I read last week about anthropologists engaged in the war effort in Afghanistan. There is a "Human Terrain Team" working there, as the Pentagon searches for new ways to understand the field of battle.
Apparently, the terms of engagement there have been changing over the last 18 months. Whereas Rumsfeld optimized the fighting force, General David Petraeus puts an emphasis on the social and cultural contexts in place.
(It was my understanding that Rumsfeld was using new ideas of dynamism, some of them culled from Complex Adaptive Theory, to make the military more responsive. His notion was, or may have been: if the military is maximally responsive, it doesn’t really matter what the social or cultural context is. This is, often, the very logic of capitalism, after all, so it’s not a notion that’s entirely untested.)
The Times articles notes the participation of Montgomery McFate (pictured). McFate may be considered an architect of the Human Terrain approach in Afghanistan. In 2005 she co-wrote as essay that served as the basis of a Department of Defense program called the Cultural Operational Research Human Terrain System. This program has been called "an anthropological brain transplant" for the military.
McFate has her Ph.D. from Yale and a J.D. from Harvard. She grew up in a houseboat community in Sausalito in the throes of the hippie revolution. As a teen, she was something like a Goth and sometimes like a Punk. After Harvard, she had a go at corporate law, but decided, pretty quickly, that this was not for her. It wasn’t until 2002 that she saw her calling. After a long talk with her husband one evening, she scribbled on a napkin: "How do I make anthropology relevant to the military?"
Fellow anthropologists are unhappy with this undertaking. Hugh Gusterson, a professor of cultural studies at George Mason University, says, “I think she’s encouraging people to do things that I regard as unethical.” He has accused McFate of creating a "hit-man anthropology" that "prostitutes" the discipline. (San Francisco Chronicle, SFC hereafter)
Gusterson sees anthropologists in Afghanistan as instruments of destruction.
The thought that you would cultivate those relationships of trust and intimacy and then … go to the Pentagon and say ‘these are the people you should kill, these are the people you shouldn’t kill,’ that’s extremely problematic… (SFC)
But it is not clear that anthropologists are combatants in the conventional sense of the term. The Times quotes General Petraeus as saying that social scientific advice has helped reduce combat operations. Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, says operations are down by 60% since the anthropologists arrived. By understanding the concepts of Afghani cultures and social tensions on the ground, anthropologists have helped remove the Taliban recruiting levers and its ability to exploit local tensions. (This is another way of saying that the enemy has been using local, entirely anthropological, understandings to prosecute it’s war effort. The military is finally fighting fire with fire, ethno-anthropologists with professional anthropologists.)
McFate is proud of her accomplishments. “I’m frequently accused of militarizing anthropology. But we’re really anthropologizing the military" (NYT). And she makes quick work of the criticism brought against her by other anthropologists, referring to,
their intentional disengagement from policy process, their uninformed unwillingness to learn about what actually goes on in Washington. There’s a blanket condemnation without trying to understand, which strikes me as particularly un-anthropological. (SFC)
I think she has this right. Listen to the first paragraph of the petition that Gusterson and several other anthropologists circulated late last month.
We, the undersigned, believe that anthropologists should not engage in research and other activities that contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theaters in the “war on terror.” Furthermore, we believe that anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting the US military in combat, be it through torture, interrogation, or tactical advice.
Is there something odd about assuming that what anthropologists do when assisting the US military must consist of torture or interrogation? It seems to me these petitioners are not very good at imagining what might make them useful, and that they leap to conclusions that assume the worst. As we have seen, Gusterson imagines that anthropologists in the field would engage in a "hit man anthropology," that their task would be deciding who the military should kill.
This is clear evidence, I think, of McFate’s criticism, of an "intentional disengagement," an "uninformed unwillingness to learn about what actually goes on," and a "blanket condemnation." These are unattractive qualities in anyone but in anthropologists they are deeply problematical. After all, this is a field that justifies its existence on the grounds that we need to find out what people are thinking, that the world is wrong to proceed without understanding what is happening "on the ground." There most certainly is something "un-anthropological" going on here.
But here’s McFate getting at a deeper issue.
The military is so willing to listen now … and for anthropologists to sit back in their ivory tower and spit at these people that are asking for their help — I think there’s something unethical about that. If you’re not in the room with them, you won’t influence their decisions. (SFC)
This is exactly right. For some anthropologists, there is no such thing as an opportunity cost. Not participating in the work of the military, the state, the corporation, this is always seen to be manifestly the right thing to do. For many anthropologists, engaging with the world is always to enter the embrace of its compromises. Anthropology, that ancient student of world-renouncing culture, has made itself world-renouncing too.
I think the refusal to participate as an anthropologist in Afghanistan has problems of its own. If this refusal makes it easier for the Taliban to recruit young people, to divide communities, to wreck terror locally and abroad, well, refusing to participate now has a cost. There is something to answer for here.
In point of fact, anthropology’s chief contribution to discourse these days sometimes seems to be righteous indignation and positions that are blanket and unsubtle. In the words of Roberto Gonzalez, an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University,
The American military is being used by and large from my point of view for geopolitical domination. I think it is very problematic for anthropologists to be involved in a system of essentially domination. (SFC)
Inclinations to generalize in this way sometimes costs a scholar his credibility, if not his chair. But when it comes to talking about their own society, it is par for the anthropological course. This is the disciplinary idea of a badge of courage, their cry from the heart, a noble willingness to stand and be counted. Ah, they are nothing if not self-dramatizing, this group. Anthropology has gone from studying identity politics to practicing identity scholarship.
Anthropologists used to worry about "arm chair" anthropology, the kind of scholarship undertaken in the 19th century by the founders of the field. But I wonder now if the object of our concern shouldn’t be something like "high horse" anthropology, that inclination to address the world outside the ivory tower as if it were always and only an exercise in compromise and prostitution.
Some anthropologists may be too good for the world. But they have to understand that their refusal to participate has consequences and that these consequences have moral implications. You say McFate is an easy target. How bout you?
Gusterson, Hugh, et al. 2007. Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency. Network of Concerned Anthropologists. Circulated September 29, 2007. here.
Rohde, David. 2007 Army Enlists Anthropology in Wars Zones. New York Times. October 5, 2007. here.
Stannard, Matthew. 2007. Can one anthropologist possibly steer the course in Iraq. San Francisco Chronicle. April 29, 2007. here. (referred to herein as SFC)