Some general thoughts about anthropology, interrogation, and torture

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.

41 thoughts on “Some general thoughts about anthropology, interrogation, and torture

  1. I’ve read Laura’s piece with interest. But I wonder ons everal points, not being american, so her points seem inconclusive. Firstly, ” Global war on terroism’ is an
    Amecican phrase not accepted by most other nations. Secondly, I must ask how U.S. G.I.s encounters with enemy combantants serves as “cultural encounters”? Finally, I am impressed by Laura’s work and thopse who have supported her here on Savage Minds. But I wish to make a final point. When 9/11 occured, I heard many students say America got what it deserved. There is not a lot of sympanthy for Americans (no matter what stripe–republican, democrat, socialist). So agian I ask, how can anthropologists (especially American anthropologists) express their views?

  2. Perhaps I am not understanding something with my English, but here in Norway we have seeing a news program interivewing an American interrogator from Abu Ghraib who has a book about interrogating. In his interview he says clearly that in his training he was given the Arab Mind to read. This authors book is called, Fear Up Harsh and is famous in Europe. Perhaps they do not allow it in America, but you need to be reading it so that you will keep claiming no anthropology used to train torturors. Where exactly has Mr. Hersh claimed he does not believe the Arab Mind influenced those in charge of torturers?

  3. Ava – Actually, I did indeed read Fear Up Harsh, and I’ve listened to most of the interviews that Lagouranis has given. And you’re right – Tony Lagouranis does indeed speak of reading The Arab Mind. And, as many have pointed out, the book appears on a number of military reading lists (and there are dozens of these lists; they’re a core element of US military’s professional military education programs), along with Bernard Lewis, Karen Armstrong, even Edward Said.

    However, Tony Lagouranis was not involved in the events at Abu Ghraib that Hersh was writing about, as Lagouranis himself makes very clear. Lagouranis’ descriptions of mistreatment are confined to physical abuse, not sexual torture or blackmail, which is what happened during the torture incidents depicted in the photos that set of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Secondly, the way Lagouranis talks about Patai’s book is quite different than the allegations that Hersh makes. Lagouranis describes Patai’s book as reinforcing his fellow interrogators’ preconceived notions about Arab thinking, not as feeding into torture strategies. As he writes on page 18, “The central problem with The Arab Mind… was the way [it] set up Arabs as distant from and alien to the “Western mind.” He goes on to describe the stereotyping that characterized his fellows’ perceptions of a fictional Arab psychology. Interestingly, when Lagouranis speaks of torture techniques, he points to Mark Bowden’s article “The Dark Art of Interrogation” in the Atlantic Monthly, as well as the TV show “Twenty Four.” He doesn’t link Patai to torture in the way that Hersh does, so he can’t really be used as a corroborating source. The accounts just don’t fit each other.

    The other interesting thing about Lagouranis is the way he describes how interrogators share ideas about “what works” in getting information from detainees. From what I’ve read in the FOIA documents I’ve gone through, you can see people on the ground forming their own theories about what constitutes the ‘culture’ of the people they’re encountering, and exchanging these theories in a very instrumental way. I don’t see that they’re systematically informed by anthropology or anthropologists. Psychology, now, that’s another story….

  4. Oh, and one other thing I forgot to mention about Lagouranis: when he speaks of the the ‘military’s obsession with this book,’ he cites none other than… Seymour Hersh.

  5. It’s pretty clear to me that anthropological literature plays almost no part in current interrogation by the US– but this should be clearly distinguished, as Laura suggests, from the fact that current US torturers make use of limited and ad hoc cultural knowledge as part of their arsenal. This is what I take Laura to mean by torture as a cultural encounter. It’s a provocative point: torturers are ethnographers– think of them as PhD students who haven’t done a proper literature review or passed their qualifying exams. They are out there in the field making claims and applying knowledge without our help– and that is what makes the Abu Graib torture so scandalous.

    Ironically, the same thing might be said of the wide world of Human Rights protection: they are also ethnographers without warrant. Most human rights organizations, and the claims and demands they make in the name of people are not based on contemporary anthropological research but on a mixture of humanistic philosophy and ad hoc observation.

    there are two other reasons why I doubt anthropology would have much relevance to torturers (or their critics) on the ground:

    1. Anything that would be sort of handbook-ish enough to be used by interrogators is also most likely going to be old. The age of PhD students writing books like “The Social World of The Sunni Iraqi” are almost gone, I’m afraid, which means that such books where they exist are both dated and probably inaccurate in some, perhaps many, respects (which of course does not prevent anyone of from using them as if accurate, pace Donald Moore’s example of the book about Shona Customary Law turning up in his field).

    2. Work in psychology, or that borderline place where psychology and anthropology overlap, seems far, far more relevant to the task at hand. As Laura suggests obliquely and ominously, the use of psychology research in torture swamps that of anthropology. The tendency to individualize culture in the manner of, for instance, evolutionary psychology, is very far from current disciplinary practice in anthropology, which is more likely to paint complex pictures of a conscience collective than it is to detail the cultural pressure points of an Iraqi or Afghani detainee. Hence, evolutionary psychology, cultural psychology and other fields directly concerned with individual behavior are more likely useful than most of anthropology.

