Militanthro: Anthropology and the Study of NATO and the U.S. Military

Two articles to which I want to draw attention discuss the important issues of research methodology for anthropologists studying NATO and the U.S. military. For those who do not have paid access to these publications, I will summarize some of the key points. Secondly, I will make some additional comments for those interested in pursuing research in these areas.

From Plato to NATO

The first article, published in 2003 in Anthropology Today, is by Gregory Feldman, titled: Breaking Our Silence on NATO. Feldman begins by stating a problem, which starts with his observation that while anthropologists had studied and written about the expansion of the European Union into the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, none had mentioned the parallel and almost simultaneous expansion of NATO into this same area:

“In contrast to its approach to EU enlargement, however, anthropology has remained nearly silent about the enlargement of NATO, the most powerful military alliance in history. Why the silence about an international organization with lethal powers to which the vast majority of European countries either belongs or will soon belong?” (p. 1)

Feldman provides three possible answers for why that is the case. The first, one that is very dated (likely dating back to around 1991), is that NATO is no longer assumed to be as relevant as the EU, and that Russia is no longer the enemy, nor is NATO needed given European integration efforts. Unsurprisingly, one mistake being made here is to view NATO only within the confines of Europe, confines that NATO itself does not respect. Such a confining European framework,

“casts the alliance as something contained within a bounded Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals in which the inhabitants share a (teleological) history ‘from Plato to NATO’. ” (p. 1)

But, as Feldman commented,

“NATO’s role is evidently no longer to protect Europe from itself. Rather, ‘NATO is there to protect rich, white capitalist countries (plus Turkey) from poor, brown ones’ as a former student from one of the latter once noted. NATO’s identity is now constituted in opposition to ‘security risks’ identified in the South in the form of migration, international drug and human trafficking and terrorism. The invocation of Article Five shortly after 11 September 2001 accelerated, rather than initiated, this process. NATO’s current reconfiguration of purpose relies on a discourse of military as essential attribute of nationhood, in which its member states must repel what is implicitly construed as a ‘civilizational’ threat.” (p. 1)

From here Feldman proceeds to pose two questions that he is sure will and should interest anthropologists, concerning national identities:

“An anthropology of NATO could begin by addressing two inextricably linked questions: how does inclusion in NATO regiment debates about national identity in its member states, and what are the effects of this on those European countries excluded from NATO and who by their definition as Other contribute to the construction of this identity?” (p. 1)

The second answer, or assumption, that Feldman challenges interested me much more, because it involves the confining and narrow assumptions that have become part of the mainstream in current Anglo-American anthropology. This assumption is that NATO policy (and actions, we must add), do not involve “ordinary people” and are thus for some reason “outside the purview of anthropology/ethnography” (p. 1). NATO is thus cast as removed from “everyday life”. So what are the problems with this view. To summarize Feldman’s response, the problems can be listed as:

  1. This view neglects the indirect social and economic impacts on ordinary people as a result of maintaining excessively large militaries designed for foreign intervention;
  2. It glosses over the identification of nation with the military;
  3. NATO is not just a military organization confined to Brussels, but “rather it is a function of socially reproduced discourses of military, state, nation and even civilization” (p. 2); and,
  4. NATO’s effects are localizable and therefore accessible to anthropologists.

The third assumption challenged by Feldman is that,

“NATO precludes ethnography because its Brussels headquarters is even more secretive than the European Commission. An anthropology of NATO necessitates ethnography at headquarters, which is not feasible. No anthropologist will gain ethnographic access to the elites working in Brussels, unlike those who have undertaken ethnographies of the European Commission” (p. 2)

Feldman’s response is that this view is an antiquated one that privileges access to specific (usually “remote”) locations, rather than being in line with more contemporary arguments in anthropology that reconceptualize “the field” as multiple, interlocking social and political formations. Where Feldman came closest to producing a really challenging answer that opens up horizons, is in pursuing this line of the geographical decentering of research and what this means for participant observation:

