Anthropology, Counterinsurgency, and Poor Joan of Arc (1.4)

Thanks to Tim Stevens for noting this new article:

Got No Culture: Anthropology confronts Counterinsurgency
Kurt Jacobsen. Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture, Vol. 7, No. 2.

‘Lethal effects targeting’
Harry Feldman. Leftwrites. 26 December 2008
[interesting notes on relevant developments concerning the Australian portion of occupation forces in Afghanistan]

When Elizabeth Redden wrote “Raised Eyebrows over Keynote Choice,” on 26 Nov. 2008 in Inside Higher Ed, concerning the Southwestern Anthropological Association’s invitation to Montgomery McFate to deliver the keynote address at their next conference, there seemed to be quite of an inexplicable rush of unwarranted remarks about the alleged stifling of McFate, on the face of it a rather preposterous notion when applied to someone earning almost half a million dollars yearly at the Pentagon, one of the most powerful (not to mention nefarious) institutions on the planet. Yet, that is the line of thinking expressed by some in Redden’s article, not least of whom is Liam D. Murphy, an associate professor of anthropology at California State University at Sacramento and president of the SWAA. Murphy himself has had a working relationship with McFate’s Human Terrain System and identifies himself as a supporter of the Human Terrain System, and is also a personal friend of McFate’s.

My concern is about the perpetration of what is either a willful lie or inexcusable ignorance, that in any event represents some rather misplaced sympathies and a warped sense of justice. The lie is that McFate has somehow been barred from speaking, so that no “alternative” perspectives are available to academics interested in the debate about the militarization of American anthropology. Let’s look at some examples:

Murphy alleges, “We provide opportunities for people to speak, among other things, and we provide venues for them to write, and we do not shut down alternative perspectives.” SWAA’s Treasurer, Kathleen Zaretsky states, “It’s the academic world; it’s important to hear all sides.” At the same time, Murphy wanted to dictate the terms for questions to be asked of McFate at the SWAA, demanding that respect be shown. — respect accommodates and enables, honesty perhaps does not. So much for appreciating difference, and this from an “anthropologist.”

There is no evidence whatsoever that McFate’s views have been stifled. She has received invitations to speak from some of her very critics at the recent conference of the American Anthropological Assocation, and she chose not to appear. There has been a steady stream of newspaper articles praising her work (and yes there are those that do not). Moreover, she has been invited as a guest lecturer, or “distinguished” lecturer at several universities and other prominent venues over the past few months. Here are just a few examples:

Cultural anthropologist Montgomery McFate will discuss the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) during a special presentation at 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, in the McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Wayne State. Montgomery is the final guest speaker in the Institute for Information Technology and Culture’s 2008 speaker series. “This is Dangerous Territory: Social Research Out of Bounds.”

Danger Room’s panel, “with four of the men and women featured in Wired’s current ‘Smart List.’ They’ll be talking about their big ideas for the next administration — whoever’s running it….speaker most familiar to DANGER ROOM readers will be Montgomery McFate.”

Montgomery McFate, Senior Social Scientist, Human Terrain System, US Army: “Using Social Science Research in Conflict Situations: The Human Terrain System in Afghanistan and Iraq” — Thursday, September 25, 2008; 4:30 PM – 3 Rockefeller Hall — A Nelson A. Rockefeller Centennial Series Lecture

Institute of International Studies

Cultural Anthropology and National Security: Human Terrain Mapping — Lecture | September 17 2008 | 4 p.m. | 223 Moses Hall | Speaker/Performer: Montgomery McFate, Defense Department | Sponsors: Religion, Politics and Globalization Program (RPGP), Institute of International Studies

Panel on “Working with Government Agencies”
25 April 2008

Even if selective, this is still an impressive roster for one so scorned, stifled, and marginalized. I would like to see if any of her opponents, especially those who created further opportunities for her to spread her propaganda, have a guest speaking schedule that approaches McFate’s. In fact, the only times her opponents do get to speak in academic settings is when they themselves organize their own events — nobody invites them.

If hearing all sides is to be taken seriously, even for a moment, then one has to ask why so many American anthropologists neglect to invite Taliban spokesmen and Al Qaida propagandists to their conferences, or, at least publish their views. Then again, they cannot invite such figures, since their state prohibits them from learning from the other side of their “war on terror.” Interesting, how “objective” researchers can content themselves with knowing only half of the story.

Liam Murphy can be forgiven for extending a favour to an “old friend” (which is how he calls McFate). But what excuse do others have?

The fact of the matter is that we are not meant to take seriously any pretended interest in fairness and balance. What “hearing all sides” really means is a default to power, elitism, and institutionalism. Hearing all sides simply means let’s hear more of the same, from the same old authorities. There is no balance, there is merely a ludicrous little attempt to stir controversy as if McFate ever had anything but ample opportunities to speak like few others. And, a lot of her articles are online too. Objectivity is false as well, when uttered in the name of “improving” the Human Terrain System, as if that were not a subjective goal inspired by one’s values and beliefs, rather than “facts.”

Poor Joan of Arc, so meek, so punished.

The poor, forsaken girl, on the contrary, drank not herself from that cup of rest which she had secured for France. She never sang together with the songs that rose in her native Domremy, as echoes to the departing steps of the invaders. She mingled not in the festal dances at Vaucouleurs which celebrated in rapture the redemption of France. No! For her voice was then silent; no! For her feet were dust. (Thomas de Quincey, The English Mail-Coach and Joan of Arc, 1905, p. 63)

Now that Western feminism has become a fashionable part of imperialist propaganda, and accepted thanks to Islamophobia, perhaps someone can issue a rousing call to women everywhere to defend one of their own, and protest that she is not “Mrs. McFate,” but rather “Dr. McFate.” In fact, this has already been done.

May the new year see less pandering, less servility, less of the phony veneer of liberal tolerance, and more honesty from the ranks of anthropologists.


What would be even better is if we could see these debates, carried out in privileged cocoons, finally including Iraqi and Afghan perspectives, the voices of the targets and victims of these military programs. Without them, we have one hand clapping, and more of the same: people who think that the best way to understand such programs is by studying people in the programs, while removing those programs from the wider context in which they are deployed. The context of these programs are wars of occupation — studies of people and procedures in HTS just give us one hand clapping once again. Contrary to the way some choose to misunderstand the concept of “speaking truth to power,” what it does not require is that we further cozy up to power, power to which we already belong as institutional professionals in Western, capitalist societies. What we need is to understand power from the bloody end of human targets, who show us the true face of our state’s actions carried out in our name and with our financial support. We need to see what power does before we can speak any truth to it.