Camelot Revisited: The Department of Defense’s New Plan for Academia

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?

14 thoughts on “Camelot Revisited: The Department of Defense’s New Plan for Academia

  1. I think this is a disturbing development and thank you for writing about it Dustin. The ‘securitization’ of intellectual inquiry in the US continues its post-cold war transformation away from old threats and onto new ones. The innovative institutional and financial arrangements that the Pentagon appears to be seeking with Project Minerva will shape research priorities in explicit and implicit ways; I will look for universities to push back against this, but I bet they won’t.

    I also, however, think US culture itself has been largely reshaped along these lines already, so that pressing questions already gain much of their import from their relation to the so-called War on Terror. We are exhorted to know the Muslim world better not only by the Pentagon, but also by the “Carnegie Corporation”:
    Of course, who would want to criticize funding of projects by good folks like Saba Mahmood, Lila Abu Lughod,Paul Silverstein? No one. Nonetheless, one might want to notice shifts in attention and the circumscribing of the discursive space of anthropology within concerns that appear relevant, that is, as connected to questions of strategic or geopolitcally central nature, as you point out.

    As academia everywhere appears to face funding cutbacks plus ever more pervasive audit, and as military/corporate interests carve out larger chunks of intellectual attention, one does wonder not only about freedom of inquiry, but also about how much mental energy will be left to ask questions of a basic nature. It as though the ‘anthro’ in ‘anthropology’ is being defined down within the terms of a zeitgeist obsessed with strategic questions, homo strategicus or something.

  2. “[Chinese military and technology studies, Iraqi and terrorist perspectives, Religious studies (which he describes as “religious issues… addressed in a strategic context”), “New disciplines” paralleling the game theory and Kremlinology studies of the Cold War era… There’s nothing innately disturbing about any of these areas…”

    Actually, I found the second suggested area “Iraqi and terrorist perspectives” quite disturbing, at least in the way it was framed by Gates. I wonder how anyone who self-identifies, or is identified by others even, as “Iraqi” feels about being tossed in the same sack with all “terrorists”? There is not an explicit equivalence drawn, but there is certainly an indication of a lumpen-something, whose “day-to-day debate” [note the singular of “debate”] as expressed in “materials captured in recent years” may advance military knowledge of their “strategic, ideological, and practical considerations…” oh yeah, and by the way, AAU, it “would be of great interest to scholars [too].”

    That said, I am certainly not arguing against further and in-depth study of said perspectives, and would also push for study of perspectives seemingly on the “other side,” such as those of US military and other powerful governmental bodies. On that last point, I would also just like to put forward a general comment/caution that while we should be most cautious of programs like the propose Minerva Consortium, for some of the reasons discussed above, we should also not discourage or disdain–implicitly or explicitly–anthropological work that may seem to be in line with (and perhaps even amply funded through) a US government agenda. I am thinking specifically of Gusterson’s point in the “Inside Higher Ed” article:

    “You could have mid-level Pentagon officers with a narrow conception of who should get the money, and you could end up with mediocre, uninventive results.”

    As a general point, it is certainly well-taken by someone who considers herself a rigorous academic. That said, this someone also studies security organizations, has mixed feelings about where to draw ethical lines in considering how/whether to “engage” with governments, and would not appreciate being considered part of a lumpen-uninventive cohort of anthropologists.

  3. Bea and Strong: I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing any line of study; I’m worried more about a) certain lines of study given more weight within the field at the expense of others, and b) the utilitarian stress warping the standards for those particular lines of study (and it’s “leakage” across the discipline). Once counter-insurgency research becomes central, it becomes a norm — and everything starts looking like insurgency.

    I, for one, *do* believe that we should know more about the “Muslim world” (or, rather, about the various Muslim people). Being Muslim is one of the major ways of being human in the world. I don’t believe it’s important to know so much about why “they” hate us, or why Muslims are terrorists, or so on (and good catch on the “Iraqis and terrorists” heading, Bea — I missed that, myself). But the goal of anthropology has always seemed to me to be to increase our knowledge and understanding of all the peoples of the world (including ourselves) regardless of whether that knowledge provided useful “human terrain” knowledge to military forces.