  6. Why bury Lagouranis in all this? You seem distraught that his work complicates your denials about the Arab Mind being used by interrogators. Lagouranis says it was used to inform interrogators, why all the fuss about Hersh if these facts are indeed true?

  7. but the “facts” are not true… they don’t even seem to be facts! Lagouranis is citing Hersh who is merely intimating that the Arab Mind was used in interrogation. It’s a non-starter anyways. Even if Raphael Patai’s book represented anthropology or anthropological knowledge in any meaningful way, which it really doesn’t, then it is the only smoking gun anyone can find, and it’s stone cold.

  8. What ckelty has to say reminds me, in many respects, of how the corporate world often appropriates ethnography to understand consumers. The anthropological texts are out there, but it often takes so much work and expertise to distill and translate the “culture” inside academic ethnographies into simple and usable codes that people instead turn to psychology texts about national cultures or opt for much more simple texts by non-anthropologist anthropologists (kind of para-ethnographers) who often write about a sort of “neo-tribalism.” clotaire rapaille, anyone?

    By the way, if torturers are like anthropology grad students in-training, what does that make anthropologists?

  9. ckelty doesn’t know what s/he is talking about, and I’m beginning to wonder about Laura too, given how she conveniently left Lagouranis out of her initial presentation.

    Lagouranis is NOT citing Hersh. Did you even read the book, or are you just spouting anything you can that helps you claim there are no connections between anthropology and torture? Read the book and you will see that when Lagouranis underwent training to work on interrogations in Iraq his training included basic racist misrepresentations about Arab culture right out of “The Arab Mind.” This is not “citing Hersh,” it is citing his own experience. Read the book.

  10. Actually, I’ve read the book several times, and Langouranis DOES cite Hersh. I believe it’s on page 18, though you might have missed it because it’s a footnote. And as I made clear above, Langouranis indeed speaks of reading Patai himself (he’s mentioned it in a couple of interviews, too).

    I am NOT trying to downplay Langouranis’ account. On the contrary, it’s fascinating, and I’ve even tried to get in touch with Langouranis to interview him about his experience (so far, no dice, though John Conroy has been kind enough to try to reach him for me). Also, I’m actually using the Lutz/Brown article I mentioned above to frame a discussion of Langouranis for an article I’m developing.

    But Langouranis’s discussion of stereotypes is hardly confined to any reading of Patai’s book: instead, his account is fascinating for the window it gives into the many, many ways in which he details what we might call the social construction of The Enemy in his training and deployment. And that’s what anthropology is about, isn’t it? Holism. If Patai is only one piece of Langouranis’ experience, then why privilege it?

    Along those lines, consider this simple and radical question – the one I started asking myself a year or so ago, when I really started to think about Patai, Hersh, and Abu Ghraib: why should anyone, particularly scholars, take the single anonymous quotation of a single journalist (Hersh) at face value?

    I am NOT asking this as an opening to a torture-denial argument. Abu Ghraib was horrific, and it’s precisely for that reason that we need to be thorough and rigorous in how we approach the threefold problem of torture, detention, and interrogation in the so-called “Global” War on Terrorism (I do agree with the first commentator about that point).

    In short, Stelid, I’m arguing that we need to strengthen our work in this area by taking the time to gather evidence, assess it using the very powerful frames that we’ve got, and come out swinging with a critique backed by solid scholarship. I’m really impressed by the very, very good work that psychologists and lawyers, articularly the NYC Bar Association’s Committee on Human Rights, have done on this topic. Their documentation is astoundingly thorough. They draw on disciplinary tools (methods and theories), lots of primary sources, and publish fabulous and hard-hitting critique. Read Phil Zimbardo’s book or the NYC Bar Association’s assessments. They’re beautifully researched and written, and they’re impossible to ignore (see

    This is a very complicated problem, and there is a LOT of material out there to chew on, and given that this is a blog, I’m trying to be clear and clean in each of my posts. Hersh set off an interesting discussion that got anthropologists thinking about torture, but the discusison didn’t go as far as it needs to. I don’t see that anthropology is making effective use of the frames and methods that it has to make sense the problem of interrogation and detention. To me, the entire problem of interrogation represents a window of opportunity for making anthropological critique really relevant, and as I’ve written in my post, there’s lots of material out there for people to chew on. Why stop at Hersh or Langouranis?

  11. I did cite Hersh, but only as support for my assertion that the military was using Patai to develop torture techniques. I don’t think Private England or Sgt Grainer ever read The Arab Mind, but the people they were taking their cues from had. I assure you that we used that book in order to develop methods to torture detainees. At Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Interrogators were desperate for any information into the culture of the people we were questioning and we looked to any source we could find.

    Before posting this I spoke to another interrogator who employed torture in Iraq to verify that he studied Patai. He said yes. This is not a disputable point.

