The Use of Anthropological Expertise for Military Purposes - with a Focus on the U.S. Military Human Terrain System

Essay, 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A Historical Overview

3. The Human Terrain System and the Counterinsurgency Field Manual

4. Concerns about the Employment of Anthropological Knowledge for Military Purposes

5. Conclusion



1. Introduction

This paper analyzes the historical and contemporaneous relationship of anthropological science with military tactics and strategies. It focuses on the Anglo-American perspective of the topic as its main object of study is the U.S. military Human Terrain System, a program which integrates anthropologists into military units to improve their interaction with the local population and thereby help to stabilize the security situation.

Firstly, an overview of the history of the employment of anthropological knowledge is given, ranging from the colonial era to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A recent shift in paradigms regarding the socio-cultural component in asymmetric conflicts is illustrated by the example of the U.S. military Human Terrain System and the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, both instances for the employment of anthropological knowledge in a military context.

Subsequently, concerns regarding the use of anthropological expertise for military purposes are presented and different standpoints are illustrated. The last section concludes the paper, giving an outlook on further topics to discuss.

2. A Historical Overview

The use of anthropological research and expertise for military purposes is not a new issue. Its history starts well back in the colonial era where anthropology was exploited to consolidate imperial power. It had a stabilizing role in examining local habits, culture and economics and subsequently formulating recommendations on how to best deal with foreign cultural structures. One global power then intensely using those methods was the British Empire. Largely, the way of thinking was oriented towards researchers such as Polish Anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski (1884-1942) who promoted this form of employment of anthropological knowledge in his article “Practical Anthropology” and was a key leader of his discipline at that time. Malinowski was also one of the first to put emphasis on the importance of direct contact with the studied object.

Later, during World War I anthropologists were used as spies by the U.S. military. Often, they were deployed in remote areas under the disguise of conducting archeological research work, while gathering information about enemy activity.

Throughout World War II the use of anthropological expertise was widely expanded by the allied powers. Especially the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) employed many anthropologists. Operations spanned from research on psychological warfare to organizing insurgency cells in occupied territories such as Morocco.

Research conducted by anthropologist Ruth Benedict in U.S. camps where Japanese citizens were interned regarding the Japanese Culture and Mindset concluded that the Japanese were incapable of surrendering and would fight to the last man due to their culture. This statement might have affected the considerations regarding the dropping of the two atomic bombs over Japanese territory at the end of the war where a land invasion would have been another option.

At the time of the Vietnam War the embedment of anthropological experience in military operations gained rising interest as the U.S. saw itself confronted with the first major asymmetrical war in its history. Traditional tactics and strategies of overwhelming force and large scale and aggressive open combat operations proofed unsuitable in the new conditions faced by military decision makers. However, these principles were highly valued as they had proofed to be so effective in earlier conflicts.

In a constant guerilla war where the enemy could hardly be distinguished from civilian population, aggressive large scale measures did not only proof to be ineffective, but in many cases also worsened the situation, as the local population, suffering collateral damage, decided to support the insurgency.

The most well-known strategy, co-developed by anthropologists during that time, was the embedment of the so called “Mountain People” or Montagnards – highland tribal groups – in the military structure by supporting them economically and supplying weaponry and equipment. These tribes were often located in strategically important areas as around the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the lifeline supporting the hostile Vietcong guerilla. One of the biggest promoters of this strategy was the anthropologist Gerald Hickey who later got awarded with the medal for Distinguished Public Service.

In the end, despite the successes of alternative approaches, the U.S. military chose to focus on approved regular conflict strategies: overwhelming force and large scale strategic bombing, which did not deliver the expected results.

After its defeat in Vietnam the U.S. shifted its war policy by implementing the so called “Weinberger Doctrine”, which implied that the nation would avoid all forms of asymmetrical conflict in the future and get involved only if the employment of its traditional and approved strategies would promise victory.

During the initial stages of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, the U.S. military could fully play off its technological and informational advantages in an open terrain, symmetrical battle, which lasted only weeks. After the initial triumphs over the national forces the emerging counterinsurgency proofed to be a major challenge to the overall success of the operations. In Iraq, circumstances eroded quickly and the military saw itself trapped in an asymmetrical war against numerous enemy movements and splinter groups, the most prominent being the global organization of Al-Qaeda, incapable of taking adequate action. The situation continued to deteriorate until in 2007 a shift in strategy was announced by George W. Bush and executed by Robert M. Gates – now serving as state secretary of defense – known as “The Surge”. It contained a massive troop buildup around the capital, a shift towards cooperation with local tribes and protection and help for the local population. For details about U.S. military casualties in Iraq, please consult Table 1 in the appendix where a turnaround f the situation in Iraq from late 2007 on is evident.

