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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Farah Stockman

Is social science our silver bullet around the world?

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.

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