Anthropology, the Military, and War
22 November 2008
04:00 PM – 05:45 PM
Organizer: Phillips Stevens
Chair: Phillips Stevens
Participants: Roberto Gonzalez | Montgomery McFate | Brian Selmeski | Kerry Fosher |
Consonant with the theme of the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), “Inclusion, Collaboration & Engagement,” this session will address anthropology’s collaboration with the military and the conduct of war. This topic is especially fraught with strong opinions and emotions generated by the United States’ invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq, bringing to mind the 1960s-1970s and Project Camelot, covert activities in Southeast Asia, and the subsequent revisions of the AAA “Principals of Professional Responsibility.” Certainly the military intervention in Iraq with its stated aim of instituting democracy has presented anthropology with a textbook case of how not to bring about cultural change. It raises many questions about anthropology’s involvement with military endeavors in other countries. These questions are made more complex by the uncertain role of front-line troops, who were now charged with being cultural ambassadors and agents of cultural change – roles for which they were not trained. In October 2007 the public learned that US armed forces are actually using anthropologists in front-line actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, under their Human Terrain System (HTS). Based on a report from the Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with U.S. National Security and Intelligence Communities, which admittedly “did not include systematic study of the HTS project,” at the end of October the AAA Executive Committee issued its disapproval of the HTS program, “as an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.” Anthropologists have always been committed to the wholistic understanding of cultural systems, and the questions of anthropological involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq do not yield simple yes-or-no answers; they beg a number of questions. Should our response depend on our approval or disapproval of the original military intervention? Should the positive potential of providing insights and information that could save lives and inform directed change shape our decisions? If anthropologists are to collaborate with the military, what professional and ethical parameters should modify such collaboration? Should anthropologists confine their interactions with the military to sociocultural education, or would it also be acceptable for them to engage in strategic planning and tactical operations; and if so, under what conditions? Responses to the general issue have generated much emotion and heat within our profession, and such questions have not received due consideration.
While proclaiming itself as a novel intervention in public debate (or private in the case of a AAA panel), this abstract manifests many of the same flaws in discussions that have occurred so far. Questions are asked about what anthropologists “should” do and whether it “would be acceptable.” Acceptable to whom? Until the day comes that we only work among ourselves, these questions cannot and must not be answered by ourselves alone. The questions above have been addressed, right in middle of the “heat” and “emotion” — one assumes that this panel will be cold and emotionless, rather inhumane traits at best. The abstract says there are no “simple” yes or no answers, thereby automatically dismissing two sides of the debate while pretending to aim for a centre. If “saving lives” were really an aim, and something valued by the panelists, then the panelists would need to ask why the “solution” adopted by the U.S., Canada, and the European Union toward the Russian incursion into Georgia cannot apply to the U.S. occupation of Iraq — that solution is: get out now. These discussions partake in the authorized approval of stalling withdrawal, and maintaining presence in a country that did not invite, and continues to reject the U.S. presence. Therefore, even before the panel has had a chance to assemble, the range of debate has been so limited as to make it uninteresting and lacking in honest self-appraisal and self-criticism. Occupation is taken for granted; they want to debate the details of occupation among themselves — incidentally, that’s what imperialists do. That is a reprehensible adoption of a repugnant position — there is no debate here as I am afraid that at least one side has already won by securing the basic terms of the debate. I hope I am wrong, and shown to be wrong.