On Point: War and Peace With Cultural Anthropologists

by Austin Bay
October 3, 2007

On a trip to Kenya in 2002, I picked up a copy of a handbook titled "Inside Sudan: The Story of People to People Peacemaking in Southern Sudan." In the introduction, its authors wrote, "The story in this book aims at capturing and portraying the essence of peacemaking."

Published by the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), a Christian organization, the handbook chronicled peacemaking efforts by southern Sudanese and the NSCC. At the moment, international attention centers on Iraq and Sudan's other civil war, out west in Darfur. The NSCC handbook focused on the civil war in southern Sudan, which simmers in 2007, but in 2002 raged across Sudan's southern tier.

The fight between Sudan's "Arab" Muslim north and the predominantly Christian or animist "African" south began centuries ago, but in 1983 the south Sudan civil war reignited when the Islamist government in Khartoum revoked a power-sharing agreement. Once the war started, fights erupted among neighboring tribes. Agents of the Islamist government often encouraged the chaos.

The NSCC and other organizations began a "mosaic" peacemaking strategy among warring southern tribes. When appropriate, the NSCC used tribal peacemaking and reconciliation rituals to coax leaders into negotiating or help amenable leaders draw antagonized members of their tribe into the peace process. The ceremonial killing of a bull before a reconciliation forum where tribesmen share bitter examples of suffering is a compelling anecdote described in the handbook.

Efforts like the NSCC's helped make Sudan's 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement a reality. A number of southern Sudanese leaders advocate a similar approach in Darfur.

The NSCC strategy is an example of using "cultural contexts" or "cultural anthropological approaches" to achieve a political goal: ending a thicket of small wars with the ultimate goal of ending a large one.

It also illustrates that a savvy understanding of local cultural traditions is not a new tool in the politics of war and peace.

Of course, the U.S. Department of Defense has turned common sense into stilted jargon. Terms like "human terrain" are cropping up in Pentagon briefings. "Human Terrain Teams" provide social science support for military operations.

It may have cause in this case. Calling team members anthropologists supporting State and Defense (which is what they are) would antagonize the hard-left denizens of university social science schools -- the only group whose professional jargon is more stilted and obscure than the Pentagon's.

The driving force behind renewed U.S. interest in "cultural contexts" is obviously the War on Terror, which has taken U.S. soldiers and diplomats into some very culturally complicated corners of the planet. This interest is another indicator that the War on Terror is moving to a stage where it is less of a shooting war and more a vast "peace enforcement" operation, but that's a subject for another column.

Applying cultural common sense isn't new. A SEAL commander I met at CENTCOM in October 2001 told me that U.S. special operations teams that had just arrived in Afghanistan were "sipping a lot of tea." He meant they were engaged in negotiations with Afghan tribal leaders, and the greeting and tea ceremonies played a major role in framing the discussions. Cultural awareness is key to U.S. Army Special Forces operations. The U.S. Marine Corps' classic "Small Wars Manual" notes the importance of cultural contexts.

The military may risk "overcompensating" for a lack of "cultural awareness" in corners of the Department of Defense, however. Patrick Porter of the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom recently essayed "the cultural turn in studying war" in the U.S. Army War College's Parameters Magazine.

Porter actually focuses on using deterministic cultural explanations to shed light on very complex historical and social events. He's doubtful of academic generalizations like "Occidental versus Oriental warfare."

Hard, rational assessment often guides actions, not culture. He points out WWII's French resistance avoided pitched battles, as does today's Hezbollah.

Porter notes that "the U.S. Army's new counter-insurgency manual mentions' culture' 88 times and 'cultural' 90 times in 282 pages."

Well and good. Culturally informed diplomacy by the U.S. military helped persuade Sunni tribes in Iraq's Anbar province to turn against Al-Qaida -- but they helped, as part of a multi-pronged political approach, just like the NSCC's effort helped stabilize south Sudan. Porter warns against "seeing culture as the new magic bullet." And he's right.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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