The Fate of McFate: Anthropology’s Relationship with the Military Revisited

Back in January, Matthew Stannard at the SF Chronicle, having come across my SM piece Anthropologists as Counter-Insurgents, contacted me about doing an interview for an upcoming profile on Montgomery McFate, the advocate for anthropology in the military whose work I was responding to. The piece is now online, entitled Montgomery McFate’s Mission: Can one anthropologist possibly steer the course in Iraq?. I’m not quite ready to revisit this topic — I’m up to my neck in grading and other work, with the semester’s end a week-and-a-half away, but I thought I’d mention it now while I put together some further thoughts on the matter. It’s a fairly good article, even though I’m only quoted once (Stannard apparently has not been taught the maxim that the more quotes of me a paper has, the better it is). Interestingly, though the interview ranged all over, I’m quoted more in my capacity as historian of anthropology than in my — I think more relevant — role as anthropological ethicist.

48 thoughts on “The Fate of McFate: Anthropology’s Relationship with the Military Revisited

  1. A strange piece of fluff journalism supporting occupation anthropology. How come Stannard didn’t tell us what Montgomery’s favorite flovor of ice cream is? Notice how Gerald Sider is representing as “snarling” to a reporter while McFate cooes to her reporter. So the safety of the free world hinges on McFate’s abilities to teach the military how to abuse anthropology in the war on terror? I’ve never been that sympathetic to Hugh Gusterson’s hardline position, but if these are our choices, then give me Gusterson’s position every time.

    The biographical details of McFate were odd, but the information on her upbringing and her vet dad’s mental illness add some background to her positions. Seems like her difficult upbringing has led her to recreate herself again and again as a flower child, punk, lawyer, military anthropologist.

    But like everything else I’ve read about anthropologists helping the CIA and military in the War On Terrorism, I want to know if anthropologists are doing anything concrete (other than writing lame revelations on bar napkins)? Is her claim true that holding ones hand stretched-out in Iraq means welcome? If so, so what? Couldn’t any occupier figure that out in about ten minutes?

    What exactly has McFate done in her role as savior anthropologist? I didn’t see reports of anything in this article. Has she claimed to have actually done anything?

  2. I’d read the hand gesture story before. I believe in Iraq stop is indicated by a raised fist, not an open palm. (Although one version of the story I read had it backwards saying that the raised fist was what the US military used as part of some universal system of hand gestures they had developed but which nobody understood. I can’t find support for either version of the story just now.)

    I don’t know if it is the anthropologists who were interviewed or the reporter who botched things up, but it seems to me that anthropological ethics cannot depend on how ethnographic knowledge will be used. There is simply no way to know how any knowledge will be used. If I publish my address online people could use that to send me gifts or hate mail. No anthropologist needs to work for the military for them to make use of the knowledge we produce. (We’ve talked here before about whether or not the military is capable of making use of this knowledge, but that is another issue.)

  3. I don’t believe McFate’s hand gesture story.

    I think this is something like the Iraqi version of those myths about the Eskimo’s endless words for snow.

  4. “…it seems to me that anthropological ethics cannot depend on how ethnographic knowledge will be used.”

    Kerim, that’s sort of a non-starter — obviously, any anthropological tome can be used to bludgeon and kill someone — the inability to control the reception of our work is not the chief ethical issue facing anthropologists. I teach US service-members every day; I think there is a big ethical difference between teaching open science to students regardless of their backgrounds or intentions and undertaking closed or secret research-for-hire that is expressly aimed at improving military operations. On top of that, I think anthropologists are well-laced to predict that their work is not going to be used in the rainbows and faeries way McFate promises — that is, to minimize civilian deaths (aside: if your business is minimizing civilian deaths, you have deeper ethical issues to ponder than whether you referenced Evans-Pritchard correctly) — and that it’s much more likely to be used to, I don’t know, improve torture methods or identify probable leaders for incarceration. Hell, even McFate says as much — “If Patai’s book had been used correctly, they would never have done that [sexual hiumiliation as torture].”

  5. oneman,

    Can I assume that, as an “ethicist” of our profession, the “deeper ethical issues” to which you refer in regards to the relation of anthropology and the goal of minimizing civilian death are somehow involved in the issue of whether or not people *understand* Evans-Pritchard (et al) correctly?

    Otherwise, what?

  6. There is something that I don’t get about this debate. The differences between academic anthropological training, anthropological methods, and anthropological knowledge are all somehow elided. For example one primary objection appears to be against knowledge generated by research anthropologists being ‘applied’ by militarists, and by extension also to students trained in the academy finding jobs in the military (perhaps?). Fair enough – to the extent that we academics can control such things, as Kerim notes. But is there also an objection to militarists using some version or perversion of ‘anthropological’ methods? (on which, as Rex pointed out a few posts ago, Anthropologists have no patent). I mean would we be objecting if instead of McFate calling herself an Anthropologist she was a “Cultural Reconnaissance Officer” or some such? To make this simpler let’s consider Dental Torture! If a trained and certified Dentist used his knowledge to become an Army Torturer many would consider this Bad. And no doubt some association of Dentists would issue a statement of condemnation. But if a bunch of nefarious torturers began, of their own accord, to use Dental Knowledge and Dentist Methods to torture informants the Dental Association may not feel any need to comment since these practices would usually be regarded as more generally Bad. Less sensationally is there anything particularly worthy of our comment if army operatives start doing “ethnography” rather than “spying”?

