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October 29, 2007

This is a success?

From the NYT:

A few weeks ago this newspaper reported on an experimental Pentagon “human terrain” program to embed anthropologists in combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. It featured two military anthropologists: Tracy (last name withheld), a cultural translator viewed by American paratroopers as “a crucial new weapon” in counterinsurgency; and Montgomery McFate, who has taken her Yale doctorate into active duty in a media blitz to convince skeptical colleagues that the occupying forces should know more about the local cultural scene. . . .

The military voices . . . had their winning moments, sounding like old-fashioned relativists, whose basic mission in life was to counter ethnocentrism and disarm those possessed by a strident sense of group superiority. Ms. McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” and do some “hanky-panky.” “Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming.

(Via The Plank, which also appears to chalk it up as a success.)

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Comments

Lee

Oh, the questions this one raises:

Who is Ms. McFate, that she can tell anyone else to stop anything? How is an anthropology doctorate in any way empowering to tell a graduate of Basic Training what to do? And why is group superiority inferior to individual superiority?

And can we send other academics to Afghanistan, perhaps for an extended stay? Along with some selected politicians? :-)

Finally, when these anthropologists return, will it be to the Boston area? They could be quite useful to a certain Archdiocese... Or do these people have two standards - one for Afghani men, and another for American Catholic priests?

Jason Taylor

In the first place, cultural information is a necessity.
In any case the British didn't "impose their values." What they did was play Captain Kirk-respect the Prime Directive unless they felt the custom intolerable. They didn't allow sutee("we also have a custom-when people burn widows, we hang them")and controled the general government, but generally left things to be in most cases.

Jason Taylor

"In any case the British didn't "impose their values." What they did was play Captain Kirk-respect the Prime Directive unless they felt the custom intolerable. They didn't allow sutee("we also have a custom-when people burn widows, we hang them")and controled the general government, but generally left things to be in most cases."

The British system melded well because it was really not as abstract as our own. The pseudo-feudal deliberate anachronism so dear to British hearts actually helped. Almost all ethnic groups have at least a memory of feudalism and some a very close one. As one African chieftain asked an Englishman, "Is there really a Great White Queen or did you invent her". Considering how lucky that was propaganda-wise he did have a point!
For instance a lot of native mercenaries who wouldn't have fought for such an abstract and probably to at least to some distasteful(for they were, to be honest, insuferable snobs)thing as "England" would fight for the monarch as he would just think of it the way he would think of taking service with any Prince or Rajah.
Moreover the English regimental system was very good for such things. The native soldiery could often think of the Imperial service as an extension of ethnic or regional patriotism because the tribalistic idiosyncracies of the British army(which were passed on to the Indian, Pakistani, and Jordanian armies and perhaps others) actually encouraged that. This wasn't just "divide and conquer". The English themselves took an aesthetic delight in local tradition. Sometimes they took it to far-forgetting that they were people and not just tribes. Even that, though was better then the more dehumanizing air of Central and Eastern European "ideological states" that were just being conceived. The affections, aesthetic appreciation, and even the prejudice of the English were at least human things.
As the British system was more adaptable to the Empire, the Empire could in some ways assimilate the British. Enough bad things have been quite justly said about the caste system. However one thing it did do was allow the British to settle in comfortably. They in essence became another caste. Again that was not completly to the good. But it did have a few good affects. The primary one being that it allowed the "natives" and the "sahibs"("sirs", I.E. English)to comprehend each other within a common frame of reference.
The English did often make considerable effort to study the native customs. At least one jurist went to the trouble of compiling a book of Moslem and Hindu laws. Generally the English were economical with interference. If the local customs were considered just, or at least not abominable and if they didn't interfere with British rule it was safest not to make waves.
In point of fact the British Empire was in some ways more successful then the Ottoman. It ended, because of a combination of war-weariness and the tacit agreement of English that at worst it was contrary to their ideals and at best it had served it's purpose. It would have been better if Independance had gone off smoother and with fewer hard feelings. But most of human history could have been better.
The present Indian government is in essence a Raj ruled by Asians instead of English. In a way it has thus fulfilled the dream of many English, who in fact desired to bring such things about. In practice of course, many English relegated that dream to "later" sometimes because they sincerely felt that it was not yet time. Also, unfortunately because once you give people power, it takes quite a bit to convince them that, that power is obselete.
The British Empire was probably not the ideal state. In some ways it was unlovable, like all states. If it was seldom tyranical-as such-it tolerated a great deal of racism, and class snobbery. However while it was there it served a purpose and let quiet folk sleep in peace. Which is a compliment for any state.

labrialumn

God will not bless that.

Yes, our troops and the generals need to understand the local culture.

But there is all the difference in this world - and the next - between understanding a culture, and approving of sin.

Jason Taylor

"For instance a lot of native mercenaries who wouldn't have fought for such an abstract and probably to at least to some distasteful(for they were, to be honest, insuferable snobs)thing as "England" would fight for the monarch as he would just think of it the way he would think of taking service with any Prince or Rajah."

Excuse the awkward phraseing. I meant that English snobbery might make native soldiers unwilling to fight for "England". But of course snobbery can go both ways.

Jason Taylor

God will not bless that.

"Yes, our troops and the generals need to understand the local culture.

But there is all the difference in this world - and the next - between understanding a culture, and approving of sin."

It depends on what is accepted and what is considered within our jurisdiction.
To go back to the British Empire, the British government(as opposed to missionaries) tolerated idolatry because that wasn't the Raj's business. They didn't tolerate widow-burning which of course was murder, which was their business.
Cultural Reliativism is well "reliative". That is it depends on what one is tolerating and what one is not tolerating.

Jason Taylor

Ms. McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” and do some “hanky-panky.” “Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming."

I didn't notice that part. In any case Ms. McFate is dreaming and so is NYT. I can't imagine soldiers "not making judgements" about such a thing. On the contrary they probably make very loud judgements indeed with many a bawdy chortle. Ms. McFate would be better off settleing for "don't ask/don't tell".

Besides she might consider that "Cultural Reliativism" if it applies, also applies to the customs of anthropoligests and those of soldiers as well as the customs of Afghans and Americans.

Joe Dalfonzo

The mission of the Military is to close with and destroy the enemy. I grant that counterinsurgency operations often involve ancillary operations but I am confident that facilitating rape is not one of them. A just war is based on moral authority. We must not allow our troops to compromise that authority because of a cultural experiment by some sophomoric academic. If you extend her logic, why shouldn't one of our soldiers drag some young Afghan boy off to better experience the culture? Wake up people,this is a conflict between GOOD and EVIL. Which side are we on?

The supposedly conservative Christian school I'm doing grad work with requires that I write as if all cultures were morally equivalent (as well as bastardize the English language for Nietzscheian ideological reasons)

Hopefully once I've graduated, I won't be asked to solemnize sutee, or perform female genital mutilation. . . .

Jason Taylor

Actually the mission of the military is not to close with and destroy the enemy. The mission of the military is to defeat the enemy.
But yes, facillatating rape is not appropriate.

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