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Anthropology and the military 
9th-Oct-2007 01:02 pm
One of my professors was literally just on NPR talking about the new Human Terrain Teams being deployed by the military... the members of which are anthropologists and other social scientists.

This is a very interesting debate going on in anthropology, and has lots of ethical questions surrounding it. My professor was joined by Montgomery McFate, who has caused a fair amount of controversy herself with her involvement in this program.

Edit The audio on the story is available now:
9th-Oct-2007 09:20 pm (UTC)
Yow, I can see many of the questions going on regarding this. To me, the term "mercenary anthropology" that they used in the article does kind of fit. It also sounds sort of like a cross between espionage and brute force. I don't know how much I like that.
9th-Oct-2007 10:33 pm (UTC)
I think the concept is more to avoid and reduce conflict and the need for force by making the military more culturally aware.

And--I think I've posted on this subject before--historically, those units most focussed on the actual social terrain in a given area have had a much lower military "footprint" and have significantly reduced destruction on all sides of most conflicts.

Admittedly, the potential for abuse does exist.

Look up some of the stories about John J. "Blackjack" Pershing in the Philipines near the turn of the 20th century. He (or whichever officers actually performed the deed) used cultural and religious knowledge to manipulate the local population to a tactical advantage. (Although the act in question might be considered a crime if performed today and was manipulative, it probably did reduce casualties on both sides.)

10th-Oct-2007 02:23 am (UTC)
I can't help but think that opposition to this program is very myopic. I can see why, given past experiences, there is concern, especially given the history of past conflict when there was little cultural awareness beyond what the very limited body of the Special Forces could provide. That much is clear from reading the protests of the anthropologists: they don't like them being used in this war, right now.

Wars are the interim where military science evolves - consider the dramatic change in how World War I was fought in the beginning and the end. Or aircraft technology in World War II. Or the use and role of irregular forces in the Second Indochina War. What, I believe, we are watching now is the evolution of military science, with troubles because of the murky objectives given to fight these wars.

In the long run, though, how could having more cultural specialists in a world that will be marked with asymmetric warfare where culture plays a definite role in conflict be a bad thing?
10th-Oct-2007 03:03 am (UTC)
I feel like these guys should have been used in the beginning.

Once again, this administration re-learning the lessons of 1945.
10th-Oct-2007 03:52 am (UTC)
With all due respect, I would disagree: in fact I think a lot of the tactical mismatch comes from viewing this lens through the lens of 1945. I can't help but shake, every time Condoleeza Rice talks about this war, that she views it too much through a Cold War lens.

In a way, I think lessons were learned from World War II: consider that the need for cultural communication was very much the reason for the creation of the Special Forces following WWII. Special Forces soldiers must be fluent in a foreign language, for example, and their entire purpose was to communicate with cultural groups to aid in irregular warfare.

I just think the stakes have been raised since 1945. While I think a little more cultural sensitivity could have been displayed to the Soviets, the struggle there was more geopolitical and realist.
10th-Oct-2007 03:04 am (UTC)
This is so fucking cool.

Now, if only I didn't have to work with the US government to do it.
10th-Oct-2007 03:27 am (UTC)
Ah, but see, that's the beauty of it. The subterfuge! The US government would, in fact, pay you to be in a position ideal for harassing it into being decent every once in a while...or at least to do damage control on its rampant idiocy.

10th-Oct-2007 08:26 am (UTC)
Yes, that would be perfect if I weren't afraid I could be corrupted! I do agree with the sentiment though.
10th-Oct-2007 04:06 am (UTC)
We talked about this in my Global Politics of Human Rights class. I am 1000% against anthropologists working for the military. There's even a petition going around about it (I'll try to find it and link it).

Sure, you may change a few individual soldier's minds about their "targets" but your intellectual property belongs to the military. They can interpret it and use it to further their operations and for their own agenda.
10th-Oct-2007 04:08 am (UTC)
I now see that the article (which I hadn't read) mentions the petition, here's the link:
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10th-Oct-2007 03:39 pm (UTC)
I guess my logic in my argument goes that, as an anthropologist, once you align yourself with an organization (be it the military, an NGO, a humanitarian org., etc) you become a part of that group just by association. No matter what, that's going to affect the fieldwork you can do and the informants you can find. Being associated with the military is going to get you a lot fewer informants (if any) and that's really going screw up your findings and results.

It's hard enough for anthropologists to be objective and unbiased as it is with all of our pre-conceived notions - being associated and employed by the military will make it even worse.

