On the Militarization of Anthropology: Report #1 from the CASCA-AES Conference in Vancouver

The joint conference of the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) and the American Ethnological Society (AES) came to an end in Vancouver four days ago, and this should be the first of a couple of items to appear here pertaining the two sessions devoted to the militarization of anthropology and Canadian responses. The setting of the conference could not have been prettier or more peaceful, as one can glimpse from some of the extraordinary views of the surrounding landscape/waterscape as shown below, taken from within the campus of the University of British Columbia.

A view from the University of British Columbia
A view from the University of British Columbia

Aside from the extravagant natural beauty surrounding the campus, what is not shown in these photos is a campus that is smothered by endless flowering trees, with flowers one does not see elsewhere in Canada.

A view from the University of British Columbia
A view from the University of British Columbia

Thus, in a sense, the setting for our discussions could not have been worse.

To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time that discussion concerning the Human Terrain System and the Minerva Research Initiative occurred in a formal venue outside of the United States. This did not impede the Human Terrain System from sending us one of their representatives, the very professional, diplomatic, and reserved Christopher A. King, who registered openly as a HTS member (printed on his badge) and handed out his HTS business cards. Christopher King came to Vancouver from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and he was “kind” enough to note that he learned of this event from this blog. We spent some time alone talking (and with my other fellow panelists, Catherine Besteman and Greg Feldman). Contrary to what some readers of this blog might have expected, there were no fireworks, no raised voices, but certainly no reconciliation either. Dr. King was interested in putting a face to this writing, and I think he will have to admit: the writing is prettier. What I suspect Dr. King discovered while here, is that there is much less ambiguity among Canadian academics, far less of the desperate search for contrived nuance because that’s where the alibis are to be found, and not much of the hastily painted gray areas, that one finds in the range of opinions about HTS among American anthropologists. Whenever I have spoken to Canadian audiences, the nearly unanimous reaction is one of outrage, disgust, and disbelief (no not towards me, I mean specifically towards HTS).

That the critical reactions from anthropologists have supposedly had an effect on HTS, contrary to what Mark Dawson suggested a while ago, was something suggested by Christopher King himself (I will not be producing a transcript from memory of everything he spoke about, not because I fear that he ever made the mistake of thinking that whatever he told me would not appear on this blog, but simply because if I did so it might lead others in the future to think that I will publicly report on everything they say in private — meanwhile, other HTS members, like one who posted on this blog today, are still willing to discuss HTS matters openly). Dr. King’s business card has the official designation of “social scientist” (which presumably is to change to “intelligence analyst” if the so-called “nationalization” of HTS is really occurring). He noted that HTS and the wider Pentagon establishment can live without anthropologists’ participation, and that some anthropologists in HTS do not even label themselves as such, but rather choose the broader term, “social scientist.” In Chris King’s case, he has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Hawaii, and has served in Iraq, going back to before HTS was created.

The first of our sessions, titled “The Use of Culture and Anthropology in Counter-insurgency and Peacekeeping Operations,” and organized by Greg Feldman, consisted of what I, and at least some members of the audience who commented, thought were excellent papers. The panel was very well attended and a fair amount of discussion ensued. The formal abstract for the session as a whole was as follows:

Overseas military operations –whether for warfare or peacekeeping– are increasingly using academic knowledge of the culture and society of non-Western peoples. This development has invoked anthropology as a resource in cross-cultural outreach in order to facilitate relations between local peoples American and Western military forces. Proponents of the military’s use of cultural knowledge argue that it reduces the number of civilian casualties and expedites efforts to win over local populations lest otherwise innocent people be recruited by terrorist networks. Opponents argue that it constitutes an appropriation of anthropological knowledge for the purposes of expanding Western hegemony and reproducing global power hierarchies. This session will critique the military’s use of anthropological knowledge for these ends and explore other ways in which the discipline can enlarge the discussion of what “security” and “peace” could mean between peoples located in unequal power positions.

