Small Wars Journal

On Anthropology Goes to War

Having just read (for the second time today) Ann Marlowe's Weekly Standard article Anthropology Goes to War I feel compelled to take exception publicly to the overall tone of her piece and in particular several items she misrepresented, intentionally or otherwise. I do this as a card-carrying member of what Marlowe terms the "Army of the Small Wars Journal".

Typically, because I have been 'working' this issue for quite a while, I have no problem identifying an author's military and irregular warfare credentials - by name, reputation, experience, published works, or association. Our network is huge and informed. With Marlowe I drew a huge blank -- where did this counterinsurgency (COIN) expert come from? Where has she been hiding and where did she earn her stripes entitling her to assert the sweeping generalizations contained in Anthropology Goes to War?

I will admit my search on Marlowe was cursory, and confined to Google, but the best that I can turn up is that Ms. Marlowe is an accidental tourist who's previously published works are confined to two books - The Book of Trouble: A Romance and How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z. Great stuff I'm sure, but hardly the portfolio of a serious military theorist. My major exception is that a rank amateur, on the basis of a relatively brief visit to a war-zone can proclaim that the Human Terrain System is a solution in search of a problem and is contrary to sound COIN theory and practice.

Marlowe's first misstep is equating studying and researching previous counterinsurgency fights with picking and choosing which we should emulate in our current efforts.

Unfortunately, COIN history does not repeat itself in such a way that allows for extracting (her) interpretation of successful counterinsurgency campaigns and plopping them down in Afghanistan or Iraq -- or anywhere else for that matter.

The serious student and practitioner of insurgency and COIN looks to the past as a way to enable an atmosphere of 'how to think' - not 'what to think'.

Marlowe seems enamored with David Galula (she should -- but for the right reasons) and the French experience in Algeria.

... perhaps the most successful counterinsurgency operation ever mounted, David Galula's in Algeria, doesn't build the case for the overweening importance of cultural knowledge.

What Marlowe mistakes, and a common mistake at that, is equating tactical victories with strategic success -- or at least as defined by the French. Algeria became an independent nation, left huge scars on French and Algerian society and politics and this experience can, arguably, be said to be the true birth and inspiration of a trans-national Islamic terror movement that eventually led to al-Qaeda.

The bottom line here is to pick and choose from past COIN efforts to inform, not to validate. This is an art form and informed commentary typically does not originate from 'dabblers'.

More from Marlowe on her embed and an insight on her subsequent commentary.

Again, I was unable to get a handle on exactly what the teams planned to do, but I thought it would all become clear once the program was operational. And so I requested that part of my embed be at FOB Salerno in Khost so that I could meet with some of the Human Terrain Team members and see them in action.

To my dismay, the Army had double-booked my embed with the HTT. I would have to find another topic to cover. I was assigned instead to the Civil Affairs unit for the 2nd Battalion of the 321st Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and spent five days with them. Although unable to embed with the HTT, I was able to sit down with Fondacaro, HTT cofounder Montgomery McFate, a Ph.D. in anthropology, and an Iranian-born female Army officer who did not want her name used.

This meeting, on July 28, was a huge disappointment. I emerged from it with the distinct impression that I was seeing the emperor's new clothes. What I heard from Civil Affairs cemented my impression. The HTT had given Major Kohn a report on Khost Province and under the heading "economy," the lead sentence stated that the Khost economy is dominated by poppy production. In reality there is no opium grown in the province. Today, the website that provides "reachback" for the team, and is accessible to the general public, states correctly that Khost does not produce poppy.

While Marlowe may have been very disappointed in not embedding with a HTT, I do not see what substantive insights a very brief embed with a very new capability would have served her. Personally, I think she had some preconceived notions and simply needed a 'been there -- done that' check in the box to add a semblance of credibility to her report. But I digress.

The majority of Marlowe's assertions is single-sourced and not attributable to those directly involved in the HTT, excepting a brief meeting with Dr. McFate and COL Fondacaro, and is based on uninformed opinions on a very new capability that has not been afforded an opportunity to get out of the starting gate.

