We weaponized anthropology. Why didn’t it work?

Summary: Science provided massive advantages in our post-9/11 wars against the less-developed peoples of the Middle East. Not just the material science that created our wonder weapons, but the social sciences that gave experts the tools to manipulate these societies like children do legos. Or so said the writers of the COIN guide FM 3-24 and anthropologists like David Kilcullen. Here David Price explains why the results are less than promised.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

The Death Star beam
Not the advantage we thought it would be.

Yesterday’s post recommended Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (2011) by David H. Price (Prof of anthropology at St. Martin’s U; bio here). In this great book he describes one facet of America’s militarization, that of the sciences). Today’s we see his explanation of why we failed despite DoD deploying the fruits of 20th century social science.

Why social science failed the COIN-istas.

In 2008 I gave 3 reasons that the COINistas’ nation-building would fail:

  1. The social sciences are as yet immature.  Its practitioners cannot wield their theories as can chemists and physicists.  Twentieth century history is largely a series of failed attempts at social engineering.
  2. Even if US social scientists were able to do social engineering at home, that does not mean that they can do so in foreign lands.
  3. If this was possible to do in foreign lands, the US military might not have the necessary organization or talent to do so.  This probably requires Thomas Barnett’s “System Administrators“, a 21st century organization of colonial civil servants.

Professor Price agrees, but gives a deeper analysis by describing the flaws in the master COIN plan — Field Manual FM 3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. The core of his analysis (citations omitted; links added):

The Manual instructs that “once the social structure has been thoroughly mapped out, staffs should identify and analyze the culture of a society as a whole and of each major group within the society”. This absurdly glib statement is akin to having a NASA technical manual that instructs: “add wings to space shuttle, glue on ceramic tiles; reenter earth’s atmosphere at correct angle”.

The Manual brushes aside the difficulties of conceptualizing social structure; instead, just one quick “yadda-yadda-yadda” and presto: the “staffs” have mastered these vital independent variables for manipulation. Anthropologists can devote years to studying and then struggling to represent the social structure of a single village, yet our counterinsurgency theorists cavalierly rush past the complexities of such small scale undertakings and pretend that such operations can meaningfully and quickly occur on a societal level.

That no one within the military challenges this as nonsense reveals the low level of critical analysis and skepticism within these military circles as those hawking outlandish claims of cultural engineering are heralded as making revolutionary contributions.

Weaponizing Anthropology (2011)
Available from Amazon.

The Manual’s focus on Max Weber’s writings on modern legal-rational authority reveals the COIN Team’s awareness of the central problems of legitimacy; but the Manual does not examine how historically difficult it is for external occupiers to acquire the forms of legitimacy that Weber recognized.

It is the centrality of legitimacy that makes domestic counterinsurgencies operations (like the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaigns against the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, socialists, communists, anarchists etc. — in these campaigns the FBI already had legitimacy with the bulk of the domestic population) so much more successful than the foreign-occupier scenarios of the Manual.

The Manual argues that “Political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate.” But anthropologists know the difficulties for outsiders to achieve legitimacy, and the Manual has no magic answers to this problem. As William Polk bluntly concluded in his book Violent Politics‘ review of two centuries of insurgencies: “the single absolutely necessary ingredient in counterinsurgency is extremely unlikely ever to be available to foreigners” — that ingredient being: legitimacy. The Manual’s focus on the writings of Antonio Gramsci betray the authors’ worried interest in how occupying forces can learn to hijack hegemonic narratives to aid in full spectrum domination.

… It is worth briefly mentioning some of what is not represented in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual’s latent culture theory: most prominent is the absence of any systemic discussion of how difficult it is to bring about engineered culture change, there is no mention of applied anthropologists failures to get people to do simple things (like recycling, losing weight, reducing behaviors associated with the spread of HIV, etc.) basic things that are arguably in their own self-interest.

… The Counterinsurgency Field Manual’s approach to anthropological theory was not selected because it “works” or is intellectually cohesive: it was selected because it offers an engineering friendly false promise of “managing” the complexities of culture as if increased sensitivities, greater knowledge, panoptical legibility could be used in a linear fashion to engineer domination. It fits the military’s structural view of the world. It is the false promise of “culture” as a controllable, linear product that drives the COIN Team’s particular construction of “culture.”