“It is not that participant observation is irrelevant or unnecessary, but in instances where face-to-face interaction does not address the necessary research question, anthropologists should use alternative methods that focus on non-localizable sites to expose the culturally produced logic structuring unequal social-political relations” (p. 2, emphasis added)

There is a genealogy here too, with such ideas stretching back further in anthropology than some students might assume, or might have been told. Feldman, thus cites Laura Nader from over 30 years ago, who drew on Sol Tax before her, and argued that “anthropologists should ‘shuffle around the value placed on participant observation’ if they are to study the most important problems of the world today” (p. 2). As an example, Feldman points to one of Hugh Gusterson’s chosen field sites, one which,

“consisted of a leading foreign policy journal, International Security, in which…[security studies] intellectuals published articles between 1986 and 1989, the final years of the Cold War. This journal was a crucial target of study for several reasons: its contributors’ status and influence, its mediating position between academia and government foreign policy circles, the prestigious universities that support it, its mix of theoretical and policy-oriented articles, and its acclaimed coverage of the nuclear arms race and the global balance of power. A range of geographically disparate but highly influential actors converged on the pages of International Security…” (p. 2)

Those who would especially appreciate this line of argument are those engaged in what is varyingly called virtual ethnography, cyber anthropology, or digital studies, and even media studies (see for example Elizabeth Bird’s The Audience in Everyday Life: Living in a Media World, which takes to task the conventional meanings of ethnography, and even disputes the concept of an “audience”).

Secrecy and the Human Terrain System

The second article in question, published just this year and almost a decade after Feldman’s, and also appearing in Anthropology Today, is Roberto J. González’s “Anthropology and the covert: Methodological notes on researching military and intelligence programmes” (an extended and elaborated version of a presentation he gave at the AAA in Montreal last year, which I discussed here). As if receiving the baton from Feldman, González continues the same line of argument by writing that, “Fieldwork has become complicated by the recognition of global processes and interconnections, by reformulations and critiques of the culture concept, and by considerations of power” (p. 21). As he observes, many anthropological projects no longer obsess about particular sites, but instead focus on particular concepts, processes or commodities. But, as he notes, there is still this apprehension, anxiety, and even hostility towards projects that seem to sideline participant-observation, a view which he rightly characterizes as fetishizing archaic ethnographic conventions. González focuses on secretive organizations, ones that are certainly not plainly accessible.

González, also quoting Gusterson, comments that “participant-observation…does not travel well up the social structure” (p. 21), alluding to elite corporations and secretive organizations that are not willing to spill information into any anthropology student’s notebook. Should such centres of social and political life be excluded from anthropology because of their power? Obviously González, Feldman and Gusterson would not agree. So what methods are available if participant-observation is not possible?

González outlines the three possibilities recommended by Laura Nader and as applied to his own research on the Human Terrain System. Instead of participant-observation in the ordinary sense (this is problematic, because González is certainly a participant observer in the anthropological structures of university institutions from which HTS seeks recruits and validation), the three options are:

“firstly, the analysis of documents (including public relations material and internal memos); secondly, interviews, especially face-to-face interviews; and lastly, ‘self-analysis’ – ‘an awareness on the part of the [anthropologist] of how he or she as a social scientist is perceived, run around, enculturated, and described in the veiled and not-so-veiled encounters with…members of organizations’” (p. 23)

With respect to documentary analysis, González identifies articles on the Human Terrain System (HTS) by the program’s architects that were published in Military Review, as well as discussions and reports in Small Wars Journal, as well as various documents produced by the Pentagon and placed online such as PowerPoint presentations, plus military field manuals, Pentagon budget reports, articles in the mainstream media and on blogs, and of course leaked documents. There is some discussion of the advantages and limitations of requests for classified documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)–among the limitations to note are the fact that documents are being destroyed faster than they are being released, that it can take years for the documents to be released, and that requests can be frequently denied. In the Canadian case, aware that there could be such requests, government officers in some cases are deliberately documenting less and less of their own activities.