I'm not against educating soldiers in order to prevent these mass Iraqi civilian casualties we've seen. I just think the military needs to use independent anthropologists and their studies in order to educate and understand. Outside, not inside. Does that make sense?

Also, in regard to the intellectual property, I don't know much about it either but as I said we discussed this in my class that has three PhD candidates. One said that she received an application for a very generous grant from the Dept. of Defense and in the fine print it said that she would have to be "on call" with the Dept. of Defense for the remainder of her life if she accepted it. She didn't, just because she didn't want to be associated academically with the military in any way.
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10th-Oct-2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
Well, being there in peacetime is a lot different from being there in wartime, I imagine. And I don't see the military as a humanitarian organization (sorry, I know people may not agree with me on this) and I think that the military itself should be talking to the locals, not through anthropologists who may or may not be acting in the best interests as spokespeople of the civilians, the "terrorists" or the occupying army.

I guess, im my mind, once you are employed by the military, you are no longer an anthropologist, you have become military intelligence. YMMV.
10th-Oct-2007 06:04 pm (UTC)
I just think the military needs to use independent anthropologists and their studies in order to educate and understand. Outside, not inside. Does that make sense?

Who is going to pay these independent anthropologists to go to Iraq, advise the military, and provide ongoing education?
10th-Oct-2007 06:23 pm (UTC)
Uh, not the military. The anthropologists conduct their research under the scholarly means they currently work (grants, financial aid). The military then gets the ethnographies, just like we all do in the form of peer-reviewed and criticized articles and journals, interprets it according to their abilities and prejudices and then educates the soldiers (and higher-ups) themselves in order to further their own agenda.

The idea that fieldwork should be as objective as possible is what makes anthropology a science. It has to be public and it has to be contested. For the military to take what a few employed anthropologists say as fact about an entire culture doesn't make it a science anymore. IMO, anyway, I know most of you here don't agree with me.
10th-Oct-2007 06:54 pm (UTC)
But as beckyzoole pointed out below, these anthropologists aren't there to do fieldwork. While fieldwork is the main application of academic anthropology, not all anthropology is strictly academic. Applied anthro is actually a very important part of the discipline, and in fact, more and more anthropologists are calling it the "fifth" field of anthropology (along with physical anthro, cultural anthro, linguistics, and archaeology), and advocating its importance.

Also, you may find that many anthropologists working today (key word: working) are doing applied anthropology in some way, frequently in an advisory capacity to various organizations, military, public, and corporate. Some of them are selling out, sure. But those who are doing their jobs well are using their anthropological knowledge and skills in a way that is meaningful to humans and humanity, that is, as a tool for effecting necessary change in our own culture. (Relevant example: making the miliary more culturally aware and thus less destructive.)

Many people disagree, but I believe there is a point at which the study of culture for its own sake completely loses meaning and relevance, UNLESS it is applied in some way. As a (developing) anthropologist, I think of it this way: what is the point of studying culture? What is the point of amassing knowledge, if it can't be used for fear of contamination? How can I be an active, functional member of society if I refuse to use my knowlege and skills, but only hone them?

It was a great leap for anthropology as a discipline when Malinowski brought fieldwork "off the verandah" by truly living among his subjects. I believe (and again, you would certainly not be the first to disagree with me by ANY means) that we now have to bring serious anthropology down from the ivory tower by using our anthropological skills, knowledge, and thought as tools—by being truly active, participant members of our own society.
10th-Oct-2007 08:52 pm (UTC)
I totally, totally agree with you about the ivory tower thing and I agree 100% with applied anthropology. However, like I said, working for humanitarian organizations which truly aim to help people is a lot different than working for the military. The knowledge gleaned can be applied in military situations but for whose gain? I have a huge ethical problem with studying people and then using our knowledge about them to either oppress them (or free them, depending on how you look at the situation), force Western political systems on them, keep minority groups "in check" to promote a stable government, or kill them, yes, terrorist or civilian. The anthropologist's objectives and goals may not be the same as the military's and that conflict of interest resonates with me. You know what you're going in for when you join a humanitarian, missionary or NGO - do you with the military?

The biggest problem I have was illustrated in an old Doonesbury comic that showed General Havoc (a CIA operative) impersonanting an anthropologist in Nicaragua. Aligning anthropologists with military operations severely compromises the (some would say shaky) integrity we have in the world already. I mean, anthropologists used to study cultures and then steal their artificats, label them as "primitive", etc. And there are several cases of anthropologists being used by the military in the past that ended horribly (Project Camelot).

