The dangerous militarisation of anthropology

On 15 December 2006 the US Army released a new counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24. At least one anthropologist played a role in preparing the 282-page document: Montgomery McFate. Anthropological knowledge is even considered as more important than bombs: Military generals call for for "culturally informed occupation" and ‘culture-centric warfare’. But this development undermines and endangers the work of anthropologists and will end up harming the entire discipline, Roberto J. González and David Price write in the June issue of Anthropology Today (not yet published).

The involvement of anthropologists in the preparation of the counterinsurgency manual is according to González the latest development in a trend that has become increasingly evident since 2001: the use of ‘cultural knowledge’ to wage the ‘war on terror’. FM 3-24 generally reads like a manual for indirect colonial rule – though ‘empire’ and ‘imperial’ are taboo words, never used in reference to US power, he writes and is partly inspired by T.E. Lawrence, who in 1917 published the piece ‘Twenty-seven articles’ for Arab Bulletin, the intelligence journal of Great Britain’s Cairo-based Arab Bureau.

Journals such as Military Review (published by the US Army’s Combined Arms Center) and the online Small Wars Journal have featured articles explicitly advocating a more ‘anthropological’ approach to war fighting, and some retired generals have even called for ‘culture-centric warfare’:

Testifying before the US House Armed Services Committee in 2004, Major General Robert Scales argued that ‘during the present “cultural” phase of the war… intimate knowledge of the enemy’s motivation, intent, will, tactical method and cultural environment has proven to be far more important for success than the deployment of smart bombs, unmanned aircraft and expansive bandwidth’ (Scales 2004: 2).

Interest in ‘anthropological’ expertise for battlefield application is increasingly framed in terms of ‘human terrain’, he writes:

For example, a recent article in Military Review explicitly makes the case for the creation of ‘human terrain systems’ (HTS) which are being specifically designed to address cultural awareness shortcomings at the operational and tactical levels by giving brigade commanders an organic capability to help understand and deal with ‘human terrain’ – the social, ethnographic, cultural, economic, and political elements among whom a force is operatin.

‘Human terrain’ studies date back seven years, when retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters published ‘The human terrain of urban operations’ (Peters 2000). Since then others including Kipp et al. (2006) and McConnell, Matson and Clemmer (2007) have cited the need for ‘anthropological’ participation in military operations.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has created a new project called Human Terrain System, and its director is currently recruiting social scientists to joint pilot teams in Iraq and Afghanistan as ‘cultural advisors’.

What are the consequences of anthropologists engaging in counterinsurgency work? It's obvious that it both undermines and endangers the work of anthropologists and the life of their families and informants: It is plausible, Gonzales argues, that ‘once Thai peasants or Somali clansmen learn that some anthropologists are secretly working for the US government, they begin to suspect all other anthropologists. Fieldwork will be a lot more dangerous.

American anthropologists have been surprisingly reluctant to learn their lesson from the past, David Price reminds us in another article in Anthropology Today June 2007. Though largely unexamined, he writes, the extent of covert CIA funding of American-funded social science research during the 1950s and 1960s was extraordinary:

In the mid-1970s the US Senate discovered that a surprisingly large proportion of research grants issued during the escalation of the Vietnam War and other military Cold War incursions were either directly or indirectly funded by the CIA. Without having to account for their actions, these agencies were left free to set covert research agendas, to influence the direction in which scholars took their research, and to appropriate research for covert ends. (...)
Unwitting participation by reputable scholars channelled what appeared as innocuous academic research into covert unethical programmes. Through this practice the CIA helped build up the careers of some academics, influenced social science and behavioural research, and generally attempted to create informal networks they could tap for information to provide input into their covert goals. By their own admission, CIA money-laundering was at its most effective when funds flowed through seemingly innocent private foundations like the Human Ecology Fund.
Given that the ‘war on terror’ once again finds intelligence agencies seeking help from academia, we need to consider and evaluate these past interactions and be mindful that intelligence agencies have at times been silent consumers of our research.

He concludes:

If we do not want to go into history as collaborators with such coercive covert agencies, who may use our research to dominate and exploit the peoples we work with, then we must take decisive action now, identify and expose such programmes wherever we can, and advise our professional associations to recommend our colleagues not touch them.

It was with such concerns in mind that two resolutions were submitted to the AAA at its November 2006 annual meeting, condemning the occupation of Iraq and the use of torture, Gonzales reminds us:

Although academic resolutions are not likely to transform US government policies (much less the practices of contractors to the military) these do articulate a set of values and ethical concerns shared by many anthropologists. They could potentially extend and amplify dialogue among social scientists around issues of torture, collaboration with the military, and the potential abuse of social science in the ‘war on terror’. Anthropologists may well inspire others to confront directly – and resist – the militarization of their disciplines at this critical moment in the history of the social sciences.

UPDATE (4.7.07):

Just found the text Roberto J. Gonzalez: We Must Fight the Militarization of Anthropology, previously published in The Chronicle of Higher Education)

UPDATE (29.5.07)

Inspired by this post, Space and Culture gives us more details about the military and anthropology, among other things about "Ethnographic Intelligence".

