Military Anthropology

Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire

Montgomery McFate

A candid reassessment of the role of anthropologists in mediating encounters between Western armies and non-Western peoples.

Bibliographic Details
Military Anthropology Hardback
September 2017£35.00

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In almost every military intervention in its history, the US has made cultural mistakes that hindered attainment of its policy goals. From the strategic bombing of Vietnam to the accidental burning of the Koran in Afghanistan, it has blundered around with little consideration of local cultural beliefs and for the long-term effects on the host nation’s society. Cultural anthropology—the so-called ‘handmaiden of colonialism’—has historically served as an intellectual bridge between Western powers and local nationals. What light can it shed on the intersection of the US military and foreign societies today?

This book tells the story of anthropologists who worked directly for the military, such as Ursula Graham Bower, the only woman to hold a British combat command during WWII. Each faced challenges including the negative outcomes of exporting Western political models and errors of perception.

Ranging from the British colonial era in Africa to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Military Anthropology illustrates the conceptual, cultural and practical barriers encountered by military organisations operating in societies vastly different from their own.

Table of Contents

 Introduction: Gerald Hickey and the Dangers Inherent

When Culture Matters Most

Story of the Book

Barriers and Impediments

The Policy Implementation Problem


  1. Robert Sutherland Rattray and Indirect Rule

Indirect Rule

The Thorny Problems of Cultural Disjunction


  1. Ursula Graham Bower and Military Leadership


Gender and Leadership

Military Leadership In Extremis

Cross-Cultural Leadership

Cross Cultural In Extremis Military Leadership


  1. Gregory Bateson and Information Operations

Losing the War of Ideas

Bringing Culture Back into Information Operations


  1. Tom Harrisson and Unconventional Warfare

Unconventional Warfare

Local Knowledge

Acculturation and Assimilation

Adapting to the Indigenous Way of War


  1. John Useem and Governance Operations

Military Government

The Complexities of Governance


  1. Jomo Kenyatta, Louis Leakey and the Counter-Insurgency System

Fantasy Ideology of Empire

Asymmetry of Cultural Knowledge

The Value of Cultural Knowledge


  1. Don Marshall and the Strategic Objective

Fuzzy End States

The Complexities of War and Social Change


 Conclusion: David Prescott Barrows and the Military Execution of Foreign Policy

Way of War Problem

Exporting Western Models

Self-Defeating Praxis

Social Theory Problem

Errors of Perception

Adaptation (And Its Limits)

Epistemology Problem









Montgomery McFate is Professor at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Formerly, she was the Senior Social Scientist for the US Army’s Human Terrain System. McFate holds a PhD in Anthropology from Yale University, and a JD from Harvard Law School.  She is the co-editor of Social Science Goes to War (2015).

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