Considering the scope of cultural anthropologists’ influence within the Department of Defense (DoD)—compared to that of other social scientists—it is worth discussing whether the U.S. Military and the Intelligence Community (IC) have received an adequate return on their investment.  I believe that DoD’s high expectations from cultural anthropologists, followed by large financial investments into different programs and frameworks, have fallen far short of their intended contribution.

Among the myriad reasons for underperformance, those related to the professional relationship between anthropologists and geographers merit elaboration.  They shed a light on why cultural anthropologists often display contempt for geographers—when their work and products are simultaneously evaluated by a DoD customer—in a combat zone and beyond.

  • Conceptual and methodological limitations in regard to military planning and operations
  • Hurdles in comprehending and applying concepts of scale, distance, and cultural region beyond the superficial
  • Reluctance to accept and acknowledge the existence and significance of the issues noted in first two bullets (to the detriment of their DoD customers)
  • Preventing others from questioning their rate of success with challenging methods that may produce better results for DoD customers


Military planning and operation in a combat zone requires the bar to be set very high, because—unlike in academia, for example—the stakes are also very high.  An important aspect in that context is a requirement for rapid research, analysis, and delivery of products under stressful and challenging conditions.  The DoD customer sets timelines and requirements for product delivery and a civilian subject matter expert (SME) must adjust to it, rather than vice versa.  SME’s product delivery must be timely and timeless to be useful, while the products must illustrate the author’s understanding of the operational environment.

A struggle to fully relate to the big picture of an operational environment—how everything fits in together (spatial connections between places and conditions within places)—has been a big problem for cultural anthropologists.  One of the vital factors in this struggle is the type of reasoning involved; a great many anthropologists employ inductive rather than deductive reasoning in research and analysis.  Inductive reasoning, however, is a less effective approach in holistically studying and comprehending an operational environment than is deductive reasoning.

Good geographers, on the other hand, approach research differently, as I noted in The Flagellants and the Black Death: Intelligence Community’s Zeal for Human Geography

“What separates geographers, a small group within the Intelligence Community (IC), and their tradecraft from others is how they study and analyze topics and regions, not what they study. The effectiveness of a skilled geographer correlates with his/her ability to analyze and articulate distributions, patterns, and interactions as they pertain to earth’s human and physical features. To achieve that and be most efficient in support of his/her customer, a geographer must employ deductive analytical reasoning (top-down logic).

A geographer with such ability can substantially lift the quality of analysis and production line for an entire organization. He/she breaks down a spatial system (region) into small interrelated pieces and illustrates their relevance to each other and to the system as a whole.

Yet, the IC has continuously emphasized human geography as a content discipline; i.e., the one that requires inductive analytical reasoning (bottom-up logic), an exercise in putting pieces together into a whole, then trying to figure out what the whole means. This is a counterproductive approach which, ultimately, produces results equal to those of the medieval Flagellants’ fight against the spread of bubonic plague—a belief of accomplishments overcomes the reality, hence an illusion becomes a reality in the Flagellants’ minds.”

Intellectual limitations are like physical limitations—you do not have one unless you compare yourself to someone else in an identical environmental condition.  For whatever reason, people who employ deductive reasoning are much more capable of identifying the most complex issues, often including those that a customer has not even realized existed.

[This ability tends to eventually generate a considerable amount of resentment in a work environment from those colleagues who cannot do it.]

As military commanders increasingly begin to see the value of geographers’ analytical approach, the geographers’ status within office begins to rise.  As a result, professional resentment from their co-workers gradually evolves into professional contempt.  Such behavior can be observed in many DoD’s offices, corridors, and B Huts (barracks) where cultural anthropologists and geographers share the work environment.

Hurdles in Comprehending and Applying Concepts

Inductive versus deductive analysis pertaining to an area of operation are not mutually exclusive.  They complement each other in a specific order.  Inductive analysis is very good after deductive analysis, but not before it.  Let us relate this statement to several geographic concepts and how they matter to military operations.

The highest form of a geographer’s art is his/her understanding of regions, to paraphrase geographer John Fraser Hart.  Regions are physical and cultural spatial systems composed of integrating components, as identified and defined by geographers for the purpose of organizing and analyzing data in a spatial context.

In the military operational context, regions are depicted with Area of Responsibility or an Area of Operation; they are both spatial systems.  What a geographer studies then, his bread and butter so to speak, is exactly what the military studies and needs—a holistic understanding of regions!  The key word here is holistic.  It requires a firm grasp on understanding cultural and natural landscapes, not just one side.

Figure 1. An example of the scope of a holistic geographic approach to the study of regions (Courtesy of C.F. Gritzner).  Ignoring either side is a recipe for research and analysis that could otherwise be much more effective.

Regions cannot be understood without a firm grasp on and use of two essential geographic concepts:  geographic scale and distance.  Both concepts are only superficially used by the cultural anthropologists.  Many of them have serious difficulties even comprehending them and their value and use.

Geographers, on the other hand, are aware of a commander’s needs and are able to identify and illustrate (with series of maps, of different geographic scale of course) the issues and options and work toward their resolution. They can describe the complexity of the system first (deduction) and how the small pieces fit into the larger framework (induction).  A geographer and a military commander, planner and operator, are a natural fit (See Appendix).

