January 11, 2008

Applying Social Science in the Combat Zone

author_cn By C.N. Le

One of my core principles as a sociologist is for my academic research to have some kind of relevance to the "real world."

Instead of just conducting research and publishing it in obscure academic journals that few people outside academia read, I want to disseminate my academic knowledge to a wider, more popular audience and to use it to help address real world issues and problems. That is one of the reasons why I started my two blogs in the first place and why I participate in the Everyday Sociology Blog, which demonstrates that sociology has direct relevance to everyday events and people's lives.

More and more social scientists feel the same way. There has been a movement toward making sociology more "public" and in other social science disciplines scholars are increasingly engaging with real world issues that affect society, American and international.

But as Time magazine reports, one particular program of "applied social science research" is creating quite a controversy inside and outside of academia -- using social scientists to help the U.S. fight terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq:

Two years ago, the CIA quietly started recruiting social scientists, advertising in academic journals and offering princely salaries of up to $400,000. But . . . in September, Washington turned a pilot project called Human Terrain Teams into a full-fledged, $40 million program to embed four- or five-person groups of scholars -- including anthropologists, sociologists and social psychologists — with all 26 U.S. combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan.iraq2a

[S]ome preliminary reports are encouraging. From Afghanistan, the 4th brigade (82nd Airborne Division) reported a 60-70% drop in attacks -- and a dramatic spike in capture of [suspected terrorists] after anthropological advisers recommended redirecting outreach from village elders to focus on the local mullahs. One mullah was reportedly so moved after being invited to bless a restored mosque on the nearby U.S. base that he quickly agreed to record an anti-Taliban radio ad. . . .

In the wake of the colossal mishandling of the Iraq occupation, this new partnership manifests the military's renewed appreciation of the importance of culture. 

Montgomery McFate, a Navy anthropologist, [was an] early advocate of what she says is best described as anthropologizing the military, not militarizing anthropology.

Yet many in the profession contend that any collaboration of this nature compromises their field's integrity. Anthropology deployed under such circumstances will become "just another weapon...not a tool for building bridges between peoples," argues Roberto Gonzalez, an anthropologist at San Jose State University and member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

I spent some time thinking about programs like this and trying to decide whether I think they are a good thing or a bad thing for the academic disciplines involved and for American society in general.

On the one hand, I would say that it's beneficial for social scientists to get involved in these efforts because they can fulfill the fundamental professional mission I mentioned above -- using their expertise to address an important social issue and to produce the most benefits for the most people possible.

On the other hand, it would not be beneficial for social scientists to apply their efforts for a "more effective method of killing people," to put it bluntly. That is, depending on how you choose to see it, their knowledge can basically be used for the purpose of perpetuating war and the taking of human lives.

So ultimately, when it comes to the question of whether programs like this are good or bad, I think my answer is that just like life in general, the final answer is not a simple binary of good/bad, yes/no, or moral/immoral. Although this may sound like a cop-out, there are both positive and negative aspects to it, like the iraq3a rationales I just mentioned.

But if I had to pick one side of the argument over the other to support, at this point, I would agree with Prof. McFate's position that I quoted above, that programs like this are about "anthropologizing the military, not militarizing anthropology."

In other words, if used effectively and properly, the expertise of social scientists can indeed help people who may initially be on different sides of the war -- U.S. troops and Afghan or Iraqi civilians or tribal/religious leaders.

The U.S. would get culturally competent knowledge about how to best relate to the native population in order to effectively communicate and build interpersonal connections with them. The native population could also feel that their needs, issues, and concerns are genuinely being heard, understood, and incorporated into the actions of the U.S. military operating in their neighborhoods.

Of course, like I mentioned above, critics would point out that the assistance of social scientists is ultimately being used to promote war and killing. I respect that opinion, but I choose to see a more nuanced point -- that terrorists who target the U.S. military, generally speaking, are likely not to have much concern for the native population of civilians as well.

Therefore, if the terrorists see both of these groups as enemies or at least expendable casualties of war, the native population has a right to join efforts to oppose such terrorists. With that in mind, the U.S. military and the native population can work as allies, not in opposition or suspicion of each other.

Even if that means that some people will inevitably die, I would rather have those people be terrorists who indiscriminately target civilians and distort the doctrines of a just and honorable religion to suit their extremist views.

Sociologists and other social scientists can be useful in helping different groups of people recognize that not everything is cut-and-dry, black-and-white. Instead, every question and every goal have their own subtle and specific points that need to be addressed respectfully, thoughtfully, and competently.


