Hugh Gusterson: “When Professors Go to War”

Apparently this is Minerva Season, as there seems to be a rush of new articles about Minerva. The latest is in Foreign Policy, and thanks to anthropophagous for drawing attention to the piece. The article is by Hugh Gusterson (and I recently noted another of his latest articles), titled “When Professors Go to War.” Those who have been following the issue of military-funded social science research, as reported in the press and on blogs, will not find anything new in the piece. What I found interesting were two passages:

Many anthropologists simply will not apply for funding if it comes from the Pentagon. Their reasons will vary. Anthropologists already report being suspected of working for U.S. intelligence agencies when they do field research abroad, and they will be concerned that research subjects will refuse to talk to them if they have been openly funded by the U.S. military. Some will be concerned that the Pentagon will seek to bend their research agenda to its own needs, interfering with their academic freedom. Still others will be nervous that colleagues will shun them. But many will refuse simply on principle: Anthropology is, by many measures, the academy’s most left-leaning discipline, and many people become anthropologists out of a visceral sympathy for the kinds of people who all too often show up as war’s collateral damage. Applying for Pentagon funding is as unthinkable for such people as applying for a Planned Parenthood grant would be for someone at Bob Jones University. One thousand anthropologists have already signed a pledge not to accept Pentagon funding for counterinsurgency work in the Middle East.

Personally, I am not at all convinced that anthropology is the most left-leaning discipline, and I wish that Gusterson would point us to something that could resemble substantiation for that view. For now I reserve the right to remain skeptical. The fact that a minority signed the pledge of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists — including myself — is evidenced by Gusterson’s number above. Keeping in mind how he characterized the stances of his colleagues, the next passage becomes even more interesting:

Happily, there is a quick and easy fix. Many academics would prefer that the National Science Foundation (or perhaps the Social Science Research Council) take on Minerva, rather than the Pentagon. Unlike the Department of Defense, the NSF already has deep experience supervising this kind of research, and as a neutral party it comes without the Pentagon’s baggage. You may wonder: Does it really matter whose name is on the letterhead? Absolutely-when it comes to top-notch academic research, details like the source of one’s funding can make or break the legitimacy of one’s work.

Now that is a surprising conclusion. Has the NSF also rewritten the call for project proposals? If so, where is it? NSF peer review of Pentagon funding does not — and this really should be obvious — change the fact that the funding is from the Pentagon. If the funding is entirely handed over to the NSF, but the goals of the program remain the same, then once again one can say: “big deal.”

I must confess that I was a bit mystified by this in other ways as well. I was surprised to see a critical thinker accept the idea that the NSF, whose head recently and proudly proclaimed that “securing national defense” was at the forefront of the NSF’s mission (thank you for saying so, and this is the last time I perform voluntary peer review of your grant applications, NSF), might somehow serve as a valid alternative. Gusterson is simply trying to be reasonable and pragmatic, looking for avenues for alternative perspectives to be registered: “If we want to avoid a desert [?] Vietnam, if we want a policy debate that includes bright, knowledgeable people from the left as well as the right, we should move Minerva’s search for wisdom into the civilian sphere before it’s too late.”

My disquiet about this approach stems from a number of sources, one of them being that on certain issues I do not compromise, and I certainly do not compromise just for the sake of it (which would be the doctrinaire and unthinking thing to do). Second, regardless of the peer reviewers’ name tags, and the geographic coordinates of their office chairs, what remains unchanged is that this is military funded research for a national security program, whose objectives and parameters are defined and set forth by the Pentagon. Third, I would need an explanation as to why critique of imperial expansion and the national security state must depend on funding from that same state. Forcing ourselves to be dependent? I am being honest when I say I do not understand the logic here. Thankfully, many if not most other critical thinkers around the world did not need U.S. military funding to fuel their thinking and writing. I suspect that will continue to be the case. The problem here is when we continue to think in terms of academic business as usual — books, journal articles, conferences, research grants, all as part of a national security, or anti-national security industry. Fourth, once more there is no questioning here of why — let me say that again, WHY — there should be such a priority placed on studying terrorism when on this planet there are far greater threats to human life and in some cases even social stability? Such as? Such as: HIV/AIDS, famine, drought, global warming, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, alcoholism, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s, and traffic accidents — deaths from terrorist attacks are rare by contrast, and the significance given to them is the product of arbitrary political construction. I am really disappointed to see Gusterson folding himself into the framework that has been presented to him. The peer review offered by the NSF is no “quick and easy fix,” it actually comes closer to resembling a PR stunt to mute academic criticism. Apparently it is already working that way, on some.

5 thoughts on “Hugh Gusterson: “When Professors Go to War”

  1. Marc Tyrrell

    A good post, Max. Just on the points in your final paragraph – I actually agree with them; at least the first three (I think the fourth is open to debate).

    I was reading the draft of a paper today on the history of the Smith-Mundt Act by Matt Armstrong (at mountainrunner; it should be out next week or so), and he made a point that, back in 1946-7, the press associations withdrew their opposition to the Act after they were guaranteed control over the US market. I would hope that this isn’t a repetition of this pattern.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks Marc. It’s ironic that our own exchanges have been much friendlier than the one you had with Gusterson and Price, ironic because I bet most would say that my views are more “extreme” than theirs, and because they normally make an effort to come across as diplomatic (a link for those who missed their piece: The other irony is that I will probably end up arguing with them more than anyone else.

  3. Marc Tyrrell

    Quite true, Max. It was not a “friendly exchange” at all. BTW, a fuller listing of the exchange is available here (

    I suspect that part of the reason why we can have a “friendlier” exchange is because we are both in Canada; Canada isn’t involved in Iraq and the Canadian military is doing its best not to try and get Anthropology involved in Afghanistan. As a point of interest, did you know that RMC has n Anthropologists on staff any more and that no Anthropology courses are taught?

    I’ve had a few other exchanges with Hugh, mainly via email over his Annual Reviews in Anthropology article last year. They were, on the whole, “friendlier”, but still, ultimately, unsatisfying. They centered around his conclusions and recommendations for further research which, honestly, I found to be highly politically biased. I have no trouble with his proposal to study militarism in the US, but what got my goat was that he didn’t include studying militarism in other cultures. I felt that he had assumed a Manichean position where the US in general and the Neo-Cons in particular had been assigned the role of Andra Manyu.

    If we are going to study militarism and the use of violence, something I think we should be studying, then we should study all of it.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    As usual, things are more complicated than they appeared at first glance. Revising the final sections of this post will prove to be like complicated surgery — let me just direct readers instead to some important clarifications from David Glenn of the Chronicle of Higher Education, here.

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