Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mercenary Anthropology When All Else Fails?


Recently, the US sent cultural anthropologists to Afghanistan to operate with a combat team. The result was a 60% decrease in combat operations for that army unit. They learned things like if you want to win hearts and minds you don’t kick in doors, you knock on them (I’m not sure if they needed to send anyone over there for that knowledge nugget). The success of this 'test' has paved the way for 26 American combat brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq to each get their own team of cultural anthropologists.

I’m not sure how I feel about the use of cultural anthropologists in war, or as they are nicknamed, "mercenary anthropologists." What is very interesting to me is the timing of their use and their place in the decision-making hierarchy.

It seems very obvious that we would need to know more about a country’s culture during a time of war, regardless of the use of this data. Why has it taken 6 years for the US Military to deploy something that is so overtly useful in this type of war? It's sad that this wasn’t part of the original plan, but then again we see this in product design all the time. Companies not understanding the value of knowing their customer archetypes and also not knowing what to call 'it' is eerily similar. I can’t tell you how many times I have been introduced improperly to others just because most don’t easily grasp the concept of user experience design. It’s hard for me to make the jump to corporate America because it has an air of trivializing the seriousness of what is going on over there, but there are so many similarities. Here is a quote from Colonel Woods:
"Call it what you want, it works. It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms."

He doesn't know what this is, but he nails what it is about. I guess it doesn't matter what you call it if you just get it. The army is spending $40 million on this project, although people can't define it easily and it is late in the game. I'd love to see more of corporate America investing in this as well with the same excuses.

Here are some interesting links for more on this:

Official document on counterinsurgency

NY Times article

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