The Softer Side of War

The Pentagon turns to academia to foster cultural awareness on the front lines.

The Pentagon turns to academia to foster cultural awareness on the front lines.

In an April speech to the Association of American Universities, Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlined plans for the Minerva Consortia-a program to provide Pentagon funding to universities for research in the social sciences to better understand foreign countries and cultures.

Gates evoked universities' past contributions to building "intellectual capital" in national security during the Cold War, creating fields of study such as Kremlinology and game theory. Today's threats, he added, are even more complex and more difficult to comprehend than in the Iron Curtain days. "Too many mistakes have been made over the years because our government and military did not understand-or even seek to understand-the countries or cultures we were dealing with," he said.

To avoid such misunderstandings, Gates, former president of Texas A&M University, is reaching out to academia for help. The project will examine four topics: China's military modernization; translation of documents seized in Iraq; religious and ideological studies of Islamic radicalism; and the New Disciplines Project, involving the studies of history, anthropology, sociology and evolutionary psychology.

Getting help from the social science community could prove a bit of a challenge, Gates acknowledged, as the relationship between the Pentagon and academics in this field often has veered into hostile territory. "These feelings are rooted in history-academics who felt used and disenchanted after Vietnam, and troops who felt abandoned and unfairly criticized by academia during the same time," he said.

But Gates promised openness and said points of view that are critical of the military will not be discouraged. "There will be no room for "sensitive but unclassified," or other such restrictions in this project," he said. The amount of money Defense will direct to academics-about $1 billion in the next five years for "peer reviewed basic research"-might also help smooth over relations with the ivory tower set.

Very little of that funding, however, will go to social science research. The bulk of it will support physical science research, such as stealth materials and laser weapons. "One of the virtues of social science research as opposed to the physical science research is it's relatively inexpensive," Thomas Mahnken, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for policy planning, recently told reporters.

That virtue will translate into a few million dollars for professors and students for Defense-sponsored research in the humanities, according to Mahnken. "We're probably not talking tens of millions of dollars," he said. "This is an area where $2 million or $3 million actually goes a long way."

Even that modest chunk of change has sparked protest from some quarters of academia. A group called the Network of Concerned Anthropologists listed a number of potential problems with the Minerva project in a statement posted on its Web site.

The group said the university system already is highly militarized because many receive significant funding from the Defense Department. Some in the field worry that if a university finds itself dependent on military funding, it "becomes an instrument rather than a critic of war-making," the statement said. The anthropologists question why the Pentagon is outsourcing open-source intelligence work to universities instead of to the many defense contractors that work in the field. The group's statement suggests that Defense might be outsourcing the "mundane tasks of data collection, sorting and analysis [to] low wage undergraduate or graduate students," because contractors are too expensive and the university might lend the effort legitimacy and credibility, which contractors cannot provide.

The network has urged anthropologists not to engage in research that supports the military's counter- insurgency operations. In an effort that is unrelated to the Minerva project, the Pentagon is spending almost $150 million this year to recruit anthropologists and other social scientists to serve with human terrain teams that work with military units.

The teams map the human terrain in Iraq and Afghanistan and use "soft power" to engage local populations, said Andre van Tilborg, deputy undersecretary of Defense for science and technology, at a hearing in April before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities. The program is small, with only eight human terrain teams-six in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. The five- to eight-person teams work with country-specific experts located at the Research Reachback Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The teams use laptop computers and human terrain mapping software to conduct village assessments that provide commanders with a detailed data repository on the social groups within tribal communities, including information on their interests, beliefs, motivating factors and leaders.

The scientific teams typically work with Provincial Reconstruction Teams, small units made up of civil affairs troops and economic development experts from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, that operate in local communities.

"We learned that the population is the center of gravity, the enemy is hiding among the people and we must understand the culture to win," says Army Col. Martin Schweitzer, who recently returned from a 15-month combat tour in Afghanistan and whose brigade of paratroopers was the first to use a human terrain team. The teams functioned not just as cultural advisers, he says, but identified the key players within tribal communities whose power structure and patronage networks often confound Western minds.

The scientific team's impact was "exponentially powerful," he says, leading to a 60 percent to 70 percent reduction in combat operations in his area. Schweitzer said a PRT commander told him that before the human terrain specialists arrived, his team members were just "ricocheting around," talking to random people until they identified the power brokers in each village.

Addressing the concerns of the academic community about social scientists working in counterinsurgency operations, Schweitzer says: "The team is not an intelligence tool used to target individuals," adding that members are not qualified or trained to aid in identifying or selecting enemy fighters either to be killed or captured. That role, he says, is performed by intelligence officers.

Gates said anthropologists in the war zone could serve a humanitarian function: "The net effect of [the human terrain teams] is often less violence across the board, with fewer hardships and casualties among civilians as a result."

NEXT STORY: Buy American . . . Or Else