  12. Tony, I am so glad to hear from you. I’d asked John Conroy to contact you to see if I could talk to you. Would you mind emailing me off list at so I can talk to you about this? Thanks. Laura

  13. If that really is the real Tony Lagouranis, then all of Laura’s claims have been cut to shreds. If this is the case, then can see why she didn’t mention Lagouranis until forced to do so by others. If she really is going to publish all her claims, what will Hersh have to say about her claims?

  14. First off, Tony (assuming this is indeed Tony Lagouranis), I thought Fear Up Harsh was fabulous. I’m NOT attacking your book, nor – as I wrote above – do I feel any need to downplay it. In fact, I was planning to devote an entire blog post to it (and I probably will). I’ve also followed your eloquent and very consistent public statements (e.g., Amy Goodman, John Conroy, Frontline, Hardball, The New York Times, Fox Chicago, Margot Adler, and KUOW). As I’ve written above, I’m using a lot of your ideas in an article I’m working on, and I’d love to interview you (hence my attempt through John Conroy).

    In any case, your post above is a little different from the way you’ve talked about Patai in other contexts. You write, “I did cite Hersh, but only as support for my assertion that the military was using Patai to develop torture techniques…. I assure you that we used that book to develop methods to torture detainees.”

    Now, please remember that I’m working from your book and a subset of the many interviews you’ve given, and I’ve not interviewed you, so I could easily be missing something… but in Fear Up Harsh, I don’t see where you assert that Patai was used to develop torture techniques – at least not on pages 16-19, where I noted that you cite Hersh in describing “the military’s obsession with the book.”

    Instead, you write eloquently about how the psychologist giving a “prejudice- laden lecture” about Arab psychology referred to Patai as a source for ideas that you obviously find ridiculous…like a putative Arab sense of time, that they rely on metaphor, prefer beauty to truth, that they don’t have taboos about lying, etc…(17). Now, you do write that you saw officers referring to the book’s “sweeping judgments” as “practical advice.” If that’s what you mean by torture, the connection isn’t entirely clear.

    Now, in contrast, I thought your discussion of stories from returning veterans, coupled with your reading of Mark Bowden’s article “The Dark Art of Interrogation,” was a far more interesting insight into how torture is promulgated. And you do indeed mention sexual humiliation there, though you don’t tie it to Patai. Along those lines, I’d assume that you have a different take on Patai than does Hersh. After all, he doesn’t place Patai in the hands of interrogators, but rather DoD leadership; and he focuses on sexual humiliation, which you’ve said repeatedly that you neither witnessed nor participated in. That’s quite intriguing.

    I don’t dispute that military personnel are reading books about the Middle East, including Patai; nor do I dispute that torture occurred – nor even that military intelligence personnel have read and/or studied Patai. But I don’t think anyone has really said anything clear about how, precisely, Patai’s book fed into torture. At least, I’ve not found it, and I’ve been through four thousand pages of FOIA documents from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.

    You sound like you’ve got something to say, and I bet people here would love to read it.

  15. Oh, Frans, I’m sorry I missed your post – late night reading. (Also, wasn’t it Franz with a zed?)

    Anyway, my “claims” aren’t about Patai per se, as you’ll see if you read through my entries. The point I’m trying to make is that there is a very interesting story here that goes far beyond Patai and torture, and that anthropology has a chance here for some phenomenal critique, once we get beyond “Sy Hersh said X!” and really dive into the many other sources out there.

    Torture is a complicated phenomenon, particularly in a time of war – as Lagouranis’ book so nicely illustrates, actually. Within that space, I am interested in what it means to “use” ethnography in interrogation – where is it happening, how, and why? – and more importantly, to look for the many ways in which “culture” plays out in interrogation and detention operations. That sheds light, I think, into the institutional dynamics in which torture unfolds, and that becomes a basis for critique. This is what psychologists like Phil Zimbardo do so well. His book The Lucifer Effect deals very directly with Abu Ghraib, if you’ve not read it. It’s a good complement to Lagouranis, actually.

    So – If Lagouranis can add information to what he’s already said and published, and I can use it to add nuance to the FOIA documents I’ve been reading, that’s valuable.

  16. laura mcnamara is in a free fall.

    she has made very strong claims here and elsewhere, and assuming this is tony lagouranis, there is little left of her claims and denials. but even if it isn’t lagouranis, her claims and denials must be questioned. i am working in our campus library and i just spent a half hour reading FEAR UP HARSH and i am amazed that she could have read this and still denied that anthropology influenced interrogation techniques. mcnamara’s continued denials that anthropology has been used in torture in the face of Lagouranis’ book strain her credibility as a reputable scholar seeking real answers, and raise questions about the politics of her work. i do not understand the link between her writing on torture and her work for sandia weapons lab, but this raises questions about why she continues with her claims.

    mcnamara was part of a campaign claiming that there was no reason for the aaa to pass the referendum condemning the use of anthropology in torture, but laouranis’ book clarifies the need for such actions, and i thank that aaa for this action.

