As a middle-schooler, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I was always digging holes in the backyard, hoping to find the long-lost trinkets of the people who lived in this suburban subdivision before me. Maybe it was fate, then, that I attended Beloit College, the alma mater of Roy Chapman Andrews (class of 1906), the worldly adventurer-academic on whom the Jones character was reportedly based.
I worked at the college's Logan Museum of Anthropology and also for my favorite anthropology professor as a sort of clerical assistant/librarian. Although I wasn't an anthropology major, these jobs afforded me a lot of time in the museum, including the basement, where the drawers and shelves are bursting with what was once the largest collection of anthropological artifacts in the United States.
My interest in this stuff hasn't waned, so although I was briefly distracted by the latest hairpin turn in the Senator Craig story Friday morning, I did find something more meaningful on the cover of the New York Times: "Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones."
Turns out the Pentagon has developed a "Human Terrain Team" for all 26 combat brigades active in Iraq and Afghanistan. The "human terrain" is Rambo-speak for what the rest of us might call local culture and the societal structures that hold it up. Important structures like intertribal relationships and gender power balances and opium markets.
Turns out that when you put some anthropologists on the ground who can figure out who's angry at whom and why, you can do a better job of keeping those angry people from becoming suicide bombers.
One example from the Times article is an anthropologist who did some basic demographic research on an Afghani village that was producing more than its fair share of violent young men. She discovered that the village had an unusually large number of widows, whose collective penury was making the financial enlistment incentives offered by the Taliban pretty attractive to the sons charged with supporting their elders. On the anthropologist's advice, the military created a job program for these widows.
One of the colonels working with her in Afghanistan said, "We're looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist's perspective. We're not focused on the enemy. We're focused on bringing governance down to the people." Another colonel told the Times, "Call it what you want, it works. It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms."
I wish our government's "war on terror" had started out with anthropology. Maybe if our leaders hadn't decided to shoot first, ask questions later, there wouldn't be so many people slaughtered and maimed. Maybe if we had taken the colonels' advice and looked at terrorism from a human perspective and tried to define the problems rather than just shooting at the symptoms, our kids wouldn't be mired in the muck overseas.
(By the way, Beloit produces more students who go on to earn anthropology PhDs than any other four-year liberal arts college in the nation. Check it out at www.Beloit.edu.)
Jennifer Morales is an elected member of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, the first person of Latino descent to hold that position. She was first elected in 2001 and was unopposed for re-election in 2005. In 2004, she ran for a seat in the Wisconsin state senate, earning 43% of the vote against a 12-year incumbent.
Previously, she served as the editorial assistant at the educational journal Rethinking Schools; as assistant director of two education policy research centers at UW-Milwaukee; and as the development director for 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
She became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college, earning a B.A. in Modern Languages and Literatures from Beloit College in 1991.
In addition to her work on the school board, she is a freelance editorial consultant and a mother.