This shift in strategy coincided with a parallel program called the Human Terrain System, which will be depicted in detail throughout the following chapter.

3. The Human Terrain System and the Counterinsurgency Field Manual

The Human Terrain System (HTS) is a program of the U.S. Army which seeks to integrate social scientists such as Anthropologists in combat brigades during asymmetrical conflicts. The first experimental program was launched in July 2005, teaming social scientists with army soldiers in five-person groups, named “Human Terrain Teams” (HTT). These teams serve as advisors to army units stationed in unstable combat areas. HTTs themselves are non-combatant units, though fully armed and equipped.

The purpose of the program is to assess and respond to the locally prevailing “Human Terrain”, manifested in the local cultural environment, in order to find ways to cope with its complexity and use it for securing the relevant area. The official mission statement is: “The HTS Mission is to provide commanders in the field with relevant socio-cultural understanding necessary to meet their operational requirements.”

The HTTs seek to fulfill their mission through maintaining intensive contacts with the population by establishing relationships with local leaders, such as clan elders, utilizing the academic expertise to calibrate the communication with regards to customs, culture, sub-verbal messages et cetera. The work of the team is aimed at harmonizing the relationship and building a trusted base; it includes the support and establishment of local economic and security programs. Direct benefits arise from improved intelligence, the hampering of insurgent groups efforts to recruit new supporters and can even comprise local support against the insurgency. An example for the latter is the unifying of Sunni tribes in the so called Iraqi “Triangle of Death” against activities conducted there by Al-Qaeda. This collaboration between the Sunni tribes and the U.S. military, beginning in early 2007 is often stated as a turning point in the struggle to secure the Iraqi capital and especially remarkable as Al-Qaeda itself is a Sunni organization.

The teams are supported by a research centre located in the U.S. which serves as a backbone of the teams on the ground. It is specialized in rapidly delivering in-depth research data and academic knowledge to support them in their local efforts.

Furthermore, a software system was created under the program, offering various support functions such as visualization and reporting algorithms. Because of technical difficulties, the system is rarely used.

Due to preconceptions in the anthropological community against working for the military, it was not easy to fill open positions, especially as the program got expanded by Robert M. Gates in September 2007, authorizing a $40 million budget. Sourcing of suitable personnel was largely outsourced to external contractors such as to the multinational defense company BAE Systems. An exemplary job advertisement of the company stated: “Winning the trust of the indigenous populations is at the heart of the struggle between coalition forces and the insurgents”.

The HTS program in large parts builds upon the work of anthropologist Montgomery McFate, who decided to put her research to work for the U.S. military in 2001, a move considered off-limits by most western anthropologists because of stated professional ethical standards. Closely related to the HTS program and also co-edited by McFate is the U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency. It states collective strategic principles to be employed when faced with asymmetrical combat conditions and puts an emphasis on cooperation with the local community and the “integration of civilian and military activities”. The manual also contains a full chapter on leadership and ethics related to counterinsurgency measures. The cover of the publicly available manual is depicted in the appendix.

The success of the measures connected with the HTS program is widely disputed. The official HTS homepage mentions a decrease in lethal operations against units benefitting from HTS teams, improved course of action development and situational awareness as key impacts. According to the HTS itself, the first brigade to be supported by an HTT in Afghanistan encountered a decrease in lethal operations by 60-70 percent.

While the U.S. media tries to convey a positive image of the program and emphasizes local successes, other sources criticize that its achievements can hardly be measured and that it disrespects anthropological ethical standards. This dispute will be illustrated in the next chapter.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Use of Anthropological Expertise for Military Purposes - with a Focus on the U.S. Military Human Terrain System
LMU Munich  (Institute for Intercultural Communication)
Theorien der Interkulturellen Kommunikation
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
2525 KB
Human Terrain System, Counterinsurgency Field Manual, Iraq War, Counterinsurgency, Ethics, Anthropology and Counterinsurgency, The Arab Mind, Abu Ghraib, Asymmetric warfare
Quote paper
MSc Thomas Hoehl (Author), 2009, The Use of Anthropological Expertise for Military Purposes - with a Focus on the U.S. Military Human Terrain System, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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