Brave Thinkers

Illustration by Quickhoney

Name: Montgomery McFate
Job: Senior Social Scientist at the Human Terrain System
Why she’s brave: She taught American soldiers how to navigate the cultural terrain of Iraq.
Quote: “If you understand how to frustrate or satisfy the population’s interests to get them to support your side in a counterinsurgency, you don't need to kill as many of them.”


In the darkest days of the Iraq War, one scenario seemed constantly to replay itself: Iraqi drivers would unaccountably fail to stop when ordered to at checkpoints, and American soldiers, fearing a suicide bombing, would open fire—sometimes killing innocents. One possible reason was a devastatingly simple cultural confusion: the American gesture for “stop”—arm straight, palm out—means “welcome” in Iraq. “This and similar misunderstandings have deadly consequences,” McFate wrote in Joint Force Quarterly in 2005. The Pentagon recruited McFate, a cultural anthropologist, to help troops avoid such mistakes and learn about the cultures of those they’re ostensibly assisting. She helped develop the Human Terrain System, which provides, in a database, everything a soldier in the field might find useful to know about a foreign culture—from tribal structure, to local water issues, to regional quirks of language and mannerism. Although the social sciences have historically had an uneasy if not hostile relationship with the military, the system also embeds anthropologists, sociologists, and linguists with combat units to help them communicate and navigate tricky cultural terrain. Despite the inevitable recruitment and retention problems, and several civilian-scientist casualties, the military credits the program with a measurable decline in the need for combat operations. And though McFate has endured intense criticism from her peers in academia (the American Anthropological Association worries that the program could lead to subjects’ being studied without their “informed consent”), General David Petraeus used McFate’s work in his counterinsurgency manual and the Army now assigns social scientists to serve with all combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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