The Small Wars Council has opened a thread in their forum about this issue and one user wrote "maybe someone should write a counterpiece called "The Dangerous Anthropologization of the Military".


Protests against British research council: "Recruits anthropologists for spying on muslims"

More and more anthropologists are recruited to service military operations

Savage Minds: The Fate of McFate - Anthropology’s Relationship with the Military Revisited

"Tribal Iraq Society" - Anthropologists engaged for US war in Iraq

Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani: "Peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention"

Embedded anthropology? Anthropologist studies Canadian soldiers in the field

Fieldwork reveals: Bush administration is lying about the "war on terror" in the Sahara

San Jose: American Anthropologists Stand Up Against Torture and the Occupation of Iraq and AAA Press Release: Anthropologists weigh in on Iraq, torture at annual meeting

"War on terror": CIA sponsers anthropologists to gather sensitive information / see also debate on this on Savage Minds

Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of Their Curious Relations

Bush, "war of terror" and the erosion of free academic speech: Challenges for anthropology

USA: Censorship threatens fieldwork - A call for resistance

Two Books Explore the Sins of Anthropologists Past and Present


Comment from: Steve [Visitor]

Isn’t it overstating it a bit to call this the militarization of anthropology? Sounds less like the military is impacting anthropology, but more like anthropology is impacting the military here.

This is obviously fraught, but isn’t there something positive about teaching the military to be less ethnocentric and take cultural into consideration?

It’s not as though anthropology is politically neutral until it works with the U.S. military, though we often pretend this is the case…

2007-05-31 @ 22:03
Comment from: [Member]

Yes, I agree, there might be something positive about teaching the military to be less ethnocentric, but I suppose you’ll agree that teaching them anthropology and doing counterinsurgency work is not the same.

2007-06-01 @ 11:01
Comment from: Theresa Rosado [Visitor]
Theresa Rosado

As anthropologists I believe in an ethical principle similar to the Hippocratic Oath. Are we not doctors of culture? By researching Islam, studying Arabic, learning about specific subcultures in Iraq, are we not establishing a mutual boundary of trust with people in which we promise to do no harm in the pursuit of higher learning? We can study war but to participate in counter insurgency, as some of my classmates have ventured into, violates our scientific ethic of research. How on earth are we ever going to regain trust as a science by such activities? / Stranger and Friend: The Way of An Anthropologist by Hortense Powdermaker

2007-06-07 @ 07:47
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for your comment. Yes that’s an aspect that those who support participation in counter insurgency don’t take into account.

2007-06-07 @ 14:49
Comment from: Steve Metz [Visitor]
Steve Metz

With all due respect, I found the argument by Thersa Rosada to be absolutely bizarre. First, no one is asking social scientists to “participate” in counterinsurgency, but to help educate those who do. Would it really be better to have ignorant soldiers and intelligence personnel? Second, it is less often COUNTERinsurgency which harms people than insurgency. Ms. Rosado should take a serious look at some insurgencies and see who actually causes the violence and misery.

2007-06-14 @ 14:17
Comment from: Theresa Rosado [Visitor]
Theresa Rosado

I think Steve Metz is unfamiliar with the science of anthropology and how it is conducted. In order to perform unbiased research into issues such as counterinsurgency and insurgency one would have to take an academic approach, not a militant approach. The anthropologists I have known that have worked for the US government have indeed abandoned science and participated in the collection of data and surveillance, acting as cultural informants for the US government. They are not publishing academic works that are open to the critic of the scientific community. It is this form of participation of anthropology outside of academia I believe endangers cultural research, destroying the foundation of trust science depends on. It begs the question, why learn of culture and for what purposes? It robs the ability of scientific reflection on issues you have brought up yourself, to conduct unbiased research on issues such as insurgency and counter insurgency.

2007-06-19 @ 23:34
Comment from: nichtidentisches [Visitor]  

“Given that the ‘war on terror’ once again finds intelligence agencies seeking help from academia, we need to consider and evaluate these past interactions and be mindful that intelligence agencies have at times been silent consumers of our research.”

I would feel honored, if my research could really help stop terrorism. We are not back into the 1970s Southamerican Dictatorships, SIL and all that talk. This is modern world with modern Terrorism. This is real evil - beyond rethorics: nihilistic glorification of mass-murder using the Koran (less abusing it).
As Al-quaida too profits from research (as free research is open to everyone) and practices a postmodern-medieval policy of marriage in Somalia and Iraq, Ethnology can also help preventing al-quaidas progress - and it is even oblidged to do so. In Iraq endogameous ethnies quarreled with al-quaida and military ethnology helped the US-Troops to proceed with the cooperation with some formerly hostile tribes. The war on terror is to be fought or terror will fight this tiny bits of freedom down. Ethnology can in parts help to avoid numerous innocent victims.

2007-10-03 @ 18:48

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