systems teams - to reduce the amount of violence and the number of casualties by 60 to 70 percent and be more effective, what's wrong with that?

Prof. GONZALES: Well I would question that number to begin with. If you read the New York Times article from last week, what it says is that there were - you're correct, that the colonel that was quoted said that there was a 60 percent decrease in combat operations since February 2007. And the article also makes note of the fact that approximately at the same time that that happened, this is when the human terrain systems teams were introduced.

But if you read the article carefully, you'll also note that 6,000 additional U.S. troops were introduced into Eastern Afghanistan during that same period. So although there's a correlation made, I think to say that the human terrain systems teams caused the reduction in violence is really stretching it. I don't think that there's sufficient evidence for that. And I would love to see some data on that that's more compelling. But I, for one, am not convinced by that.

CONAN: There's a link to David Rohde's piece of the New York Times at our Web site. You can check it out at npr.org/talk.

We're discussing with Montgomery McFate, the senior social science adviser at the U.S. Army's human terrain system teams, here with us in studio 3A; and Roberto Gonzales, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Montgomery McFate, let me ask you about one of Roberto Gonzales' questions. Are these anthropologists and social - are they carrying weapons?

Prof. McFATE: Some of them are carrying weapons. The brigade commander in his own area of responsibility can make a decision about whether or not he wants civilians to carry weapons, and then it's up for the civilian themselves to determine whether they're comfortable without or not.

On the issue of transparency, I would like to point out that all the social scientists - and they're not just anthropologists - who work with human terrain teams, do identify themselves by name and by unit to all indigenous people with whom they come into contact. They don't conceal their activities in any ways. They also code their field notes to ensure anonymity of their informants and the raw field notes are never shared with the brigade.

I just also want to make the point that on the question of voluntary consent, villagers are not stupid, and they can distinguish combat units from non-combat units. So even if you have an anthropologist carrying a gun, they are still able to distinguish that that is not a combat unit.

For example, in the area where we were, they made a distinction between two units based on what the shoulder patches look like. So they referred to the 82nd Airborne Division as the circle square tribe and the 10th Mountain as the cross swords tribe. They were able to note the difference between units and they think of them almost as tribes.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on this conversation now. This is Patrick(ph), Patrick with us from Oakland, California.

PATRICK (Caller): Yeah, I'm right here.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

PATRICK: Yeah, I studied anthropology and history at Berkeley. And I've been listening to NPR for a long time. And one of the things I always love to do when I hear about a subject matter is get on the computer, buy a book and go back 20, 50, 80 years and try to get a sense and a grasp of the culture and the people who is being talked about because I think turning back two years or three years doesn't really give you much of a grasp.

And I've never been a field anthropologist, so I can't address questions of carrying guns and all that. But the one thing I do know is that there seems to be a striking lack of deep understanding about what's gone on in Iraq, in Iran and Israel and in the Palestinian areas over 50 or 80 years, and that information in forming, like, our decisions and our behavior.

And you know, it would've made me a lot happier to have seen, like, the Bush administration surround themselves with knowledgeable, educated people who had a grasp of, you know, what was going on in Iraq - three different groups of people who have never liked each other, who've been at war for hundreds of years, who have never been settled just like what happened in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union fell.

And it just seems like as, you know, I got my bachelor's degree, I'm not a professor, but I'm able to pick up a book or do some research and come to a pretty good understanding on my own of…

CONAN: Yeah.

PATRICK: …what's happening in an area. And that would of course make me feel, I don't know, a lot happier just to see real cultural information about a group of people, about their history, about their process, and what we could actually expect from a group of human beings who've been fighting each other for thirteen hundred years are not going to stop because Saddam Hussein has been toppled.

CONAN: Yeah.

PATRICK: Or a group of - what's going on with the Kurds and the Turks like…

CONAN: Well I…

PATRICK: …I thought that it was going to go away.

CONAN: Yeah I think we're talking about much more localized information here. Am I right on that, Montgomery McFate?

Prof. McFATE: Well, I would say, actually, I agree with the caller wholeheartedly and it would be - I'm very sympathetic to the view that policy and strategy should be made with knowledge and understanding of the environments where the U.S. military is likely to deploy or where we have national security interests, and that it's common sense that we do so.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks very much for the call, Patrick. Here's a…

PATRICK: Thank very much for the privilege, sir.

CONAN: Okay, thank you. Here's an e-mail we got from Daniel(ph) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In Vietnam, anthropologists were used to study the migration of the Mung tribal faction that had sided with the enemy so that our special forces could systemically wipe them out. What ethical guidelines are in place that we not repeat such ethical violations?

Are there ethical standards with these human terrain systems?

Prof. McFATE: Yeah. I mean, we're trying to abide by the American Anthropological Association Code of Ethics, which basically at the center of that is do no harm. And in this case, what we're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is we're to not just mitigate harm, but we're trying to prevent the military from causing harm. We're trying to convince them there is a better way, a more non-lethal way that saves both local and military lives.

CONAN: All right. I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there.

Roberto Gonzales, thank you very much for your time today.

Prof. GONZALES: Thank you.

CONAN: Roberto Gonzales, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and part of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. Also with us here in studio 3A, Montgomery McFate, the senior social science adviser with the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System, and thanks very much for coming in today.

Prof. McFATE: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.