Anthropology and Militarism: The US Military’s Quest to Weaponize Culture

August 14th, 2010 - by admin

Hugh Gusterson / Annual Review of Anthropology & The Bulletin of Atomic and Maximilian Forte / Zero Anthropology – 2010-08-14 22:54:31

Anthropology and Militarism
Hugh Gusterson / Annual Review of Anthropology (Vol. 36: 155-175)

(September 2007) — Anthropologists’ selections of topics and field sites have often been shaped by militarism, but they have been slow to make militarism, especially American militarism, an object of study. In the high Cold War years concerns about human survival were refracted into debates about innate human proclivities for violence or peace.

As “new wars” with high civilian casualty rates emerged in Africa, Central America, the former Eastern bloc, and South Asia, beginning in the 1980s anthropologists increasingly wrote about terror, torture, death squads, ethnic cleansing, guerilla movements, and the memory work inherent in making war and peace. Anthropologists have also begun to write about nuclear weapons and American militarism.

The “war on terror” has disturbed settled norms that anthropologists should not assist counterinsurgency campaigns, and for the first time since Vietnam, anthropologists are debating the merits of military anthropology versus critical ethnography of the military.

The US Military’s Quest to Weaponize Culture
Hugh Gusterson / The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

(20 June 2008) — The Pentagon seems to have decided that anthropology is to the war on terror what physics was to the Cold War. As an anthropologist, this makes me very nervous.

Where former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believed that the United States would vanquish its enemies through technological superiority, his replacement Robert Gates has said that cultural expertise in counterinsurgency operations will be crucial in the future wars he anticipates.

For those anthropologists who don’t judge the vitality of our discipline solely in terms of revenue streams, the Pentagon’s new interest in culture is worrying. So far the Pentagon has announced two major initiatives to mobilize anthropological knowledge for war. The first is the Human Terrain Team system, to which Gates allocated $40 million in September 2007.

The Pentagon plans 26 Human Terrain Teams — one for each combat brigade in Iraq and Afghanistan. The five-person teams include three military personnel. Each team also includes an anthropologist — or another social scientist — who will wear a military uniform and receive weapons training.

Described as doing “armed social work” by David Kilcullen, an Australian expert in counterinsurgency who advises Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, the teams elicit information from villagers for Pentagon databases and provide cultural orientation to US military leaders.

According to a scathing article in Newsweek, thus far, few of the embedded social scientists recruited speak local languages or know much about local culture. For example, the best-known embedded anthropologist, Marcus Griffin of Christopher Newport University in Virginia, is mainly knowledgeable about Filipino hunter-gatherers and Freegan dumpster-divers in the United States. One wonders how useful his military colleagues find his “cultural expertise.”

Last year, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a statement condemning the use of anthropologists in Human Terrain Teams. Why would the AAA object to anthropologists doing their bit for the war on terror?

After all, perhaps anthropologists could help smooth out some of the cultural misunderstandings between US troops and locals that have exacerbated violence in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this political correctness run amok?

One cannot grasp AAA’s concerns without understanding that anthropologists have a unique research method that brings with it special ethical responsibilities: We engage in what one anthropologist has called “deep hanging out” with people, passing the time with them, often day after day for months, painstakingly earning their trust and getting them to tell us about their worlds. What distinguishes anthropology from espionage (apart from anthropologists’ impenetrable jargon) is that we seek the consent of our subjects, and we follow an injunction to do no harm to those we study.

According to the anthropological code of ethics, our obligations to those we study trump all othersv–vto colleagues, funders, and nation. (It’s for this reason that Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, famously condemned four colleagues for using anthropological research as cover for spying during World War I.)

Embedded anthropologists are on shaky ethical terrain because they cannot realistically get free consent from their interlocutors while dressed in camouflage and traveling with US soldiers in Humvees. Similarly, they cannot control the use of the information they collect for the military, and thus, cannot ensure it isn’t used to harm communities they study. For instance, during the Vietnam War, under Project Phoenix, anthropological knowledge was used to target villagers for assassination.

There’s also the obligation to colleagues. Most anthropologists report at some point being suspected of working for U.S. intelligence by those they study. I experienced this myself when doing research in Russia. Therefore, every anthropologist in camouflage casts a pall of suspicion over the rest of us.

The second Pentagon program is Project Minerva, which Gates announced in April. Funded at $50 million over the next five years, Minerva is designed to mobilize social scientists for open research related to the war on terror. Gates mentioned his hope that anthropologists would apply.

The projects envisaged under Minerva include translating and analyzing captured Iraqi documents, helping collate open-source documents pertaining to Chinese military policy, researching the relationship between Islam, violence, and terror, and proposing new experimental fields, which as Gates put it in his speech, might be as useful in the war on terror as game theory proved during the Cold War.

Minerva doesn’t entail the obvious ethical liabilities for anthropologists that mar the Human Terrain Team experiment. Also, to give the Pentagon its due, military program officers have striven to make this program as open as possible: Captured Iraqi documents and information about Chinese military programs will be posted to websites where they will be accessible to scholars, or curiosity-seekers, anywhere in the world. Likewise, the call for proposals to research Islam and violence, or to develop new inter-disciplines, emphasizes that the research will be unclassified and that scholars from any country are free to apply.

Still, following the announcement of Minerva, Setha Low, AAA’s president, wrote to Gates and others expressing some concerns about the program’s implementation. (Full disclosure: I was consulted about the letter’s phrasing.)

AAA’s core concern is that the Defense Department has a well-established track record funding research in science and engineering, but not the social sciences — and especially not anthropology. There are, however, federal agencies — the National Science Foundation (NSF) comes to mind — that have great experience in funding exactly the kind of research at Minerva’s core.

