I presented the paper below, “(Re)Imperializing Anthropology and Decolonizing Knowledge Production,” at the 8th Annual Critical Race and Anti-colonial Studies Conference of Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality (R.A.C.E.), held at Ryerson University in Toronto, 14-16 November, 2008. Almost a year has passed since I promised to post it here, and I suspect that I have since lost some of my references.
This is the only presentation I have made at a conference where those attending and participating found it to be “shocking,” “chilling,” and “extremely depressing,” in the words of three different participants. The vast majority of those participating and attending the conference were not anthropologists.
The second of only two conference papers I have presented thus far that involve the Human Terrain System was presented this past May in Vancouver: “Useless Anthropology”: Strategies for Dealing with the Militarization of the Academy.
Smart, Soft and Long: Propaganda Abroad and at Home
In promoting a “long war” against so-called “extremism,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has spearheaded initiatives to assimilate social scientists into the so-called “global war on terror,” with culture and ethnography being the two most salient areas of interest that drive the renewed military creep into universities, coupled with the expansion of military activity into areas previously dominated by civilian efforts, such as relief work (also see this, this, this). The result is a realignment of academic research with the imperatives of the national security state. Canada is by no means immune to this, it is merely a latecomer, as I will discuss later.
For the past two years the Pentagon has actively sought to recruit anthropologists, and now other social scientists, in its twin wars of occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking the form of the Human Terrain System and now the much broader Minerva Research Initiative. The Human Terrain System, or HTS, embeds academics with military units, with the purported aim of mapping local cultural formations so that U.S. military can better understand who the local power brokers are, the prevailing customs, and material needs that can be satisfied to win local loyalty and collaboration with U.S. forces. HTS claims that its aim is to save the lives of U.S. troops first and foremost, and to lessen the need for directing firepower at local populations. Critics have argued, among many points, that social scientists are being used to better refine targeting, given that the Assistant Undersecretary of Defense, John Wilcox, noted: “the human terrain enables the global kill chain.” The embedded academics wear American military uniforms and carry weapons if and when they conduct interviews.
My belief is that it was created above all for domestic consumption, as part of a domestic propaganda effort and a public relations war conducted through the mainstream media. The aims include, in my view, quelling the homegrown intellectual insurgency of critical academics, by luring academics with salaries up to $300,000 when they are in the field, while at the same time promoting a new image for increasingly unpopular wars by emphasizing that smart people [and smart power] are replacing smart bombs, that a new intellectual elite is at the helm as personified by General David Petraeus, and that wars are now winnable because they are being fought within the cultures of the occupied. Ethnography is the shiny new tool in the armory of intellectual counterinsurgency. While the Pentagon takes over civilian developmental efforts elsewhere, it is bringing in more outsourced civilians into the war zone, contracted by British Aerospace in the case of HTS, and celebrating their counterinsurgency effort as an increasingly civilian affair.
Moreover, the principles and mechanisms behind the Human Terrain System have been incorporated in newly expanded designs for the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), which came into being on October 1st, and its Latin American and Caribbean Command (SOUTHCOM), to better penetrate local cultures and expand the nature of U.S. military presence in those regions, in part with the aid of social science research. The aim is to get U.S. troops used to the climates, cultures, and so-called human terrain of these various zones, through so-called humanitarian, development, and relief work, so as to maintain a regular presence and a higher sense of familiarity should more forceful action be required. Here too Canada is directly involved once more – at this very moment, Canadian military personnel are part of the crew of the USS Kearsarge, a US Marine aircraft carrier and amphibious assault vessel, currently docked in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The Kearsarge has been touring Central America and the Caribbean since August, as part of this expanded Pentagon mission and the reconstitution of the 4th Fleet that has alarmed both Brazil and Venezuela.
(See Operation Continuing Promise 2008; the blog for the mission; its extensive photo gallery; note from the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad, the operation as a form of “soft power;” more on Kearsarge as soft power; the main operation page from SOUTHCOM, and a short overview/summary of the mission; and, concerning the Canadian presence, a note from the Dept. of National Defence, a photo gallery of the Canadian military personnel on the Kearsarge mission, and “Ahoy, eh! From the Canadian Medical Contingent in KEARSARGE!“)
Anthropology: Sucker for Power
Where the employment of anthropologists in HTS is concerned, this is a repeat or continuation of the long history of anthropological service to expansionist states, colonial management, and imperial domination, a history with which institutional anthropology has yet to come to terms, if the relative paucity of literature on anthropology and colonialism, or the rarity of courses on decolonizing anthropology attest. This is not say that anthropology does not contain within it a significant critical and even activist tradition, especially since the 1960s, as much as it is to suggest that anthropology has no real core, as David Price argues, with which to either align or collide with state power. Primary motivations and compulsions within anthropology, that pre-date its institutional birth and continue into the present, include:
- the constant perceived need to promote the relevance and usefulness of anthropology;
- policing its proprietary claims over ethnography;
- bemoaning the lack of attention from other disciplines and the wider society;
- the drive to develop applied anthropology;
- self-promotion as a science that should be valued by those in power;
- the desire for a higher public profile and engagement with the world;
- the goal of helping to do good; and,
- selling knowledge of the other.