[I have done it in a combat zone many times in briefs to officers, including generals.  The results, regardless of rank and status, were always the same—they asked for more. Some of my experience and a more detailed elaboration on this topic of regions, scale, and distance can be read in my book Photographic Memory of Kabul City: a Deployed Geographer’s Perspective.]

Figure 2. A Kuchi shepherd—cultural anthropologists’ beloved study topic—roaming with his sheep through Afghanistan’s landscape.  Compare this with the following figure and evaluate how the concepts of geographic scale, distance, and deductive reasoning could pertain to military planning and operation. (All photographs were taken by the author.)

Figure 3. The previous figure is not only a cropped version of this photo, but also enlarged.

If a photograph is only cropped, the scale is not changed. But if a cropped version is also resized geographic scale automatically changes.  In this instance Figure 2 was enlarged after cropping; smaller area equals larger geographic scale.  The larger area in Figure 3 equals smaller geographic scale (it works the same with maps, which are a civilian geographer’s and a warfighter’s essential tool).  This is why it is so important to study specific phenomena by changing the scale (of analysis).  What could a military planner or operator learn about an area of operation from Figure 1 if that was the only available photograph of that area?

[Note: When users of Google Maps zoom in and out, for example, they are enlarging or reducing details in a visible area.  But what they are actually doing is changing the geographic scale, which the computer software is doing automatically for them and is evident by change in the scale bar located in the lower right corner.]

Also, could physical geography—and human adaptation to the natural environment—play any role in military decision-making process in this valley?  Imagine how this landscape could look after torrential rains or during a harsh winter?

Geography is a methodology.  But geographers also have expertise on content areas, in the case of cultural geographers, cultural anthropology.  Whereas the cultural anthropologist basically applies his/her knowledge to aspects of culture per se, the geographer relates culture to other aspects of environment.

Inflexibility to Accept and Acknowledge the Issues       

Belief that they “own culture” has been a major cause of inflexibility among the DoD-supporting cultural anthropologists.  It revolves around an idea that an anthropologist is an ultimate authority on all things cultural, and that he/she sets the standard for what in fact encompasses “all things cultural.”

This monopolistic tendency holds serious significance in the development of research and educational frameworks for pre-deployment training, instructions at educational institutions, and in an applied form in war zones.  It tries to establish that all cultural research and analysis is controlled by one disciplinary group.

Military, however, cannot separate humans from their environment, particularly not in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.  Similarly, for peacetime operations such as providing aid after natural disasters it is incredibly important to understand the conditions of human adaptation to a local natural environment.  Yet, I have still to meet a cultural anthropologist who can discuss (other than superficially) geomorphology, geology, climatology, hydrology, or any aspect of physical geography that is so crucial to military planning and operations.

Should the readers consult books on the topic of operational culture written by cultural anthropologists—which numerous classes of officers and enlisted personnel have utilized in classrooms—they can instantly notice their casual manner in coverage of the physical environment.  It is almost as if the authors would prefer to exclude this topic altogether.  It is not a surprising attitude at all and is a reflection of the belief that the physical environment is what geographers should do; something that is removed from an operational environment’s cultural aspect.  In simple words, “You geographers go study rocks and leave culture to us,” (as if humans and their actions are somehow separable from their natural environment).  Sadly, it all comes down to protection of their turf by claiming intellectual monopoly and trying to marginalize others.

Figure 4. Geographers may study rocks, mountains, and rivers, but as this and Figure 5 below illustrate, changes in physical geography are essential for military planning and operations (just ask many servicepersons who nearly drowned crossing rivers in a combat zone as a result of inadequate planning).

Figure 5.  Same location as depicted in Figure 4.

Figure 6. Northern Afghanistan or northern New Mexico, regardless, cultural interaction can rapidly change overnight based on weather conditions, thereby influencing military operations.

Figure 7. The same location as in Figure 6, less than 24 hours later.

Preventing Challenges

Unwillingness to accept their own disciplinary limitations, and inflexibility in addressing these issues despite the need for it, leads to professional underperformance.  Meanwhile, it becomes imperative in this process to prevent perceived challenges from others whose methods and approaches may produce better results for a DoD customer.  Such actions are common.  They stem from the fear of becoming irrelevant; this type of fear can be an amazing driving force in destructive terms.

Anyone who has ever worked in corporate, academic, military, or a civilian governmental institution is aware of how the fear of becoming irrelevant works.  Rarely do these issues have a positive outcome, because people do not like to be relegated to perceived irrelevance despite their (under)performance.  Rather, they try to marginalize others and trivialize their work by showing contempt for what others can bring to the table, as described above.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Yes we can.  Disciplines of anthropology and geography have been intertwined since the nineteenth century.  The widely acknowledged Father of American cultural anthropology, Franz Boas, for example, was a geographer by education and profession, but found his university employment in the United States as an anthropologist.  Both disciplines are complementary to each other—anthropology with content and geography with method—and are necessary for the DoD’s vision and goals.  The key in this relationship, however, is to understand and not overstep intellectual boundaries and scientific limitations.

