“Anthropologize” This!

“I’m frequently accused of militarizing anthropology,” she said. “But we’re really anthropologizing the military.” — Montgomery McFate (source)

“We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist’s perspective.”– Col. Martin Schweitzer in Afghanistan (source)

“This ‘cultural turn’ within DoD [Department of Defense] highlights efforts to understand adversary societies and to recruit ‘practitioners’ of culture, notably anthropologists, to help in the war effort in both Iraq and Afghanistan.” (Jager, p. 3)

“This [Human Terrain] system is being specifically designed to address cultural awareness shortcomings at the operational and tactical levels…” (Jager, p. 10)

“The kinds of cultural knowledge that inform military operations and tactics on the ground-the ‘how-to’ practical application of cultural and ethnographic knowledge-is very distinct from the forms of cultural knowledge that are needed to formulate national strategy and policy.” (Jager, p. 4)

“While culture is transforming the military in significant and revolutionary new ways, it seems to have had little impact on defining overall U.S. strategic goals.” (Jager, p. 19)

What is it to “anthropologize” the military? I frankly do not know what it means to “anthropologize” anything, even if I believe I may have used the term myself in the past.

How have anthropologists succeeded in anthropologizing the military? We got the slogans, we got the propaganda, it’s the results that are missing. Is that a surprise? Look at the last two quotes from Jager above. If this is anthropologizing the military, then it is safely contained within military logic, restricted to tactics and operations, with no thinking being done about the larger issues of war, invasion, occupation, power,  racism, and so forth. It is therefore also not surprising that anytime one hears from an anthropologist serving the military that what one hears, or reads, is also contained within the taken-for-granted assumptions about the “need” for a U.S. presence in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. An anthropology that does not challenge the taken-for-granted in one’s own culture? That, according to what is taught in most first classes in introductory anthropology, is not anthropology.

What this is, instead, is a person employed as a military contractor, who has some degree in anthropology, and hoping that along with him/her we will all fall for the sleight of hand, the missing steps and shadows that, when taken-for-granted, link qualification with practice, and both with meaning. And “you” call these “colleagues”? Poor you.

What it is not is any or all of the following:

  • a counter-narrative, of anti-imperialism
  • a thorough analysis of an American culture of war
  • a challenge to fear, hysteria, and national security dogma
  • a critical analysis of American state terrorism
  • a questioning of how so many Americans seem to fall in line with war, why they festishize the uniform, why they heroize soldiers, why they seem to feel that they owe unquestioning respect to any military figure
  • an appreciation of how the American culture of consumption was premised on foreign domination
  • an ability to see oneself in the eyes of the dominated, targeted other
  • a genuine respect for one’s own stated values of freedom and human rights
  • a frank outline of the many lies used by state-holders in justifying war
  • a deep understanding of the fundamental racism of wars of conquest

So, do all of these things, and then get back to us with a report on how you have “anthropologized the military.”

In the meantime, the words of the Right Honourable one himself more than surpass, more than excel, in wisdom and insight unparalleled by any pretenders to anthropological wisdom.

A higher quality version can be viewed here:

May that time come when I can stop feeling embarrassed by what some anthropologists do, or what some do with anthropology.


Jager, Sheila Miyoshi. (2007, November). On the uses of cultural knowledge. Carlisle PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. Online.

Rohde, David. (2007). Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones. The New York Times, October 5. Online.