Leading the Charge for Change

An anthropologist challenges conventional thinking

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The Pentagon's new teams of social scientists have been shepherded into existence by what may seem like an unlikely steward—a Berkeley-educated anthropologist named Montgomery McFate.

Raised in a community of barges docked in San Francisco Bay, many occupied by squatters, McFate had the kind of counterculture upbringing that does not ostensibly lend itself to a career helping the military. Her father was a marine with a mental-health discharge, partial to a pink jacket with "I am God" on the back in rhinestones. McFate's mother was no truster of government, advising her daughter not to write anything down, for example, and not to join organizations.

But following a dissertation on the Republican community in Northern Ireland for her anthropology Ph.D. at Yale, a degree from Harvard Law School, and an unsatisfying stint at a corporate law firm, McFate (whose friends call her Mitzi) married a military man and decided to look for a way to apply anthropology to military problems. She helped draft the Army's counterinsurgency field manual, as well as essays that have been key in laying the groundwork for the HTS teams.

It is work that should make sense even to those who don't support the war, she says. "I'm very sympathetic to those concerns, but the fact is that the military is going to do its job one way or another. If you don't provide them with a set of alternative tools, they're going to fall back on the thing they know best, which is the M4."

Her fans include Steven Fondacaro, an infantryman who retired after 30 years in the Army and now directs the HTS program. "Mitzi is still the young San Francisco woman who acts and thinks out of the box. She's truly an agent for change." He adds that he has embraced McFate's motto, which has become a mantra of sorts for the program: "You can't just stand outside the Pentagon, holding up a sign that says, 'You suck,' " McFate says. "Sometimes you actually need to do something."