Military Anthropology

Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire

April 2018 9781849048125 352pp
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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









‘A fascinating and pioneering study.’ — Asian Affairs

‘Never before has cultural awareness mattered so much to military operations. By exploring the extraordinary lives and experiences of a remarkable bunch of characters, Montgomery McFate demonstrates the importance of military anthropology to the study and conduct of war. This is a most enlightening volume.’ — Theo Farrell, Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, City, University of London, author of Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan

‘Montgomery McFate has written a dense but fascinating book that examines the role of anthropologists in warfare, focusing on the importance of understanding culture to achieve success in counterinsurgency, unconventional warfare, and information operations. Invaluable to strategic practitioners in a world that promises continuing American engagement in small wars.’ — John Nagl, US Army Lieutenant Colonel (Retired), Headmaster of The Haverford School, and author of Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War

Military Anthropology, at once scholarly and a real page turner, is the starting point for a desperately needed debate: to what extent should old cultures be protected against modernity? Should societies have the right to continue practices clashing with universal human rights? An urgent and riveting book you will not be able to put down.’ — Beatrice Heuser, Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading

‘A long overdue study of a critical yet often overlooked dimension of strategy and war. McFate puts her finger on why the military and academia find it so difficult to trust each other, and why both must find a way to do so.’ — Antulio J. Echevarria II, Editor, Parameters, US Army War College


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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