08 August 2011

Anthropology’s Military Shadow, by David H. Price

Just as it was becoming passe to remark on anthropology’s status as colonialism’s wanton stepchild, George Bush’s Terror War rediscovered old militarized uses for culture, and invigorated new modernist dreams of harnessing anthropology and culture for the domination of others. Because I began in the early 1990s using the Freedom of Information Act, interviews, and archival research to document American anthropologists’ interactions with military and intelligence agencies, by the time the post-9/11 push by the Pentagon and CIA to again use anthropological knowledge as tools for intelligence, warfare and counterinsurgency, I had a decent head start on documenting and thinking about some of this history. By the time America got its terror war on, I had already documented the details of how this worked in the past, and had thought about the core of the ethical, political and theoretical fundamentals of a critical approach to questions relating to the weaponization of anthropology.

But beyond my work on the ways that McCarthyism limited critical political debates in the 1950s, this head start offered little preparation for the wave of American jingoistic support for all things military and CIA as the nation willfully forgot the CIA’s past involvement in torture, illegal arms deals, assassinations, undermining foreign democratic movements not to its liking, and embraced new forms of militarization as if this past had nothing to do with the rise of anti-American militarism around the globe.

Today’s weaponization of anthropology and other social sciences has been a long time coming, and post-9/11 America’s climate of fear coupled with reductions in traditional academic funding provided the conditions of a sort of perfect storm for the militarization of the discipline and the academy as a whole. While all societies have links between the production and use of knowledge and larger economic and political structures, in the United States, the structural desires and holes that anthropological knowledge are desired to fill have been apparent for at least the past century.

Anthropology has always been funded to ask certain types of questions, or to know certain types of things: sometimes this has meant that there were more funds available to study the languages and cultures of specific geographic regions, in other times this meant entire theoretical approaches were fundable (like the simplistic culture and personality studies of the post war period, used to study our enemies at a distance), while others (critical Marxism, ca. 1952), were not. But even while the directions taken by anthropologists were frequently steered in general directions by the selective availability of funds, this arrangement allowed for some great variations in approaches or areas of study. Bu the post-9/11 world brought new variations on these old themes where a new form of the National Security State now wanted to cherry-pick individuals early in their careers and secretly place them in departments even while they maintained secret relationships and contacts with the CIA and other agencies. As the chapters on Minerva and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Programs argue, these new initiatives are built out of a recognition that military and intelligence agencies are ill-prepared to confront the issues and problems raised first by Bush’s Terror Wars, and then Obama’s Counterinsurgency Wars. instead of freely funding social scientists to conduct research of their own choosing, the government now funds academics to think in increasingly narrow institutional ways–ways that are institutionally linked to the damaging narrow ways that the Pentagon, CIA and State already approach these problems.

As others have pointed out, while World War I was the Chemist’s War and World War II the Physicist’s War, the current wars with their heavy reliance on the cultural knowledge needed for counterinsurgency and occupation are envisioned by many Pentagon strategists as the Anthropologists Wars; yet many in Washington seemed truly surprised at the push-back from anthropologists upon news of the formation of Human Terrain Teams and other efforts to adapt anthropology for counterinsurgency and asymmetrical warfare.

As military campaigns shift away from wars between states, to wars of quick conquest and grueling endless occupations of regions identified with ethnic or “tribal” groups rather than national boundaries, the needs for anthropological knowledge and skill sets grow. The needs for on-the-ground cultural knowledge, linguistic competence, knowledge of local customs, traditional symbols and culture history loom large, but so far, the American military clearly misunderstands just how much difference cultural competence could make in hiding the nakedness of American mercenary ventures. But the military also misunderstand what elements of anthropology they can and can’t meaningfully use. Much of this confusion is exacerbated by the anthropologists who often misrepresent the discipline and its skill sets as they sell their wares to an eager military hungry for answers.

There is an inherent irony in the military’s recurrent desires to acquire and weaponize anthropology. The military does not understand that anthropology is not just a product; when practiced ethically, anthropology can be transformative. Anthropologists can come to have rich understandings not only of the people they live with but of the larger processes governing the warfare that desires to consume anthropological knowledge; and the intellectual, personal and professional loyalties of anthropologists engaged in such transformative processes therefore often tie them to the communities they study.

