Of Mirror Images, Fanatics, and Cartoon Characters: Militarizing Anthropology

It struck me, while reviewing the patterns I found in postings to the AAA Executive Board’s blog on the statement condemning anthropological support for counterinsurgency, as well as the comments section of the Inside Higher Ed piece titled, “Questions, Anger and Dissent on Ethics Study” (Nov. 30, 2007), that those opposing our criticisms have found a means of consistently reinforcing our arguments. They reinforce our arguments by simply inverting them. In other words, they have found no place of their own from which to rise and make a stand for their own supposed principles, and that should be disquieting to them, to have to build their self-representations entirely on the basis of what opponents say of them. It also suggests that, beyond the level of ideologies of nationalism and patriotism, they have little to contribute to the discussion of research ethics. Instead, they reduce the discussion to a set of easily manipulable caricatures in an unimaginative rhetorical strategy.

With reference to the Inside Higher Ed piece above, I posted a short comment of my support for the AAA Executive Board’s statement:

“I applaud the many sensitive and sensible anthropologists who want to see the AAA become part of the mainstream of international, American, and above all else, Iraqi public opinion in wanting to see no more American occupation of Iraq. Any discipline that lends its support to the service of an invading and occupying state, that is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands, issues itself a death sentence”.

The response?

“Prof. Forte: The mainstream opinion to which you refer is the view of self-appointed elitists with a bias that prevents from looking at facts objectively. Surely you don’t support Saddam’s or Al Qaeda’s torture houses, or the gassing of the Kurds, or the beheadings. Personally I’m curious about what exactly it was that the Russian Special Forces took from Iraq and trucked into Syria shortly before the war started.”

Pure inversion, but with some invention borrowed from right wing conspiracy media (Fox “News”). The majority of public opinion is “elitist”? Invert majority, and you get minority. Invert public sanction, and you get this nonsensical “self-appointed” elitist. Criticize the US invasion, and you become a supporter of torture. Condemn the thinking behind the invasion, and Weapons of Mass Destruction suddenly “materialize” once more as myth.

Both the AAA blog and Inside Higher Ed see numerous postings by people whose names cannot even be traced to anyone with a position in anthropology, and often without even a degree in anthropology. These are individuals in other professions, in other walks of life, that stomped into anthropology to dictate to us what we should be doing. Anthropology’s new motto, so that these fanatical militarists can understand it readily, should be:

War? We don’t do war. Go elsewhere.

Then, someone calling himself “John-Michael Davis” comes back with more of the mirror image. If I refer to those who are not anthropologists, who seem to avidly support the militarization of anthropology, who desperately cling to a war that was a farce and became a tragedy rejected by almost everyone, everywhere, and thus constitute themselves as both fanatics and militarists… then that makes me the fanatic. If I say that those supporting the enlistment of anthropologists to serve in HTS in Iraq are out of step with the majority of American and Iraqi public opinion, then I am the one who is divorced from reality. If I criticize the invasion, then I must support torture?

Americans are the heroes, others are terrorists or perhaps innocent and neutral to the US occupation of their territories. Everything is reduced to a comic book script. We are doing good, saving the world, they are evil. Mild-mannered anthropologist by day, fighting villains and saving humanity by night (Superman and Spiderman). The academics are here, perverse, in their Ivory Towers, while the glorious HTS anthropologists are over there slogging through the mud, laptop in hand, roughing it out to the tune of $400,000…that’s right, almost the salary of four, full professors in Canada, for one guy without even a PhD in anthropology. Oh, what sacrifice!

And yet, funniest of all, is when such characters as “John-Michael Davis” try to hide behind grey areas, after having created a black and white discourse. What they oppose is reduced to black and white, and what they defend…well that’s all grey of course, nebulous, cannot be judged easily, maybe you should study it ethnographically.

At the end of the day we may remember that those who defended HTS anthropology were not anthropologists, and in some cases were really from the bottom of the discipline’s intellectual barrel.

4 thoughts on “Of Mirror Images, Fanatics, and Cartoon Characters: Militarizing Anthropology

  1. I found this site after watching the PBS Charlie Rose Show last night, Dec. 24, 2007. Rose interviewed Sarah Sewell and Montgomary McFate about the new “US Army and Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual.” I found the discussion fascinating and timely.

    Searching for more information brought me to this site. It is structured very much like a “polybiography.”
    http://www.obgyn.net/print.asp?page=/ultrasound/feature/polybiography

    “A project designed to liberate anthropology from the confines of discipline, profession, and institution, as a new form of knowledge acquisition and production, in a changing world, and in the struggle to create a new world.

    If you found this anthropology blog useful, and use any part of it, please remember to cite this blog as a source.”