Within the military, the COIN Team is not alone in this folly: this is reminiscent of the absurd forms of analysis discussed in Chapter Eight’s analysis of the Special Forces Advisor Guide where military clients are drawn to simplistic, dated anthropological notions of culture and personality theories which produce essentialized reductions of entire continents as having a limited set of uniform cultural traits — a feat that finds the military embracing a form of anthropology that quantitatively tells it the world is a lot like it already understood it to be.

Stand back I'm trying science.


We have intervened in different ways in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya — all unsuccessfully. Now we gear up for another round of interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria — and on a small scale in a dozen other nations (especially Africa). It’s another chapter in our mad post-9/11 wars as we’re using methods that have proven unsuccessful in scores of wars since WWII against foes that have learned much from our failures.

This seems unlikely to end well. Not for the inevitable casualties among our troops, fallen in vain wars, nor for an America that so squanders its resources and attention. Can we learn to do better? If we cannot do so in these wars, where the folly has become so evident, what hope do we have for solving our more difficult problems?

Other posts in this series

  1. A lesson about counterinsurgency that could change America’s future.
  2. We weaponized anthropology. Why didn’t it work?
  3. Why a decade of assassinations hasn’t helped America.

For More Information

Update: The analysis here refers to the original FM 3-24 as released in 2006, which guided our wars. Field Manuals are revised over time, but they provide little internal information on how the revisions change doctrine.

See a brilliant reviews of Weaponizing Anthropology by Maximilian Forte at Zero Anthropology.

To see the fighting among anthropologists about their role in our wars see the scores of links in Anthropologists go to war. Some revolt. Here are some posts about their role in our wars: Another volley in the battle of the anthropologists, and Americans in foreign lands, putting our knowledge of their cultures to work in war.

Posts about the COIN field manual, FM-34:

  1. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual.
  2. Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24.
  3. For more about the difficulty of successfully using the social science insights in FM 3-24:  The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24 and A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual.

21 thoughts on “We weaponized anthropology. Why didn’t it work?”

    1. B-

      Yes, they revised it in some significant ways. I believe it’s clear that we’re discussing the “original” FM 3-24 as released in 2006 which guided our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Field manuals are revised over time, so they’re a moving target.

      Just to be clear, however, I’ve added a note to that effect. An analysis of it’s evolution from 2006 to now would be interesting to see.

      Thanks for raising this point!

  1. Editor,

    No problem. Just pointing out that the new manual does not have the same language and some of the changes are in line with some of the points made here. As far as what is in the new FM, these two reviews might capture how the institution sees it.

  2. “we’re using methods that have proven unsuccessful in scores of wars since WWII against foes that have learned much from our failures.”

    “Can we learn to do better? If we cannot do so in these wars, where the folly has become so evident, what hope do we have for solving our more difficult problems?”

    I can’t imagine what methods we could have used that would have been successful in these wars. What do you think that we could have done that would have made these wars successful…other than to not start them? Could you list a few specific things for a lazy layman like me who’s unwilling to wade through the links?

  3. Oh, you’re taking about now, I thought you were talking about the methods used when we first launched the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq. So we’re kind of doing it right against ISIS if we keep the combat troops out?

    1. Gloucon,

      There was no reason logical reason to invade and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, since the reasons given were largely lies.

      Having decided to invade, we could have installed new governments and left. No occupation. I doubt that would have worked, but it would have been cheaper in money and blood — and avoided the radicalization we have left in our wake.

  4. We did install governments. But the one in Afghanistan probably would have fallen to the Taliban had we left immediately — and we still hadn’t found Osama bin Laden which we were told was the reason we went there. Iraq was a lie, but did you not think we had to go after bin Laden?

    We could have left Iraq right after Saddam was captured, but there probably would have still been a civil war and the inevitable radicalization of factions. In either case, I couldn’t imagine Bush leaving quickly.

    1. Gloucon,

      “We did install governments”

      I said install them quickly and leave. We did neither.

