Professors On The Battlefield: Where The Warfare Is More Than Just Academic

September 2007

Marcus Griffin is not a soldier. But now that he cuts his hair "high and tight" like a drill sergeant's, he understands why he is being mistaken for one. Mr. Griffin is actually a professor of anthropology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. His austere grooming habits stem from his enrollment in a new Pentagon initiative, the Human Terrain System. It embeds social scientists with brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they serve as cultural advisers to brigade commanders.

Mr. Griffin, a bespectacled 39-year-old who speaks in a methodical monotone, believes that by shedding some light on the local culture-- thereby diminishing the risk that U.S. forces unwittingly offend Iraqi sensibilities--he can improve Iraqi and American lives. On the phone from Fort Benning, two weeks shy of boarding a plane bound for Baghdad, he describes his mission as "using knowledge in the service of human freedom."

The Human Terrain System is part of a larger trend: Nearly six years into the war on terror, there is reason to believe that the Vietnam-era legacy of mistrust--even hostility--between academe and the military may be eroding.

This shift in the zeitgeist is embodied by Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq. Gen. Petraeus, who holds a doctorate from Princeton University in international relations, made a point of speaking on college campuses between his tours in Iraq because he believes it is critical that America "bridge the gap between those in uniform and those who, since the advent of the all-volunteer force, have had little contact with the military." In a recent essay in the American Interest, Gen. Petraeus reflects on his own academic journey and stresses how the skills he cultivated on campus help him operate on the fly in Iraq. As such, he is a staunch proponent of Army officers attending civilian graduate programs.

Over the past few years, Gen. Petraeus has been cultivating ties to the academic community, drawing on scholars for specialized knowledge and fresh thinking about the security challenges facing America. "What you are seeing is a willingness by military officers to learn from civilian academics," says Michael Desch, an expert on civilian-military relations at Texas A&M. "The war on terrorism has really accelerated this trend."

The terms of this relationship are most evident in the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual. In the face of a gruesomely persistent Iraqi insurgency, Gen. Petraeus was charged with revamping the outdated counterinsurgency doctrine. In an unprecedented collaboration, he reached out to Sarah Sewall, who directs the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, to help him organize a vetting session of the draft manual at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

The conference brought together journalists, human-rights activists, academics and members of the armed forces to exchange ideas about how to make the doctrine more effective and more humane. Ms. Sewall, who since 2001 has been trying to get the military to bring the concerns of the human-rights community to the table, tells me that with Gen. Petraeus it is like pushing on an open door. And according to Montgomery McFate, who had a hand in drafting the manual, this was probably the first time that anthropological insight has been officially incorporated into more than 200 years of military doctrine. In chapter one, it explicitly states that "cultural knowledge is essential to waging a successful counterinsurgency. American ideas of what is 'normal' or 'rational' are not universal." (The manual was published last month by the University of Chicago Press. Ms. Sewall wrote the foreword.)

"Anthropologists have the opportunity right now to influence how the national security establishment does business," writes Ms. McFate in an email from Afghanistan, where she is a senior adviser to the Human Terrain System project. A Yale University-trained anthropologist, she has been the target of bitter criticism from the anthropology establishment on account of her tireless efforts to convince the military that cultural knowledge is key to winning over the people in war-torn societies like Iraq and Afghanistan. She insists that a growing number of anthropologists are questioning the conventional wisdom and reconsidering whether the most effective way to influence the military is "by waving a big sign outside the Pentagon saying 'you suck.'"

That may be wishful thinking on Ms. McFate's part. A majority of members active in the American Anthropological Association seem to reject her as naive and dangerous. And history provides plenty of legitimate cause for concern. There is a toxic legacy of military-funded clandestine research--most notably the infamous Project Camelot in Chile in the mid-1960s and a 1970 scandal triggered by American social scientists' efforts on behalf of a Thai government counterinsurgency campaign. Roberto J. Gonzalez, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and a leading critic of rapprochement between the national-security community and professional anthropologists, has taken to the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education to warn against "the militarization of the social sciences."

In recent years, the annual meetings of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Anthropological Association have been dominated by discussion about what ethical responsibilities scholars have in relation to war, terrorism and torture. At such events, Ms. McFate and her rare sympathizers often sound like a lone voice in the wilderness.

So will these instances of cooperation be enduring? Do they represent the harbinger of a more pervasive reconsideration of Vietnam-era pieties in academe? Hard to say. But it somehow seems significant that no less an archetype of Vietnam-era agitation than Tom Hayden emerged last month to raise the dusty banner of anti-military antagonism. In an essay posted on the Web site of the Nation magazine, he attacked Ms. Sewall for collaborating with Gen. Petraeus on the new manual, which he dismissed as "an academic formulation to buttress and justify a permanent engagement in counter-terrorism wars" that "runs counter to the historic freedom of university life."

Mr. Hayden's article suggests a bizarre conception of the role of scholars in American life: that they should be held to a priestly standard of ethical purity. "Are academics so much purer than anybody else that we can't ever be in situations where we are confronting tough ethical choices?" asks Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard who briefly, in 2003, was an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. "If academics didn't get involved with these kinds of difficult questions, maybe all that would be left is a department of Kantian philosophy," he jokes. "Then we would be pure, but we would be irrelevant."