Interviews and self-analysis–González goes into some detail about his experiences conversing with, and interviewing, employees of HTS who contacted him over the months and years of his research, often using pseudonyms at first. Contact with HTS program officers was, as some of us already know, entirely unsatisfying: questions were avoided; they responded via the mass media and essentially dismissed critical academics; or they participated in conferences with anthropologists, only to then suppress any publication of the recordings of the proceedings. In terms of self-analysis, González singles out the inside work of John Allison, who now writes on this site and some of whose revelations were also published here, and in CounterPunch.

Finally, González ends by arguing for the need to make our work accessible to a broad audience. On the other hand, he draws key distinctions between the work of anthropologists engaged in issues of public importance, and the work of investigative journalists. The latter he faults for often not looking for deeper meanings, for lacking a political economic perspective and ability to historically contextualize a problem, and their failure to apply useful theories in deciphering some of the language that is embedded in military documents for example.

Oh but is it “Anthropology”?

On the same panel at which González made the presentation on which his article is based, I also spoke of some of the methods that could be used for gaining information from secretive organizations and from the U.S. military in particular (not knowing that González would be talking about this very subject about an hour or so later in the session). I cannot recall all of my points now, but one which differed from González’s list was that of provocation. One does not need to always wait for anonymous contacts, interviews, or leaks to happen. One can also provoke the passage and exchange of information and meanings, quite deliberately, by being a hostile critic that every devoted (or designated) military insider wants to correct. I am not a genius: I discovered this by accident, and it was an often unwelcome experience. I expect that few will know ZA as well as I do, or be able to recall select comments from the thousands received over the years–but to give an example, whenever I wrote hostile commentaries on the civilians killed in strikes by the U.S. Air Force lo and behold within minutes of posting “someone” would appear, with an amazing amount of technical information, to either dispute, “correct,” or upbraid me. Checking IP addresses revealed that many such comments came from military bases in the U.S., Iraq, and Afghanistan. I never needed to request an interview. The exchanges provided valuable insights into the resources dedicated to military image management, to the use of soft power, the seeding of social media with messages favourable to the U.S. military, the depth and extent of the militarized form of patriotism that is dominant in the U.S., and the ways that critical academics are cast as a result of foreign intervention, which is part of creating an impetus toward domestic counterinsurgency in North America.

But what I really wanted to add here is some commentary that was especially provoked (in a positive sense) by Feldman’s article. I have frequently noted a tendency, a bit of a defensive one at that, in some of the literature where innovations in anthropological research are proposed, as a way of moving forward, but always looking backward for validation. Some apparently feel the need to ensure that the new can somehow be defended in terms of the past. It is an impossible act to perform. It splits the thinker into conservative and progressive.

So here Feldman is listing questions that are almost reassuring to anthropologists, by appealing to them that this material on NATO is actually on terrain that is familiar to them–Feldman thus refers to questions of identity. Now right there I sense a move that, ironically, ought to be judged as anti-anthropology: we are not supposed to be seeking comfort in what is already familiar to us. We should be questioning why we are comfortable with certain issues, and seeking out those that cause us discomfort. New questions in anthropology–and new anthropologies for that matter–will not be opened up by asking what matters to anthropologists today. It’s what doesn’t matter to them today that should be attracting more attention. (Please note: I am not actually accusing Feldman, a geographer, of being “anti-anthropology”.)

Even while noting the apprehension about the nature and role of ethnography, these articles may inadvertently seek to appease, at least almost as much as they challenge. We need greater clarity: an anthropological approach to a problem, and a problem of anthropological value, need not have anything to do with ethnography. As I noted on previous occasions, I side with John Gledhill here, that the real “contribution” that we have to make, is a theoretical one, that is the kinds of questions we ask and the different answers we bring to such discussions, and not just a research method. Indeed, the method issue should be entirely subordinate to, and derivative of, the theoretical questions one asks–and not all questions, nor many of the important ones, can be answered ethnographically (or cannot be answered adequately using ethnography, in the restrictive sense of research with small groups of people in small locales). Feldman, despite his argument, still seems (if only in that 2003 piece) to hang onto the idea of things having localizable effects and thus being accessible, so that we may then study them. Having heard Feldman in 2009, I can assure readers that he is not one to endorse what he critically referred to as Malinowskian sensorial positivism–that you can only talk about militarism by first doing an ethnography of the military, or worse yet, by working for the military.

