Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Montgomery McFate's "Military Anthropology"

Montgomery ‘Mitzy’ McFate is a cultural anthropologist who works on defense and national security issues. Currently, she is a professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

McFate applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Military Anthropology: Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire, and reported the following:
Military Anthropology highlights the experience and thoughts of nine anthropologists who worked directly for the military, beginning with the British colonial era and ending with the Vietnam War.

Page 99 of my book is from the chapter about Ursula Graham Bower and military leadership. Ursula Graham Bower was a British debutante who became an anthropologist and lived among the Naga tribe on the India/Burma border. Although the Naga were patriarchal (with women having limited rights, playing no part in public life, and having taboos associated with them), Ursula Graham Bower recruited, armed, trained, and led them against the Japanese in combat. She was the only woman to have a de facto combat command in the British Army during WWII. How did she do that?
Both the purpose and the context of military leadership in extremis distinguish this form of leadership from other types. While the characteristics of military leaders in combat leave room for disagreement, it seems clear that military leadership, especially in times of crisis, tends to be of the transformative rather than transactional variety. The purpose of both the Naga and the British military effort was almost identical – defense against the Japanese threat. The overall context was quite similar – leadership in extremis. What was remarkably different was the culture of Naga warriors and British soldiers – cultural context. If we accept the proposition that “leadership itself is embedded in its context” and that “one cannot separate the leader(s) from the context any more than one can separate a flavor from a food,” then how do we explain Ursula Graham Bower’s effectiveness as a leader in two vastly different cultural contexts?
Page 99 sets up the argument that leadership is culturally dependent. Although the Naga leadership system was collective, hereditary and male, Ursula Graham Bower was able to become a member of the social collective, establish individual bonds of trust (rather than positional authority) and use the clan system to organize her military units. As this case shows, the cultural context of leadership sometimes trumps the preferred attributes of leadership.

Page 99 is not particularly representative of the book as a whole, since each chapter stands alone and focuses on a different anthropologist.

Some overarching themes do emerge from the book as a whole: The first challenge is that the increasing complexity of war -- combined with the increased flow of information about the complexity of war as it is being fought -- results in a strong need to simplify reality in order to manage time and tasks. This is the complexity problem. The simplification of reality through heuristics such as models, taxonomies, categories and frames enables the military to execute its kinetic missions but also limits understanding of human beings. This is the epistemology problem. Even when military personnel seek to understand their adversaries and the host nation population, they often discover that the culture of their own organizations creates barriers to understanding. This is the way of war problem. In attempting to use social science downrange, the military encounters another barrier; namely, the models, theories and concepts of how a society actually works do not exist in the required form. This is the social theory problem. Now the real trouble begins – actually implementing US foreign policy at the point of a gun. This is the thorniest problem of all: the military implementation of foreign policy.
Visit Montgomery McFate's website.

--Marshal Zeringue