  2. “War? We don’t do war. Go elsewhere.
    Then, someone calling himself “John-Michael Davis” comes back with more of the mirror image. If I refer to those who are not anthropologists, who seem to avidly support the militarization of anthropology, who desperately cling to a war that was a farce and became a tragedy rejected by almost everyone, everywhere, and thus constitute themselves as both fanatics and militarists… then that makes me the fanatic. If I say that those supporting the enlistment of anthropologists to serve in HTS in Iraq are out of step with the majority of American and Iraqi public opinion, then I am the one who is divorced from reality. If I criticize the invasion, then I must support torture?”
    I understand your strong feelings on this issue, but you are no fanatic… emphatic perhaps, but not fanatical. It is a crying shame that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfawitz, Bremer, et al have put Americans, and the world, in this situation. However, now that they have made the mess, how do we extracate ourselves without leaving a worse mess? We do not want to leave the oil corporations in control, or relegious dictators? Please, let’s discuss the real world, not the world we wish we had. This is the issue politicians must now face.

  3. The sad fact is that by doing nothing anthropologists make a choice which impacts the lives of those in occupied nations, as much as those who choose to go to these nations in order to help.
    The Pentagon and other government agencies will simply not have good anthropology, but bad anthropology. Abu Gabrib was an example of bad anthropology being used. By bearing your head in the sand, you are making that choice and your feelings of superiority in this matter are getting innocent people killed.
    If an anthropologist isn’t there when infantry troops are given mandatory “cultural sensitivity training,” then you have to wonder what the quality of that training is or how useful to the troops and those that they live among.
    Your line of reasoning would have the Red Cross pull out of war torn areas, because the Red Cross is anti-war and has a mission of mitigating human suffering.
    Perhaps Doctors without Borders should also pull out of war torn areas.
    We don’t get a choice in this life how the world is going to be, or to know the best ways to help those that suffer (which is everyone), we only have to choice to do what we can to mitigate the suffering of ourselves and others.
    Anthropologist can do this, but they can’t do anything sitting in a university office writing esoteric articles in journals that no one will ever read, and writing in blogs spurning the efforts of other anthropologists trying to make things better anyway they can.
    There is a place for anthros. to fight war in NGO’s, both within and from outside of the “system,” but having “boots on the ground,” is one of the most effective ways to make sure that those fighting these wars aren’t as ethnocentric as they can be, are more sensitive to daily reality of others, and they are civilians, so there’s nothing to stop them from going before congress or a journalist and getting out to the world a story about our troops violating human rights and treaties, if they do so.
    How dare you besmirch the efforts of people who choose a harder path in order to help more directly. You can be against war. I’m against all war. But that doesn’t end war, any more than being against famine or genocide will end those.
    Hell, I’m a socialist, so perhaps I shouldn’t study government and capital structures either. Because, by not studying and being a part of something, you’re saying that we somehow have the power to make them go away? That is magical thinking.

  4. Your argument is a repetition of arguments that have been shown to be flawed, I do not understand what is to be gained from simply reproducing such notions.

    (1) “anthropologists are doing nothing”–I do not consider opposing the war to be doing nothing, doing nothing means being totally silent and inactive. It is not the duty of anthropologists, any more than it is the duty of lawyers or philosophers, to go to Iraq (and pose for the Pentagon’s public relations stunts).

    (2) “burying our heads in the sand”–no, that would be to pretend that anthropologists, paid as underlings of a private contractor, will by some magic transform the military…it did not happen the many other times that anthropologists assisted in the past, why would it happen now? Do you know what a chain of command is? Do you know who gives orders to the military? Right, it’s not some employee of BAE systems.

    (3) “then the Red Cross should pull out”–totally incorrect reasoning. The Red Cross is not assisting US counterinsurgency. Good of you to raise this and another example though, as it shows exactly where anthropologists might direct their supporting efforts. You seem to think that supporting the US occupation is the only option there is, which is either a poor reading of reality, or a diabolically ideological sales pitch. Also–it is to be noted again–you simply IGNORE WHAT IRAQIS WANT AND DENY IRAQIS ANY SAY…so right from the “get go” this is extremely poor anthropology, an anthropology that should be ashamed of itself.

    (4) “writing esoteric articles”–they should be more esoteric, to ensure that anthropological knowledge cannot be easily appropriated by imperialists.

    (5) Studying something and supporting it are two very different things, and you need to learn that there is a difference. If, as one who claims to be a socialist, you studied capitalism, then by your logic you would need to support the effective functioning of capitalism–hell, the economy is not going away, and even if it is hurting people maybe by assisting capitalism you can make it more humane, right?

    Sorry, your arguments do not work, and I will continue to dare to besmirch as you say. Thanks for writing.

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