  17. Whoa, Elliott. What campaign are you talking about? I wasn’t ever a part of any campaign, and I’ve got no clue what you’re referring to.

    Now, I am critical of the basis on which the torture resolution was developed, but that’s part of being a scholar. I wonder about its efficacy as it stands – which, as I wrote above, is why I’m pointing out the rich trove of data that might be used to develop a stronger critique.

    As I’ve said before, there’s no doubt that military interrogators have read Patai, or that it appears on military reading lists. And as I wrote above, Langouranis’s account clearly links Patai to the worldview of interrogators, which he finds frustratingly stereotyped. I don’t take issue with that at all.

    This is because I strongly believe that culture DOES play a role in interrogation, and a very powerful one. This is one of the places where anthropology can offer nuanced critiques that other disciplines just can’t. I’m working on a paper about that topic now, actually, and if you want, I’m happy to send you a draft for review. My email address is above.

    I fully expected to get absolutely slammed for questioning how Hersh draws a connection between anthropology and torture. I am questioning because I think anthropologists SHOULD be out there questioning and critiquing, critiquing, critiquing the institutional conditions that enable people like Charles Grainer and Tony Langouranis to do what they did. A lot of us seem to be stuck on a few paragraphs in a 2004 Sy Hersh article about Raphael Patai informing approved torture techniques, but there’s so much more out there – and when you study it, as I have, you realize that anything Hersh writes about Patai gets drowned in the vast and manifold ways that “culture” plays out in interrogation.

    So don’t stop at Langouranis. I’d be willing to bet that you’ve not gone through the FOIA collections I’ve mentioned above – that’s 100,000 pages of material for you on the ACLU, all original documents, and they’re fascinating. Go look! Start with keyword searches. The Schlesinger report, the Fay-Jones Report, and the Taguba Report are all excellent reads. None mentions Patai, but you can certainly see evidence of the stereotyping that Lagouranis describes. If you need a map though the mess – and it’s messy – start with Phil Zimbardo’s book about Abu Ghraib as a good primer. He has a fabulous discussion about the deja-vu he experienced when he saw the Abu Ghraib photos. I also like the Greenberg and Dratel book on Abu Ghraib; they do a nice job laying out the legal arguments that facilitated this mess.

    This is perhaps the most complicated topic we can address in the GWOT. It’s critically important and politically charged, not to mention intellectually fascinating. We’re doing ourselves a disservice if we stop at a journalist and a resolution, without doing what we’re so good at – ethnography. Read the reports, read the books. Look for the nuances of culture in torture, and write about it.

  18. Hear, hear! The substitution of knee-jerk opinions for scholarship is one of the greatest plagues of our time. Righteous indignation is no substitute for evidence and argument; buzzwords and conventional attitudes–none more cliched these days than “j’accuse”– are no substitute for thought.

    Laura, thank you for responding to these provocations with so much dignity and, yes, useful information.

  19. I agree that “substitution of knee-jerk opinions for scholarship is one of the greatest plagues of our time” etc., but it seems that Laura McNamara’s opinions and claims that the Arab Mind was not used by US interrogators in Iraq is not supported by scholarship.

    Look in Anthropology Today and you find McNamara depicting scholars who believed that The Arab Mind informed torture were conspiracy nuts who believed the 9/11 was an inside job, and she finds troubling “the belief that there is some special connection between Raphael Patai’s book The Arab Mind and torture.”

    Now that Lagouranis and others are verifying that the Arab Mind was used to provide inspirations for torture and interrogation, McNamara needs to step back, stop engaging in denial and face the facts: The Arab Mind was used to train those who tortured.

  20. I think what Dr. McNamara is saying is that the role played by Patai’s book is not accurately described as “providing inspirations for torture” and if we actually wish to understand the inspirations for torture we need to use anthropological methods which examine interrogation as a socio-cultural system.

    Which seems to me like a pretty principled and laudable engagement of scholarship towards the goal of doing something good about something bad.

  21. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there is no doubt that people in military intelligence read the Arab Mind. I’ve never doubted that. After all, it’s on a lot of military reading lists. It’s been there for a long time, along with a handful of other books about the Middle East. Moreover, I am NOT denying torture.

    But culture is all over these documents, and that’s the point: it exists without reference to Patai. I’ve found passages of people in GTMO, for example, getting ideas about how to push the buttons of the detainees they’re interrogating from each other, even from their translators.

    Moreover – and this is very clear in the FOIA documents – there are lots of other sources for the torture and interrogation techniques used throughout DoD and other detention operations. There’s KUBARK, one of the oldest interrogation manuals out there. Then there’s SERE – and there’s plenty to tie SERE to Guantanamo, and through GTMO to Abu Ghraib. Did you know that sexual humiliation was one of the modules in SERE training?

    DoD techniques developed at GTMO are widely acknowledged as the key source for a lot of the torture depicted at Abu Ghraib. (Ever read the Miller report? Go get it – he talks about G’TMO-izing Abu Ghraib.) I’d also note that Lagouranis writes about the migration of techniques from GTMO to Afghanistan to Iraq, as well as his realization that the techniques he was using in Iraq were derived from KUBARK.