Richard Lee, professor emeritus in anthropology at the University of Toronto, led with his paper titled “Culture, Apartheid and War: Case Studies from South Africa and Israel,” a fairly courageous piece in these times when the “anti-Semitism” charge is thrown about against any and every academic (yours truly included) who dares to criticize or condemn Israeli aggression, human rights abuses, and Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestinian lands. Dr. Lee devoted the bulk of his paper to drawing out the comparisons between Israel and Apartheid South Africa, which Israel supported. If anything he notes that the comparison may be faulty on the grounds that the Israeli version of apartheid is far more vigorous, and brutal. He used the numerous public denunciations of those who lived under apartheid, such as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, who have themselves made the Israeli-South African comparison, only to be promptly denounced by Israel’s extremist though mainstream Hasbara campaign as “bigots.” Lee criticized the “psycho-pathology” of contemporary Israeli Zionism in trying to lambast and intimidate all critics of the Zionist project as anti-Semitic. The paper largely stood apart from the rest in that it did not touch on the Human Terrain System or the militarization of anthropology.

Roberto J. González’s paper, “‘To Change Entire Societies’: Counterinsurgency Cults, ‘Tribes,’ and Anthropology,” was excellent. He could not be present, but his paper was read by Greg Feldman, and read perfectly. A large part of the paper was devoted to demystifying the renewed attempt to sell counterinsurgency (COIN), and the base tool of analysis that the focus on the “tribe” has become for COIN ethnography. González produced a well crafted critique of the cult of counterinsurgency as one driven by, to quote the words of Lt. Col. John Nagl, the aim “to change entire societies.” One of the analytical tools used for figuring out how to “change entire societies” is the well worn anthropological concept of “tribe” (and when I wrote about this here in a debate with a journalist, it was with keeping in mind the ample critiques mounted as far back as the 1960s by June Helm, Michael Moerman, Edmund Leach, and Morton Fried — the military is still stuck on ANTH 101 instead. Note also the vulgarization, if not underlying racism of the concept of “wild tribes” used by the Associated Press). As if the revival of outdated anthropological concepts was not enough, González informed us that some U.S. soldiers refer to Iraq and Afghanistan as “Indian Country” and the “Wild West.” That counterinsurgency programs in both of these countries have deliberately sought to conduct colonial “divide and rule” strategies, was also discussed in the paper. (The divide and rule is not just oriented along “tribal” or ethnic lines either, I would add, but also along the lines of gender, putting women and girls on the front line against the Taliban in a cynical and extremely dangerous exploitation of gender issues to advance imperialism.) I especially liked González’s conclusion, pertinent to our overall efforts at this conference:

Anthropologists might yet play a role in humanizing the human sciences by challenging persistent and damaging assumptions, often taking the form of propaganda perpetuated by the most powerful members of our society: the idea that counterinsurgency is a “gentler” form of warfare; the notion that Iraqis and Afghans are incapable of self-government (or “civilized” behavior); a belief in the inevitability of a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the rest; and the pernicious, stubborn ideology of American exceptionalism. Provided anthropologists and other social scientists can continue to work independently from government and the military, we can also contribute critical thought, reflection, and action.

Catherine Besteman’s “‘Beware of Those Bearing Gifts’: Anthropology and AFRICOM,” was also very engaging, and one of the best pieces I have come across that deals with AFRICOM so succinctly, while bringing the discussion around to HTS (thanks to Montgomery McFate for telegraphing this eventuality in an interview with Charlie Rose). Much of the paper focused on the emergence and construction of AFRICOM as essentially a militarization of what was previously a civilian component of American foreign policy, one that seems driven to create a situation of permanent war in Africa, and one developed with an eye on competition with China for control of the continent’s natural resources (we could add, following David Harvey’s analysis, that the U.S. uses its military to threaten to turn off the taps to natural resources that China’s industries need, as a form of leverage and to ensure continued lending from China). How might anthropologists get involved with civilian, humanitarian efforts? Besteman repeatedly emphasized that there are African civil society organizations, and those are the ones that anthropologists should join, should they be serious in their claims of “wanting to help.”