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C.N. Le, Your excellent comments provide a mature approach to softening the way wars are waged. Because of your insight and, of course, that of Dr McFate and others, there will be more understanding of differences between tribes. That understanding will lead to fewer wars. Whoever said, Seek first to understand, then to be understood apparently believes, like you, that sociology has purposes other that writing text books. Thanks for speaking up.

Wether sociology is used for good or bad is not the issue. it's science do what you do andlet the government do what they do (probably kill with it).

I believe no matter what science invents humans will corupt it even if the inventist had good intentions. I have mixed emotions about the war but as long as people exsist the struggle for power will also exsist.

I feel that if people use science that it would help history to stop repeating its self. Human are selfish and have there own reason to benefit in many ways the object is to help people to stop falling in there old ways yet they are blindsided and are corupted in many ways. So the use of science is a wonderful idea people using it I do not know?

I do think it is beneficial for social scientists to get involved because they can fulfill professional mission address an important social issue and to produce the most benefits for the most people possible.
That is, depending on how you choose to see it, their knowledge can basically be used for the purpose of perpetuating war and the taking of human lives.
So ultimately, when it comes to the question of whether programs like this are good or bad

Some believe that a colloboration of military and social science would compromise the fields integrity and would not help war efforts. I have to agree with the writer that social scientists would help the people see their issues are important and we want to help. Their issues being heard are the benefits and also us understanding how they feel and letting them know they aren't alone.

Science is good for humans but when humans start to corrupt it that means that it is no good. Sending social scientists can be a good thing for the military because they can interact with the population in that region and help them out.

I beleive it is beneficial for socaial scientists to get involved would help people see their issues are important and that we want to help and could decrease the amount of deaths.

I think that there is controversy about using social scientists because they know how to target certain people and the military could or anyone, for that matter, could use that against people and there could be more unnecessary and un-called for deaths. I do believe that collaboration of this nature compromises the integrity of sociology. Sociology is the study of human activity and social interactions. By social scientists collaborating with the military, it doesn't bring forth a positive outcome; it more likely just causes more people to die than would already because of suicide bombers.

There is a controversy because some feel that the social scientists are doing the wrong job. Many feel that it compromises the integrity of their field, and I think in a way that it does. While it may seem to be helpful, I agree that it may cause more unnecessary death. The amount of controversy they experience may be a cost, but it would be a benefit if them being present and involved actually helps the military. They could help the military better understand the native population and maybe if they were able to effectively communicate with the people, they could join forces with the people. The cost to the American people is the amount of money spent on these kind of services, but it would be beneficial if the native population joined forces against the terrorists because the deaths would be less of our troops and more of the terrorists.

Well i definatly agree that there is not cut and dry, or black and white answer to everything. And i am not sure I truly understand this article enough to voice my opinion on it!

I loved this post. I agree with the statement about learning about the people living in Iraq and Afghastan. It's vital to operations. I was a logistic specialist in the army in Iraq. We can not be effective against terrorist on our own. We have to involved the people in Iraq. We have to know, understand and respect their differences, religion and culture. I welcome any type of research that gives up information dealing with the wants and needs of the Iraq or Afghastan people. This is the only way to unity. If we can simply breakdown the walls of distrust. How do you think we found Saddam?

Social scientist shouldn't even have a say so in the matter. If your mission is to eliminate all hostiles, then thats exactly what you should do. I dont feel there is a need to have some scientist come in and evaluate the situation while civilians and military personnel are getting killed.

It cost a social scientist a little time and he gets excellant benefits while it cost the american people about $100,000+ in tax money and, in my opinion don't benefit the american people much at all.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. I do think that it is important that we learn about the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and what they are having to deal with. At the same time I do not think we should have people telling us how to treat terrorists in these regions. These people shouldn't be understood, or related to, they are terrorists. I do feel that helping the people of these countries is a necessary action for bringing about an end to the conflict that our soldiers are fighting.

social scientists can be a good thing for the military because they can come up new technology

social scientists in the military can be very beneficial.

Not only do i think that social scientists will be beneficial but I think that understanding a person is better than not and attacking. Its something that will help only the ones that want to be helped. Its not for everyone but its a nonvolent way of going about an issue that affects so many people.

