A few months ago, in a November 2006 post reflecting on the twin Gonzalez-Lin resolutions against the war in Iraq and the use of anthropological knowledge in torture, Rex asked whether anthropologists might be in danger of generating more heat than light. I’ve asked myself the same question. Ever since Sy Hersh published his three-part series on Abu Ghraib in 2004, anthropologists have been worried about the involvement of their counterparts in torture, or the use of ethnographic information in torture. But aside from a lot of people quoting Sy Hersh, over and over and over again, I’ve come across no corroborating evidence of a link between anthropology and Abu Ghraib – or even in plain old GWOT interrogation, for that matter.
As I discuss in an upcoming short piece in Anthropology News (likely to be published in October), I wrote Hersh a letter and asked him to comment on the link between Patai and torture. He actually called me back in July to tell me that he doesn’t think that Patai’s book played a role in Abu Ghraib (yes, you read that right). When I told him that anthropologists took his claims in “The Gray Zone” very much to heart, and that we’d even put forth resolution against the use of anthropological knowledge in torture, Hersh seemed genuinely surprised, and pointed out that he’d never actually written any such thing. Which, strictly speaking, is true. Read the piece here.
So here’s my plea: don’t point to Hersh as evidence of ethnographically informed torture, and when people do point to Hersh’s article as evidence of such, question whether or not there’s anything to corroborate the claim. If you want to go the extra mile, then dig into the documents yourself. There’s plenty of documentation out there that supports research into the problem of ethnographically informed torture. Several organizations, including the Center for Public Integrity, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, and the ACLU all maintain extensive electronic archives of FOIA’d documents around interrogation and detention operations involving the DoD, the intelligence community, and the FBI. In 4000-plus pages of reading, I’ve seen no evidence of anthropologists being involved in torture or interrogation. In fact, I’d have to characterize anthropology as conspicuously absent from detention and interrogation operations.
But that doesn’t mean culture isn’t important. Indeed, the Global War on Terrorism constitutes a cultural encounter of some kind – we just haven’t figured out what, precisely, that means. There’s an opportunity for excellent critique, but making our critique relevant requires some new thinking about our own “sources and methods,” to borrow a term from the intelligence community.
In this regard, I liked Keith Brown and Catherine Lutz’s recent article on “grunt lit,” in which they describe soldiers as the “participant-observers of empire” (2007). They argue that anthropologists should pay more attention to soldiers’ memoirs as a window into the confusing and contradictory microdynamics of empire. In doing so, we might learn a lot about the instantiation of empire and the shifting identity of the American nation-state in the post-Cold war, post 9-11 era.
I’ve come to think of the thousands of pages of memos, emails, depositions, forms, reports in the FOIA collections as the electronic precipitates of the Global War on Terrorism. As such, they offer a glimpse into the nature of American empire – which is, among other things, a bewildering conundrum of personnel, agencies, policies, procedures, acronyms, directives, rosters, and the like. In detention and interrogation operations, this Gordian knot of bureaucracy is unleashed on enemy combatants and prisoners of war, most of whom seem to hail from Arabic-speaking regions of Central Asia and the Middle East.
This is where anthropology comes in, but not as instrumentally or formally as many anthropologists seem to have assumed. It’s not that the military-intelligence-security apparatchik systematically sought anthropologists (or even ethnography) to play the role of cultural seer in interrogation. Rather, what’s anthropologically interesting is the way that people within the bureaucracy are actively engaged in making sense of an alien Other, and in doing so, are formulating their own theories and understandings about what makes this Other tick. Moreover, there’s evidence that the Other is engaged in reciprocal effort vis-a-vis guards and interrogators. As such, interrogation itself constitutes a sociocultural encounter of an astoundingly complicated kind. I’ll be writing more about this topic for my next post, using a couple of examples from a collection of FBI observations about detainee treatment at Guantanamo, and talking a bit about Robert Rubinstein’s ideas about culture in peacekeeping operations in a forthcoming book of his.