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Cut Nose, Spite Face - More on Human Terrain

Roberto J. González is perhaps best known for his continued opposition to the involvement of anthropologists in the U.S. military's Human Terrain System. The title of his 2007 article, 'We Must Resist the Militarization of Anthropology' sums up his concerns with the delicate relationship between social science and the military. Who shapes the agenda? Is it ethical to 'enable the kill chain'? Should social science be subordinated to the aims of the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency? These are all valid issues, of course, but González's work often seems tinged with a reactionary attitude as uncritical as those he claims to be challenging.

Particular contempt is reserved for the 'brazenly militaristic' David Kilcullen, the current doyen of counterinsurgency innovation and a 'lapsed' political anthropologist. Kilcullen's 'armed social work' wins no friends in much of the U.S. anthropological community, for whom González is something of a standard-bearer. Kilcullen, being the bearish character he is, has had no trouble in responding to González's criticisms. Nor has Montgomery McFate, similarly tarred with the brush of 'ethical transgression'.

But González is certainly no fool. In particular, he is more aware than most of the history of the social sciences in the military context. Recent articles have described the evolution of the concept of 'human terrain' in the 'military-anthropology complex' through T.E. Lawrence, Malaya, the Vietnam War and the Black Panthers. Elements of this history have been expanded in a new book by David H. Price, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Price is an occasional collaborator with González, who reviews Anthropological Intelligence in the latest issue of Anthropological Quarterly.

Without going too deeply into the details of either the book or the review, the subject matter sounds fascinating. Price examines the work of Franz Boas, the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology (yes, indeed), the Smithsonian Institution and others in the total war effort of the 1940s. It's hard  to determine from the review Price's actual standpoint, but quotes such as "[t]he war's needs shone so brightly that they seemed to blind anthropologists to the possibility that America's interests and those of the cultures they were studying might diverge" strongly suggest the use of history as analogy, however oblique its application.

González concludes with a passage that combines his admiration for Price's book with his own preoccupations: 

Price has done a masterful job of weaving a complex tapestry of American wartime anthropology. It is much more than a collection of case studies-the whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, and several themes emerge throughout the text. Price's work reveals that even in a "good war" like WWII, anthropologists often stood on ethically shaky ground when working for military and intelligence agencies, and some of them came to regret the long-term consequences of their participation. In addition, the book reveals that the during the war, military officials had a tendency of "selectively ignoring and selectively commandeering social scientists' recommendations" (p. 198). All too often, anthropologists had little impact on policy making and functioned as cogs in large bureaucracies with clearly established goals. In worst-case scenarios, he notes that anthropologists may "often find themselves doing 'piecework' on large projects that have grand designs beyond their control or comprehension'" (p. 142). Price's accounts also dramatically illustrate how secretive research can be pernicious and long-lasting - especially in a time of war: "those who committed anthropology to warfare in this context were unaware that their actions were releasing a genie from a bottle, unleashing forces they could not control in new, unimagined Cold War contexts" (p. 280). Anthropological expertise deployed in WWII set the stage for more troubling chapters in the history of the discipline, including Project Camelot and the "Thai affair."

Anthropological Intelligence could not have come at a more critical time as the Pentagon, the CIA, and countless private contract firms (such as BAE Systems and NEK Advanced Securities) aggressively seek to recruit social scientists for positions ranging from "Intelligence Analyst" to "Field Anthropologist" on experimental counterinsurgency teams. Price's work gives us fair warning of the pitfalls that are likely to accompany such collaborations.

And surely  this is the flaw at the heart of González' work, diminishing the undoubted value of the issues he raises and the debates he provokes: the unerring conviction that naught positive can ever come of the partnership between civilian academia and the military. Pessimistic predeterminism has a habit of reaping what it sows in all walks of life, as does cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. Tragically, the cost of obstructive non-engagement in the context of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq isn't the subjectivised 'ethical transgressions' of ivory-tower academics. It's people's lives.

(h/t to Marisa Urgo at Making Sense of Jihad for pointing out the González review)

Posted on Friday, June 6, 2008 at 16:42 by Registered CommenterTim Stevens in | CommentsPost a Comment | References7 References

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