    Look, I cannot read Tony Lagouranis’s mind. I’ve read and read and read everything I can find that Lagouranis has written, and all the interview transcripts I can find… and this is the first time that I’ve seen him attribute torture techniques to Patai. Read his book yourself, and show me where he connects Patai to anything besides ridiculous stereotyping of Arabs. If he wants to change that, I’d be the first to help him elaborate what he means, and to put Patai in the context of other sources for other torture and interrogation techniques. That’s what I’m looking for: something stronger than allegations based on Sy Hersh.

    Apparently, several of the above posters believe that I deserve to have my credibility called into account… for questioning conclusions drawn from a sole anonymous source, in a paragraph written by single journalist in a single article published in 2004. I’m trying to make an argument for stronger critique, not to undermine critique. Why is this so controversial?

  22. I’m confused. I’m not sure I understand what is at stake here. What exactly do Laura’s critics think would be proved by demonstrating that Patai’s book was used by the military as a torture manual?

  23. Angle – as for the comment about conspiracy theorists – well, you can choose to feel insulted if you want to, but the point was that stopping at a single source, without doing additional research, is such appallingly weak scholarship as to put any arguments we might want to make about the ethics of cultural manipulation (and I’m still figuring out what that means) in interrogation and torture into doubt with the people that actually develop interrogation policy. It’s not hard for someone in a position of authority to dismiss critique that’s so utterly lacking in rigor.

    This raises the question about audience and impact. Given what I’ve seen on this blog, seems as though Seymour Hersh and Tony Lagouranis provide enough “evidence” (of what?) for at least a few anthropologists. Personally, I want to have an impact, so neither Hersh nor Lagouranis is enough for me, and this is where my exposure to military and intelligence personnel comes in. I’ve been around intelligence, military, and nuclear weapons types long enough to know that if you want to have an impact on their thinking, you have to be able to speak credibly in their world, or you risk being dismissed as a lightweight.

    Imagine this conversation with someone like Major General Barbara Fast (I’ll let you look her up):

    Anthropologist: I’ve got evidence that anthropological knowledge is being used to develop torture techniques.

    MG Fast: Let’s see it.

    Anthropologist: Raphael Patai’s book The Arab Mind is on several military reading lists. Tony Lagouranis writes about Raphael Patai’s book feeding into stereotypes about Arabs. And Seymour Hersh wrote that Patai’s chapter on sexuality influenced thinking in the Pentagon.

    MG Fast: That’s it? You’re upset because a 36-year old book is being read by military personnel?

    She could go on to say, “We’ve released 100,000 pages of documents around GWOT interrogation, recently revamped our Human Intelligence Manual, and created an online portal with public pages that you can use to submit lessons learned. Oh, and were you a contributor to Educing Information, the report that critiqued torture as ineffective in eliciting information? You don’t know about any of this?”

    And wham, there goes your credibility.

    The point is that there are a LOT of bases to cover before you can speak truth credibly to power. It’s not as easy as pointing at Sy Hersh or Tony Lagouranis’s book, or his post in a blog. We have got to go at this with solid, irrefutable scholarship, if anything we say is going to appear relevant to major human rights issues line GWOT interrogation.

    It’s not me you should be criticizing; it’s the problem of interrogation policy that needs unflagging attention, and there is a lot of material out there. Along those lines, look at the report Educing Information. Google it. See what those folks did – it’s a phenomenal piece of critique, and very brave.

  24. I get the impression that imaginary conversations with Major Generals must pass for scholarly research at your weapons laboratory. In your blog entries not seeing any specific results from your research on anthropology, interrogation and torture. Has any of your research on this been published in peer reviewed journals?

    What is the exact number of (real, not imagined) current or former interrogators that have you interviewed and asked about the uses of The Arab Mind in their training?

    Do you or dont you oppose statements that anthropological research should not be used to torture people? How do statements from Lagouranis and his fellow interrogators about the uses of The Arab Mind in their training influence you position on this question?

  25. Whoa whoa whoa WHOA!!!! She just got here! Savage Minds invited Dr. McNamara as a guest to talk about this stuff, and she’s said several times that she plans to get into the nitty gritty in her future posts. This post is general thoughts (hence the title, “general thoughts”) to set up for a deeper examination of these issues.

    Believe me, Angle (and others), I share all the concerns you’re outlining, though the specific question of whether torturers read Patai on their coffee breaks is pretty much irrelevant to them. But let’s ease up and give Laura some room to breathe here so she can do what she came here for.

    Remember, too, most SM guests are not regular bloggers — the point is to get people who are doing interesting work to talk about it in a more public and accessible forum than the Journal of Obscure Thoughts Dealing with Matters Anthropological. Writing in little bites doesn’t necessarily come naturally, especially to folks whose normal forum is academic in nature. I’ve read some of Laura’s pieces in Anthropology News, so I know she can manage tis, but give her a little time to hit her stride, ok?