  7. Can I assume that, as an “ethicist” of our profession, the “deeper ethical issues” to which you refer in regards to the relation of anthropology and the goal of minimizing civilian death are somehow involved in the issue of whether or not people understand Evans-Pritchard (et al) correctly?

    Maybe because it’s early (it’s 7:30 am) and my brain isn’t fully booted up yet (damn Windows 98!) I’m completely unsure I understand what the question here is. The point I was making has nothing to do with E-P — that was just the first name that came to mind — but rather was that if your job involves determining an acceptable number of civilian deaths, you’re probably not going to be overly swayed by most of the principles anthropologists have developed to regulate, however minimally, our research activities. That is, you might want to reconsider some life choices before you try to figure out how anthropology (or any other discipline) can help you meet your goals.

  8. Oneman supposes that anthropologists can better help Iraqis by standing around complaining about US policy in Iraq, rather than getting their hands dirty (and possibly their reputations besmirched) engaging the situation where anthropologists could have any possibility at all of making a difference. Certainly that is the safe position to take, and oneman is by no means averse to taking politically and intellectually safe positions within anthropology.

  9. @oneman: Just to be clear: it is the article you linked to which focuses on the (mis)use of anthropological knowledge. This is the only reason I bring it up here. I didn\’t intend it to be a \”starter.\”

  10. Hideaway’s criticism of the anthropological milquetoasts (sorry oneman, but your pantywaisted clinging to “politically and intellectually safe positions” has finally revealed you to be an unfit heir to the Napster) only makes sense if indeed anthropologists can do `good’ by “getting their hands dirty”. McFate’s justification of anthropologists’ involvement with the military is based on the conclusion that they can. How realistic is this? I have no experience with the military, but I have some other experiences which make me skeptical.

    In the Peruvian Amazon basin, where I work, petrochemical companies are very active, exploring and exploiting oil and gas deposits, many of which sit under the lands of indigenous peoples. Consequently, every company has an anthropologist or four. I’ve talked to some of them, and they justify their participation in the petrochemical industry by claiming that their work for the companies makes things better for the indigenous peoples involved. But I honestly cannot see that the anthropologists make any serious impact in this regard. At best, they smooth the interactions between the companies and the communities — but it seems to me that the beneficiary is the company and its supporters, not the communities. Certainly I know of no case where the company has decided *not* to drill or explore, or increase compensation payments to communities, on the basis of the company anthropologists’ advice. This is no surprise to me: these anthropologists are bought and paid for by the companies. Their *job* is to assist with the extraction of petrochemical resources. Their job is to make the *company’s* work easier , *not* to help indigenous peoples. That’s the bottom line, financially and ideologically.

    To return to hideaway’s criticism, then, what `good’ is waiting to be done by military-employed anthropologists? It seems to me, in analogy with the petro anthropologists, what they will do is (try to) make the military’s job easier. Whether or not this counts as a `good’ depends in large part on whether one thinks the goals of the occupation of Iraq are good in the first place. Hence the milquetoastism of which hideaway disapproves. There may be benefits to Iraqis, but aren’t these likely to be essentially ancillary ones that derive from efforts to meet US military and political goals? Its difficult for me to see military anthropologists being driven by the goal to `help’ Iraqis, however that idea is cashed out.

  11. How much damage has the U.S., a blundering giant, done to ordinary Iraqis through plain ignorance? Through mutual misunderstanding?

    Observe the interaction between soldiers on the ground and Iraqis, and tell me that the assistance of an anthropologist could not play a vital role in helping Iraqis and our soldiers coming to terms with each other and preventing un-necessary mutual antagonism.

    Medical professionals face similar ethical dilemmas. I suppose they shouldn’t be in Iraq either.

  12. Perhaps a re-orientation of this debate is in order. The problem with working for the military is that you simply can’t say “NO” and not be court-marshaled. We could not, and should not, suffer such a loss of independence. So, instead of arguing about whether we should or should not be engaged in Iraq (or elsewhere, as the case may be), we should be thinking hard about the terms under which we would be willing to serve.

  13. I agree with lmichael based on similar work on the mining industry in PNG. Wanting to change an organization from the inside is a noble task, but even people at the top tiers of management know how difficult it is to make a serious dent in a company’s orientation (a situation that is even worse in the military). Companies — and the military I imagine — are adept at making anthropologists feel wanted, appreciated, that they are doing important work, etc. etc. and of course its a thrill to be hob nobbing with such important people. But at the end of the day people in these sorts of situations can do little but offer advice, and you need a bigger stick than just good intentions if you really want to change what a large institution thinks. So however well meaning McFate is, I’m incredibly skeptical of her ability to achieve her goal in this case.