    (BTW: That phrase “human terrain” gets me every time. I can’t help but note that “terrain” is something you walk on…)

    But it also seems to me that the point of understanding and knowledge of all the world’s people is, at least in part, to make war obsolete. We know that large-scale killing depends on the dehumanization of one’s enemies to the point that they “need killing”. Anthropology works in the other direction, humanizing one’s enemies (and just Others) to the point that killing is unnecessary, even impossible. I can’t see the military actively investing in a line of strategy whose success invalidates the military’s very existence. If Gates were really serious about all this, he’d be proposing a far more fundamental reconfiguration of the way academics are handled in the US — including better basic education, no-strings financial support for social science students, undesignated funding for disciplinary foundations, a more open and inclusive university environment (with regards to e.g. race, nationality, citizenship, gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness, class), etc. That would go a long way towards producing soldiers with the ability to deal with human beings in the field. Of course, they’d pr’y be crappy soldiers…

  4. I’m not suggesting people not study anything in particular either of course. I’m diagnosing a peculiarly _US_ circumstance here regarding the shaping of intellectual inquiry (through institutional support, funding, and mere attention). It’s worth remembering that anthropology, and scholarship, do not only exist in the United States. So part of our diagnostic here could be not only ‘is this against anthropological values?’ but also ‘what does this tell us about the US’? (No doubt, many other questions could be asked.) It’s the later question that interests me most, and it looks to me like it will be a big emphasis of the conference in Chicago. I’m not even sure if people in the US can apprehend just how completely militarized the country appears to those of us outside it. In other words: this program by the Pentagon seems to me on the face of it simply absurd; what makes it thinkable in the US? That’s my question.

    I have voiced elsewhere on this blog a concern about how we as anthropologists are to engage a climate of heavy militarism and fear-mongering without in a sense reproducing it or ceding power to it, especially in a political economy of power where ‘attention’ is the coin of the realm. I have wondered this about the second order observation that the Vital Systems Security people are doing, for example — work which goes right to the heart of the question of the ‘military’ being a master trope guiding the management of society but also the creativity of scientific inquiry.

  5. Right now, the main people keeping us out of a war in Iran are the military. Here in Fayetteville NC I’m around military folk all the time. The last thing they want is war, believe me, and when there’s one the next last thing they want is for it to be bloody and destructive.

    As a young righteous pacifist grad student I had a colleague who was a lieutenant in the Navy. Gradually I became aware that he was an intelligent, thoughtful, reflective, open-minded person with real humane feeling. So I confronted him righteously about how his kind of person could be in the military.

    His response was to wonder if I’d rather that the military was run by the other kind. This was a transformative moment for me.

    We’ve made the ‘deal with the devil’. We’re born into it. In a global capitalist economy there’s no money that comes from somewhere other than global business supported by power relations maintained in large part by the U.S. military, i.e. imperialism. If you have money, that’s where it comes from. So the question is, what kind of people do we want to be running all that. I for one would prefer them to be us, but of course we’re all too pure to want that job. So realistically I’d prefer them to be deeply marinated in all the insight that we can offer them from our perspective. Which is the job I do here.

    Every dollar spent on an anthropologist is a dollar not spent on a gun. I’ll take that trade.


  6. Our friends at Small Wars Journal are still loving SM’s “flavor”:/2007/10/18/what-flavor-are-we/

    Highlights of the SWJ discussion of Oneman’s post:

    bq. Summary of the blog entry: “It would really irritate me if people doing policy relevant research had more money than I do for my irrelevant research.”

    bq. My sense is that certain disciplines and subdisciplines are inherently adverse to–depending on one’s perspective–cooperating with the military or doing policy relevant research. Anthro seems to be the worst. Within political science, there is a lot of hostility from Middle East and Latin America specialists, some from Africanists, and less from other subfields.

    bq. I myself could see some value in an ethnographic analysis of the delusional leftist ideology that seems to dominate much of academic anthropology… I’m thinking this through. If I’m going to go out and do field research among academic anthropologists for an ethnographic analysis, I’ll need to fit in enough to not alarm them. I’ll go for birkenstock’s with socks, and a Che Guevara tee shirt. That should work.


