McFate: “Does good anthropology contribute to better killing?”

Posted on 10 October 2009 by


Anthropology, Human Terrain’s Prehistory, and the Role of Culture in Wars Waged by Robots: From “Gentle Pursuasion” to “Better Killing”

David Price

CounterPunch, vol. 16, no. 17, Oct. 1-15, 2009, pages 1, 4-6.

In the current print edition of CounterPunch, distributed to subscribers, David Price provides us with a very valuable in-depth look at the Human Terrain System (HTS), on two levels. First, Price critically examines the ways in which HTS, the incorporation of social scientists into counterinsurgency, has been sold as part of a domestic propaganda effort while simultaneously trying to appease growing disquiet among professional colleagues. Second, Price, having obtained a copy of Montgomery McFate’s Ph.D thesis from Yale University (when she was Montgomery Carlough), reveals some of the telling ways in which McFate has long been thinking about how anthropology can be used for warfare. This preceded her cocktail napkin epiphany by at least a decade. Indeed, the lead question in the title of this post is her own. With David Price’s permission, I will be summarizing and extracting some of the key passages from the article below.

Ethnographic Violence: On McFate’s Doctoral Dissertation

I will start with the second of the above points first, Montgomery Carlough/McFate’s doctoral dissertation in the Department of Anthropology at Yale University, which focused on the resistance of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and British military counterinsurgency campaigns in Northern Ireland in the 1969-1982 period. According to Price, “McFate’s research was supported by a mix of fellowships ranging from the National Science Foundation, Mellon, and several Yale-based fellowships directed toward international security issues” (p. 4).

Price takes issue with McFate’s representation of her doctoral work. He says that McFate recently explained that her dissertation examined, in her words, “how cultural narratives, handed down from generation to generation, contributed to war,” and “how people justify violence” (p. 4). However, Price argues, “this resume might lead one to assume her research was balanced between the positions of the Irish insurgents and British counterinsurgents. Such an impression would be false. Her dissertation reads as a guide for militaries wanting to stop indigenous insurgent movements” (p. 4). He adds this poignant observation:

This was not a cultural study designed to give voice to the concerns of an oppressed people so that others might come to see their internal narrative as valid; it was designed to make those she studied vulnerable to cooption and defeat. (p. 4)

Price also raises a point about whether McFate had taken care to destroy her materials wherein key IRA informants and their statements could have been identified, and if not, this might have opened the door to a serious subsequent ethical breach: “[given] McFate’s current work in environments requiring security clearances, such past contacts and records would have raised many questions when she applied for her security clearance. It would be standard operating procedure during a security clearance background investigation to ask about the identity of her 1990s contacts with the Provisional IRA and other groups, as it would be to ask such a clearance applicant for field notes and other such material” (pp. 4-5).

McFate today avoids linking militarized anthropology with killing, an obvious violation of the ethical principle that one’s research must do no harm, especially to our informants. However, when writing her dissertation in the early 1990s, Price notes the following: “in her dissertation days, she more openly asked if ‘one could conclude that ethnocentrism – bad anthropology – interferes with the conduct of war. But does good anthropology contribute to better killing?’ Though an affirmative answer to this rhetorical question is implied, McFate left this question unanswered. McFate today categorically rejects claims that Human Terrain Teams are involved in using anthropology for what she referred to in 1994 as ‘better killing.’ Yet, HTS anthropologist Audrey Roberts recently told the Dallas Morning News that she does not worry that her data may be used by the military when ‘looking for bad guys to kill’” (p. 5).

(Indeed, the exact quote from the report, with words from Audrey Roberts, who reappears below, is as follows:

“Roberts does not worry about what the military does with her information, even if it is fed into the intelligence used by U.S. Special Forces for killing or capturing insurgent leaders.

“If it’s going to inform how targeting is done – whether that targeting is bad guys, development or governance – how our information is used is how it’s going to be used,” she said. “All I’m concerned about is pushing our information to as many soldiers as possible.

“The reality is there are people out there who are looking for bad guys to kill,” Roberts said. “I’d rather they did not operate in a vacuum.”