  14. Oh my god, did everyone notice in the San Franciso Chronicle article that McFate has been helping write the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual.

    When news of this hits the back country some poor anthropologist is going to get murdered.

    The villagers where I work in Brazil already think anthropologists are spies, now they’ll learn that some of them are and scholars are going to be killed thanks to McFate.

  15. I still think this debate is just about who gets to use the term ‘Anthropologist’ and what the politics of that practice are to be. Objections spring from a defense of the post-colonial critique, where Anthropology is on the side of the little guy and is ‘by nature’ a critique of power (in opposition to its origins in British imperialism… and it is kind of interesting that the US is discovering the importance of culture when facing the exact same “how do we govern these natives” issue faced 100+ years ago by the British).

    But anyway. In terms of how successful McFate will be I think it depends less on her impact on institutional culture, and more on how well her ideas make it into ‘counterinsurgency manuals’, ‘rules of engagement’ and the like. The thing about the Army is that they have strict directives which Must Be Obeyed. These come down from a small pool of individuals.

  16. In 1953 the American Bar Association sponsored the first organized ethnographic study of America’s criminal justice system. By virtue of using ethnographic methods, this study “discovered” that the actual work of front line policing was irreducibly discretionary in nature, and ignorance of this fact within the then-dominant idiom of “law enforcement” (which defined the goals of police policy under the professionalization movement beginning in the 1800s) was a source of fundamental pathology in the way the system operated. Thirty years of intense hard work later, under the idiom of “community policing,” this kind of knowledge had become a dominant paradigm for police policy, the police vocation had new image of its own professional identity which centered on forms of ethnographically-grounded knowledge developed and authorized within a newly invented academic discipline (Criminal Justice), and this combination of new discourses and institutions provided a real foundation for the substantive reform which has succeeded in more effectively matching police work to the requirements of democratic society.

    If with take this as an example of the potentials for positive interaction between ethnographically-based knowledge, scholarly institutions, policy making, and a commitment to ethical goals, then it seems to me that current attempts by well-intentioned do-gooders to proactively keep anthropology from having any kind of engagement with the ethically challenging dimensions of our era are entirely counterproductive.

  17. When I read through the counterinsurgency manual before hearing of McFate I thought that it was written by someone with an understanding of anthropology. Its a very good summary of anthropological theory for the non-specialist with a focus on using culture to manipulate people.

    Flipping through the counterinsurgency manual we find:

    3-36. Once the social structure has been thoroughly mapped out, staffs should identify and analyze the culture of the society as a whole and of each major group within the society. Social structure comprises the relationships among groups, institutions, and individuals within a society; in contrast, culture (ideas, norms,rituals, codes of behavior) provides meaning to individuals within the society. For example, families are a core institutional building block of social structure found everywhere. However, marital monogamy, expectations of a certain number of children, and willingness to live with in-laws are highly variable in different societies. They are matters of culture. Social structure can be thought of as a skeleton, with culture being the muscle on the bones. The two are mutually dependent and reinforcing. A change in one results in a change in the other.
    3-37. Culture is “web of meaning” shared by members of a particular society or group within a society. (See FM 3-05.301/MCRP 3-40.6A.) Culture is—

  18. As an aside. Today, a former soldier in the U.S. military, expressed his total dissatisfaction with his anthropology course (not mine). He also expressed his complete skepticism of the field as a whole. I am certain that he has every intention of making that course the last anthropology course he ever takes.

    And so I can’t help but be thankful that anthropological knowledge has thus been so distilled in a form this student might appreciate. I will send this to him; perhaps he will rethink his opinion of anthropology. More importantly, he might learn something.

  19. Justaguy,

    Nice citation. Brings up another interesting question: what will the effect on the army be of using doctrine based on the unavoidably reflexive concept of culture? That is, if we think from Anderson’s thesis that it was the nationalist framework implicit in colonial historiography which provided young leaders of postcolonial movements the intellectual frame through which to foster their revolutions, by analogy we might wonder what an American military will look like, say twenty years from now, when the entire officer corps has internalized the concept that their own ideological standpoint is based on “values” that are “Changeable,” and “Arbitrary”?

  20. The assistance of an anthropologist could not have played a vital role in helping Iraqis and our soldiers coming to terms with each other and preventing un-necessary mutual antagonism. It’s simply not in the nature of military conflict (certainly not of this one), nor of military institutions. The US went into this war hell-bent on *causing* un-necessary mutual antagonism (is there ever any “necessary” mutual antagonism?) — how is a poor anthropologist (or four), especially one in the pay of the military, going to stand against that.

    Let me reiterate — I have no problem at all with anthropologists teaching military officers, enlistees, consultants, or whomever else. I have no problem with the use of anthropological work by the military, the CIA, etc (or let me rephrase that — I don’t like it, but the openness that allows it is more important than preventing the use of anthropology by people whose uses I don’t like). I *do* have a problem with the idea of anthropology in the service of the military or intelligence apparatus. It hurts anthropology, and it hurts society in general.

