The debate on anthropology and the military is extremly polarized. Mats Utas, Head of the Africa Programme at the Swedish National Defence College, has written an interesting article where he challenges both sides. Among other things, he shows that there might be legitimate reasons for collaboration with the military even if you are against the U.S. war of terror.
“I currently would see many problems in cooperating with the US armed forces, or the Danish army for that matter, due to their cumbersome commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, I still describe the debate within our discipline as one of moral panic", he writes and asks:
It is important to remember that all relationships with the military do not imply the same type of structural involvement, just as doing work with the military means different things depending on which country one works in (it is obvious that engaging with the armed forces in Sweden or Switzerland is not the same as in US or North Korea).
Sweden is, still today, more or less neutral and has kept a low profile in the war on terror (or the terror on terror), and Swedish military interest in Africa is by and large peacekeeping missions. The Africa programme at the Defence College aims at servicing the army with knowledge about areas in conflict and potential future conflicts where a Swedish EU or UN force could employ as a neutral (as neutral as one can be anyway) and stabilising force.
It was far from an easy task, but after looking at pros and cons I decided to accept the offer of the Swedish National Defence College and I am currently directing their Africa programme. Does this imply that I fit into the derogatory category of ‘mercenary anthropologists’?
Specific task and regional political logic should guide us in how we commit ourselves, he writes and lists some tasks that anthropoloigists should not get involved with and that is for instance direct military intelligence:
Where research material can not be published for military reasons we should certainly stay out: We must keep working with open sources. Similarly we should not be involved in intelligence work where individuals are pointed out (unless this information is already available in other open sources). There is nothing wrong in teaching militaries how to understand some of the social complexity that exists in social life instead of letting them base their actions on social stereotypes.
If social embeddedness is part of the method for a subtle social anthropology then we must ask ourselves what happens with us if we enter alongside a military machinery, such as the US or Nato forces in Iraq or Afghanistan? Is it at all possible to carry out anthropological research? What happens if the fly in the soup becomes a ‘Stealth bomber in the soup’? My argument is simply that anthropological research cannot be efficient if the researcher is brought in alongside the heavy guns of imperial machinery. An anthropologist in military fatigues cannot conduct high quality fieldwork – results become seriously flawed. In this situation what the mercenary anthropologist can give to the military power is impotent research findings; in consequence not very much to fear.
>> read the whole article over at Ruben Eberleins Africa blog (interesting comments as well)