  7. I guess it would be funny if the consequences weren’t so dire.

    (For the sake of the “Mall Wars” people:) For the record, I don’t need military funding for my own “irrelevant” research”. As I said above, the sources us “irrelevant” researchers use will probably continue to exist, and will probably continue to fund the same “irrelevant” research they’ve always funded. The concern is that the field as a whole becomes stuck in a limiting theoretical approach because it’s what the non-anthros at Minerva “get”, just as military funding advanced an ultimately untenable and misleading functionalist model from the ’30s to the ’70s.

    If I might make a totally non-anthropological parallel, have you ever noticed how many blog posts are titled “10 Ways to Do X”? If you ask a blog reader, s/he’ll say s/he really doesn’t care for that kind of title — it’s over-used and rarely wgives much of a payoff. If you ask a writer, s/he’ll tell you s/he hates writing that kind of headline. But writers keep writing them, because it’s what they know will get results — people will click on that kind of headline.

    In the past, anthros wrote a certain kind of anthropology, often against their own better judgement, becuase it worked — it got funding, it seemed “relevant”, it made anthropology seem “relevant”. But the work is flawed. The Nuer aren’t, and weren’t, like Evans-Pritchard described them, because he described them as if they weren’t a people at war with the colonial government, as if there wasn’t a colonial government at all, and as if he wasn’t an officer of that government. And that’s just one example — the entire functionalist oevre is rife with flaws of that sort, in which dissent is read as structural disorder which is in turn read as social problem. (And doesn’t that sound *just a little bit* like the way the military and the gov’t talks about Iraq?)

    What if — and I’m just asking the question, here — what if strapping a bomb to yourself and blowing up a mall is not a sign of social collapse but is instead a healthy, even the healthiest, adaptation to a rapidly shifting social context marked most centrally by a heavily-armed, massively powerful foreign conqueror? If you can’t even consider the merits of that position, anthropology is *not* the discipline you’re looking for.

  8. Oneman – yes, it would be wicked useful for the DOD to consider the merits of that position. Now who do you suppose is going to be in a position to encourage them to do so? If you’re serious about that project, you might want to put the birkis and the worn copy of “Motorcycle Diaries” in the closet for a moment. It’s no worse than wearing a tie to an interview, honest. Just think of it as going native.

    A good start would be to learn how to say intriguing and useful enough things in “10 ways” to get the door open for a deeper conversation, or even just to plant seeds of a deeper thought. I’m not saying this is ideal. I’m saying this is what we have to work with. It’s a lot more than we had to work with before Gates had his bright idea.

    That stuff on Small Wars is really, really embarrassing. They have our little ventilations of egghead spleen so figured out. So easy to keep us marginal if that’s the only game we know how to play.

  9. I’m so amused by this stereotype! I can’t speak for all anthros, but I own neither birkenstocks (though I need a paid of sandals — it gets HOT in Vegas!) nor any sort of Che products, not even a “Che with iPod headphones” (he’s THAT revolutionary, folks!) t-shirt.

    That aside, I can’t quite get the argument that the only way to work against anything is by becoming part of it. As Strong mentioned, the US is so incredibly militarized — is that, then, the only way we can even manage to address bad policy? Or the potential reshaping of our discipline (among others) to suit the needs of that bad policy?

    I admit, I don’t get Carl’s second para at all. Sorry.

  10. Looking for the phrase “only way” in my comments on this post. Looking, looking… nope. Sorry, if that’s the “only way” you can read a suggestion to think outside of your box, we’re not going to get much of anywhere.

    The U.S. is actually quite minimally militarized by historical empire standards, by the way.