      We attempted to install Ahmed Chalabi as a puppet ruler, but widespread resistance prevented that. We attempted to prevent elections, but eventually were forced to allow them in Jan 2005. That’s 2 years after the invasion.

      Elections for President were held in Afghanistan in October 2004 — 3 years after the invasion. For Parliament in September 2005.

      In both cases the US exercised almost direct rule over its occupied nations until the elections. And to a large degree afterwards as well, seriously compromising those governments’ legitimacy.

  5. I don’t think you can do social engineering on a culture you know nothing about. Observing for a couple of years is not gonna do it. They run on a deeper level. I think if you want to understand a culture, you have to see inside its families and understand the intra relashionships there. It’s where it all starts.

    On the other hand, when you say sticking to support, etc.. which are the governments you want to help, and why?

    1. Robyn,

      “I don’t think you can do social engineering on a culture you know nothing about.”
      Yes. I wrote about this in 2008, calling it the “home court advantage” in 4GW. Sadly it’s still not widely recognized. Also note that Price points out that social engineering has low odds of success in one’s own home nation.

      “On the other hand, when you say sticking to support, etc.. which are the governments you want to help, and why?”

      Asking who to support and how are great questions — for another day. One step at a time.

  6. Once we went in, it was obvious we were going to stay and try to establish some semblance of stability. Leaving quickly and watching it all fall apart would have made going in the first place look even stupider. Bush would not have risked the embarrassment and inevitable electoral losses. It was obvious that he was going to drag it out and leave a mess for his predecessor regardless of the cost to Americans. Completely leaving Afghanistan without a force going after Bin Laden would probably have generated calls for impeachment. The government there controlled very little outside of Kabul. Its army was a basket case for years.

  7. We have a revised manual. We have new enemies. We oppose ISIS, you offer them comfort. Culture is a tool ISIS uses, but we can’t? No, I don’t think so. We study cultures of the middle east and now have ways to use the culture to our advantage. We are adaptive, we change with every victory. You and your cowardly criticisms remain the same. Our victories grow rapidly, you have nothing to show but more words. We are the masters of culture.

    1. JSOC,

      “you offer them comfort.”
      No, you offer them comfort by engaging them in a way that a large body of experience says will fail — leaving them stronger.

      “I dont’ think so.”
      The odds disagree with you.

      “We have new enemies.”
      First, that’s not strictly speaking true. The name of the organization is not the key factor. Second, that’s hardly the key factor — since they’re using the same set of tactics as have others in the past (although

      “We have a revised manual.”
      In 2006 FM 3-24 was a revised manual. Most of the armies that fought foreign armies since WWII had what they thought were “new” tactics. They weren’t, any more than the first version of FM 3-24 had substantially new ideas.

      “We are adaptive, we change with every victory. You and your cowardly criticisms remain the same. Our victories grow rapidly”
      Please at least attempt to sound like a rational person. Facts, logic — that sort of thing. Making stuff up, like this, is quite sad. Certainly not worth responding to.

      Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

      That’s an ancient aphorism of Alcohol Anonymous, people who know all about dysfunctionality. That it applies to us now says pretty much all that needs be said.

    2. New editions of “1984” should have “This is not an How-to-Manual” stamped on the cover. The obvious needs to be spelled out apparently.
      Just few more victories like Iraq and we are done for.

  8. What are some examples of where a foreign occupier achieved some measure of legitimacy?
    I can’t think of any.

    1. Todd,

      There are some grey cases. The most-oft cited is Northern Ireland. Which seems a bit odd, calling the British Army “foreign” in Northern Ireland. Same language, same culture, common history, centuries of common experience, both Christian, etc.

      The other examples given are where the colonial power defeated the insurgents by promising freedom to its local allies. For example, Malaysia and Keyna. The COINistas focus on the military defeat of the insurgents and ignore the inconvenient fact that their goal was freedom from colonial rule — which their people got. Also in these cases the local government’s troops did much or the majority of the fighting.

      In breif, as usual in these debates, the COINistas just make stuff up. Asserted loudly, with confidence and with big funding. So Americans believe they must be correct.

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