In a recent speech before the Association of American Universities, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described his ideas for a new military-academic partnership. The “Minerva Consortium”, as he calls his vision, would offer funding and research assistance for researchers across academia, in order to build up the military’s understanding of the world the operate in and create a pool of experts the military can draw on.
At first blush, it seems Gates — a former university president — has learned some of the lessons of the past that led to the meltdown of the Cold War military-academic partnership in the Vietnam years. Most notably, he has come down against secret research, and claims to encourage critical responses to Department of Defense programs and practices.
“Let me be clear that the key principle of all components of the Minerva Consortia will be complete openness and rigid adherence to academic freedom and integrity. There will be no room for ’sensitive but unclassified,’ or other such restrictions in this project,” Gates said. “We are interested in furthering our knowledge of these issues and in soliciting diverse points of view — regardless of whether those views are critical of the department’s efforts. Too many mistakes have been made over the years because our government and military did not understand — or even seek to understand — the countries or cultures we were dealing with.”
University presidents are, of course, thrilled at the prospect, dreaming of university coffers flush with DoD funds once again. But academic researchers, particularly anthropologists, should be very nervous about Gates’ plans. This kind of direct involvement in the funding and direction of academic research, even without the veil of secrecy that military-academic partnerships have often had in the past, threatens to powerfully influence the shape of our discipline — even for people who reject military funding.
Here’s why: Given today’s funding landscape for social scientific research, Gate’s Minerva Consortium will easily become one of the largest, if not the largest, source of research funding. Other sources of funding will likely continue to exist, and if you’re interested in studying alcoholism on Indian reservations or detailing the performance of gender in Midwestern drag shows, not much will change.
But you’re department will be increasingly filled with researchers whose interests at the very least coincide with , and are more likely shaped by, the military’s concerns. You’ll be competing with these darlings of the administration — beloved for the funding the bring into the school — for university resources, tenure, and students.
Gates practically says as much. His goal is not to further the overall body of knowledge within academic disciplines, but to increase the military’s stock of knowledge about “the countries or cultures we [are] dealing with.” And by “dealing with”, he doesn’t mean tourism.
To that end, Gates has already proposed 4 areas his Minerva would encourage:
- Chinese military and technology studies,
- Iraqi and terrorist perspectives,
- Religious studies (which he describes as “religious issues… addressed in a strategic context”), and
- “New disciplines” paralleling the game theory and Kremlinology studies of the Cold War era.
There’s nothing innately disturbing about any of these areas (though I wonder what the big-name Kremlinologists are doing these days?) — until they become the centers of gravity of the social sciences. And until their utilitarian focus — “what can we offer that the military can use?” — begins shaping research methodologies, publishing strategies, and pedagogies.
The research plan offered by Gates amounts to little more than Counter-Insurgency 501. It’s goal is not anthropology’s goal, which as I understand it is the increase in humanity’s knowledge of the nature of humanity. Instead, it offers an increase in knowledge of a tiny corner of human nature, and promises to make that fraction central to academic social science.
More importantly, it treats humans — their lives, their culture, their behavior — as means to an end. This is not knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not by a long stretch. It’s not knowledge for the betterment of humanity. It’s not even knowledge for the satisfaction of human curiosity. It’s knowledge for the achievement of strategic goals — goals that are set and grow out of particular political interests, not the priorities of anthropology and the other social sciences. Goals that take a particular status quo — US imperialism, to put a blunt point on it — as desirable, necessary, and even natural.
Ethically, Minerva offers at best a Devil’s bargain — help us kill, and maybe we won’t kill quite as many. It’s implicit in Gates’ praise of HTS: “One commander in Afghanistan said last year that after working with a Human Terrain Team, the number of armed strikes he had to make declined more than 60 percent.” That’s great — but what of the other 40%? Is it ok to kill just 40% as many of the anthropologist’s subjects? And what of this scenario: emboldened by it’s superior knowledge of enemy “human terrain”, the military begins to take on new missions, new campaigns, even new wars, that it wouldn’t have given their previous lack of knowledge?
Like I said, university presidents, their sight hindered by the neon dollar signs flashing in their eyes, don’t share these concerns. But as anthropologists, we simply must. We are only just starting to understand the way that the Cold War, with its attendant military investment in the social sciences — shaped anthropology. Must we really repeat that experiment to see if the first time around wasn’t just a fluke?