Christopher Sims’ “Academics in Foxholes: The Life and Death of the Human Terrain System” contributes to the ongoing debate about the U.S. military’s performance in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more specifically, the relationship between the U.S. government and the academy. As the authors point out, there is much that both scholars and practitioners can learn from the successes and failures of the Human Terrain System (HTS), which brought together civilian academics and military personnel. Even more broadly, however, the experience reveals much about the relationship between the U.S. armed forces (primarily the army) on the one hand and academic social scientists (primarily anthropologists and sociologists) on the other.
HTS was created in 2007 as a response to the U.S. military’s need to better understand the cultural and ethnic geography of Iraq and Afghanistan. In part because of long-standing lack of institutional emphasis on cultural factors, U.S. forces had a poor understanding of the composition of Iraqi and Afghan society. At times they overlooked sources of support for insurgency; at other times they alienated potential allies. Addressing the shortcoming in the middle of a war inevitably came at a great expense and the process was less effective than diagnosing and remedying the problem in peacetime.
The effort to improve soldiers’ social and cultural understanding was further hampered by the U.S. military’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: even as the United States sought to fight a war “among the people”—that is, with and alongside them—it generally kept the local population at arm’s length, a reflection of a military organizational culture built around avoiding casualties and penalizing risk-taking. But a failure to work with local populations made it all the more difficult to understand the dynamics that perpetuated the conflicts.
The attempt to solve this problem—HTS—came with its own difficulties. The program brought into Iraq and Afghanistan academic communities that held very different values from the military and
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