I think the use of science is very good if we didnt have science a lot of discoveries would not have been discovered today im not to big on the war but i think that Social Scientists will be good in the war new technology and advances would be a big help

Social Scentists could help in the field of Combat. I had never really heard much about this topic until now. If we can understand why people do the things they do and help to create less violence in the world then that would be great.It costs alot of money to have Social Scientists apparently.I wish it wasn't so costly though.It is important to understand how people think in other countries especially one that you are at war with. All you can do is try your best and hope that you can change people.

War is war. People die in war. That's part of it. Theres no getting around it. If the world could live in peace, that would be great. But we all know thats not going to happen. So what's wrong with using Social Scientist to help the United States Military? Absolutely nothing. It's a great idea and it seems to be working.

Social Science is apparently a much debated topic in the field of military especially during the War on Iraq. I had no idea of this but the only negative impact is the funding but more positivity leads to more optimism that America can fully embrace these new tactics. Why not study our enemy and the innocent Afghans over there to come to maybe peaceful resolutions in the near future.

There is controversy in using social scientists in the war on terror because using social sciences is often viewed as another weapon used against a group of people. I believe that if used properly that social science could be used to help us understand a certain group of people. Unfortunately the use of social science is often abused. Some of the costs of using social scientists include hurting the reputation of the field of sociology. For example, when it was reported that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, many people lost their credibility when no weapons were found.

I beleive it is a good idea for social sciences to get involved. That way, we can better understand the people and the region that we are dealing with. I can see where it would be a bad thing. That it because a lot of poeple can view it as not necessarily a good tool but a bad one. I do understand that it can be seen as another weapon on the society. One of the costs would be if there is false information delivered then the credibility of sociology is marked.

I believe that people who study science should be involved with the society. And sometimes it is helpful.

Social science is one of the collest things ever invented, The only thing I disagree with is the way it is used in war zones and the money that is wasted on invention that will probly take us all out. Science is not the problem it's the way we choose to use it.

I believe that social sciences should be involved for the simple fact that we do need to know more about the people we are fighting against. We should try to get to know these regions better and understand what they are really about and what makes them feel threatened. History can change as some of us still believe in world peace!

Involving social scientists in a combat zone is a touchy issue. Some people feel that this singling out or targeting certain kinds of people can turn into a very destuctive weapon. In many ways it will give us an advantage. In a war sometimes you need all the advantages you can get. If the social scientists can prevent more of our soldiers from dying why not. The inventions can help us in so many ways. The same inventions could kill us but this is a risk we face in a lot of situations. I feel that we should at least try to see what can come of the scientist's work .

There is controversy about using social science because some feel there might be more deaths by killing people just because they "think" there might be less suicide bombers and so forth. I do believe killing innocent people based simply on someones opinion and not the law does compromise the study of society. The cost would be an extreamely violent world i think violance would increase.

I believe that this could compromise the integrity of sociology if it is not kept underway. I do believe that social scientist would be a benefit to our current situation.

I was in the active duty Army, as well as my ex husband is currently deployed to Iraq for the third time. I think just about every American believes that US soldiers should not be serving over there. I agree, but it boils down to we are already there, we can't just pack our bags and go home and say I'm finished now. There has to be a proper proccess to exit a combat situation just as to enter one. Society has seemed not to care anymore about our family members being over there. I am neither pro war or anti war because every single person serving overthere had the option not to enlist to go. Yes people die over there, and it may seem as though they shouldn't because we weren't even supposed to be there, but people die everyday. Each person serving over there civillian or not agreed to the terms and conditions to go. Would people feel any different about their loved one dying if it were state side?

I believe that the social scientist should be involved because we do not know what or who the people of Iraq or Afghanistan are involved with. They could have the smartest and the most intelligent people working for them to kill off all of our soilders, so we just need to do our best to stay ahead of what they are thinking.

The costs for social scientists are that they would have to apply their efforts for a “more effective method of killing people.” It would depend on how a person chooses to see it. Their knowledge can be basically used for the purpose of perpetuating war and the taking of human lives. Benefits however would be beneficial because their efforts can fulfill the fundamental professional mission in action. Social scientists can used their expertise to address an important social issue and to produce the most benefits for the most people possible. For American people, they could get culturally competent knowledge about how to best relate to the native population in order to effectively communicate and build interpersonal connections with them. For Americans the assistance of social scientists is ultimately being used to promote war and killing.There is controversy because of uncertainty of whether they promote death or peace.I have mixed opinions about the military and sociology, but if I had to give my opinion, I believe that compromising would lead to fewer wars. I mean apparently, no one side is going to totally accept all the views of the other. In an instance of this magnitude the only thing to do is compromise. Wars would also decrease.

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