Army Deploys Scientists to Study Iraqi Culture
By Army Pfc. J.P. Lawrence
Special to American Forces Press Service
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE BASRA, Iraq, June 4, 2009 There is one question soldiers are trained from the beginning not to ask. They learn they can ask where and when, but that they never should ask why.
Social scientists Leslie Kayanan, left, and Rubye Braye, right, meet with Human Terrain System leader Steve Fondacaro. Fondacaro, a retired special operations colonel, advocated embedding anthropologists with combat units in 2006, leading to a $40 million expansion of the program. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. J.P. Lawrence
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
On today’s battlefield, however, why is more important than ever.
“If soldiers want to know, ‘Why are the children throwing rocks at us?’ and ‘Why are they rocketing us?’ That’s what we do,” said Leslie Kayanan, team leader of the Human Terrain System team assigned to the 34th Infantry Division.
HTS, which began in June 2006 and was expanded by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in 2007, is a program that seeks to study cultural perceptions by attaching anthropological research teams to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are groups of scientists, and we work embedded with units,” said Army 1st Lt. Nestor Carrasquillo, research manager for the HTS team attached to the 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division. “We talk to the local population and provide the commander with our assessment.”
“On every team we have social scientists who are formally trained researchers,” said Rubye Braye, a social scientist and retired lieutenant colonel. “Team members have an opportunity to obtain the perceptions of the Iraqi people on key issues to better understand their needs and requirements. This gives them the opportunity to be the voice of the people back to the command.”
For instance, Braye recently spoke on behalf of Iraqis who work here. “We have Iraqis who come on the installation to work, and there has been concern that one of the gates has concertina wire and a very narrow path, so that if anybody would slip and fall, they would fall into the concertina wire,” she said. “They had said that it was disrespectful to walk along a criminal-like path.”
After learning about the situation, Braye met with the division’s leaders. “We discussed alternative ways of security that would communicate a message of respect.”
In addition, HTS scientists inform military leadership of the specific cultural characteristics in a region. “For example,” Braye explained, “the commander may have critical information requirements, and we would take those requirements and turn them into a survey or an interview for the local people.”
Through surveys and face-to-face interaction, HTS scientists ask Iraqis such questions as “Are you scared to vote in the elections?” “Do you trust the Iraqi police?” “Are there any disputes in your village?” “What can coalition forces do for you?”
“We can talk to the sheiks, and we do, but the common person can tell us a lot more,” Kayanan said. In fact, interactions with the people of Iraq revealed an avenue of communication previously unexplored by coalition forces.
“Most people think that the tribe members are entirely influenced by the sheiks. They’re not,” Kayanan said. “They’re also influenced by the sayyid.”
The sayyid, especially in a tribe that has links to a holy person, is not a religious leader, but is nominally related to Mohammed and esteemed for his wisdom and judgment, Kayanan explained.
“If it’s business, they’ll go to the sheik,” Kayanan said. “But if it’s a matter of wisdom, they’ll go to the sayyid. That’s something we found out within a matter of three to four weeks, going out every other day.”
The team’s work entails more than just providing raw data, Braye said.
“We analyze the data to determine the second- and third-order effects,” she said. “When a decision or an option is being considered, we assess the effect it will have on the local population.”
A recent HTS study on the marshes of southern Iraq illustrates this process. Often considered to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden, the fertile marshes of southern Iraq once were considered to be the breadbasket of the Middle East. But Saddam Hussein destroyed the marshes after the first Gulf War to drive out the dissident Marsh Arabs. The marshes that had been twice the size of the Florida Everglades, now are a fraction of their former size.
Taking all this data in conjunction with their own data gathering, HTS scientists informed the division’s leadership not only on the current situation, but also on possibilities for the future.
“We believe that we should support the restoration of the marshes,” Braye said. “If that is done, the second-order effect is that you will have businesses and agri-businesses that will be restarting, [and] farmers that live in the area will be able to farm to the extent that they did in the past.”
“Restoring the marshes will bring back the local economy and stop arms smuggling,” Kayanan added.
“The command is very interested in ensuring employment,” Braye said. “If people have jobs, they’re less likely to be co-opted by al-Qaida or insurgents.”
The third-order effect, Kayanan said, would be the goodwill generated as the Iraqi government works to restore an area ravaged by the old regime; it would be a highly symbolic gesture showing the people of Iraq that the government is back in the business of serving its citizens.
The focus Braye said, is on helping people realize first that political stability follows with a government that really works, and then to have that government work to promote economic opportunity for people who desire meaningful work instead of accepting payments from insurgents to attack coalition forces.
“I am really excited that one day the Iraqi children will see conflict resolution settled nonviolently, and that they will have the tools to know that there are things you can do to settle and resolve conflict without having to resort to violent means,” she said.
While critics have pointed to HTS as an example of the military “weaponizing anthropology,” Braye said, she and her peers believe their work will bring long-lasting benefits to the people of Iraq.
“If the weapon is using tools of peace to better understand those we have conflicts with, and to use those tools to resolve conflicts peacefully, then that’s the weapon,” she said. “I would challenge my colleagues who say we are weaponizing a tool that I believe is being used to promote peace. Our goal is to help save lives, and that includes both U.S. lives and Iraqi lives.”
(Army Pfc. J.P. Lawrence serves with Multinational Division South.)