Article — From the September 2008 issue

Human Quicksand

For the U.S. Army, a Crash Course in Cultural Studies

( 3 of 10 )

When the team first arrived at Salerno, no one understood what an HTT was, much less what it did. They were hastily installed in the brigade’s intelligence section, where their talents were wasted in “the myopic role of an intel analyst,” Colonel Martin Schweitzer, the brigade’s commanding officer, admitted later. Eventually they got their own office near the psyop desk. They had no immediate responsibilities, so they improvised and began building a rapport with the hundreds of local Afghan workers on base who did everything from interpreting to picking up trash. They jump- started reconstruction of the base mosque, which had fallen into disrepair. On one occasion, they consulted with psyop on a media campaign to discourage Afghans from becoming suicide bombers. HTT helped pinpoint the most effective medium (radio), target demographic (fifteen- to thirty-year-old men), time slot (after dark, since most Afghan men work in the fields during the day), and even specific tastes (“they love drama”). The team polled mullahs in order to craft the message for maximum impact and enlisted some of them to do the voice-overs, because non-Muslims cannot quote the Koran. And they advised psyop to drop the part of the campaign that involved handing out copies of the Koran and prayer books.

“You can’t even touch the Koran if you’re not Muslim!” Tracy said, shaking her head in amazement. “It could’ve been a marketing disaster.”

Steve Featherstone’s last article for Harper’s Magazine , “The Coming Robot Army,” appeared in the February 2007 issue.

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