Let's just say I'm skeptical, lol. Of course I hope things will turn out rosy but something just grates at me about the whole situation.
10th-Oct-2007 09:11 pm (UTC)
I do see what you're saying. I'm just holding out hope that the conflict of interest you speak of is actually a good thing—the military will exist whether anthropologists are a part of it or not, and maybe that opposing perspective will thrive even from within, so that rather than anthropologists becoming pawns of the military, anthropology will become a way to keep the military in check. It's just hard for me to see how introducing a humanitarian perspective into what I see as a necessarily anti-humanitarian organization can be a bad thing.
10th-Oct-2007 09:16 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that's what the article suggests, as well. I guess I'm just a cynical old lady! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it's given me a lot to think about. :-)
11th-Oct-2007 01:32 am (UTC)
These anthropologists are not conducting research. They are not doing fieldwork. They are educating troops on the ground.

Who would pay them to educate troops, if not the military?
11th-Oct-2007 03:21 am (UTC)
I keep repeating myself but I keep getting these notifications, so here goes.

Societies in wartime are different places than in peacetime, therefore, the anthropologists who are "experts" of certain groups would still need to maintain contacts and conduct research - culture isn't static. If these anthropologists in Iraq aren't working "in the field", then they are the ones sitting in an ivory tower with troop protection.

I also think that once an anthropologist starts working for the military, it somehow stops being anthropology. This is a personal view but it just shatters my image (however naive that may be). I think knowledgeable people working for the military are either informants or military intelligence, not people studying other people and applying that knowledge to better our global community.

In a nutshell, I think the military should educate itself. Hire anthropologists, fine, but those anthropologists should be prepared for the ethica questions that come with guilt by association.
11th-Oct-2007 02:43 pm (UTC)
1. You make the excellent point that societies in wartime are different places than in peacetime. Anthropologists understand that. Much of the general public -- including members of the military -- have never thought of it that way. We need anthropologists to educate the members of the military about that.

The anthropologists working in Iraq to educate the troops are not conducting field research. They are applying their knowledge to the current situation.

2. You say you think that "knowledgeable people working for the military are either informants or military intelligence". That is a very broad statement. I would hope that everyone who works for the military is knowledgeable in something, whether it's how to cook scrambled eggs for 300 people, or how to fly a helicopter, or how to apply a field dressing on a gunshot wound!

Did you mean to say that "anyone with knowledge of the people living in the territory in which the military is operating is either an informant or working for military intelligence"? If so, does that mean that any soldier who goes to the trouble to try to learn Iraqi Arabic and learn something about the culture of Iraq, magically becomes a member of military intelligence?

Or do you mean that someone with in-depth knowledge of the social customs and beliefs of a culture cannot communicate that knowledge to the military without becoming "an informant or working for military intelligence"?

That last makes some sense -- if we're talking about the culture of an enemy. But what if we're talking about the culture of an ally? How would it be "informing" to educate military personnel about the social customs and beliefs of an ally society? Yes, Iraq is an ally. The US is not at war with Iraq per se, but with various factions within the country. (Personally I think it's a wrong-headed and misguided war, but I do recognize that it is not against all Iraqis.)

If you "think the military should educate itself", how should they do that? Would it be more ethical for the troops to remain ignorant of how they are inadvertently offending, to remain ignorant of the cultural significance of their actions, to use more firepower and kill more civilians because they are, simply, lacking the knowledge that "ethical" anthropologists could impart to them?
11th-Oct-2007 06:31 pm (UTC)
The AAA's current "Statement of Professional Responsibility" says: "Anthropologists should undertake no secret research or any research whose results cannot be freely derived and publicly reported. . . . No secret research, no secret reports or debriefings of any kind should be agreed to or given." These guidelines reflect a widespread view among anthropologists that any research undertaken for the military is de facto evil and ethically unacceptable.

Enough said, I've got class and two papers to write. If I haven't explained my position clearly enough after many, many comments, I apologize. Feel free to disagree.
11th-Oct-2007 06:45 pm (UTC)
A further quote from the same article you cited:

As Anna Simons, an anthropologist who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, points out: "If anthropologists want to put their heads in the sand and not assist, then who will the military, the CIA, and other agencies turn to for information? They'll turn to people who will give them the kind of information that should make anthropologists want to rip their hair out because the information won't be nearly as directly connected to what's going on on the local landscape."
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10th-Oct-2007 12:08 pm (UTC)
It is, admittedly, reasonable to expect (or suspect) that the US Gov't would claim rights to any intellectual property you might develop under its employ. Still, isn't that kind of the point? What does the concept of intellectual property really mean in a situation like this, where the goal would be to provide the military with information that might, as you say, prevent damage to a culture?
10th-Oct-2007 10:34 pm (UTC)
Two points:

The military--more than most--tends to change and latch onto what works. This could really be a paradigm shift like the shift to information-based warfare and the shift from targeting enemy troops to those elements (communication/command/supply) that allow the enemy to fight.