Geography is a science that fills exactly those knowledge gaps that anthropology does not cover.  Anthropologists are subject matter experts on the content of the inner workings of culture, whereas geographers specialize in a spatial analytical method in studying manifestations of culture.  If they worked in a kitchen together anthropologists would study how a cake is made, while the geographers would study where it was served and consumed.

After September 11, 2001, when the Department of Defense’s demands for social science research and analysis drastically increased, cultural anthropologists have not only studied a cake, but controlled its distribution and consumption.  It was in the latter two areas that they failed to recognize their limitations, thus over-reached their abilities, thereby ultimately wasting tax payers’ money and costing DoD energy and time.


Among the most beneficial aspects of support a geographer can provide to military planning and operation is in the area of education.  In that regard, teaching about analogous spatial conditions (within places) and connections (between places) in regions otherwise far from each other can be exceptionally useful.  Students who are otherwise unfamiliar with a region (of their future deployment) can utilize previous experience in order to build upon an understanding how to easier operate in similar conditions.  They can much better understand cultural geographic patterns, distributions, and interactions in human behavior then they otherwise would.

Let me illustrate with following examples of my support to the U.S. Marine Corps on two different occasions.  The overall purpose was similar—cooperation and training between the United States’ and Georgia’s militaries in Georgia.

In the first instance, I was invited to give a brief on operational culture of Georgia to a group of officers and NCOs preparing to deploy to Georgia as a part of the Black Sea Rotational Force (BSRF).  None of the attendees had ever been to the Caucasus area.  Unfamiliarity with a place (spatial conditions) and between that and other places (spatial connections) is a great challenge in terms of grasping its complexity.

Yet some of these Marines, including their commander, had previously been deployed to Afghanistan and in areas that in many aspects quite resembled the Caucasus.  The similarities were not only in physical geographic terms, but in terms of ethnic population distribution and interaction, human adaptation to the natural environment, and many other relevant topics.  The brief evolved into three-day seminar of learning about the Caucasus region by building upon experience they acquired in Afghanistan.

First, I used a series of maps and other products, which I created in Afghanistan for the U.S. Military and its coalition partners that focused on a range of related topics.  The maps would depict identical areas, but at a different geographic scale, providing the Marines with a better understanding how changes in conditions and connections could radically alter their decision-making and work in an area of operation, alone or together with their Georgian partners.  In short, using Afghanistan to explain the geography of Georgia including its culture worked rather well, much better than if I tried to go from an entirely clean slate.  Marines were able to use their experience and apply spatial associations in the process of learning, thereby making it more effective.  During the entire process we first employed deductive reasoning in the analysis of the two regions, and then followed by adding inductive building blocks for specific topics.

Around the same time I designed a product for the purpose of BSRF units’ pre-deployment training and education, which could serve as a valuable instructional tool and a point of departure into the exploration of Georgia.  It was a large poster suitable for classroom use (being able to hold a map or poster is much more useful to anyone, not just a Marine, instead of looking at it on a computer screen).  The product covered important aspects of cultural landscape (conditions), elementary maps depicting physical geography (conditions and connections), ethnic and overall population distribution (conditions and connections), transportation and infrastructure (connections), and an analytical narrative targeting the specific customers’ needs pertaining to their mission (it is important to contextualize all the information displayed).

Figure 8. Cultural Geography of Georgia product I designed for the U.S. Marine Corps.  Together with other products I utilized for their training and education, this became a rather valuable instructional tool.

[The ability to contextualize cultural and spatial information for a military person’s mission is what separates geographers from others and eventually leads to the above-mentioned resentment and contempt.  I have used the same products to brief a Second Lieutenant working in an intelligence unit on our base (focus was on tactical matters) and an executive in charge of the intelligence for an entire COCOM (focus on strategic matters); the only difference was in my need to change the scale in order to articulate it for my customer’s needs.]

In the second instance, I was invited to give a brief on cultural geography of Georgia at the U.S. Marine Corps Small Wars Center and Irregular Warfare Integration Division (SWCIWID).  The overall scope of the project was cooperation between the U.S. and Georgian militaries for purpose of training and education.  The American side was creating lesson plans and scenarios and they needed suggestions in how to proceed in a most useful way.

Various issues at the time prevented the USMC instructors from designing instructions that would use real conditions in Georgia, which was a very significant obstacle.  Imagine trying to train, for example, for counterterrorism operation in your own country, yet for whatever reason instructions and scenarios prepared cannot include your own country.

Fortunately for the whole project, the Georgian military has been heavily involved in Afghanistan and its soldiers were well acquainted with the region’s cultural geography.  I explained in detail how the Georgians and the Americans can study Georgia by studying Afghanistan and provided a number of examples; i.e., hypothetical scenarios in Afghanistan can be quite applicable to the Caucasus, hence the Georgians would be able to relate to it.  I have no doubt it worked, as it did for the American operators working with them.  As I explained above, it is much easier to relate to the one’s real-world experience than to create scenarios out of thin air.

Anthropologists’ Contempt for Geographers in a Combat Zone and Beyond