We learn from Price that McFate’s dissertation indicated two key elements of counterinsurgency that required anthropological inputs. One was psychological warfare operations. The second argued that, in McFate’s words, “knowledge of the enemy leads to a refinement in knowledge of how best to kill the enemy” (p. 5). Expanding on this theme, Price presents us with two critical quotes from McFate’s dissertation. One is that knowing the enemy better leads to more efficient killing:

“The fundamental contradiction between ‘knowing’ your enemy in order to develop effective strategy, and de-humanizing him in order to kill efficiently is a theme to which we will return. Suffice to say, that the dogs of war do have a pedigree, which is often ‘anthropological’ and that counterinsurgency strategy depends not just on practical experience on the battlefield, but on historically derived analogical models of prior conflict. Paraphrasing Lévi-Strauss, enemies are not only good to kill, enemies are good to think.” (p. 5)

The second emphasizes the value of ethnography for out-manoeuvring the enemy:

“understanding the possible intentions of the enemy entails being able to think like the enemy; in other words, successful pre-emptive counter moves depend on simulating the strategy of the opponents.” (p. 5)

The reason why McFate and her fellow proponents of HTS seem to be favouring approaches that involve less violence by U.S. occupation forces, is that minimal force and maximal anthropological knowledge “leads to a more efficient occupation, cooption and conquest of enemies,” in Price’s words, and “not because they object to occupation, cooption and conquest” (p. 5).

The False Flag of Humanitarianism; The False Coin of Cultural Change

As David Price correctly points out in the piece, there has been a domestic propaganda effort to sell HTS: “HTS sells itself to the public through remarkably well-organized domestic propaganda campaigns that have seen dozens of uncritical articles on HTS, with personality profiles, as a ‘peaceful’ means of achieving victory” (p. 4). I have also argued this here, and in addition I have argued that HTS is best viewed as domestic propaganda, because its aims abroad are more illusory, ethereal, and unattainable than those of further shaping an already militarized academic culture back home.

One part of the domestic sales pitch by HTS, and its in-house team of public propagandists, has been to sell HTS as part of counterinsurgency, especially now that counterinsurgency (COIN) seems to be all the rage in Washington. Yet, as Price notes, buyer beware:

“Even counterinsurgency’s lustiest cheerleaders, such as the political scientist David Kilcullen, admit that historical instances of successfully using counterinsurgency for military victories have been extremely rare in the past half-century. But Washington’s counterinsurgency believers share a certain hubris, or vanity, that they are clever enough to overcome this daunting record of historical failure.” (p. 1)

To the extent that HTS also projects the idea that it can effect a form of cultural change in places such as Afghanistan (where U.S. forces have now fully retreated from parts of eastern Afghanistan such as Wanat and Kamdesh, without intending to return), then buyer be very afraid. What HTS propagandists do not tell you is,

“just how difficult it is for anthropologists, or anyone else, to successfully pull off the sort of massive cultural engineering project, needed for a counterinsurgency-based victory Afghanistan….There is no mention of applied anthropology’s failures to get people to do simple things (like recycling, losing weight, reducing behaviors associated with the spread of HIV, etc.) – basic things that are in their own self-interest. These counterinsurgency advocates think they can leverage social structure and hegemonic narratives so that the occupied will internalize their own captivity as ‘freedom’.” (p. 6)

The second part of the domestic sales campaign for HTS has been to dress the venture up as a form of humanitarianism. In the articles surrounding the death of HTS member Paula Loyd, we noted how many times she was cast as a “humanitarian” worker, as if she was in Afghanistan to simply provide aid and comfort to the locals. That story, and indeed the media can be very effective in constructing personal stories because they are more readily consumed by readers, is a story that sold well.