    As for the milquetoastiness of anthropology, I’ve personally known anthropologists who have woken up to the sound of bullets pinging off their walls (and gone on to another day’s fieldwork), or who have had guns held to their heads, or who have fled the countries they’ve done research in when some government agent decided they must be CIA. Some of my classmates worked in refugee camps in Colombia, or excavating mass graves in Argentina. Anthropologists are “on the ground”, “getting their hands dirty” every day. I don’t see that joining the Army is the only or even close to the best way to apply anthropology to the world’s problems. There are, of course, anthropologists “on the ground” in Iraq — which raises the question, if anthropology is so essential in Iraq, why isn’t the military reaching out to Iraqi anthropologists? And if they are, whatgood has it done?

  21. oneman,

    What is it exactly that distinguishes “anthropology in the service of the military” from “the use of anthropological work by the military”?

    (By the way, oneman, although I disagree with most of what you have said, I want to say that I am glad you are saying it, out loud, in this forum. I think anthropology needs all the “ethicists” it can get, and by hanging around in public with that lightning-rod on your hat, you are doing a service to the profession. Thanks! – Jeff)

  22. How did Boas put it, “prostituting science?”

    McFate seems to think it was a revelation to understand that different ideologies prevail on all sides of conflicts. Is this the core of her rocket science?

    McFate’s large ego apparently believes that showing how hip she is (or used to be) gives her license to ignore the fact that her secret engagements with the military will damage anthropologists trust around the world, and that she is offering her services to further a series of corrupt wars. She is furthering the Iraq war, her stupid talk about helping end the war is the same as Bush’s talk.

    Wake up McFate: The military will use whatever you give them for their own damned ends. If you believe otherwise you are an arrogant idiot; if you reject this then you are arrogantly historically naive. Either way, your arrogance damns us all.

  23. gives her license to ignore the fact that her secret engagements with the military will damage anthropologists trust around the world, and that she is offering her services to further a series of corrupt wars.

    Question for Krusty: Does this mean that our politics, as a discipline, are dictated by the politics of others?

    Out of fear?

  24. Maybe I should have said “anthropologists in the service of the military”, but no matter now. The central issue here is who controls the production of anthropological knowledge — the anthropologist or the military. We’ve seen time and again (there’s a couple of examples right in this comment thread, but I’ll throw the anthropologists of the Japanese relocation camps in for good measure) how anthropologists — well-intentioned anthropologists with every desire to help the people they’re studying — have seen their work distorted, cherry-picked, or ignored by their paymasters. In the WRA camps, one anthropologist loudly predicted that the loyalty oath requirements would lead to riots; he was almost removed from the camps. Never mind that he was right.

    The problem is, anthropology in the service of the military is created, consumed, and evaluated not as anthropology but as military policy. Now, I can imagine a warm and fuzzy military where the total-context view that anthropology brings to the table (and which would necessarily include the role of military action in creating the problems that the anthropologist would be expected to solve) would be embraced, but that is imaginary — that is not *our* military. I can also imagine an anthropologist who would consistently and effectively ignore the demands put on her or him as an agent of the military, who would in effect speak truth to power, but that, too, is imaginary — even if s/he exists (it’s not me, and it pr’y isn’t you) s/he would be immediately marginalized.

    The other aspect of all this is the closed-ness — the removal of military/intelligence work from the community of anthropologists (and other social scientists, too). Who is there to tell the military anthropologist that s/he is wrong in her/his anthropology? Who is there to provide the counter-argument?

    I know, I know, I’m hopelessly post-modern — but remember, the US military (and the government in general) are a THOUSAND TIMES more post-modern than I am. I talk about people making their own contexts of interpretation; they talk about creating their own REALITY. Well-placed members of our administration are STILL talking about the WMD’s we know Iraq has! For that matter, we not only went to war in Iraq (what could the reality-based anthropologist have offered to forestall that?) but we’re STILL at war in Iraq.

    Yes, I think it would be great to kill less people, especially for the people who wouldn’t have been killed. But for the science that studies people to get into the people-killing business (and the military has no other role) is hardly the most productive use of our expertise.

  25. Oneman:

    If our military’s only role was to kill people then it would have simply nuked Iraq into oblivion, or failed in its role.

    Anyway, to repeat the question: what role should anthropologists play in Iraq?

  26. But for the science that studies people to get into the people-killing business (and the military has no other role) is hardly the most productive use of our expertise

    If our military’s only role was to kill people then it would have simply nuked Iraq into oblivion, or failed in its role.

    Anyway, to repeat the question: what role should anthropologists play in Iraq?

  27. You can think of another role the military serves? They’re not in Iraq on a whim — they are there becuase the US has policy goals in Iraq that they knew could not be achieved without killing people. They aren’t rebuilding the infrastructure — we brought in contractors to do that. They aren’t running Iraq’s economy — we brought in investors to do that. They aren’t running the government — we brought in diplomats (using the term loosely) to do that. The military is still around because there’s still some people that need killing.

