Anthropologists as Counter-Insurgents

Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist at the Office of Naval Research, thinks anthropological knowledge is essential to modern warfare, and is on a campaign to bring this Gospel to the Department of Defense. Her long article at RedNova — originally published by the Military Review — is a backhanded compliment to stubborn anthropologists whose knowledge and expertise is “urgently needed in time of war” but who, “bound by their own ethical code and sunk in a mire of postmodernism”, “entirely neglect U.S. forces”.

I’ll leave the long history of anthropological involvement in wars of conquest and national defense to Ms. McFate and cut straight to the chase: a functioning anthropology can never be on the side of “U.S. forces”. This is a practical as well as an ethical argument — it simply is not possible, even were there enough anthropologists who shared McFate’s priorities.

Consider, if you will, a generic anthropologist studying the Middle East. She has spent several years in the region, learning Arabic and ultimately performing fieldwork, and published a stack of articles and a couple books on her work. She is approached by the Dept. of Defense and offered a job as an advisor to the military, which is planning an invasion of the region she has spent her career becoming an expert on. In effect, she is being asked to help in the conquest of the people she has lived with, worked with, studied with, learned with. And she’s being asked to do so in the name of her homeland, in the name of patriotism.

Now, despite McFate’s scornful dismissal of postmodern strains of thought, I happen to agree with the principal (hardly postmodern, but lumped in with it by McFate) that the people we are studying have a right to know the uses to which our work with them might be put, and the right to refuse to work with us if they don’t like the answer. Had our imaginary Middle Eastern specialist approached her subjects in the field and told them “My research is intended to make it easier and more efficient for my nation to invade and conquer your nation”, I very much doubt she would have been invited to stay very long.

As it happens, it is one of the prevailing (mis)perceptions anthropologists have to deal with in the field anyway. It is generally assumed that anthropologists are CIA agents or otherwise connected with Western military apparatus. It certainly helps anthropologists in dealing with these accusations if they can honestly say that they are not. This is why most anthropologists look down on covert research, why Franz Boas exposed the activities of anthropologists who had worked as spies during WWI — in the words of the current referendum to uncensure Boas:

Boas insisted on the distinction between researchers — scientists whose lives are dedicated to “the service of truth” — and spies under the employment of the US Government….

It is crucial that anthropologists be taken at their word in the field — not being able to dispel these perceptions can be harmful not only to our research, but to our lives.

[ASIDE: Here’s an odd thing: McFate writes that

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.”

This is indeed part of the “Principles of Professional Responsibility and Ethical Conduct”, but not of the present-day AAA — it is the code of ethics for the the Association of Social Anthropologists of Aotearoa/New Zealand! It should be a part of our Code of Ethics, but isn’t.] [UPDATE:Alex notes that this is, in fact, in the AAA’s Principles of Professional Responsibility — I had searched the AAA website and couldn’t find them, so I assumed, wrongly, that they’d been excised in the 1998 revision of the Code of Ethics.]

On some level, McFate knows all this, so her real argument is saved for the end (if you’ve made it that far). To wit:

[I]f anthropologists remain disengaged, who will provide the relevant subject matter expertise? 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.”

This is hardly anthropology’s problem — but it is a good indication of the military’s problem, and why those anthropologists who have cooperated with the military have often come to regret it. To return to my imagined example above, the military is committed to invade the region our researcher’s expertise is in, regardless of the quality of their intelligence. Given that level of disregard, can any anthropologist hope to have any positive effect? The carrot being held out here is that, if anthropologists cooperates, the military action might be less hard on the people we’ve studied. If we don’t cooperate, though, the military is perfectly content to use second-rate, or even third-rate information.

McFate’s example only makes the prospect of anthropologists cooperating with the military seem even worse:

Seymour Hersh notes that Raphael Patai’s 1973 study of Arab culture and psychology, The Arab Mind, was the basis of the military’s understanding of the psychological vulnerabilities of Arabs, particularly to sexual shame and humiliation.

Patai says: “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . , and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world.” Apparently, the goal of photographing the sexual humiliation was to blackmail Iraqi victims into becoming informants against the insurgency. To prevent the dissemination of photos to family and friends, it was believed Iraqi men would do almost anything.

In other words, with better information, with the kind of information that anthropologists could provide, the military would have had a much better idea of the psychology of the Iraqis it had imprisoned during the course of the invasion and its aftermath. They thus would have been able to develop much better and more effective means of torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib.


The bottom line is that the needs of anthropology and the needs of military action are radically at odds. McFate is arguing for an enlightened tyrrany, but a tyrrany nonetheless. Although there are anthropologists like McFate who will, I’m sure, put nationalism ahead of science and ethics, most of us see pretty clearly who holds the leash in the kind of relationship McFate is advocating. Anthropologists — even pacifists like Boas — were willing to work with the war effort when the enemy was a clear threat, as Hitler was. But few of us are willing to make the same sacrifice for the “luxury wars” being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fewer still to willingly accept the kind of blackmail McFate has presented us with: “We’re going to war whether you help us or not; your only choice is whether that’s going to be heinous or just really, really ugly.”

(Thanks to Athropologi for the link.)

42 thoughts on “Anthropologists as Counter-Insurgents

  1. The article didn’t really give all that clear an idea of the concrete details of McFate’s work. Reading her article in the Military Review “Iraq: The Social Context
    of IEDs”
    was interesting. She’s suggesting analyzing Iraqi social networks in order to better target insurgents. I can’t imagine that military intelligence isn’t doing that already- but I would bet that she gets into thicker detail in things that aren’t for public consumption.
    It presents a much less benign view of things than the profile. She isn’t just providing the cultural knowledge to prevent misunderstandings in encounters between Iraiqs and US soldiers, or developing better governing methods. She’s providing instructions for tracking down and killing people.
    Even if you accept that people who produce IEDs are bad, she’s providing tactical guidance for a venture that is being undertaken in bad faith (to put it mildly). The fact that she thinks that anthropology has a place in that sick little venture is troubling.
    And I take issue with the fact that she’s described as a former punk. Anyone who could pass a background check for security clearance can’t have been that much of a punk.

  2. Just to respond to Justaguy: tracking down and killing people is part of what the military does, in addition to building schools, wells, banks, etc. Shouldn’t they do it efficiently if they’re going to do it at all?
    Also, just to let you know, even for a top secret security clearance, you only need to disclose activities going back ten years. Thus, even you might be eligible, regardless of what you did as a teenager….

  3. Jane, No. Anthropologists should not help the military track down and “efficiently” kill people. If anthropologists are doing this, we should expect people to increasingly hunt down anthropologists and kill us in the field. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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