“Anthropology, the Military, and War”: Panel at the AAA

Anthropology, the Military, and War
22 November 2008
04:00 PM – 05:45 PM
Type: Session
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.

7 thoughts on ““Anthropology, the Military, and War”: Panel at the AAA

  1. Elbow Room

    Why assume that this will be cold and emotionless? Roberto Gonzalez won’t back down from the issues and he will hold the others accountable, and the audience won’t let the McFate, Selmeski and Frosher get away with anything. I can’t wait to see McFate try her crap with real anthropologists around.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    I am hoping that you are right. My comment on “cold and emotionless” was a reaction to the comment in the abstract that suggested that “heat” and “emotion” were a problem and had somehow held back the debate so that the really important questions could not be discussed. Having lived with human beings, studied them, and having tried to act as a human being on occasion, I learned that “emotion” is what points to a problem being important to begin with. I don’t think the abstract gains by taking a swipe at all the real debating that has occurred so far.

    Otherwise, it should be a great event if you are right.

  3. Handcock

    I think this would be a great panel but Montgomery McFate won’t show up. McFate has a proven track records as a coward and has never answered any criticisms of her from anthropologists. She doesn’t have any answers to her anthropologist critics so she gets her publicist the help fix her image with the public and stays away from anthropologists. If McFate did show up we all have lots of questions we’d love to ask her about plagiarism, spying on domestic political groups for her mother inlaw, Human Terrain, her reported income being equal to President Bush, etc. But she can’t answer the questions of her peers so she will chicken out again and won’t show.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Hello Handcock, thanks for your comment.

    I wonder if she imagines that her reception could be a positive one, at the same conference at which the entire association is involved in revising its Code of Ethics thanks to her abuse of the discipline. You must have some real gall to show your face in that situation. Of course I am not surprised by that — from the start she has shown that her idea of anthropology is that the discipline is just good for being raped and looted. I have no idea what the hell Semelski thinks he’s doing there either.

    It’s not enough for them to say, “we have a separate and distinct idea about what anthropology is, and it does not imply the kind of anthropology that others practice” — or better yet, do their thing without calling it anthropology and implicating all of us (not that it means I would stop opposing their work, just like I continue to oppose the U.S. occupation) — no, they have to keep up their invasion and abuse of their anthropological hosts, inviting themselves to these venues, and constantly trying to tell the rest of us what to do. Any critical response from us is, however, deemed “ideological” and “persecution.” You have to wonder if these people are just plainly insane.

    What really surprised me, however, is that Gonzalez would take part in the panel, and that the AAA accepted the proposal. Participation, providing a venue, both of these serve as acts of legitimation. Again, the irony is that they do so as the membership meets to clean up the mess these scavengers made.

    Having said that, now that the panel is a scheduled fact, I hope everyone with a complaint about HTS shows up and gives these people the welcome they deserve.

  5. david price

    Hi Max,

    A friend just sent along a link to this posting, and I’m not sure what the specific problem with this session is. In fact, I am also in the session as a discussant and I’m looking forward to critically talking about these issues and am glad that the AAA is providing this forum—I’ll try and keep my Vulcan half in check so as to not be overly cold and emotionless ;-}. Roberto is indeed sort of alone in taking up one critical end of the spectrum but I’ll be adding my two-cents and obviously those attending will add to the mix in the discussions that will follow. My understanding of Phil Stevens’ original idea for the session was to generate some discussion from both sides—Phil had asked me to present a paper along with Roberto, but I couldn’t because I organized and am presenting in another session (a reconsideration of the 1970s group, Anthropologists for Radical Political Action, Thurs. Nov. 20, 10:15-12:00), so they added me on as a discussant to try and get in another critical voice. I’m sure there will be a free-flow of information and debate in the session and from the discussants and from those attending. I think we’re all better off keeping these discussions and debates going, and I think this stands to be an interesting session.

    Best, David

  6. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much David, the additional notes are welcome. As I said this is one case where I am happy to be proven wrong. Otherwise my two specific problems were with some of the language in the session abstract (some of which was unnecessary, but I may be alone in that view), and my own misgivings about giving McFate a venue. On the other hand, I agree, it is good to keep the debate and discussions going, and I won’t criticize it on those grounds.

  7. Pingback: Anthropology, Counterinsurgency, and Poor Joan of Arc « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

Comments are closed