If the federal government wants to fund free and open scholarly research on, say, Islam and terror, why not do so through the normal channels for inviting and adjudicating such research? NSF is skilled and practiced at doing peer review of such research; Defense is not.

While the obvious danger that concerns the AAA is of an amateurish and misshapen review process that produces a research program that isn’t all it could be, there’s a deeper and less obvious danger, too. When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind.

The public comes to accept that basic academic research on religion and violence “belongs” to the military; scholars who never saw themselves as doing military research now do; maybe they wonder if their access to future funding is best secured by not criticizing US foreign policy; a discipline whose independence from military and corporate funding fueled the kind of critical thinking a democracy needs is now compromised; and the priorities of the military further define the basic terms of public and academic debate.

For all of these reasons, I know that Franz Boas would have been as worried as I am.

An anthropologist, Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. His expertise is in nuclear culture, international security, and the anthropology of science. He has conducted considerable fieldwork in the United States and Russia, where he studied the culture of nuclear weapon scientists and antinuclear activists. Two of his books encapsulate this work — Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War (University of California Press, 1996) and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). He also coedited Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong (University of California Press, 2005); a sequel, The Insecure American, is in preparation. Previously, he taught in MIT’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society.

Copyright © 2010 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. All Rights Reserved.

Hugh Gusterson: “When Professors Go to War”
Maximilian Forte / Zero Anthropology

(July 23, 2008) — Apparently this is Minerva Season, as there seems to be a rush of new articles about Minerva. The latest is in Foreign Policy. The article is by Hugh Gusterson, titled “When Professors Go to War.” Those who have been following the issue of military-funded social science research, as reported in the press and on blogs, will not find anything new in the piece. What I found interesting were two passages:

Many anthropologists simply will not apply for funding if it comes from the Pentagon. Their reasons will vary. Anthropologists already report being suspected of working for US intelligence agencies when they do field research abroad, and they will be concerned that research subjects will refuse to talk to them if they have been openly funded by the US military.

Some will be concerned that the Pentagon will seek to bend their research agenda to its own needs, interfering with their academic freedom. Still others will be nervous that colleagues will shun them. But many will refuse simply on principle: Anthropology is, by many measures, the academy’s most left-leaning discipline, and many people become anthropologists out of a visceral sympathy for the kinds of people who all too often show up as war’s collateral damage.

Applying for Pentagon funding is as unthinkable for such people as applying for a Planned Parenthood grant would be for someone at Bob Jones University. One thousand anthropologists have already signed a pledge not to accept Pentagon funding for counterinsurgency work in the Middle East.

Personally, I am not at all convinced that anthropology is the most left-leaning discipline, and I wish that Gusterson would point us to something that could resemble substantiation for that view. For now I reserve the right to remain skeptical. The fact that a minority signed the pledge of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists — including myself — is evidenced by Gusterson’s number above. Keeping in mind how he characterized the stances of his colleagues, the next passage becomes even more interesting:

Happily, there is a quick and easy fix. Many academics would prefer that the National Science Foundation (or perhaps the Social Science Research Council) take on Minerva, rather than the Pentagon. Unlike the Department of Defense, the NSF already has deep experience supervising this kind of research, and as a neutral party it comes without the Pentagon’s baggage. You may wonder: Does it really matter whose name is on the letterhead? Absolutely — when it comes to top-notch academic research, details like the source of one’s funding can make or break the legitimacy of one’s work.

Now that is a surprising conclusion. Has the NSF also rewritten the call for project proposals? If so, where is it? NSF peer review of Pentagon funding does not — and this really should be obvious — change the fact that the funding is from the Pentagon. If the funding is entirely handed over to the NSF, but the goals of the program remain the same, then once again one can say: “Big deal.”

I must confess that I was a bit mystified by this in other ways as well. I was surprised to see a critical thinker accept the idea that the NSF, whose head recently and proudly proclaimed that “securing national defense” was at the forefront of the NSF’s mission (thank you for saying so, and this is the last time I perform voluntary peer review of your grant applications, NSF), might somehow serve as a valid alternative.

Gusterson is simply trying to be reasonable and pragmatic, looking for avenues for alternative perspectives to be registered: “If we want to avoid a desert [?] Vietnam, if we want a policy debate that includes bright, knowledgeable people from the left as well as the right, we should move Minerva’s search for wisdom into the civilian sphere before it’s too late.”

My disquiet about this approach stems from a number of sources, one of them being that on certain issues I do not compromise, and I certainly do not compromise just for the sake of it (which would be the doctrinaire and unthinking thing to do).

Second, regardless of the peer reviewers’ name tags, and the geographic coordinates of their office chairs, what remains unchanged is that this is military funded research for a national security program, whose objectives and parameters are defined and set forth by the Pentagon.

Third, I would need an explanation as to why critique of imperial expansion and the national security state must depend on funding from that same state. Forcing ourselves to be dependent? I am being honest when I say I do not understand the logic here. Thankfully, many if not most other critical thinkers around the world did not need US military funding to fuel their thinking and writing. I suspect that will continue to be the case. The problem here is when we continue to think in terms of academic business as usual — books, journal articles, conferences, research grants, all as part of a national security, or anti-national security industry.

Fourth, once more there is no questioning here of why — let me say that again, WHY — there should be such a priority placed on studying terrorism when on this planet there are far greater threats to human life and in some cases even social stability?

Such as? Such as: HIV/AIDS, famine, drought, global warming, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, alcoholism, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s, and traffic accidents — deaths from terrorist attacks are rare by contrast, and the significance given to them is the product of arbitrary political construction.

I am really disappointed to see Gusterson folding himself into the framework that has been presented to him. The peer review offered by the NSF is no “quick and easy fix,” it actually comes closer to resembling a PR stunt to mute academic criticism. Apparently it is already working that way, on some.

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