  26. (let me try to post this again–I’ve tried before, but it doesn’t seem to come up):

    I’d also like to chime in here in support of Laura’s interesting work: she seems to be getting slammed here for saying there is something to try to understand about torture and torturers as well as the role of anthropological writings in the projection of U.S. power.

    Reading her as an “apologist” simply because she is trying to figure HOW exactly anthropology might figure in the GWOT, seems deeply misguided. A useful analogy might be with Peggy Sanday’s analysis of the way fraternity initiation rituals make it possible for people who might be likable enough in other context to participate in gang rape—trying to understand something rather than simply calling it evil is not saying its OK.

    A similar question arises around both Abu Ghraib and officially sanctioned uses of force in interrogation (and one can see a need to discuss these separately without buying the Bush administration’s claim that they are unrelated). What motivates/lets people participate in these? In this respect the “distancing” and “objectifying” that Laura cites as the effect of books like “The Arab Mind” might be a more pernicious effect than the identification of any supposed “cultural vulnerabilities” to specific forms of torture.

    It might also be worth putting what’s going on now in the context of other anthropological writing about torture, such as Sahlins’s “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam.” If the interrogators Sahlins talked to knew what they were talking about (which seems reasonable) one thing that is striking is how different their approach (where the key is to overcome distance) is to the one taken in Abe Ghraib or Guantanamo. It seems likely that at the level of intelligence gathering and propaganda the GWOT is being conducted with the kind of spectacular incompetence that marks the effort at nation building in Iraq. Indeed, given that the Army knows this (there’s an older interrogation manual that makes points similar to the guys Sahlins talked to about what’s effective and why), a question we need to ask about torture (in addition to how do people come to do it and what effects does it have) is WHY people (or the state does it. Here again, I think an anthropology of turture might be useful, and that we need to think about torture in the way we think about ritual–not because it is not real or horrible, but because why people do it and what it does are questions about semiotics not physics or biology.

  27. As for Angie’s question–“Do you now or have you ever opposed statements that anthropological research should not be used to torture people?”, such statements are OK, I suppose, but also kind of lame: IF it were possible that anthropological research contributed in some way to an understanding of people that gave you the “magic keys” to get them to tell you what you wanted to know, it seems a little ridiculous to assume that someone wlling to do the torture might hesitate because of the breach of anthropological ethics involved.

    On the other hand, many have suggested that that torture isn’t a good interrogation technique. Anthropological knowledge might conceivably be useful in establishing the sort of solidarity that good interrogation implies, but the ethics of that are not so clear cut: is all interrogation bad? Its also possible that even if torture isn’t about info but is about humiliation, some anthropological knowledge could contribute to that, or some torturers could imagine that it does. This is a conundrum, since such knowledge is also necessary to the communication that could turn into a mutual recognition of each other’s humanity on the schism known as the GWOT. Here, I guess I am inclined to say we should still get the knowledge: I think it is probably possible to break people without knowing that much about them, but less possible to communicate with them in that state.

    Mostly all this seems like a distraction from the more important questions, like why is the US doing all this torture? Here I think it would be useful to look at public discourse on torture: things like “24” and some of the comments in republican presidential debates suggest that “being OK” with torture is (among other things I’m sure) part of a performance of a certain sort of masculinity that has been at stake in foreign policy at least since the Rambo films.

  28. I will watch my tone if that bothers some, I think you Americans are more protective of these topics than Europeans. I will only ad my surprise that she mocks those supporting prohibitions against anthropological uses of torture as conspiracy crazies without reproach, but questions about facts of her actual scholarly research on this topic brings out protectionists.

    Dr. McNamara says she was studying these interrogations, and I have read her claim that there is no evidence that The Arab Mind was not used in to train interrogators, but now Lagouranis complicates her narrative. She says she is studying interrogations, so I thought it is a responsible question to ask her how she knews what she is talking about. This is why I am asking her how many interviews with interrogators she has done before claiming that the Arab Mind wasnt used.

    Dr. McNamara is wanting to complain against the lack of scholarship behind fears of anthropology and tortures. OK, OK, but has her scholarship been interviewing interrogators, and found they used no anthropology? What is her data seems the most scholarly question to ask one claiming to only be using scholarship and no politics to answer these questions.

    If there was no evidences of anthropology being read by armys interrogationists then it would be wrong to be concerned, but we have this evidence in Lagouranis.

  29. Angle:

    If you want to read what I’ve done, google me on the web and check out my vita. I do publish in peer reviewed journals, but probably not in fields that you’re familiar with. I do mostly interdisciplinary work in computational science.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that Americans are more protective of “these topics” than Europeans. I don’t think any of us in this discussion are “protective” of torture or interrogation.

    I am fully, one hundred percent supportive of resolutions condemning torture. Torture is ALWAYS wrong. I don’t even buy the “ticking time bomb” scenario – it’s a red herring (all the guy would have to do is hold out until the bomb goes off, right?). However, I don’t see a need for specifically calling out any particular method or discipline. It’s like saying, “I’m opposed to the use of electricity in torture.”

    Secondly, I’ve never said that the Arab Mind wasn’t used in training interrogators. Read what I’ve written. It’s on a lot of military reading lists, but it’s one of many sources on those reading lists. I can send you lots of examples if you want them.

    Now, I did say that the documents I’ve reviewed show no evidence if a link between anthropology and Abu Ghraib. I stand by that. Nor do the documents reveal evidence that anthropology was systematically used in torture or interrogation during the time period that they cover (roughly 2003-2005) – unless you equate a few mentions of Patai’s book with “anthropology” as an entire discipline, and you count that as systematic use of anthropology. I don’t.

    If you want a quick confirmation, go to the ACLU’s website and search for keywords like Patai, anthropologists, anthropology, Arab Mind. Last time I looked, I got handful of hits about of over 100,000 pages of documentation. I think ‘Patai’ comes up once in an email between a couple of FBI personnel on their way to GTMO exchanging ideas for reading, ‘anthropology’ about 4 times (and in the vitas of psychologists, mostly) and ‘anthropologist’ just once – when a military medic, I think, describes himself as an “anthropologist, a student of human behavior,” or something like that.

    I think you’re confusing interrogation with torture, and the two are different. It’s possible to conduct an interrogation without resorting to force. As Alfred McCoy points out (pp 158-159), FBI techniques for interrogation are noncoercive and emphasize rapport building – and I think that Comet Jo makes the same point above when s/he references Sahlins’ work. That doesn’t make places like GTMO any more palatable to me, but at least there are US agencies that realize force is counterproductive.

    People all over the world, literally, have taken Hersh’s writing to imply that Patai’s book was used as a “torture manual,” but Hersh NEVER says this. Morever, the people that Hersh says were reading Patai were NOT the people doing interrogations. Hersh is talking about Neoconservative policymakers, not MI or MPs at Abu Ghraib. Read “The Gray Zone” and see for yourself.

    But since Hersh published that piece, a lot of others have pointed to Hersh’s article as evidence that Patai was used “in torture,” as a “torture manual,” even as a source of techniques… Yes, it is very easy to read this into Hersh, but he never makes this leap. So in my mind, Hersh’s article simply doesn’t count as a logically consistent, or even credible example of ethnographically informed torture. All he says is that a bunch of guys read a book, and that’s it.

    And, for the third time now, I’ll repeat what I’ve said about Lagouranis: until his blog entry above, I’ve never seen him say that Patai was a source for torture techniques. I’ve read a large selection of Lagouranis’s written work/interviews/public statements, which I listed above. Let’s take Fear up Harsh: on pages 16-19, he talks eloquently about stereotyping, and Patai appears in that context. But he doesn’t ever say, “Patai’s book informed how we approached torture,” or “We used Patai to justify this torture technique” or anything like that. Maybe he’s said so elsewhere, and I’ve missed it – but in any case, I’d be quite curious to know how a 36 year old ethnography generates torture techniques, particularly given a) the many other sources for coercive techniques, like SERE and KUBARK, and b) the fact that what happened at Abu Ghraib wasn’t that different from what’s happened in Algeria, the Gulag, the British in Ireland, even among Chicago police… torture seems to be pretty standard. So what, exactly, came from Patai?

    That said, I agree with Comet Jo that stereotyping is critically important as a step towards the dehumanization that’s necessary for torture to occur.

    Lastly, you want methodology, here it is: I have been doing archival research. I’ve gone through all the DoD investigation reports, the legal memos, the ICRC and HRW reports, and a lot of the background documentation for these reports. I’ve read a number of books on torture – GWOT, Algeria, and the Holocaust, mostly (and it’s interesting how the more things change, the more they stay the same… not much creativity in torture, really). I’ve only recently re-discovered EndNote (yeah, pathetic, I know) and I’m assembling an annotated bibliography from my notes. When it’s finished, hopefully before the AAA meetings, I’ll happily share it with anyone who wants it.

    As for interviews, that’s what I’m doing all the archival research for. As you can imagine, I’d like to go a little deeper than, “Did you or did you not read Raphael Patai?” That requires doing homework to develop interview schedules. So far, I’ve exchanged emails with a two psychologists involved in interrogations, one of whom was a developer of SERE, and who told me explicitly that there weren’t anthropologists involved in developing SERE, and he hadn’t heard of any getting involved since. I’ve spoken twice to Sy Hersh, and I’ve tried twice now to get in touch with Tony Lagouranis so that I can interview him and some of his fellows, if they’ll talk to me. So far, no dice. I am also trying to set up a visit to Fort Huachuca, too. But this is methodologically tricky work. As you can imagine, it’s hard to get people involved in interrogations to participate in interviews.

    I started doing this in earnest in mid-April, so I think I’m on track to get a first cut at an article describing the document reviews sometime in October/November. I don’t think that’s bad progress. As far as the blog goes, I’m planning to do three or four more posts that will draw on archival documents. Right now, for example, I’m working on a blog entry that dives into a set of primary documents in which FBI and the DoD are arguing about what constitutes “good practice” in interrogation at GTMO. That should be up sometime in the next couple of days.