It is because of these inherent relationships that the military can’t easily have anthropology for counterinsurgency. I don’t mean “can’t” in some sort of defiant way–I mean that (despite a history of efforts to harness anthropology for such ends) the processes of using anthropology to subvert political movements is very unanthropological. While the military can hire people with anthropology degrees, read our work, steal it without attribution (as they did in their new COIN manual), republish our writings in classified forms, and use our methods…they can and have done all of these things: bu they are getting something less than anthropology. Given the inherent sympathies that emerge from anthropologists’ process of participant observation one of two things will happen: either these counterinsurgent-anthropologists will psychologically dissociate themselves from their betrayal of those they study for counterinsurgency–telling themselves that they are “protectors” not subvertors; or the process of ethnographic identification will lead them to redirect their own loyalties from those of their military masters to those they study. One outcome is something less than anthropology, the other something more than the military bargains for.

It’s not that we live in a universe were those who live with the “others” anthropologists study are transformed in ways that make it impossible for anthropologists to betray them or their interests (as if knowing such interests were somehow objectively clear); but it also isn’t that we live in a universe where something like this can’t happen.. Perhaps this explains why even under current conditions in which anthropology graduate students sometimes graduate with debt loads that used to be associated with Medical School, there still remains only a small handful of anthropologists who will overlook the obvious ethical and political problems of working for Human Terrain Teams. Today, out of the over four hundred Human Terrain System’s employees, less than eight have advanced anthropology degrees.

There are good logistical reasons why military commanders want the sort of cultural information that anthropologists possess about the cultures they study–but when faced with conflicting duties pitting the claimed needs of nation against professional standards of conduct, anthropologists must stand upon clearly thought-out ethical standards that clarify why the satisfaction of these needs lies beyond our disciplinary limits. These lessons were learned through anthropological experiences in past wars, but naive anthropologists striking avante-garde poses dismiss the past, acting as if their individual goodwill could overcome this history on the fly.

The chapters in this book make passing references to the history of anthropologists’ interactions with military and intelligence agencies, this is because my analysis of the contemporary expansion of military and intelligence agencies onto our campuses is deeply informed by my academic research and writings on the history of these interactions. I find extraordinary continuities of roles, status, and economic contingencies between the military and academy as many of the present efforts to use anthropology for conquest mirror specific failed efforts to use and abuse American anthropology during the Second World War and the Vietnam War with little realization of these continuities of failure. Beyond this historical background, I also draw upon my anthropological interest in studying relationships between cultural economic systems and cultural ideological systems of knowledge. Though it counters the predominant postmodern fashion of rejecting meta narrative explanations: the political economy of American academia needs to be critically examined as linked to teh dominant militarized economy that supports American society. These chapters chronicle a dramatic shift in the production of academic knowledge, as military and intelligence sectors are now impatient to receive the broad range of social science knowledge that has long served them as they now take active measures to more directly harness the production of knowledge to more exactly fit their intelligence and training needs.

This book is organized in three sections: the first section describes the ethical and political problems of anthropologists, and other social scientists’ engagements with military and intelligence agencies and accounts of recent innovations (programs like the Minerva Consortium, the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholarship Program and the Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence) designed to enmesh the military industrial state with anthropology and other social sciences. The second section critically examines a series of leaked and publicly available military documents; using these texts to understand how the new military and intelligence initiatives seek to harness social science for their own ends in current and future military missions. These leaked manuals demonstrate how the military dreams that culture can be (has been) conceived of as an identifiable and controllable commodity that can be used (to quote the 2004 Stryker Report Evaluating Iraqi Failures) as a “lever” to be used to move (enemy, occupied, resistant) populations by smart military or intelligence agencies. Missing from these manuals is any sort of understanding of the complexities of culture that fill anthropologists’ writings, these complexities are instead edited out, leaving uncomplicated heuristic narratives that create fictions more than they simplify. Finally, the third section considers a variety of contemporary uses of social science theory and data in support of counterinsurgency operations in the so called “war on terror,” including the training and policies of Human Terrain Teams for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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