The consequences of the military not reducing conflict through cultural awareness generally isn't a change of mission...'s an increase in casualties as the default is to throw more firepower at the problem.
11th-Oct-2007 03:40 am (UTC)
I know what you're saying and several people in my class had the same idea. But what would happen to the military if the soldiers all of a sudden saw their enemies as people with families, feelings, history, puppies, etc.? Isn't the point of the military to dehumanize the enemy in order to defend (or attack)? What if many soldiers refused to fight anymore based on what they learned?

Don't get me wrong, I want to save lives (Iraqi and American) and I want anthropologists to work in a real setting as much as anyone else but I don't know if this is the solution for the reasons I've stated ad naseum. Plus, we had anthropologists working for the military in the 1960's and 1970's in Vietnam and South America and that did not turn out well. I think the older anthropologists still remember those days and have good reason to protest this not-so-new idea.

From here: under the Project Camelot and Thai headlines:

The AAA's current "Statement of Professional Responsibility" says: "Anthropologists should undertake no secret research or any research whose results cannot be freely derived and publicly reported. . . . No secret research, no secret reports or debriefings of any kind should be agreed to or given." These guidelines reflect a widespread view among anthropologists that any research undertaken for the military is de facto evil and ethically unacceptable.

I guess I'm not explaining my position well enough for you (or I am but no one else agrees which frankly kind of surprises me) but I hope that eventually someone more articulate will illustrate my side of the issue a little clearer. :-)
11th-Oct-2007 03:50 am (UTC)
The short reply to your first paragraph...

...those soldiers would likely get killed and their buddies around them too trying to save them.

I mean, most soldiers, especially in conflicts like Iraq, do see the people around them as people, but the people trying to kill them are different.

As a matter of fact, the increase of post traumatic stress disorder is somewhat clear evidence that these soldiers are seeing Iraqi's as humans and as people. "Dehumanizing the enemy" is not something regularly practiced anymore, at least in the (admittedly "peace time") Army I was in. Instead, soldiers are trained to respond to combat situations with firing and to attempt to concentrate fire only on those who are after them. They are also required to follow orders as to where to fire or drop bombs, but other than those actually shooting at them or trying to kill them, they are not organizationally encouraged to dehumanize people. This is also embodied in the Rules of Engagement soldiers are required to follow.

(I have to go catch a shuttle bus, I'll finish this reply later.)
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10th-Oct-2007 12:37 pm (UTC) - agreeing with you again...
"at base it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties"

Uh, if you're opposed to the war, that's a different issue. And if you're opposed to a brutal war and massive casualties, shouldn't you be in favor of a program that seeks to help minimize brutality and casualties?

Or is the problem that your darling ivory-tower anthropologists might get their hands dirty in war? Please. What good is anthropology if it's not involved in the realities of human life? War, my friends, is a reality. Refusing to help make war less brutal, less destructive-out-of-ignorance, because you don't want to get your hands dirty seems to me a sick sort of neglect. Anthropologists are in a unique position, because they are trained to study and understand the workings of various cultures, to do good in a situations of cultural conflict. It seems to me hypocritical not to do so.
10th-Oct-2007 06:06 pm (UTC)
I heard much of that interview on the radio. I wanted to shake the guy who was opposed to it. The "research subjects" had not given informed consent? WTF? These anthropologists are not in Iraq to conduct research. They are there to save Iraqi lives by educating American soldiers.
10th-Oct-2007 10:48 pm (UTC)
Haven't listen to the interview yet, but it sounds like someone got research and applied anthropology confused.

11th-Oct-2007 12:35 am (UTC)
I just felt like sharing that one of my professors, David Vine, is one of those who wrote this. Nice to see that debate is allowed regarding issues like these withing the field but at least in my class at American University with him, not so much. It's just too much of a personal issue for him regarding making an absolute morality, which I have issues with. I don't know, it's just weird. I think it's a lot of fear from the imperialist history and usage of applied/public anthropology.
11th-Oct-2007 07:55 am (UTC)
Awesome. Finally.
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