    Of course, I exaggerate — there’s all sorts of other coercive violence that falls under the military aegis, too. I didn’t mean to shortchange imprisonment, harassment, and intimidation — these are all important military roles. But frankly, if the distribution of flowers were the US policy intent, we’d have sent in FTD, not the Army.

    I don’t have time for the “what should the role of anthros be” — it’s the last week of classes, and I’m mad busy. Maybe you or others want to share your ideas? In a nutshell, I have no objection to anthros working in Iraq — it’s the attachment of anthros to the military/intelligence apparatus I object to. Where anthros can act in ways that are dictated by the needs of anthropology and not by the needs of the military, I’m pretty comfortable.

  28. “The central issue here is who controls the production of anthropological knowledge”

    As far as I have been able to figure it out, nobody, or rather no single agency “controls” the production of knowledge. Knowledge arises as an embedded element of the way human interaction is organized. In fact, I would take this observation as one of the core operating-hypothesis of anthropology, at least my particular version of it. I simply can’t fathom what kind of epistemological foundation you are using to arrive at your suggestion that “anthropological knowledge” is something that even could be “controlled,” let alone a proposal that somebody should design a system by which an “ethically” motivated control of scholarship is achieved.

    Or maybe that’s not what you are advocating? You mention that another problem you see is the “removal” of anthropologists from the wider anthropological community. Does this means that rather than trying to control the production of knowledge we should be fostering open and active communication throughout the wider profession, and ensuring that anthropologists working with the military are not ostracized from the AAA?

  29. This debate still confuses me.

    I see a certain set of arguments made against anthropologists working for the military.

    1: As per the blog quote in the linked article from the OP, anthros working for the military are “supporting domination.”
    2: Your work will be used to further torture and warcrimes.
    3: You’ll make people world-wide believe that we’re spies of the american government.
    4: You’re violating ethical obligations about subject consent.
    5: If you’re working for a government you’re not really “doing anthropology.”

    Several of these seem immediately implausible. Others seem far more reaching than the people advancing them are willing to concede.

    In simple response,

    1: Is there any reason this argument applies only to anthropologists? Isn’t this argument really just a fancy way of saying that its immoral to join the US Army? If so, fine, that’s your opinion. But it doesn’t seem like people are really advancing that line, even though it seems implied.
    2: Same response as to argument 1. If some second lieutenant arrests someone knowing that person is going to be jailed by the US Army, this would seem to further any warcrimes being perpetrated upon arrested persons far more than some advisor giving general advice on culture. Is this critique intended?
    3: Possible, but how likely is this? Are conclusions that anthropologists are spies really generated by reflection upon world news regarding anthropologists? Or is the explanation more local? Are these fears even specific to anthropologists per se, or just any westerner prying around asking questions? I’m not asking rhetorically, I really don’t know.
    4: It seems that some effort needs to be extended to explain why these ethical obligations would apply in wartime to an employee of the military. Do they apply because the person in question is “doing anthropology?” Because they have a degree in anthropology? Ethical obligations depend on context. What moral duty gives rise to this ethical obligation, and is it present in this context? If so, is it held exclusively by anthropologists, and if so, why?
    5: It seems this is just boundary guarding academic behavior. There’s a difference between academic and applied research. Most fields acknowledge this without difficulty, I’m sure anthropology can do the same. A social scientist who resigns his academic post and starts working for Planned Parenthood doesn’t cease being a social scientist. They cease being an academic, but that’s too obvious for words.

  30. Jeff M. — knowledge production isn’t like a tap you turn on and voila! Knowledge! Knowledge, whether anthropological or otherwise, is produced within social contexts, so yes, I’d say it does matter what the context of its creation is. More importantly, though, I am arguing for open and active communication among researchers. However, as warm and loving as we non-military anthros are to the military anthros, you know this is still not going to be a reality. What sort of publication policy do you think the CIA could allow for its anthropologists? What kind of peer review — not to mention the kind of open review some of us open science advocates would like to see — do you think Army Intelligence is going to agree to? How does military anthropology knowledge feed back into the discipline as a whole? How is it compared to and critiqued against the body of anthropological knowledge? What interest does the military or the intelligence community have in contributing to the growth of anthropological knowledge?

    OK, that’s the theoretical. Here’s the practical: with few exceptions (McFate’s *not* one of them) anthropologists working under the sort of control the military must necessarily impose have not produced much of anthropological import. They haven’t produced much at all, actually. Sticking with the WRA anthros I’ve already mentioned, what was added to our understanding of Japanese or Japanese-American culture by their work? Do you see it referenced anywhere? In the end, around a dozen or so anthros working over several years failed to produce more than a handful of publishable work, and what they did produce is mostly forgettable. As I said above, it is possible that a super-anthro exists out there that could work under the umbrella of the military and produce useful, meaningful, important work — possible, but unlikely. It’s true, I’m only saying that because nobody ever has, but that’s good enough, I think.

  31. Patrick,

    McFate isn’t giving general advice on culture. She is giving tactical advice about how to dismantle insurgent networks, and teaching soldiers to use anthropological understandings of identity and culutre to manipulate populations.

