David Price: Anthropology, Counterinsurgency, the Kill Chain, and Plagiarism

David Price has a new article featured on CounterPunch: “Pilfered Scholarship Devastates General Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Manual.” In it he describes the hastily assembled military manual, which engages in frequent plagiarism of anthropological works, and the defensive posture of Montgomery McFate in her purported effort to “anthropologize the military.” What is perhaps most striking about the piece is the fact the University of Chicago Press, long a respected heavyweight in the world of academic publishing, is the publisher of the US Army and Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Otherwise, the question of plagiarism is not scandalous in comparison with the real atrocities committed by the US military in places such as Iraq.

Speaking of the Manual, Price notes:

“Some view the Manual as containing plans for a new intellectually fueled ‘smart bomb,’ and it is being sold to the public as a scholarly based strategic guide to victory in Iraq. In July, this contrivance was bolstered as the University of Chicago Press republished the Manual in a stylish, olive drab, faux-field ready edition, designed to slip into flack jackets or Urban Outfitter accessory bags. The Chicago edition includes the original forward by General David Petraeus and Lt. General James Amos, with a new forward by Lt. Col. John Nagl and introduction by Sarah Sewell, of Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Chicago’s republication of the Field Manual spawned a minor media orgy, and Lt. Col. Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert, became the Manual’s poster boy, appearing on NPR, ABC News, NBC, and the pages of the NYT, Newsweek, and other publications, pitching the Manual as the philosophical expression of Petraeus’ intellectual strategy for victory in Iraq.”

Speaking of the role of anthropologists such as McFate, Price writes about his doubts that the work done by McFate and others like her can in any way be defended as ethical research:

“In a recent exchange with Dr. McFate, Col. John Agoglia and Lt. Col. Edward Villacres on the Diane Rehm Show, I pressed McFate for an explanation of how voluntary ethical informed consent was produced in environments dominated by weapons. In response, McFate assured me that was not a problem because ‘indigenous local people out in rural Afghanistan are smart, and they can draw a distinction between a lethal unit of the U.S. military and a non-lethal unit.’ It also remains unclear how Human Terrain Teams comply with basic ethical standards, mandating that their research does not result in harm coming to the individuals they study as a result of their work.”

Price also introduces us to another entry in the military’s lurid lexicon…”the kill chain”:

“Human Terrain research gathers data that help inform what Assistant Undersecretary of Defense John Wilcox recently described as the military’s ‘need to map Human Terrain across the Kill Chain’. The disclosure that anthropologists are producing knowledge for those directing the ‘kill chain’ raises serious questions about the state of anthropology.”

It raises “serious questions”? I would say that it reinforces serious condemnations–it does, however, answer certain questions about the state of anthropology.

What I also appreciated of Price’s treatment was his summary of critiques of this Manual:

“The few published critical examinations of the Manual focus on the text’s provenience and philosophical roots. In The Nation, Tom Hayden links the Manual to the philosophical roots of U.S. Indian Wars, reservation policies, and the Vietnam War’s Phoenix Program. In the Royal Anthropological Institute’s journal Anthropology Today, Roberto González criticizes McFate and Kilcullen’s contributions to the Manual, observing that the Manual ‘reads like a manual for indirect colonial rule.’ That a press as drenched in “reflexive” critiques of colonialism as Chicago would publish such a manual is an ironic testament to just how depoliticized postmodernism’s salon bound critiques have become; and a recent New York Times op-ed by Chicago anthropologist Richard Shweder indicates a stance of inaction from which the travesties of Human Terrain can be lightly critiqued while anthropologists are urged not to declare themselves as being ‘counter-counterinsurgency’.”

That the University of Chicago Press rushed this book to publication, claiming it was “peer reviewed” renders laughable the much vaunted posturing in academia about the quality-control of knowledge production:

“The role of University of Chicago Press in bringing the Manual to a broader audience is curious. That such shoddy scholarship passed so easily and so briskly through the well-guarded gates of this press raises questions concerning Chicago’s interest in rushing out this faux academic work. Ramming a book through the production process at an academic press in about half a year’s time is a blitzkrieg requiring a serious focus of will. There was more than a casual interest in getting this book to market — whether it was simply a shrewd recognition of market forces, or reflected political concerns or commitments. The Press is enjoying robust sales of a hot title (it was one of Amazon’s top 100 in September); but it did not consider the damage to the Press’ reputation that could follow its association with this deeply tarnished service manual for Empire….The significance of the University of Chicago Press’ republication of the Manual must be seen in the context of the Pentagon’s domestic propaganda campaign to generate support for an indefinite U.S. presence in Iraq. Here is an’independent’ academic press playing point guard in the production of pseudo-scholarly political propaganda.”

What is “fortunate” about this confluence of events is the extent to which they break open for public inspection the workings of academia, the works of academics, and the social and historical circumstances of the production and application of anthropological knowledge. It will be a great pity if all this critical energy is expended without going further, and tackling the inherent colonialism of anthropology itself. Opposing the war in Iraq matters little, other than a mere exercise in putting out one fire, if the other fires of the discipline are left burning: the newly strengthened anti-indigenous tendency of the discipline, its elitism, its pandering to middle-class white kids, and so forth.