All of these varying emotional, intellectual and political strains within the discipline contribute, individually or collectively, to propel some into the folds of the Pentagon, to keep many others silent, and to provoke the visceral critiques of a few, such as myself.
Research in the National Security State
Both HTS and the Minerva Research Initiative (Minerva or MRI from now on) are additions to an already existing array of programs that meld the national security state with academia in the U.S. These programs include the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP), formed with the guidance and active support of an anthropology professor (Felix Moos) at the University of Kansas, as well as the National Security Education Program (NSEP), the Intelligence Community Scholars Program (ICSP), and the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security (NACHOS), and an array of private think tanks that link social science research to the so-called “global war on terror” with some of these, like the Hoover Institution at Stanford, housed on campuses. One could also mention the presence of ROTC on many campuses, and the fact that as far back as 1988 a CIA spokeswoman publicly proclaimed that the CIA had enough professors on its payroll to staff a large university. Clearly, in addition to casting a critical and vigilant eye on anthropologists, we also need to be realistic of the many intertwining connections meshing American academia more broadly with the American national security state, and build a plan of action accordingly.
This past summer the National Science Foundation, with the support of the American Anthropological Association, successfully lobbied to administer $8 million of the Pentagon’s $75 million for Minerva, offering its seal of approval to projects by offering semi-independent peer review. The NSF boasted of its long service to the state: “To secure the national defense was one of the original missions we were given when we were chartered in 1950,” said David Lightfoot, assistant director of NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate, “We’ve always believed that sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other social scientists, through basic social and behavioral science research, could benefit our national security. In fact, we’ve always done so through various research projects.” Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council, at a recent Minerva workshop organized and hosted by the Pentagon, went on the record cheerfully praising Minerva and calling for more ways of expanding the nature and range of academic collaboration with the military and intelligence communities.
The MRI has been accepting grant proposals, with the deadline passing on October 30 , the results to be announced before the end of this year. Proposals are being accepted for projects that address any of the following areas: (1) Chinese Military and Technology Research and Archive Programs; (2) Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Changes within the Islamic World; (3) Iraqi Perspectives Project; (4) Studies of Terrorist Organization and Ideologies; (5) New Approaches to Understanding Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation. The Pentagon will pay out awards to universities, and awards will range from $500,000 to $3 million (US) per annum, with the average award estimated at $1.5 million per annum.
One way in which this program can directly engage Canadian academics and universities is apparent from the fact that foreign universities are also encouraged to participate, as the Pentagon announced with the call for applications,
“This MRI competition is open to institutions of higher education (universities) including DoD institutions of higher education and foreign universities, with degree-granting programs in social sciences. Participation by foreign universities either as project lead or in a supporting role is encouraged”.
The Pentagon’s MRI calls on academics to themselves identify an organization or an ideology as “terrorist” without providing any guidelines or list of suggested organizations and ideologies, or even how it defines terrorist. The Pentagon announced in its call for research proposals that, “This effort will involve the development of models and approaches to study behavior networks, groups, and communities over time” — so surveillance is intended, over the long term, and anthropologists are specifically called upon, as “the relevance of context and situation may require field research”.
The Pentagon continues:
“there is an urgent need to be able to locate the points of influence and characterize the processes necessary to influence populations that harbor terrorist organizations in diverse cultures as well as individuals who identify with terrorist group figures”.
The Pentagon announcement states,
“Especially helpful…is understanding where organized violence is likely to erupt, what factors might explain its contagion, and how to circumvent its spread. Research on belief formation and emotional contagion will provide cultural advisors with better tools to understand the impact of operations on the local population. This research should also contribute to countermeasures to help revise or influence belief structures to reduce the likelihood of militant cells forming”.
In addition, Minerva’s “Iraqi Perspectives Project” involves the study of documents looted from Iraq by U.S. forces and private individuals and illegally relocated to the U.S., at such places as the Hoover Institution at Stanford. This is despite the repeated protests and calls for their return from the Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, and despite the fact that capturing and holding these documents clearly violates the 1954 Hague Convention. Academics are therefore being invited to violate international law and Iraqi sovereignty, in writing Iraqi history for the Iraqis, another classic act of colonial domination. In the meantime, no one can know which documents have been made to disappear or have been altered in the years that they have been in the hands of the Pentagon.
Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist of military industries and national security, recently wrote a compelling overview of the many dangers of Minerva and other programs for the social role of academia. He writes:
“When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind. The public comes to accept that basic academic research on religion and violence ‘belongs’ to the military; scholars who never saw themselves as doing military research now do; maybe they wonder if their access to future funding is best secured by not criticizing U.S. foreign policy; a discipline whose independence from military and corporate funding fueled the kind of critical thinking a democracy needs is now compromised; and the priorities of the military further define the basic terms of public and academic debate”.
