With all the discussion about Anthropologists in the military on this blog, I’ve had a long time to think about it. So I figure I should finally have the guts to put my cards on the table and say where I stand on this issue. While its seems that some colleagues on both the left and the right think that this is a clear-cut case of “you are either with us or against us,” I actually think that there are some very complicated issues here which warrant the discussion we’ve been having. I hope that this attempt at formulating my own position will help further that discussion.
True, for anti-imperialist commie pinkos like myself, it initially seems as if its an open-and-shut case. Anthropologists shouldn’t be working with the military. Period. However, even if that’s how some of us feel deep-down, I think we have a moral obligation to articulate the ethical basis for our objections. Since it seems as if Anthropologists in the military are going to be a fact of life for some time to come, we also owe it to our colleagues to begin to articulate our objections as clearly as possible so that we can all work towards finding common ground.
First of all, I agree with several readers who have argued that the “They will think we are all spies” argument is specious. Think about the role of the church in the military. Mexicans still go to confession even though Catholic priests work with the military. A much bigger problem, in my mind, is that most people (even in America) simply don’t know what Anthropologists do for a living. It worries me that this news story is the single biggest anthropology-related news story of the year, when there are so many interesting things being done by anthropologists all over the world. The AAA needs to take a pro-active stance towards educating the world about our discipline, and not let the military’s PR machine do it for us. As it stands now, every anthropologist has to work pretty damn hard to gain the trust and confidence of her informants. I doubt that a few news stories about anthropologists in the military will make that much of a difference either way.
Unlike priests and psychologists, both of whom have long been a part of military operations (or at least that’s my understanding from eleven years of watching MAS*H), the role anthropologists are being asked to play is not oriented towards the soldiers (although as scholars like Catherine Lutz point out, anthropologists should be studying the grunts), but towards the local population. Accordingly, the real question is the one raised by David Price in the Boston Globe story:
“I am not sure that adequate consent [from the research subjects] is going on,” said Price. He said he believes it will be difficult to know how the military and intelligence agencies will use the population studies.
We shouldn’t be asking whether anthropologists should be in the military, but whether anthropologists in the military able to abide by the ethical guidelines of the discipline with respect to their informants. I think there needs to be a much greater degree of transparency about this. Personally, I suspect that it may be impossible for them to follow the standard guidelines our discipline has adopted, but I’m willing to discuss this more if the military anthropologists are willing to do so openly.
Finally, another question I find compelling is regarding the way the military makes use of this information. We can’t, of course, control how the government uses anthropological knowledge – its all available in the library anyway. However, I don’t think anthropologists should be working as PR for the military. I worry that the anthropologists serve to make it seem that the military cares about “culture” when numerous other examples show the opposite to be the case. When they routinely fire Arab linguists for being gay, are we supposed to believe that they really care about local knowledge? Moreover, most of what I’ve read about the supposed benefits of this program is common-sense and doesn’t require the presence of trained anthropologists. Anyone willing to spend a few hours talking to the local population in their own languages would come to the same conclusions. A properly trained military should be able to navigate the human terrain as well as the physical one.
The simple truth is that Bush turned his nose down at “nation-building” before the war even began, and everyone is now suffering as a result of these foolish policies. There are numerous non-anthropologists at the State Department and even in the military who think carefully about what nation-building (and winning “hearts and minds”) requires. I personally think it is too late for these policies to have much of an impact, and it isn’t clear to me that the Bush administration has actually changed its views towards nation-building. Under such circumstances it seems foolish to talk about the presence of anthropologists as “saving lives.”
Having said all that, I’m not sure that we as a discipline need new pledges or executive committee rulings to serve as a prophylactic against the taint of imperialism. I think the burden of proof should be on those engaged in these endeavors to show that they have complied with existing ethical guidelines. If they feel those guidelines need to be changed in some way, then again the burden of proof is on them to justify those changes to the satisfaction of the rest of the academic community.