    Psychologists and doctors are involved in torture in Iraq, Guantanamo and elsewhere. These professions have ethical guidelines, and such activities are, in my mind, pretty clear cut violations of them. Are thre ethical guidelines that anthropologists should adhere to? If so, McFate’s work should be evaluated by them.

    A doctor’s concern is with people’s well being. Thus, doing violence to that through working with torturers is unethical. The fact that a doctor is in the military doesn’t remove him from ethical obligations, nor does the fact that a war is going on. Saying that doctors shouldn’t be complicit with torture isn’t a condemnation of anyone who enters the military, or a statement against war.

    Anthropologists are concerned with communities. How suggesting that anthropologists should infiltrate and control communities not problematic?

    If I were to manipulate people in order to get information for my dissertation research, that would be an ethical problem. Why would it be any less of an ethical problem if I was sending people with guns out to do my manipulating for me, and if people were getting killed as a result?

    The medical analogy isn’t perfect because the rules of ethical behavior aren’t spelled out in as explicit detail, there aren’t licenses or boards that could strip you of your professional credentials. Is there any negative sanctions for extreemly unethical behavior besides being shunned out of the academy?

    She is arguing that what she is doing is anthropology. Why shouldn’t it be evaluated as such?

  32. She is arguing that what she is doing is anthropology. Why shouldn’t it be evaluated as such?

    This is the crux of the matter, and it is something that everyone seems to be ignoring in order to score really dull and obvious political and ‘ethical’ points (i.e. Harm is Bad).

    She clearly isn’t doing Anthropology in the sense that Oneman and others mean it – she won’t contribute to the disciplinary literature or add anything to the academy. But then neither will ‘anthropologists’ working for advertising agencies, or McDonalds. Their work is also secret and proprietary, and is also about the manipulation of subject populations. The military and corporations are starting to use anthropological types of thinking, practice, and research more and more – but that doesn’t make them Anthropologists. Torturers are not Dentists or Psychologists just because they work on the teeth and the mind. If you define Anthropology as a collection of ethical practitioners serving informant communities (and uh, their own career paths) then McFate can’t be one, but if you define it as a collection of methods, frameworks and ways of thinking then the whole debate is just posturing. Some people see themselves as outside society as social critics, others see themselves as working within society according to pre-existing structures. Each will use what they know, and what they have learned at University, differently.

  33. Oneman writes

    As I said above, it is possible that a super-anthro exists out there that could work under the umbrella of the military and produce useful, meaningful, important work—possible, but unlikely. It’s true, I’m only saying that because nobody ever has, but that’s good enough, I think.

    Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Far more widely read, discussed, critiqued than 99.9% of anthropological publications. Hugely influential on decades of research, in other fields as well as anthropology. Still cited in, get this, Japanese textbooks, where extracts (in Japanese translation) are still part of the high school curriculum.

    One could, I suppose, argue that Benedict was only a civilian contractor, but….

  34. Justaguy- you are begging the question. Ethical obligations arise out of moral fundamentals. What is there about an anthropologist that makes them uniquely unable to ethically assist their country’s military in warfare that does not also apply to a soldier?

    Just stating “our profession has ethical obligations and she has to follow them” doesn’t get anywhere. That’s just reasserting the conclusion, and frankly, seems like a word game about her job title. Surely her ethical obligations regarding warfare stem from something other than the title on her business card.

    Also, you keep using the torture issue as if it strengthens your argument, or perhaps adds more moral weight to your position. It doesn’t. This argument actually undermines you. The issue is, “What moral principle is it that makes an anthropologist’s use of anthropological techniques and knowledge in the service of warfare impermissable yet which does not render impermissible any other person’s use of their respective means and knowledge in the service of that same war? And if no such difference exists, are you willing to admit that your argument is not really about anthropologist as anthropologists, but rather a general critique of anyone at all joining the military?”

    Using torture as your watchword undermines the idea that a difference exists between an anthropologist joining the military in order to act as a military anthropologist versus a young man joining the military to act as a soldier. Presumably you feel that it is impermissible for both the anthropologist and the young soldier to abet torture. You are therefore pointing out a similarity, not a difference.

    If you really think its wrong for anyone to join the army, I want you to bite the bullet and say so.

  35. As this conversation goes on, I am getting the sense that a big part of our problems are coming out of inadequacies in the simple metaphors we are using to describe the complex relationships that exist between knowledge and context, and between knowledge and power. For example, Justaguy, it is inconceivable that you would be able to do your dissertation research without “manipulating” people. You are working to author a particular kind of representation of other people’s lives: you will “manipulate” them to answer questions that interest you, and you will go on to investigate these answers in ways that exceed your interlocutors’ immediate intent. And you are right, this will raise ethical problems. You will discover politics everywhere, the idea of “community” is a cover underneath which fester all variety of inequality and oppression. Who you choose to listen to, and what you choose to say about them, will have consequences. If you are as unlucky, as most of us are, truly significant ethical problems will occasionally attach themselves to you, like traffic accidents: entirely-context-dependent coincidences in which an overwhelming moment of confusion and ambiguity suddenly resolves itself into a predicament of great consequence, with you at its center. It is entirely possible to find yourself in situations so ethically complex that there is no unproblematic solution available. “Who can I tell of what I have witnessed? What will the consequences be of telling? What will the consequences be of not telling?” No matter what you do, somebody is hurt, and you will never again be so confident of your own moral autonomy.