Building on the falsehood of “humanitarianism,” we can read Audrey Roberts’ article, titled in a manner that should be seen as a transparent attempt to mislead the uninformed: “A Unique Approach to Peacekeeping: Afghanistan and the Human Terrain System,” Journal of International Peace Operations, vol. 5, no. 2, Sept-Oct 2009, pages 24-25. In that piece, Roberts asserts: “For better or worse, we have become part of the social structure in Afghanistan. We are effecting change by building relationships through understanding between our soldiers and the Afghans with whom we work so closely” (p. 25). The “we” she refers to are American HTS employees, in Afghanistan for at most nine months, residing in fortified American military bases. They do not live with Afghans, because it is too dangerous for them, which also tells you just how much the indigenous Afghan “social structure” has actually welcomed them. Roberts, as a citizen of what Ann Jones called Hescostan, where Afghanistan proper exists “outside the wire,” works “with” Afghans “closely” whenever a military patrol permits it, and as Robert Young Pelton noted, it is can be very difficult for a HTT to even get to go out with a patrol. (Addendum: a comment shared with John Stanton, relayed in his latest post, is very suggestive of the likelihood that HTTs do not get the time they want or need in villages: “if the security element commander says it is time to go, then it does not matter if it is a Sergeant or a Captain giving the order — we leave, period.”)

That the Human Terrain System could be constructed as a “humanitarian” effort is perhaps one of the more atrocious falsehoods fobbed off on uninformed media consumers. As Price argues,

“Human Terrain Systems is not some neutral humanitarian project, it is an arm of the U.S. military and is part of the military’s mission to occupy and destroy opposition to U.S. goals and objectives. HTS cannot claim the sort of neutrality claimed by groups like Doctors Without Borders, or the International Committee of the Red Cross. HTS’s goal is a gentler form of domination. Pretending that the military is a humanitarian organization does not make it so, and pretending that HTS is anything other than an arm of the military engaging in a specific form of conquest is sheer dishonesty” (p. 4)

Neither is it humanitarian, nor is it apolitical and objective. HTS is firmly a part of imperial domination, as Price argues: “no matter how anthropological contributions ease and make gentle this conquest and occupation, it will not change the larger neocolonial nature of the larger mission” (p. 4).

What Does This Mean for Anthropology?

David Price writes two seemingly contradictory statements that caught my attention. On one hand he writes, and I agree with him:

“McFate’s early writings clarify why those designing counterinsurgency campaigns crave anthropological knowledge – and given the economic collapse’s impact on the anthropological job market, I would not preclude the likelihood of some measure of success, especially as these calls for anthropological assistance are increasingly framed in under false flags of ‘humanitarian assistance’ or as reducing lethal engagements.” (p. 6)

On the other hand, he writes, “most anthropologists are troubled to see their discipline embrace such a politically corrupt cause” (p. 4) Perhaps he would reconcile the statements by saying some will join HTS, but most will remain opposed to it. However, I am not convinced that we know enough to say that most anthropologists are opposed to HTS. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, of which Price is a leading member, has obtained many signatures for its pledge, roughly 1,000 we are told. The American Anthropological Association has well over 10,000 members.

If we know anything is that most anthropologists have remained perfectly silent and uninvolved in the debates surrounding HTS. One glimpse at what disinterest and remoteness look like, as anthropologists go about business as usual, is on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, where David Price maintains a group, that is not very active and has only a fraction of the membership of more popular groups, such as “Theory in Anthropology,” or the riveting “Call for Papers” (see here). Business as usual.

When Montgomery McFate argued that critcisms of HTS come from “a small but vocal group,” it’s not like one can counter by saying that she is wrong. She is right. Moreover, when McFate outlined in her article, “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of Their Curious Relationship,” the multiple ways in which anthropology “was” colonialist, saying that “Anthropology actually evolved as an intellectual tool to consolidate imperial power at the margins of empire” (p. 28), she is correct again — except, I would sustain, on her choice of tense. One needs to keep both of her points in mind.

Universities in the U.S., and to some extent in Canada as well, have myriad interconnections with military and intelligence communities, far above and beyond anything that HTS promises, and that has been the case for decades. Going further, we, especially in Canada, are still very much tied to the state, and funding for our research and our university administrations remain almost totally dependent on the good will of the state. Even if HTS were to vanish…so what? And while some argue that it is vital to fight HTS to prevent the use of anthropological knowledge to do harm to others, one big question remains even if most seem reluctant to even think it: to what extent is the way anthropological knowledge is gained, constructed, and distributed harmful in itself?

One might have thought that the more anthropology busies itself by remaining the same, by even fiercely reacting against the weak internal dissent labeled (wrongly in most instances) “post-modernist,” that fundamental change very much remains an issue. One can also understand the fear, that the ultimate outcome might be zero anthropology, but I am getting ahead of myself now.

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