I also recommend that we exercise some care when we speak of making a “contribution,” one of the buzzwords in our peer reviews. As I have argued elsewhere, “contribution” can be a very conservative concept that acts to preserve the status quo. One makes a contribution–an idea with roots both in tribe and to pay–to already existing formations.

A comment I interjected in the review of González’s article adds another possible irony. We may cast ourselves as outside of the realm of participant observation when it comes to HTS or NATO. Yet, in the case of HTS, their recruiters came to campuses, gave talks, took part in conferences, etc. The militarization of anthropology in the present builds on traditions and precedents already contained within anthropology to begin with. We are very much the insiders, as seen from numerous angles. For that reason I never much liked the way that anthropology was cast as “innocent” in critiques of HTS that condemned the appropriation of anthropological knowledge, as if that knowledge was somehow uncontaminated by unequal power relationships, a history of colonial relations, and professionalization within institutions created by capitalist elites and states. For its part, the AAA used criticism of HTS in particular in order to save anthropology at the service of the military more generally. Likewise, the reduction of the debate against HTS to one of research ethics, was a neat little way of sidestepping the politics of anthropology, which in the U.S. remain broadly supportive of the very regime that instituted creatures such as HTS.

When it comes to NATO, those of us who are citizens in NATO states are all participant observers when it comes to NATO propagating its messages to us, adding to the militarization of social and political priorities and values that we experience and may reinforce, and hijacking ideas of “humanitarian” action. Claiming that we are total outsiders is an implausible plea of absolute innocence. Those on the receiving end of our NATO are, for their part, certainly aware of the “localizable effects” that made the destruction of their lives “accessible” to our bombs. Thus there is no reason to even begin by positing NATO as something out there, over there, far away. That argument might hold water only if one is seeking to do an inside organizational study of NATO itself, which is not even what Feldman is discussing, so again there is no need to emphasize the accessibility issue in the context of his piece.

To be of anthropological interest, it must be mundane and everyday. Well, just a moment. Not even the classic ethnographies would support this view. We do, after all, have a substantial corpus of work on that which is not simply mundane and everyday, such as rituals, festivals, and magic. Emphasizing the mundane and everyday will confine us to studying social behaviour and conversations in elevators–leaving it entirely to others to deal with NATO’s bombing campaigns or the counterinsurgency follies of the Pentagon. That is neither a role nor a responsibility I am prepared to surrender or abdicate, I don’t care how much you may boast about the really really rich contributions offered by studies of elevator discourse or the “cultures” of cyclists and roller-bladers.

Finally, making our work accessible to a broad audience ought to be combined with our discussions of collaboration. Though not obnoxious enough to always point out it here (I came close sometimes), it’s precisely because of the effort to speak to wider audiences that we found new collaborators, from within those so-called “audiences”. Moreover, what was produced in writing sometimes came out of discussions within these loose and informal “networks” to begin with. That’s another discussion, I need to stop here.


Allison, John. (2010). “The Leavenworth Diary.” Zero Anthropology, December 5.

Bird, S. Elizabeth. (2003). The Audience in Everyday Life: Living in a Media World. New York: Routledge.

Feldman, Gregory. (2003). “Breaking Our Silence on NATO.” Anthropology Today, 19(3) June, 1-2.

Forte, Maximilian C. (2001). “Human Terrain Mapping: It’s Still Scary and Troubling.” Anthropologists for Justice and Peace, November 7.

———- . (2011). “AAA 2011: A Review of Some Presentations on Military, Security, and Intelligence Topics.” Anthropologists for Justice and Peace, November 24.

