In 2006, after years of battling insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military began to develop a new tool it hoped would turn the tide. The Pentagon had already spent billions on gadgets, mine-detectors, and armored humvees. This new tool would be relatively cheap. It had a fancy name: the Human Terrain System. But the concept was simple. More than machines, the military decided that it needed people — social scientists, to be exact — to help US soldiers understand the bewildering behavior of Iraqis and Afghans.
Grasping the customs and structure of a tribe helps soldiers avoid the dire consequences of offending a leader of thousands. Knowing that celebratory gunfire is a tradition at weddings can ensure that US soldiers don’t make the tragic mistake of shooting back.