Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Montgomery McFate's "Military Anthropology"

Montgomery McFate is a cultural anthropologist who works on defense and national security issues. Currently, she is a professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Here McFate dreamcasts a film (or two) that might be adapted from her latest book, Military Anthropology: Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire:
Military Anthropology has 9 chapters, each of which tells the story of an anthropologist in uniform who did something amazing, from the era of British colonialism in Africa all the way to the Vietnam War.

One of the chapters concerns Tom Harrisson, a British OSS officer who “went native” with a group of headhunting Kelabit tribe in Borneo during WWII. Harrisson was an iconoclastic military genius: he was ordered to build an intelligence network in Borneo, but instead built an army of barefoot warriors, armed with guns, spears, and blowpipes who eventually killed or captured over 1,500 Japanese with only eleven casualties. This was arguably one of the most successful unconventional warfare operations in history, yet it is almost entirely forgotten by both the military and anthropologists.

Harrisson was successful because he adopted the Kelabit mode of jungle stealth for hunting Japanese. He forced his men to go barefoot in Borneo so that their foot prints could not be identified by the Japanese. He forced his unit to eat the same food as the Kelabit, and live in their compounds. Harrisson also took one of the last surrenders of WWII. After the Armistice, a Japanese unit of 350 men was still marching through the Borneo jungle, unaware that the war had ended. Harrisson assembled a makeshift force, and set off into the jungle. After a two day battle, on the last day of October 1945, the Japanese commander handed Harrisson his sword.

Harrisson’s experiences in Borneo were the basis for Farewell to the King (1989), a terrible film. This time around, instead of a bare-chested Nick Nolte, the star should be Matt Damon or Hugh Jackman or Christian Bale. The leading man needs to be arrogant, charismatic and brilliant.

Another chapter from my book would also make a great movie. In 1937, a young British debutante named Ursula Graham Bower travelled to India. Her mother hoped that Ursula would meet a nice husband. But instead she hiked into the hills and encountered the Naga, a group of tribal headhunters. The Naga accepted her into their community and some even worshipped her as a goddess, believing that she was the reincarnation of the prophetess.

In 1942, it was clear that the Japanese were going to plow through Naga territory on their way to India. Ursula Graham Bower recruited, trained and organized the Naga to fight against the Japanese. She was the only woman to have a de facto combat command in the British Army during World War II. Bower’s Naga warriors were so effective that the Japanese – ironically – offered a bounty to the Naga of 100 rupees to bring in Bower’s head. American pilots nicknamed her the Jungle Queen and a comic was devoted to her exploits. Two BBC Radio 4 plays, The Naga Queen by John Horsley Denton and The Butterfly Hunt by Mathew Solon were based on her life, and that of her husband Tim Betts. In recognition of her bravery, although she never had an official military title or rank, she was honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire and awarded the Lawrence of Arabia medal.

Ursula Graham Bower was fearless, independent, beautiful, brilliant and only 34 when she led the Naga in combat. Actresses with the grit and beauty to play her would be Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence, or Kate Winslet.
Visit Montgomery McFate's website.

--Marshal Zeringue