Strategy, War, and Culture: #Reviewing Military Anthropology

Strategy, War, and Culture: #Reviewing Military Anthropology
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File
Strategy, War, and Culture: #Reviewing Military Anthropology
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File
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Military Anthropology: Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire. Montgomery McFate. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

War is a struggle with the intent of forcing one’s will on the enemy. War is, therefore, a deeply political act. In the words of Clausewitz: “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.”[1] Clausewitz thought mostly about inter-European war. However, every political interaction between states is an inter-cultural affair. Culture, in this sense, may be defined as a certain way of living, thinking, feeling, and acting that is immanent in a specific society.

Modern wars are often about changing other cultures. While many wars in history were about enrichment and honor, modern wars often pursue goals that aim at the annihilation of certain cultural traits like Prussian militarism after 1945 or the creation of new ones like a democratic way of life. The contemporary American wars of the 2000s are paradigmatic examples for this.

In these wars, strategy is the art of implementing enduring cultural change in a foreign culture to further a state’s own interest. Thus, understanding distinctive cultures, both of the opponent’s and one’s own, is not only of theoretical—or, even worse, academic—importance. Why this is and how cultural knowledge needs to be used in current and future wars is demonstrated in the cleverly written book Military Anthropology: Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire by Montgomery McFate, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and, before that, inter alia, Senior Social Scientist for the Human Terrain System.

Her book is very delicately crafted. All nine chapters thematize the involvement of anthropologists in war, while, at the same time, thematizing the following topics: Indirect Rule, Military Leadership, Information Operations, Unconventional Warfare, Governance Operations, Counter-Insurgency, Strategic Objectives, and Military Execution of Foreign Policy. The examined conflicts are taken from British and U.S. conflicts in the 20th century, and every chapter stands largely on its own. This makes the book especially useful in educational contexts. Astonishingly, the book can be read as a monograph. There are only a few recurrences, and most of them are useful as they illustrate core theses from different perspectives.

References to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are given throughout the book, which should increase its value for the contemporary military member. Dr. McFate’s position at the meeting-point between academic and military worlds is highly noticeable. Her argumentation is balanced; she does not make the mistake of criticizing the military from an all-better-knowing position, but stresses the possibilities and the constraints of making anthropology useful for the military. To include cultural knowledge in strategy and tactics is not a panacea, but it helps immensely to reduce the loss of human lives and resources—almost all chapters stress this insight.

McFate’s historical examples illustrate the somewhat depressing fact that the importance of cultural knowledge is only felt when a new war comes about, and is forgotten afterwards. This happened after World War II and the Vietnam War—both of which took a heavy price in blood and treasure.

Embedded anthropologists. (Society for Visual Anthropology)

Of course, it is no trivial task for military organizations to integrate anthropology into their planning and activities. While the discipline was once a useful tool for colonial administrations, and many anthropologists answered the call to duty in the world wars, most anthropologists today avoid involvement in military or intelligence contexts. Even more problematic is the fact that most anthropologists simply have nothing useful to say to the military. As there is no field theory about culture and society, the military has to “cobble together do-it-yourself social models and theories.”[2] Unfortunately, McFate only hints at how a functioning model could present itself by referring to functionalism—the theory of society as a complex system of individual parts that serve the stability of the whole. Arguably, a blend of functionalism and system theory could indeed provide a useful framework for understanding cultures. After all, this framework doesn’t need to explain culture as a whole in an academic sense, as long as it works in the field. McFate makes the prudent argument that special forces operators in persistent deployment de facto accomplish anthropological fieldwork.

While it’s important to know about foreign cultures, the uniqueness of one’s culture must also be realized. McFate stresses the danger of believing that all cultures are basically the same—that is, American—if only the right incentives are given. McFate calls this the “tyranny of the paradigm,”[3] which often leads to implementing change that contradicts the best intentions of policy makers and military government. McFate convincingly argues that the push for implementing a Western type of state in Iraq played a significant role in the uprisings that continued to plague the country in 2018. Therefore, one of the main conclusions of the book is that “the social condition of the host nation must be considered as part of national strategic objectives.”[4] Another insightful conclusion is that military intervention always has significant impact on the affected societies. Not intervening might just be as bad as intervening and making mistakes. However, McFate stresses the importance of keeping the host society in working order by guaranteeing a working government and security services. Cultural change should be based on local ways of living. Perhaps, the British model of “indirect rule” could be used as a framework for future conflicts.

Margaret Mead with anthropologist Gregory Bateson (on the left) and Reo Fortune, Sydney, Australia, June 1933. When this photograph was taken in 1933, the three anthropologists were just returning from field work in New Guinea. (Library of Congress)

So far, this review has focused on recent American invasions and the enduring conflicts that followed. This focus is justified as cultural knowledge is most important in wars that include cross-cultural contexts, counterinsurgency (COIN), and nation (re-)building. However, the book has much more to offer. McFate’s chapter about the polyhistorian Gregory Bateson, the husband of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, is especially fascinating. During the Second World War, Bateson worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, conducting research on different topics and creating psyops-campaigns. He could base a lot of his work on his famous “Naven” study, in which he asked the question how societies can be in constant change and, nevertheless, remain in a stable order.[5]

…thinking outside the box might better be phrased as seeing outside the frame.

