The Culture Warriors

The Pentagon deploys social scientists to help understand Iraq's 'human terrain'

FE_DA_071210iraq_15007.jpg

Fouad Lghzaoui, the team's cultural analyst, speaks with a local leader during a walk along a once bustling Baghdad street.

By + More

BAGHDAD—In the back of an armored Stryker vehicle bound for one of Baghdad's more volatile neighborhoods, the U.S. military is transporting what is perhaps the most controversial weapon in its counterinsurgency arsenal today: civilian anthropologists. Clad in camouflage and combat boots, notebooks at the ready, they step out of the Stryker and head toward a block-long line of Iraqis waiting for bags of rice and other staples to be distributed by soldiers and local politicos.

Lisa Verdon, blond hair tucked up in a camouflage head scarf, steps over a puddle of raw sewage and begins chatting with Iraqi women waiting in line with their daughters. The team's designated social scientist, she breaks out her camera and hands it to a colleague as she poses for photographs with the women. She then spends an hour in the kitchen of a new acquaintance from the line, learning how to bake flatbread—and alarming U.S. soldiers who are momentarily unaware of her whereabouts.

Another local approaches Moroccan-American Fouad Lghzaoui, the team's cultural analyst. He tells Lghzaoui in furtive Arabic that he has seen an insurgent planting a roadside bomb, but he doesn't want to be branded an informant. Lghzaoui arranges for him to speak with U.S. soldiers, then instructs the soldiers to publicly toss the man out by the collar after loudly threatening to arrest him. "It will help protect him," he says.

The Army began training social science recruits for Iraq this year, christening the teams with a classic military appellation—human terrain system. The name may not be an attention-grabber, but the mission has been: The teams act as advisers to brigades, mapping the relationships (human terrain in military parlance) of the power players and the local people. "How do they tie into each other? It's not always obvious," says Verdon. The teams also examine how tribal leaders relate to U.S. troops, she adds. "How are they leveraging what they have to maintain their power, to be able to get what they need from coalition forces?"

The military has come late to appreciate the role that social connections play in Iraqi society, where divisions are not just geographic or religious but also familial and tribal. Understanding those kinds of connections, a key aim of anthropology, can be critical to forging alliances, assessing intelligence—and, military officials add, avoiding unintended consequences. Since the teams began working in Iraq in September, their missions have ranged far and wide. In one neighborhood, a U.S. company commander was struggling with persistent violence coming from a low-income housing area filled with squatters. He was considering demolishing a couple of blocks and asked the team for advice: What would be the effects on the surrounding community's social fabric, he wondered, if he did that?

With a Muslim holiday approaching, another unit wanted to present a goodwill gift to a tribe. One American officer suggested buying 200 goats and bringing them to the local sheik. "The bottom line of our assessment was that you have no idea if they want 200 goats. Maybe they'd rather have some work done on the electrical grid," says Capt. Matthew Tompkins, who heads the team of social scientists—which includes Verdon and Lghzaoui—assigned to the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division at Forward Operating Base Falcon in southern Baghdad. "You want to do the right thing," Tompkins says. But his teammate Jeff, a former military intelligence analyst who asked that his last name not be used, noted, "The question becomes: How, exactly, do you do that?"

Debate in academia. If the military thought there were any easy answers to such questions, its efforts to encourage social scientists to lend their expertise to the Iraq war have been a case study in just how complicated such a prospect can be. The teams have sparked heated debate in universities and among professional anthropologists, dredging up some dark moments in the history of a field anxious to shake off its past image as a handmaiden of colonialism.