Given the ambivalent and unsteady reactions of academic anthropologists, these developments are undoing the past thirty years of effort of some in decolonizing anthropology, thereby threatening to return the discipline to an adjunct in the service of imperial power. As I said, reactions have been varied, with the American Anthropological Association (or AAA) going as far as issuing an executive condemnation of HTS as unethical, to proposing to revise its entire code of ethics by 2010 in order to preclude such involvement from the military from claiming adherence to professional, ethical standards. At the same time, the current president of the AAA worries primarily about whether Minerva research can live up to professional standards of peer review. Absent is any questioning of why there ought to be any “terrorism” research whatsoever — indeed a letter this summer from AAA President Setha Low to the U.S. Office of Budget and Management states very simply: “We believe that it is of paramount importance for anthropologists to study the roots of terrorism.” In the name of pragmatism, there seems to be a lack of a consistent critical discourse for dealing with state power and imperialism, and perhaps one should not expect this from a professional association as such.
As mentioned, the Pentagon is inviting foreign researchers and their universities to participate in the Minerva program. Conditions in Canada seem ripe for its spread here, given Canada’s own intervention in Afghanistan and the government’s collaboration with the U.S.’ “global war on terror,” and the relative paucity of social science research funding. A minority can hope to win a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and even fewer will ever get a grant close to the maximum of $250,000 spread over three years. Canada Research Chairs, fewer in number but with more funding, still cannot compete with the massive amount offered by Minerva, whose maximum grant is 12 times higher than the maximum offered by SSHRC as a standard research grant, and perhaps three times higher than that offered to Canada Research Chairs. With greater pressure from university administrations to secure more and more research funds, from all possible sources, it is just a matter of time before we find Minerva advertised by our own campus research offices, and taken up by researchers here. As for the Human Terrain System, it too has already made an appearance in Canada, for now relying on the service of civilian employees of the government. Some of you may have read recently that Canadian forces operating in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province have employed so-called “white situational awareness teams” to reportedly help troops navigate the complex tribal landscape of southern Afghanistan. As Tom Blackwell of CanWest News reported earlier this week:
“Drawing on information from Canadian civilians and troops operating in Kandahar, local cultural advisers and NATO allies, the team is trying to map out the movers and shakers of the province and how they relate to each other”.
That is exactly the same as HTS, indeed human terrain mapping has also been referred to as “white situational awareness” by its proponents in the U.S. Also, an American infantry unit operating under Canadian command has its own “human terrain” team, Blackwell reports. Elissa Goldberg, who is in charge of Canada’s civilian officials in Afghanistan, says that the deployment of the team is “a recognition that you really have to understand the human terrain of the environment, so you do no harm.” Refined targeting, focusing on enemy Afghans, is also a stated purpose of gaining a sense of local dynamics. When results of this first month’s trial mandate it, we should not be surprised when the Canadian military comes knocking on the doors of universities, and you already know that university presidents hungry for cash will warmly welcome them, while firmly prodding us to get more money, always more.
Towards the End of the White Discipline
I have mentioned that Canadian forces work with the US’s SOUTHCOM, we know they participate in Afghanistan, that a Canadian HTS is being developed, and that Minerva is open to Canadians. Canadian anthropology is not insulated from its American partner either. Many Canadian anthropologists, if not most, also belong to the AAA, and travel to the U.S. for annual meetings of the AAA and/or its member associations. We share the same space on editorial boards of journals. We often jointly organize conferences between the Canadian Anthropology Society and the American Ethnological Society. Some Canadian departments are modeled on the American four-field system. Prominent faculty in anthropology have served both in Canada and the U.S. We have undergraduates from the U.S., and a good number of our graduates earning degrees in anthropology in the U.S. We use the AAA’s code of ethics and its case studies as part of our teaching materials. We read and adopt texts written by our American colleagues. Even if none of the preceding were true the fact of the worldwide dominance of American anthropology alone would ensure an eventual impact on how our discipline is reproduced, presented to the wider world, and received (if at all).
The military’s cultural turn has focused attention on ethnography, in what Derek Gregory calls the rush to the intimate. Anthropology has been a victim of its lust for influence as Satia put it, and of its own success, having sold itself as the owner and master of ethnography, often wrongly equating anthropology with ethnography. Having claimed it had much to offer, now the national security state wants it. I believe we need to consider the ways we can make ourselves toxic to power overall, while rethinking, or even unthinking many things, such as the value and role of “fieldwork” (a despicably colonial and scientistic term), open access publishing, the funding of research, and the meaning of academic freedom. Without any response, the fatal uses of anthropology will likely marginalize and perhaps terminate what is arguably academia’s whitest discipline.
More Photos from the U.S.S. Kearsarge and “Operation Continuing Promise 2008”:
The Canadian Presence with the U.S.S. Kearsarge during “Operation Continuing Promise 2008”: