Classic Readings in Cultural Anthropology

Anthropology and Counterinsurgency

The modern anthropology reveals consistent changes in the development of counterinsurgency in the military context. In fact, the development of the modern society changes consistently the relationships between people and these changes affect not only cultural or political life of the society but also other aspects of the social life. In such a context, the military become vulnerable to the impact of cultural changes to the extent that the modern counterinsurgency should take into consideration not only the military aspects but also cultural ones.

In actuality, the knowledge of one’s enemy and his culture and society may be more important than knowledge of his order of battle. In such a situation, the counterinsurgency should focus not only on the analysis of the military capacity of potential enemies but also on their culture and traditions. The understanding of the enemy culture may be a key toward the success of the counterinsurgency. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the experience of the US in the war in Iraq.

In fact, since the end of the “hot” phase of the war, coalition forces have been fighting a complex war against an enemy they do not understand. The insurgents’ organizational structure is not military, but tribal. Their tactics are not conventional, but asymmetrical. Their weapons are not tanks and fighter planes, but improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They do not abide by the Geneva Conventions, nor do they appear to have any informal rules of engagement. In such a way, Americans have come unprepared to the strategy and tactics used by their enemies because they have a totally different mentality and culture. Therefore, cultural gaps between American soldiers and the local guerillas have proved to be crucial in the failure of the US to maintain peace in Iraq. Obviously, countering the insurgency in Iraq requires cultural and social knowledge of the adversary. Otherwise, the US will be unable to appease the country and the problem and internal conflicts in Iraq will persist.

At the same time, the example of the US counterinsurgency in Iraq reveals the full extent to which cultural knowledge and anthropological studies are important in the modern world. Counterinsurgency cannot be successful if the enemy’s culture remains a sort of terra incognita. Basically, the cultural studies can help to understand better insurgency and to develop effective counter measures to stop or minimize negative effects of the insurgency. On the other hand, the lack of knowledge of culture of the enemy leads to the failure of the military operations.



Ferraro, G.P. (2008). Classical Readings in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Wordsworth Publishing.