S*** happens, Marlowe's embed was screwed up and early mistakes might have occurred in the establishment of a HTS reach-back capability. Go figure, the prudent COIN practitioner learns and adjusts -- does not throw out the baby with the bathwater. That is what the lessons learned process she identified does for a living -- if we did it perfect at the onset there would be no need to learn lessons.

There is so much more to address in Marlowe's careless assertions -- and I will -- but for now I'll leave it with her claim the Human Terrain System, and by extension cultural knowledge, is a solution in search of a problem.

Every source Marlowe cited on the cultural issues, this site, FM 3-24, and the lessons leaned process (to include those of the Army, Marine Corps, and Joint Forces Command) have come down hard on the critical need for not only cultural knowledge but also the capability of acting on that knowledge on the ground and in harm's way.

Dr. Montgomery McFate, who Marlowe seemed to take personal issue with, was a contributing author to the doctrine she implied is somehow contradictory to the HTS program. I don't get that -- at all.

Marlowe's experience in Afghanistan was a mere snapshot in time and her article does an injustice to our efforts to get this thing right. I am sorry the HTS did not live up to her expectations of a "slam dunk" success from the get-go. There are many examples of capabilities that cut their teeth in combat, did not fare well initially, but went on to become shining examples of American military ingenuity. I believe the HTS will follow in those footsteps.


Related Links

Who is Ann Marlowe? - Abu Muqawama

Anthropologists at War - The Captain's Journal

Anthro Wars Heat Up - Danger Room (Wired)

Is the Human Terrain System Worth Its Spit? - Registan

Next Salvo in the War over War and Anthropology - Vital Systems Security



Thu, 08/14/2008 - 1:55pm

Hey all, feature story about the first Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan is in the current (Sept.) issue of Harper's Magazine.


Sat, 12/15/2007 - 11:30am

I was in Afghanistan, at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost, at the same time Ann Marlowe was there. I was embedded with the HTT team, and I have a long feature story, 7500+ words, forthcoming in Harper's Magazine about that experience.

I just wanted to clear up one thing that seems to be a hitch in this back-and-forth argument about language capabilities. The HTT in Khost does currently have a fluent Pashto speaker on the team, an Afghan-American. And there is no shortage of excellent linguists and interperters attached to the brigade TOC who can translate captured documents, etc.

I don't know why this is such a sticking point in the above debate(s). There are certainly other points raised that are worth debating.

Ann Marlowe (not verified)

Sun, 12/09/2007 - 6:55pm

David Dilegge must not have looked very hard, because if you Google my name and "Afghanistan" you will see that I've published many articles on all aspects of the country in the last five years. The visit on which I met the HTT was my eighth trip to Afghanistan. It included two weeks of civilian reporting and a two week embed that was both fascinating and productive. (I was initially disappointed not to be with the HTT but ended up with a much more interesting opportunity.) There seems to be an intellectual contradiction in the COIN circles represented here - on the one hand, all those established military folks who didn't jump on the SW bandwagon are chumps, and on the other hand, you have to be an established military type to have any opinion worth expressing. I had the weird notion that freedom of inquiry was just what this field encouraged and needed. But I suppose there are a lot of mandarins defending their turf here.

On my most recent trip to Afghanistan - just ended - I had the chance to return to Khost and meet a new member of the HTT. Bright young man, but, guess what, no Pashtu and "a little" Farsi. I was told there were others who spoke...Arabic. How useful.

Abu Suleyman

Wed, 11/21/2007 - 9:35am

This is an excellent example of criticism of a neophyte. While I am vehement in my opposition to ad hominem attacks, this is a good example of why they are unnecessary. Mr. Dilegge does point out the relative inexperience of Ms. Marlowe, but without guile or bitterness, and it left me with the sense that he merely was doing so in order to dispel the thought that there were "unseen currents" underlying this conclusion. Then he systematically attacked the <i>ideas</i> behind the article. We would be better served as a community if everyone took this approach to criticism. Thank you for setting a fine example.