My Thoughts on Anthropologists in the Military

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.

13 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Anthropologists in the Military

  1. Thank you, Kerim. Following this post, it is _crucial_ that we understand what kind of human subjects review these anthropologists conducting research under military auspices go through. I still can’t tell, for example, whether Marcus Griffin was required to go through IRB approval at Christopher Newport University. Various articles mention other universities. Were the anthropologists from those universities required to submit their research plans to the local IRB? This is a very basic question that to my knowledge remains unanswered. I am going to send an email to Ms. McFate herself requesting clarification.

  2. You’re talking about a military leadership that has stood by while torture, wilfull killing of civilians (Haditha), and a number of serious breaches of the Genevan Conventions (II, III, and IV — GC1 pertains to treatment of combattants at sea, so it’s not too relevant here), and has even made it clear that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply in a war on terror. Given that context, I don’t think human subjects review has really come into the picture in a serious and sustained way.

    This is not just any US military. This is a US military whose commander in chief has done his utmost to desecrate the idea that the USA is a nation of laws, not men. This is an illegal war, infested with Blackwater and other mercenaries. Again, I think Anthropology has something to offer here to ameliorating this disaster, but NOT as employees of the military and thus, people in a chain of command, when the top of the chain of command is the real problem.

    There are instances in which I would work with the military as an embedded anthropologist. This war, this situation, is not one of them. If I were alive in WWII, I’d have done my utmost to help defeat the Nazis.

    We have to keep in mind here that we have a code of ethics. Like the Geneva Conventions, like the US Constitution, a code of ethics is not something you suspend whenever it’s convenient, or someone’s interests trump the code.

    Does this work fit in with following the code of ethics? If not, are we in a situation where we have to review and retool the code? And if we are going to revise the code, who gets to decide that? It requires a lot of debate, discussion, and a VOTE within the AAA. It would also be good to hear some Iraqi voices. The subaltern should narrate here, and help us decide whether embedding anthropologists can save civilian lives (as well as US troops lives).

    All that being said, some of the “black and white” thinking and debating on this blog has troubled me. I live in Washington, DC, and my more recent research has focused on International Humanitarian Law and how it’s used. So I’ve gotten to know military lawyers and have hung out with some of the anthropologists who are really excited about and supportive of the Human Terrain program. These are not evil people. In fact, they are very smart, and by and large have very progressive politics. I myself have no objections to writing curricula for the military about the Middle East that gets them away from one-dimensional views and racist perceptions (Patai and his ilk). I think active lines of communication and debate between the anthropological community and the military is important. But being embedded and on the ground along side the troops? No. I cannot “go there”.

    I am really concerned and worried, though, as a US citizen and as a social scientist, about the long term social impact of the returning troops PTSD. What is being done for these young men and women? Not much. Here is a place where anthropology can really be of assistance to the men and women who have been caught up, as soldiers, in this disastrous war and who are going to be physically and emotionally wounded for years, and if we use our anthro skills and think “relationality/intersubjectivity/social networks/identity formation/cultural construction of illness and healing” we should be sobered by the wave of mental suffering and all the ripple effects of domestic violence, drug abuse, homelessness, overburdened social service provision, violence, and alienation that we will all have to grapple with here at home, whether we supported the war, whether we were for or against the militarization of anthropology in this wartime period.

    It will sound flip to many, but I think the best way to deal with the mess in Iraq is for the US Congress to put impeachment on the table and to start criminal prosecution against those who set this evil chapter in US and Iraqi history in motion. Being in a subject position of a link in the chain of command of this administration is an abomination in my view. As Hannah Arendt said in “On Totalitarianism: “All that is required to achieve tyranny is to kill the sense of the juridical in Man (sic)”. The Bush-Cheney admin has done its utmost to rip apart the framework of international law built up since the end of WWII, and I for one would not be able to live with myself as a person, let alone a professional, if I felt I was complicit in this. So if I am to have anything to do with the military, it will be on MY terms, according to my AAA’s code, and my own moral compass. We are all persons first, and anthropologists second. The Code weaves the two subject positions together, and we should not set about tearing up that fabric because the military suddenly realizes it has a huge mess on its hands in Iraq. But is the answer to demonize those who work with the military? I won’t do that, but if given the chance, I will do my utmost to educate the military about how and why their perceptions of what they are doing in Iraq are completely erroneous, and back it up with cultural anthropological data, findings, and interpretation. But that is as much a political as a scholarly act, and if there is one point I’ve been trying to make here, it is that the gap between political engagment and scholarship, particularly where the Middle East is concerned, is very very wide. That’s not the military’s fault. We have to get our own house in order.

