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Sociological Skills Used in the Capture of Saddam Hussein

by Victoria Hougham, Academic and Professional Affairs

“It is apparent that a requirement on today’s battlefield is to make an assessment of the political and social architecture of the operating environment. To successfully accomplish this requires more than a reading of field manuals, but also an understanding of the local culture, political history, and the basics of managing a successful government. It is my belief that an understanding of the basics of sociological concepts – for example, justice and balance theory, exchange theory, and social networks – could potentially serve as a combat multiplier and therefore be the difference between success and failure.”
                                         -Major Brian J. Reed

For a number of years, Maj. Brian J. Reed, a graduate of West Point Military Academy, currently a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland-College Park and a part of the University of Maryland’s Center for Research on Military Organization (CRMO), advocates sociological training for all military officers.

In a 2001 article, Maj. Scott Efflandt and Reed argue, “For those leaders at the tip of the spear, an academic grounding in sociology may be the most efficient and useful collegiate specialization. Junior military officers who execute the Army’s core function would benefit from an increased understanding of social sciences, sociological concepts in particular.” They believe that with sociological grounding, “[Officers’] decisions and actions on future battlefields reflect deliberate thought and understanding of larger social and political relationships.”

Reed follows distinguished sociologists who have previously advocated for sociological training. Morris Janowitz, in The Professional Soldier, in 1971, discussed at great length how the modern military is served well by managers and leaders with “realistic” educations about the complexities of modernity.

Operation Red Dawn

Reed, stationed in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004, was instrumental in planning the capture of Saddam Hussein. As the Operations Officer for his Brigade, Reed was the primary planner for Operation Red Dawn, the military operation that resulted in apprehending Hussein. He reports using a layered social network analysis to locate Hussein prior to his capture. “The intelligence background and link diagrams that we built were rooted in the concepts of network analysis. We constructed an elaborate product that traced the tribal and family linkages of Saddam Hussein thereby allowing us to focus on certain individuals who may have had (or presently had) close ties to [him],” said Reed.

While the capture of Hussein was widely covered in the U.S. mass media, most commentators were unaware of the sophisticated methodologies used to prepare the Brigade’s assault tactics. However, some social network theorists, in hotly debated online discussions, have expressed discomfort with the idea of these methodologies being used in such pragmatic ways. Reed counters that these methods are extensions of widely used and non-controversial strategies of mapping one’s opponents.

Sociological Imagination

According to Reed, by applying basic sociological principles he and other military personnel were better able to understand the Iraqi culture.

“Junior officers should apply sociological imagination to see an operation’s larger social operating network and respond appropriately to their missions,” (Efflandt and Reed 2001). Reed recalls how his sociological training helped him become more culturally aware of Iraqi customs, with important practical implications.

“We began by establishing a joint operation with our military police and the Iraqi National Police (INP) in Tikrit— that is, joint police desk operations, joint patrols, joint fixed site security, etc. Our military police were accustomed to a more systematic operation defined by scheduled patrols and shifts (day and night), checks and balances for the apprehension and detention of criminals, and standardized procedures for day-to-day operations. However, this was not the Iraqi style. In a culture defined by prayer calls, “tea” breaks, and a slower approach to doing things, our military police struggled with instilling in the INP a sense of urgency and some of the more standardized systems that we, as Americans, find useful and successful.”

Military sociologist Charles Moskos, Northwestern University, concurs. “There is no question that American troops need more familiarity with the local cultures.…The current handbooks on the local cultures are heavy on weapons and light on social insight.”

Reed said that in the same way various armed services develop new weapons, ships, and other technologies, he and others in the military are committed to finding increasingly sophisticated ways of understanding the social struc- tures and cultures of those they are tasked to fight.

Despite the compelling case made by Reed and Moskos for the value of military sociology, over the last 10 years, the percentage of sociologists in the military has remained relatively constant at less than one and a half percent. Additionally, there are probably fewer than 50 people in all services with graduate training in sociology.

Fortunately, next year, military sociology courses will be taught at West Point, the Air Force Academy, and for the first time, the Naval Academy. Additionally, this year the CRMO was awarded $1.1 million by the Army Research Institute for research on “Social Structure, Social Systems, and Social Networks.” University of Maryland military sociologist and CRMO director David R. Segal estimates that the international community of military sociologists actively engaged in the research process numbers between 600 and 700, with the field supporting two specialized journals.

With this increased attention, funding, and commitment to social science research from the U.S. military, and the growing international field of military sociology, sociologists, like Reed, may see increased sociological training for military officers, and increased usage of sociological theories and skills in military operations.


Efflandt, Scott and Brian Reed. 2001. “Developing the Warrior-Scholar” Military Review. July-August:82-89.

Janowitz, Morris. 1971. The Professional Soldier. New York, NY: The Free Press.

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