    Of course, if you are working on this dissertation at an American university, you have a Human Subjects Board that addresses itself to these sorts of ethical problems. However, this institution will give you no help when you find yourself in the jaws of a real ethical challenge. The institution is not intended to be a resource for helping you deal with ethical complexity. It is designed to protect the university from exposure to legal actions that might arise from your activities. If you confront real ethical complexity, you will discover that dealing with the Human Subjects Committee will increase rather than decrease the difficulty of your situation.

    Why are we talking about applying the same type of institutional ass-covering logic to the infinitely more acute (and historically consequential) ethical problems involved in doing anthropology under contemporary conditions, where the prevention of harm is increasingly losing its status as a hegemonic principle? I find it simply weird to hear people advocating that “Anthropology” needs to be protected from association with people who apply its methodologies and theories to a certain kind of subject-matter, or towards the pursuit of a certain kind of practical goal.

    By the way, models of medical ethics based on “no-harm justification” can be inadequate and counterproductive when crudely applied to social work conducted in contexts of value pluralism, i.e. where there is no singular definition of harm which could serve as the analogue to “sickness.” David Thacher (U Mich. Public Administration) has an excellent series of articles documenting real problems that have arisen from this kind of thinking, including “Policing is not Treatment: Alternatives to the Medical Model of Police Research” (2001, Journal of Crime and Delinquency).

  36. Benedict’s C&S was the reason I allowed for “few exceptions”.

    McFate’s work isn’t evaluated as anthropology because it isn’t available as anthropology. Her published material is all advocacy, with no ethnographic or otherwise anthropological data cited. I’m sure she has material that is not publicly available that makes use of her training, but none of us have access to that material.

    Which is kinda my point..

  37. Oneman,

    The origins of C&S are less an exception than a certain kind of rule. Geertz’ early work can be considered another example. From his reminiscence in 2002 Annual Review of Anthropology: “The Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which I mentioned earlier as part of the cluster of social science holding-companies emerging in post-war Cambridge, was set up in 1952 as a combination intelligence gathering and policy planning organization dedicated to providing political and economic advice both to the rapidly expanding U.S. foreign aid program and to those it was ostensibly aiding—the “developing,” “under-developed,” or, for the less sanguine, “backward” countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. At first, the Center, something of an anomaly in an engineering school not much given at that time to social studies of any sort, was hardly more than a secretary, a suite of offices, a name, a large amount of money, and a national agenda. In an effort simply to get it up and running, Kluckhohn, who, still moving in mysterious ways, had again been somehow involved in its formation, proposed that a team of doctoral candidates from Harvard social science departments be formed and sent to Indonesia under its auspices to carry out field research in cooperation with students from that country’s new, European-style universities.”That this was the way it was done everywhere “areas” were “studied,” and that Geertz’ term “intelligence gathering” can accurately be read as a reference to the state security apparatus, is documented by Bruce Cumings in his “Boundary Displacement: The State, the Foundations, and Area Studies During and after the Cold War,” (2002, in Miyoshi & Harootunian, Learning Places).

    Government money can’t keep its genies entirely in their bottles, apparently. Either that, or maybe they actually do want to encourage discussion …

  38. Jeff M,

    Although I have qualms about the effect government support of the type that Geertz’s early work had on the development of the discipline as a whole, this conversation is not about funding, it’s about anthropological research from within the military apparatus. Geertz’s program was funded by military/intelligence sources, but Geertz did not *answer to* his funders — he published widely and his work is only answerable to the anthropological community. If Geertz is to be believed, he did not really understand the extent to which the government was involved in backing his work (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that about the same time questions about such backing became really prominent in the discipline, Geertz’s work shifted to the kind of stuff that has no immediate military/intelligence application). This is not at all the kind of arrangement that McFate is advocating, with anthropologists working directly within and under the military. Again, it’s telling that we have simply no idea what kind of anthropology McFate does — while we have a quite thorough anthropological literature from Geertz.

  39. I just watched the AAA Ad Hoc Committee video linked above. This meeting looks like it was set up to keep regular anthropologists away so that military employees could have their say. Does anyone know who thought it would be a good idea for this committee to meet at an academic military center like Watson Institute? Who paid for all these non anthropologists and military anthropologists to attend? Why is the committee getting so much input from such a heavy selection of people working for the military? Isn’t there anyone on the committee who opposes anthropologists working for the CIA? Something funny is going on here, I guess we’ll have an even more exciting AAA business meeting this year if this committee brings in the sort of report it looks like they they’re going to.

