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