  3. Thanks Laurie. I am not asking whether the military conducted human subjects review. I am asking about the UNIVERSITIES that employ the anthropologists and whether _those_ institutions reviewed the research that these people were granted leave to conduct.

  4. On the Diane Rehm show that Strong linked to McFate says some shockingly obtuse things about informed consent. It is hard to say if she is simply ignorant of the concept or if her position in the military leads her to intentionally distort the concept. Basically she says that people have a “choice” whether or not to talk to the anthropologists and that they are smart enough to distinguish between military units and non-military units. Neither of which has anything to do with consent as most anthropologists understand the term.

    The other HTT member there, Lt. Col. Edward Villacres, says something even stranger, which is that his team doesn’t interact directly with Iraqis (so consent is not an issue). Whatever.

  5. Just listened to the webfeed of the Diane Rehm show . Best coverage so far. A few observations.

    Listen to how the Times reporter contradicts with the military claims about “anthropologists” guns, uniforms, and identification.

    Listen to what McFate says about military enabled pedophilia in Afghanistan. Why is she joking about this? This sounds serious. This is our face to the military community? Great.

    I’m impressed that this discussion could occur without anyone shouting at each other.

    Why did the military get to bring two people representing their side (McFate and a Lt. Col.) while those questioning military policy only got to bring one person?

    Who is the California anthropologist identified in the beginning of the show? Has he explained what he’s doing?

  6. BJ: OMG, I’m listening to the Diane Rehm show right now and Montgomery McFate just described Human Terrain’s child pimping program that she named “MAN BOY LOVE THURSDAY” (just like MANBLA). It comes on somewhere around 23 minutes into the show. This is crazy!!!

  7. The AAA statement of ethics as it now stands defines itself as a nonenforceable set of talking points designed to foster conversation. This is very important. It positively embraces the distinction of engaging in a conversation intended to enlighten all participants (scholarship), as against discourse intended to facilitate the imposition of a contested goal (politics). In the context of our current situation, this kind of ethical practice has the positive outcome of producing what Kerry Fosher calls (in the current AN) a “contentious bucket brigade of data, ideas and critique.”

    It appears that revision of the ethics code is to be a main issue in the upcoming meeting, and it seems there is popular sentiment that we need to make the code more definite and consequential; i.e. shift it from one based on an ethic of fostering scholarly discussion to one based in an ethic of taking responsibility for particular outcomes. Before we do this, it is important that we recognize and discuss various likely consequences to this move. One consequence I foresee as potentially troublesome: any attempt to “put teeth” into the code will create consequential barriers to communication. That is to say, the creation of institutional mechanisms for disciplining people based on information (as proof of transgression) is simultaneously the creation of groups interested in maintaining exclusive control of information. This is unavoidable. Dealing with this situation will become the primary issue in the central question of how to enforce new standards. For, any regime of enforcement must have means to collect or generate information that is contrary to the interests of the targets of enforcement.

    In police investigations of crimes, where it is necessary to gather such information, fundamental values of human rights are converted into very explicit codes of procedure for what is and is not permissible by way of the collection of information. Obviously, this very issue is the core of present anxieties. However, putting teeth in the AAA code of ethics is not going to have any effect on US foreign policy or military procedure. What it will do, rather, is put anthropology into a situation where we are compelled to create a legally enforceable set of procedures for collecting and sharing information throughout the entire institutional sphere where professional anthropology is conducted. Perhaps this is necessary (I am not convinced). But even so, before we begin we should recognize such an undertaking is a huge project, probably not to be completed in our lifetime, and moreover one that will entirely transform the content of what it is possible to study anthropologically. For example, graduate methods courses will have to be extended into one-year LLM degrees in Human Subjects Law. AAA dues will increase to pay legal costs of the in-house council that argues the position of the AAA membership against phalanxes of well-paid government and industry lawyers. And while seminars in the history of anthropology may occasionally discuss Malinowski’s quaint adventures in speaking directly to people without first administering the three-week course necessary to assure a degree of understanding of Human Subjects Law adequate to certify informed consent as defined in Smith vs. DoD 2011, most of our time will necessarily be spent learning how to file the paperwork that certifies the consensual integrity of every juncture in the chain of data-custody on which we base our ideas.