Bateson concluded there had to be integrating and differentiating processes at work at the same time. As long as both kinds of processes even each other out, the society can stay stable, even when there are grave conflicts. Bateson believed such processes can be socially engineered to meet certain targets. For instance, he was convinced the Axis could have been brought down without a war, if one had done the necessary research and developed a suitable campaign. While this seems overconfident, his ideas and argumentation have merit. He invented the concepts of frames and framing with which all followers of contemporary politics should be familiar.[6] There is no doubt that framing is a powerful tool to win conflicts—or lose them—as the formulation and the design of frames often dictate the solutions to one’s problems. Thus, thinking outside the box might better be phrased as seeing outside the frame.

Two other important concepts put forth by Bateson are less popular today, but still have merit according to McFate: premise and schismogenesis.[7] Premises are cultural facts beyond questioning by most members of the culture. These can be acts such as greeting each other or christenings, or they can be propositions like “the best should get the job.” In other words, premises are the building stones of consent in a society and, therefore, of order. To introduce thoughts contrary to premises into another culture is a complicated task. It is surely easier to use them to demonstrate contradictions in the ideology of your opponent.

For example, in 2005 the U.S. was successful in weakening the Islamist group cenetered around Ab? Mus?ab az-Zarq?w? by framing him as a murderer of Muslims. While there are conflicts between different Muslim sects, the cultural concept of the al-Umma al-isl?m?ya as an internal peaceful community can be counted as a premise. By acting against this premise, one could argue az-Zarq?w? contradicted his claim on being a devout Muslim champion of faith. McFate has written an interesting study about how such premises can be used to challenge totalitarian regimes.[8]

Schismogenesis is the most complicated of the three cited ideas of Bateson; unfortunately, McFate presupposes a lot of knowledge from her readers. (This is the exception in her book.) Schismogenesis can be understood as ever ongoing processes that regulate the relation between members of a culture and, thus, their behavior. In these processes, the cumulation of individual interactions lead to society-wide differentiation. There are complementary and symmetrical schismogenesis. For example, in ancient Roman society there were masters and slaves. The more devotedly the slaves acted, the more dominant the masters became and vice versa, and we see complementary schismogenesis. When these individual actions become systemic through cumulation, the stability of the society decreases.

In the same society, an example of symmetrical schismogenesis would be the fight of Roman elites for control of the state. In this case, the social order would become endangered by the conflicts between the elites and their henchmen. For Bateson, such processes of differentiation were normal. However, societies require cultural traits and premises to counterbalance schismogenesis and increase integration. In the case of the Roman slaves and masters, the rituals of the Saturnalia, when the masters served their slaves for one day, could be understood as such a counterweight. Bateson was convinced that schismogenesis could be artistically increased to weaken the solidarity and order of another culture. This may be the case. For instance, some mastermind could concoct a scheme to increase Chinese nationalism with the aim of weakening the communist administration, which would then no longer be able to fulfill the high-staked expectations of the Chinese people and, therefore, lose face and trust. However, with regard to the immense complexity of societies, such extraordinary plans may only have merit in the heads of James Bond villains. At a minimum, they provide food for thought and, perhaps, are usable in more narrow areas.

McFate has not written a guide to control minds and subdue people abroad.

Not wanting to end this review with these lines about the dark arts of anthropology, I intend to clarify one thing: McFate has not written a guide to control minds and subdue people abroad. On the contrary, she tries to show that military success and the security and prospects of the people on the spot go hand-in-hand. She makes a strong case for accepting different cultures, learning about them, understanding them, and eventually integrating into them in a certain way while living there. She wrote the book principally for members of the military, not for politicians. Public servants—be they members of the military, intelligence agencies, the state department, etc.—don’t decide on the countries to which they are sent and what their mission is to be. They just get to decide how they act and how they treat the civilian population. To help the military to help civilians should be seen as a worthy endeavor for anthropologists, even when one laments the use of the military in the first place.

Nobody can tell what the future holds. On behalf of the American military and the people who will meet it in the future, one can only hope knowledge of the past won’t be forgotten. Whereas it may be understandable that many American generals want to leave COIN and Stabilization Operations behind them to concentrate on the so-called American way of war—destroying armies with overpowering force in fast maneuver wars—this could cost the American military dearly in the future. Unconventional Warfare, war by proxy, COIN operations, and various blends of these kind of operations will likely be dominant factors of future conflicts between the great powers. The increasing importance of Urban Operations also emphasizes the importance of culture. Only by understanding the culture of city dwellers and by keeping the highly complex infrastructure in working order, can a significant political objective be accomplished.

Summa summarum, McFate makes one thing clear: destroying is easy, while winning is hard. It would be wise to remember this.

Julian Koeck is an historian, interested in how ideas change (or do not change) individuals and their societies.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. J. J. Graham (1873), I, 24,

[2] Montgomery McFate, Military Anthropology: Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 328.

[3] McFate, Military Anthropology, 83.

[4] McFate, Military Anthropology, 323.


[6] Although Bateson coined the name, “framing” became an important concept in the social sciences through Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (New York: Harvard University Press, 1974). A concise introduction to the topic can be found here:

[7] McFate, Military Anthropology, 152 f.

[8] Montgomery McFate, “Manipulating the Architecture of Cultural Control: A Conceptual Model for Strategic Influence Operations in North Korea,” Journal of Information Warfare 4, no. 11 (2005),

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