Using Anthropology and Sociology

Working in foreign environments, whether it's the moon, underwater, or another culture, you always need to know what works and what doesn't. For example, on the moon, you need to wear a space suit to protect against the negative pressure. On the deep sea floor, you need armor to protect against overpressure. Scientists test and evaluate and propose solutions.

In Iraq or Afghanistan, a different kind of scientist must be at work. Here, the major variable isn't the physical environment but the sociological environment. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the scientists informing us how to work in these foreign (to us) worlds are anthropologists.

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting page one article on a self-taught anthropologist working in Iraq with the Marines.

Earlier this summer, William "Mac" McCallister's Marine Corps bosses asked him for help selecting gifts for tribal sheiks who had teamed up with U.S. forces to fight radical Islamists.

Mr. McCallister, the Marines' resident expert on tribal culture, settled on the perfect gift: a Mameluke sword. The swords, which all Marine officers carry, date back to 1804 when a Marine lieutenant led a group of Arabs in a successful attack on pirates and was awarded a sword by an Ottoman pasha.

There was only one problem: The swords were banned as gifts because their value exceeds the government limit of $305.

Note the source of the sword...

Tribal-affairs expert is a job that until recently didn't exist in the military -- even though Iraq has 150 tribes, and some three-quarters of Iraqis belong to a tribe. Mr. McCallister says he first saw the need in 2003 when, as an active-duty Army major, he was ushered into a meeting with an influential Fallujah sheik. The tribal leader began to warble a song about the different kinds of pain a warrior feels when he is wounded by different weapons, like a sword, a knife or a gun.

"Anyone who sings about that stuff has a different take on the rules of warfare," he says he quickly concluded. "If you don't approach them correctly you can kill 30, 40 or 100 of them and they won't submit." Mr. McCallister began to search the military command in Iraq for someone who was an expert on tribal affairs. There were none. "When I suggested we find one, people looked at me like I had something growing out of my head," he says.

"The Iraqis expect the grand gesture. It's one of their rituals," says Mr. McCallister. "You show them no respect when you don't offend." He compares discussions among tribal sheiks to symphonies. They often begin quietly, he says. Then they grow hotter often elevating into screaming matches before the debate calms down again.

The Marines say they have emulated this in meetings with tribal and government officials. In June, Gen. Allen, who says he prides himself on not losing his cool, was meeting with the governor of Iraq's Anbar Province in a hotel restaurant in Amman, Jordan. With security improving, Gen. Allen told the governor he wanted his help to reopen Anbar's criminal courts, which had been shut down after threats of violence caused many of the judges to quit. The governor was noncommittal.

Gen. Allen says he slammed his fist on the table, causing silverware to clang and heads to turn. "You have got to want these courts to open more than I do!" he says he yelled. "We are going to have the first trials in Anbar by Aug. 1!" Today, thanks to the governor pushing, the trials have started. The Anbar governor regularly refers to the conversation with Gen. Allen as a turning point.

However, anthropologists continue to be upset at the prospect of their field being, in many of their eyes, misappropriated. Social scientists can provide a real benefit by understanding decision loops that result in terrorist or insurgent attacks. This understanding is an important component of the psychological struggle for minds and wills....