    Anyhoo, those here who are seeking the ‘effect’ of registering their categorical disapproval of anything to do with violence are doing so quite effectively. Rock on with that; I’m not really talking to them. My comments were directed to those who are interested in less theatrical effects. For them I’ll clarify the second paragraph is a suggestion (straight from the _Prison Notebooks_, as it happens) of how to do counterhegemonic work. Gramsci notes that when people need to be taught to interpret things differently, small doses in popular format are a good way to start. Like “10 Ways to do X” blog posts. Well, that’s grueling work and I don’t have the stomach for it. But then again I’m not deeply invested in a moral position here.

    I appreciate, by the way, this site’s opportunity to discuss these things. But there are ‘audience troubles’. The question is how to get close enough to the targets of change to affect them positively. The “Small Wars” stuff shows that currently we’re just confirming their prejudices, whether we actually wear birkis or not.

  11. Carl: Maybe I misread you. In any case, the “only way” wasn’t in response to your comment alone, but a whole mass of comments, forums, articles, etc. that purport to be cajoling anthropologists out of their “ivory tower” and “helpfully” suggest that if we want to change the world, we’d better enlist and start anthropologizing military style. Consider your comment — and really the Small Wars forum — just a flashback trigger.

    The thing about stereotypes, of course, is that no matter *how* one acts, one confirms the stereotype. As I’ve said before, I’ve known anthros who have transported refugees over armed borders and otehrs who’ve had guns pointed at their face; yet somehow we continue to be birkenstock-wearting hippies locked away in the safety of our ivory towers. With Che t-shirts (or dog-eared copies of _Motorcycle Diaries_ in our back pockets). (Or both.)

    I’m not really concerned with historical empire standards, I’m concerned with the US accounting for half of the world’s military spending. I’m wondering what the typical Slovenian anthropologist who might also disapprove of anthropology as counter-insurgency is supposed to do to “change the system from within”…

  12. Sorry, but I am still trying to picture this situation. “Gates”: announced this initiative in a closed meeting. Gates is a member of the Bush administration, whose crimes unfold for us daily. I am trying to picture the presidents of these research universities as they were told of a new kind of cooperation between government and academia by a representative of an administration that has systematically mocked or evaded the rule of law in order to allow things like, say, “torture”:
    This is what I mean by asking whether or not folks can even grock what is going on. From IHE:

    bq. The Gates talk did not mention specific budget figures or a timetable for Minerva. But Robert M. Berdahl, president of the AAU, said that the Pentagon is “determined to do this right and make this effective.” Berdahl said that Defense Department officials have held a series of meetings with AAU leaders, including a group of provosts, to talk about how such a program might be created.

    bq. As a result of those discussions, Berdahl said, Pentagon officials are committed to the work being non-classified, open source and without political litmus tests. “This isn’t intended to write reports for the Pentagon, but to develop expertise,” he said. “This is about scholarship.”

    Is there something I am missing here? Many international and US scholars agree that this administration is guilty of war crimes. The high powered academics are just itching to sign up with this crowd and ‘do it right’? I mean, basically it looks like the Pentagon will be attempting to further extend its influence into perhaps the last remaining institution in US society that stands against the prevailing war-mongering ethos.

  13. Strong: I may be way off-base here — my tendency to assume human rationality has gotten me absolutely nowhere in figuring out the actions of the Bush administration — but it seems to me that the Gates move is one of several intended to set policies in action that will matter not during this administration but in the next. For instance, the administration is appointing a “cyber-security czar” (an entrepreneur with no experince in security, of course) as part of their “Plan for the Next Presidency” (or similarly shudder-inducing name) for security. Minerva won’t get its wheels into the dirt untl well into the next administration — there’s only 8 months left in this one and they don’t have a budget or formal structure or even a hard idea of what they want, yet.

    As for the Uni presidents, they’ve largely signed up with the “academia-as-business” model and for them, Minerva = revenue. I doubt very much they’re trying to “do it right”; they just want the grants. And maybe they want a little security — given the anti-academic tenor of this administration and of the Right in general, they might well want something in their pockets when the next round of powerful blow-hards asks “what has academia done for us lately?”

    But mostly it’s the money.

Comments are closed.