Greg Feldman’s “Slaying the Hydra: Challenging the Military’s “Cultural Turn” beyond the Human Terrain,” was very captivating and sharp. The two prongs of the paper were, (1) the unintentional limits of our response to HTS, and, (2), the basis of a stronger counterargument to the military’s “cultural turn”, of which HTS is only one manifestation. First, Feldman warned us of the limitations of a liberal critique of HTS, since it is founded on a liberal claim of wanting to develop cross-cultural understanding to achieve peace, one of the loud selling points used by anthropologists in their very own introductory courses in universities and colleges. Second, he warns that the defeat of HTS is not the defeat of the cultural turn by the U.S. military establishment, hence the reference to the Hydra. Most critically, Feldman ended his paper by explaining that the kind of difference desired by the West through multiculturalism and liberal aims of cross-cultural understanding, is a difference emptied of its substance, like wanting coffee without the caffeine, or beer without alcohol:

What Western powers call cultural understanding for the sake of peace is, in fact, a rejection of cultural difference and a violent one at that as it eviscerates the substance out of difference. Therefore, the argument necessary to undermine the Hydra’s logic is that liberalism and its multicultural embrace is itself an act of violence precisely because it seeks to eradicate the differences it claims to uphold. That is why anthropologists cannot support it.

Finally, as I spoke last, my paper titled “‘Useless Anthropology’: Strategies for Dealing with the Militarization of the Academy,” will be presented in full on this blog, in a subsequent posting, along with a copy of a related paper I presented last November. For now, let me say that the paper very much followed the outline presented in the abstract I submitted:

Useful, objective, and scientific, are again the buzzwords for an anthropology aligned with power, in the service of the national security state, furthering imperial agendas and removing the militarization of the academy beyond the sphere of “politics”. What are strategies and responses that can be envisioned and implemented? Possibilities range from changes to the nature and role of ethnography, institutional and individual responses to American hegemony in anthropology, activist research and writing, and collaborations reaching outside the academy. Ultimately, the key question is how we think about anthropology and its social positioning.

I will end here, for now, leaving the rest of the report from the conference for the next posting.

9 thoughts on “On the Militarization of Anthropology: Report #1 from the CASCA-AES Conference in Vancouver

  1. Hi Max,
    Thanks for sharing that.
    I am also looking forward to reading your paper.
    A bit tangentially, I was wondering if you had heard of the work of Oscar Salemink, 2003, The ethnography of Vietnam’s central highlanders: a historical contextualization, 1850-1990, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press. Some parts of it are quite relevant to the matter of anthropology, US military and war (a chapter is entitled : “moving the montagnards : the role of anthropology”).

  2. Interesting coincidence: Oscar Salemink attended the first panel that I talked about in this report, and he made the point that since so little of the current counterinsurgency talk is new, that we all ought to revisit the previous phase from the 1960s. He also spoke of how after writing critically about the current war in Afghanistan, in which there are Dutch troops as well, that very soon after a Dutch general contacted him wanting to hear more from him.

    That’s a good reference, many thanks for that.

  3. Max,
    Very good of you to ‘recreate’ the CASCA session here on the blog. I commented that this particular panel was excellent, as was to be expected. What was not expected was the level of insight that Roberto Gonzalez’s paper brought to bear on counterinsurgency ideologies. This notion of changing ‘entire cultures’ is sadly not unique to military apparatuses; as you may be aware, health care professionals are growing increasingly hip to recruiting anthropologists. It’s seen as ‘sexy’ on one level, and ‘socially responsible’ on another. Last fall, I sat in on a session between social scientists and health care providers in which a (well meaning, I’m sure) care provider posed the question: How do we go about changing culture? From her vantage point, the question was not only pertinent, it was wholly necessary. The very notion that difference could be celebrated (!) is not necessarily compatible with a highly biomedical paradigm. I use this example not to draw attention away from the topic at hand, but rather to illustrate how pervasive (and even, banal) such an ideology can be. If ‘change’ is propogated from the base context of the individual, how far a leap is it to apply to a culture, a society, or a people? I would argue, not far at all.
    Dan Houser

  4. Thanks Dan, and instead of drawing away attention from the matter at hand, you instead point out some of the other institutions and discourses that conduct similar campaigns (and hopefully not with the same effects). It’s not a huge leap to go from “humanitarianism” to “health care” and I am sure that in some projects in Afghanistan that those two, plus counterinsurgency, all go together as traveling companions.

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