27 October 2007

Anthropologists at War: "Hi! We're from the U.S. Army and We're here to Understand you!"

Even the U.S. military seems to have figured out that understanding the people in Iran and Afghanistan ~ and to "Islam" more broadly ~ might prove crucial to our interactions with them. They have launched an unfortunately named "human terrain" program to embed anthropologists with fighting units on the ground. Early this month The New York Times ran this front-page story on the program. Of course, this elicited a couple of rounds of letters from prominent practitioners. And a group called the Network of Concerned Anthropologists has emerged, voicing strong opposition to the program. In the meantime npr has run a couple of segments on the program [1] [2] and The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story on the brewing controversy too. Today there is an Op-Ed in The Times by Richard Schweder that seems sensible enough. I disagree, though, with the way Schweder poses the options. It seems to me that anthropologists and other social scientists could both refuse to cooperate in this program and work toward establishing more appropriate ways of contributing to the education of military personnel and intervening in the foreign policy process more generally.

I've lifted the title to this post from Schweder. This program obviously raises all sorts of matters of professional ethics as well as (more importantly to my mind) flat out politics. While it seems to me that U.S. Troops should be better educated on matters of cultural difference (Schweder rightly notes the irony of sending groups of 'cultural relativists' into what arguably is a battle between fundamentalists) it is not at all clear that anthropologists actively involved in counterinsurgency programs will be able to avoid being swallowed whole. As Scheweder remarks: "It turns out that the anthropologists are not really doing anthropology at all, but are basically hired as military tour guides to help counterinsurgency forces accomplish various nonlethal missions." This is the impression I too had from listening to and reading reports on this program. Better that more missions become "non-lethal," of course. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking it likely that the military missions will become more enlightened by learning about the "human terrain" they are seeking to pacify. The point of military strategy is to elicit compliance, not to treat the Iraqis or Afghanis as sovereign peoples.

I've always thought this old Far Side was quite funny. I guess my view of the "human terrain" program is that what the anthropologists might now risk missing is less the lives of "natives" and the predicaments they find themselves in, than the realities of our military and what it is up to.
P.S. Regular readers may recall that political scientists have encountered similar difficulties in trying to find efficacious ways of intervening in current foreign policy. I've noted this in posts before [1] [2].


Anonymous Anonymous said...

On paper this program does have some echoes of the way colonial powers used missionaries to mollify their colonized subjects. That said, I'm a little bit perplexed about why academics are so quick to demonize the program. Why not use their social science skills and join the program to ensure that it has some integrity. Just criticizing anything the government does without stepping up to the plate is exactly the kind of thing that make people say the ivory tower is irrelevant.

27 October, 2007 12:50  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

d ...

My assumption is that the "human terrain" program is a wholly post-hoc effort. I agree with you that identfying ways to use the results of social inquiry to inform military affairs (and government decision-making more generally) would be useful. And the "Network of Concerned Anthropologists" who obejcts to the program says as much on their web site.

That said there would need to be some significant input on the intiial design of any such program (which is not the case here). And such interventions are unlikely to work "in theatre" as they say. By then the mission is set. Jim

27 October, 2007 12:58  

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