    It hardly need be mentioned that this project will have absolutely no effect on anyone who is not an anthropologist. If you need some cash, just let your membership lapse long enough to pick up a few bucks on a Blackwater contract. After all, while we may be able to enforce ethical anthropology, we can’t force people to be anthropologists.

    So, as I see it, one of the worst possible outcomes of our present situation would be a badly thought out or reactionary revision to the code of ethics combined with a move to “put teeth” into its enforcement powers.

    By contrast, one of the best possible outcomes would be a renewed commitment to the values of free inquiry, combined with a channeling of outrage over the current state of affairs into inspired research on how to make policy that results in a workable set of enforcement procedures capable of actually realizing the values of human rights and an egalitarian multicultural peace.

  8. This discussion is getting quite interesting and even fruitful for raising the profile of Anthropology in the general public, as well as addressing some implicit assumptions, the stuff that comes under Bourdieu’s comment that “what goes without saying came without saying,” i.e., what Mary Douglas discussed as the “self-evident”. The idea that anthropology can help the military is part of the realm of the implicit assumption that the obstacles facing the US in Iraq are surmountable with the “culture key”. The political and legal aspects are occluded. I’ve been posting a bit about this on my own blog, and have gotten some fascinating email as a result. Here’s a recent post if you are interested:

  9. Reading Dorris Lessing in the NY Times this morning, I was reminded of the discussions in this and related threads. Lessing writes:

    bq. All writers are asked this question by interviewers: “Do you think a writer should…?” “Ought writers to…?” The question always has to do with a political stance, and note that the assumption behind the words is that all writers should do the same thing, whatever it is. The phrases “Should a writer…?” “Ought writers to…?” have a long history that seems unknown to the people who so casually use them. Another is “commitment,” so much in vogue not long ago. Is so and so a committed writer?

    The history Lessing refers to is the notion of a “line” as employed within the communist inflected left. A distinction that seems to be getting conflated in much of this discussion (as Jeff M also notes) is that between our own thinking on what we THINK we (or others) should do, and on what we have a right to force others to do.

  10. While Comet Jo and Jeff M. are correct to raise concerns about the specifics of any changes that might get made to the AAA ethics policies, it isn’t clear to me that their dire predictions are warranted.

    I particularly wish to respond to Jeff M’s argument that such rules might force people to practice anthropology outside the AAA. I’d say that many people already do. Moreover, we already see the same thing in the medical and psychiatric professions. You can’t ban alternative therapies (nor would I want to), but it is within the prerogative of a professional association to dissociate itself from those practices.

    Finally, although we should be careful in crafting any new guidelines it may be that existing guidelines are largely sufficient.

  11. When I read Laurie King-Irani’s assertion that, “The idea that anthropology can help the military is part of the realm of the implicit assumption that the obstacles facing the US in Iraq are surmountable with the “culture key”,” my personal, off-the-cuff response is to ask if we shouldn’t distinguish between how anthropology may help (very little I suspect) and how anthropologists may help (possibly in very substantial ways). As a pre- or non-paradigmatic discipline whose concepts and approaches are literally all over the place, anthropology amounts to little more than a laundry list of things that a military unit concerned with maintaining order, winning over the populace, or defeating an enemy might want to consider. In contrast, anthropologists who speak the local language and have enjoyed the luxury of time to acquire local knowledge specific to the place might be very useful, indeed. Thus, for example, what the Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan appear to be contributing is the sort of highly specific insights that prevent a unit from stumbling unwittingly into the middle of a long-running feud or attempting to be helpful in ways that, given the existence of the feud, are likely to exacerbate it. In contrast, there is not the remotest hint in anything I have read to suggest that military people are aided, informed or inspired by anthropology qua anthropology.

    To me the facts of the matter that have been revealed to us seem worlds away from the notion that anthropology is a panacea, a “cultural key” that will unlock doors to either successful domination or a future in which the lion and the lamb lie down and sing “Kumbaya” together.

  12. Anthropologists who serve with the military on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan may (and this is speculation) actually start to “go native,” and by that I don’t mean that they go native in terms of identifying with or acting and being and thinking within the cultural reality of the military, but rather, they may come to sympathize with and even identify with the “locals” once they see, first hand, on the ground, in a way that our US media is too cowardly or lazy to show, what life is really like under occupation in a situation where there are no laws, no hope, no system that one can count on day to day.

    Just an off the cuff, not very well-thought-out Sunday morning observation



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