Friday, April 16, 2010

Mapping human culture

Named the most euphemistic phrase of 2007 by the American Dialect Society, “human terrain system” gives a cartography-sounding name to a military project. This endeavor brings anthropologists and sociologists into Army brigades to help troops understand the socio-cultural environments in which they are deployed.

Basically, all this mumbo jumbo means that scholarly book-types are now on the front lines telling soldiers how to interact with civilians. Sounds like internal conflict if you ask me. And the very term reminds me of topography maps, perhaps showing the largest concentrations of certain individuals and warning soldiers about the ramifications of their actions.

Apparently, a similar program existed in Vietnam, but the anthropologists were largely used to identify military targets. The current project places these sociologists directly into the brigades rather than keeping them at the higher levels of the military structure, and the Army argues that the program in Afghanistan and Iraq has different objectives than the one used in Vietnam.

After hearing “human terrain system” on an NPR program, I decided to do some of my own research. But only time will reveal how the U.S. Army uses this cultural information for good or ill.

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