  40. Patrick,

    I mentioned doctors participating in torture because it is a clear violation of medical ethics. If someone who is not a doctor assists torture, it may be morally wrong, but it is not a violation of medical ethics. I wasn’t suggesting that McFate is involved in torture, or any war crimes – I think that its reasonable to give her the benefit of the doubt on that. I was suggesting that, just as doctors in the army are still bound by the ethics of their profession, so too should anthropologists.

    Either you believe that there are ethical standards to which anthropologists should be held, or you don’t. If you do, than McFate, as an anthropologist, should be judged by them. A non-anthropologists cannot be judged by them. If someone who isn’t an anthropologist goes around disrupting other people’s communities in the service of a foreign occupation, I can say a lot of negative things about them. “That’s something that you, as an anthropologist, should be doing” is not one of them.

    I don’t think that its wrong for anyone to join the army. I don’t recall ever saying that. I do think that the current use that the army is being put to in Iraq is bad for both the army and Iraq.

  41. Jeff M,

    I definitely agree with your description of ethical complexity and power issues involved in all anthropological resaerch. But I think that the difference between military and civilian anthropology is one of type, and not degree. The power relations that McFate is negotiating are between people who are heavily armed, and she is not trying to study a given people for its own sake (something that is, indeed, much more problematic than that), she is trying to impose a political system on them. That process is happening in a way that has killed, injured and displaced several million Iraqis. What her ultimate impact will be on that violence is hard to say. The fact that she is furthering violence and domination through her work is hard to avoid.

    Yes, we enter into the lives of our informants and have an impact on them, all human interaction involves power and some degree of manipulation. Sure. But any manipulation that I am likely to be doing will probably not involve directing large numbers of people with guns to infiltrate a given community in order to impose a political order on them.

    I’ve had people manipulate me through using their status as a researcher, and I’ve had people manipulate me by putting a gun to my head. They are two very different things. I think that issues of power in anthropological work are of a different type, not degree, when they start involving blowing things up and killing people.

    McFate is, through her work, doing just that. She is arguing that insurgent groups be disrupted through disrupting their ties to social organizations that sustain them. How do you expect that to be accomplished?

    I’m not saying that it isn’t necessary to be aware of ethical issues in everyday research situations. It is. But I think that it’s a stretch to suggest that these ethical issues overlap with military anthropology.

    And you’re right, “anthropology” doesn’t need to be protected from anyone. “Medicine” doesn’t have to be protected from malpractice, patients do. Anthropology won’t be harmed by McFate’s in quite the same way that individual Iraqis will, and that’s who I’m worried for.

  42. Justaguy- You’re still not answering the question. Any ethical standards to which anthropologists ought be held must originate somewhere. They must originate from some moral commitment, or some accepted obligation, or *something.* They don’t just exist like an objective facet of nature. I’ve read a lot here about an ethical obligation not to assist torture, ethical obligations not to use anthropological research against the subjects of that research, and on and on. What I haven’t heard is an explanation of *why any of these obligations exist* that *uniquely applies* to *anthropologists* simply because they are anthropologists, and which applies in this particular context.

    Arguments like “anthropologists shouldn’t support torture” are, I presume, underpinned by moral claims like “torture is bad.” That’s fair. But that also applies to non-anthropologists. If its wrong for McFate to assist in a counter-insurgency because she’s supporting torture (if in fact this is the case), then it would therefore be wrong of her to do this regardless of her status as an anthropologist. And it would likewise be wrong for other people, say, soldiers, to do the same. So to the extent that someone’s position is “McFate shouldn’t work for the military because she’s supporting torture and torture is morally wrong,” then the logical consequence of that position is “Nobody at all should work for the military because they’d be supporting torture and torture is morally wrong.”

    If the ethical obligation to not join the military is created by issues of subject consent to anthropological research, it would be interesting to consider whether consent is or is not being obtained for this research- and whether comparable, or even less pleasant, things are being done to Iraqis without their consent. If so, the consent argument would imply that these things are also wrong, and that whoever is doing them should stop.

    If I may make my own anthropological claim, it would seem that what is going on in this thread is less an attempt at hashing out an anthropologists ethical obligations than an attempt at crafting and maintaining a taboo- a place where the thoughts of decent persons shall not tread.

  43. A heads up for those who are interested (not me, really) The June issue of Anthropology Today has a special section on this stuff, including articles and comment by McFate and David Price. The editor says:

    “To provide a window on how anthropological research, and that of other social and behavioural sciences, is being appropriated in war, this issue of ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY features articles dealing with their use in two areas of warfare, namely interrogation and counterinsurgency.”

  44. “It’s a fairly good article, even though I’m only quoted once (Stannard apparently has not been taught the maxim that the more quotes of me a paper has, the better it is).”

    Oh, stop yer whining! Matt interviewed me for nearly an hour for the story and didn’t use ANYTHING!

  45. Steve, I’m sorry to hear that, but are you sure that the more quotes by you the better an article is? See, I have a maxim, so that’s pretty sold — perhaps you should look into getting one, too?

    Still, reporters don’t always know the maxims, so they overlook such an easy way of improving the quality of their work…

Comments are closed.