    Et vous? You seem very passionate about this topic. Have you done any research on it?

  30. Comet Jo, one quick word: you’re getting right at the nuances that I’m trying to get to, and I’m going to respond… but I’m going to take a break from this for a few hours!

  31. Let me reiterate what some other commentators have said, which is that I would hope that the ad hominem attacks be kept to a minimum. It is neither polite nor particularly useful to question our guests’ credentials or qualifications, especially when they hide nothing and are willing to have intelligent discussion as our current guest is.

    If you have the uncontrollable desire to attack someone, attack me, I’m the one who invited Laura, and I’m the one insisting that even if Patai’s book was required reading for every member of the armed forces in America, it still doesn’t mean that anthropology is being used to develop torture techniques. In fact, I wish contemporary American cultural anthropology was required reading for everyone from grunts to generals… rather than some irrelevant and outdated work. I’m naive enough to think that it would have helped prevent such atrocity rather than perpetrate it.

  32. I. Could someone, perhaps dkelty, please cite a single instance of anyone here questioning Dr. McNamara’s credentials or qualifications? All I saw were questions about the extent of her research, this seemed like appropriate discourse given her claims that she is the only anthropologist carefully studying these issues, while there was at least an appearance of a lack of familiarity with Lagouranis’ statements about interrogators using the arab mind. If McNamara’s self-negotiated identity is that of knowlegeable researcher, these seem reasonable questions.

    II. I also wish the military would read anthropology, but doesn’t everyone know that Patai’s narratives of arab others are so essentiallized deappropriations that only reified tropes of abusive othering could ever emerge from using such a misleading orientalist anthropological text?

  33. I am referring to comments such as the following, which I think are the kinds of things that people would think twice before saying in public to someone’s face, but seem to have no compunction dashing off on a blog:

    “…strain her credibility as a reputable scholar seeking real answers, and raise questions about the politics of her work. i do not understand the link between her writing on torture and her work for sandia weapons lab, but this raises questions about why she continues with her claim.”

    “has any of your research on this been published in peer reviewed journals?
    What is the exact number of (real, not imagined) current or former interrogators that have you interviewed and asked about the uses of The Arab Mind in their training?”

    They may seem like innocent questions, but they are framed as attacks on one’s credibility (or “suspect” politics– what would that be exactly?).

    Perhaps one other thing that should be made clear is that Savage Minds is not a venue for the publication of peer-reviewed scholarship, it is a venue for discussion of ongoing research and topics relating to anthropology. As such, I would expect commentators to be critical, yes, but to demand that every assertion be backed up by peer reviewed research and interview is simply disingenuous.

  34. In one 17 March 2005 Sandia Laboratories press release, entitled “Taking the terror out of terror: Sandia team re-thinks physical security for homeland defense,” Dr. McNamara suggested that ‘personal data assistants’ should come in-built with ‘sensors’ that could be used to create a ‘decentralized surveillance’ network. “‘Suppose every PDA had a sensor on it,’ suggests ACG researcher Laura McNamara. ‘We would achieve decentralized surveillance.’ These sensors could report by radio frequency to a central computer any signal from contraband biological, chemical, or nuclear material.” One would be hard-pressed to identify these comments as those of an anthropologist doing fieldwork ‘on’ (rather than ‘for’) the military.

  35. i don’t want to pass harsh judgments
    against a fellow scholar based on
    false information, so can someone
    give us all a realitycheck and
    please answer the following questions:

    a. was that really tony lagouranis
    sending that email confirming that
    interrogators used the arab mind,
    or was this a cyber phony?

    b. did icemole make up this insane
    quote above, or does dr. laura really
    have these sort of surveillance
    goals in mind?

  36. Laura is having trouble getting comments to post & and so asks me to post this for her:

    From Laura–

    Oh good lord. That comment about PDAs and decentralized surveillance was taken completely out of context. We were brainstorming themes of technology and security in public spaces, and my point was that just because something is technologically feasible (like putting sensors on PDAs) doesn’t mean it’s socially desirable. The first part of my sermon made it into the press release, but the second half didn’t. The guy writing the story missed about 9/10ths of the conversation, and a lot of the people present in that workshop were really irritated with him.

    So, no, I am NOT an advocate of decentralized surveillance – quite the opposite, in fact.

  37. Comet Jo asks: What is the problem with anthropology helping further the panoptical state disindividualize us all by turning us and all our gear into surveillance mechanisms for the state?

    Michel Foucault answers: “The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen. It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power.”

  38. I find it ironic that Dr. McNamara’s credibility is being ripped apart when she is the only one who is offering up any sources. Shouldn’t we be looking for more than one or two pieces of evidence about something as serious as anthropologists being involved in torture? So far, her evidence of scholarship has me convinced that this is worth more careful and RATIONAL consideration than most anthropologists have given it.

    Laura – Don’t let the idiots get you down! The emperor has no clothes and apparently has forgotten how to do any research.

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