———- . (2011). “Beyond Public Anthropology: Approaching Zero.” Keynote address for the 8th Annual Public Anthropology Conference, “(Re)Defining Power: Paradigms of Praxis,” American University, Washington, DC, 14-16 October.

———- . (2011). “Beyond Public Anthropology: Approaching Zero” [Video].

González, Roberto J. (2012). “Anthropology and the covert: Methodological notes on researching military and intelligence programmes.” Anthropology Today, 28(2), April, 21-25.

Price, David H. (2010). “Human Terrain Systems Dissenter Resigns, Tells Inside Story of Training’s Heart of Darkness: How U.S. Military Gameplans War on Greens Inside U.S.; ‘Ethical Concerns’ a Bad Joke.” CounterPunch, February 15.

6 thoughts on “Militanthro: Anthropology and the Study of NATO and the U.S. Military

  1. Alexandra Valiente

    Two simple observations Max:

    It is my humble view that anything that concerns humanity and culture is within the parameters of Anthropology.

    The more that social scientists focus on institutions such as NATO and the Military Industrial Complex, the more solutions will emerge for those who would like to see these institutions terminated.

    In particular, what role do we (humanity) play in the creation of the MIC, NATO, the CIA, black projects, secret programs, etc?

    If we did not support them on some level, consciously or unconsciously, they could not be sustained.

    My last observation is the value of provocation. We need to apply “self-provocation” on a continual basis to maintain our commitment to research beyond our comfort zones.

    Boldly exposing our findings will provoke responses from those under scrutiny, which have value on several levels.

    Often, unintentionally, they reveal much more than they would want us to know when attempting to “correct” our statistics.

    The very fact that they feel a need to control (manage) public perceptions exposes the core of their vulnerabilities.

    In the final analysis, our probing is threatening their illusion of total control as the watcher becomes the watched…the hunter, the hunted.

    The role of participant-observer places us on equal footing, which is disconcerting to officials, organizations and institutions that depend heavily on maintaining the “dominance-over” paradigm.

  2. John Allison

    This goes deep into troubled territory for MY anthropology.
    It begins to seem that activists and advocates who recognize the distortions, mis-information and confusions that are presented to the citizens of the USNATO empire gain a higher platform from which to speak their social activist message if they have a “title on the door and a Bigelow on the floor” of their office/status.
    “Anthropologist”, is a strong platform from which to stand and deliver. It is a status in the society that we are, in fact, trying to bring down, or at least reform.
    Although my view is informed by fifty years of learning from the perspective of the “anthropologist”, including Kroeber’s four components, I am fairly deep into ethnographic method, and the inside view is the only valid way to represent another “culture”, including the power structure of the MIC; and it must be gained from communication within that “cultural world”; in this case the military and industrial middle and upper echelons.
    If that is not “accessible” for the trained participant observer; and that anthropologist still wants to have her or his say, then one must see that one is not truly being an “anthropologist”, but must simply merge with the masses and still try to get that rewarding satisfaction of people actually listening to what one has to say – from such a privileged and elevated position as “Anthropologist”, even if you aren’t “doing” anthropology, but mere activism.
    All these statuses, we must remember, exist because they have served or are serving the very system we want to bring down. Surely y’all have heard of Kathleen Gough and David Aberle; real Old Time anthros. They tried, but got brought down for pointing out the purpose and nature of our “profession” within Empire.
    I call myself an “anthropologist” to get a leg up; but, in fact I am practicing social and political advocacy and writing poetry, not really doing ethnography.
    The point of my work is not to “understand” the MIC – its nature is already adequately, painfully clear and getting clearer with each advance in killer robotics – Herding Human capital and controlling all other resources.
    The point is to Dismantle the Master’s House – which was one of the themes at the 2008 WAC 6 in Dublin. I do hope some of our readers show up at the Dead Sea for WAC 7.

  3. Maximilian Forte

    Excellent point John, that “Anthropology” (institutional, professionalized) is part of the very system that (a) called it into being in the first place, and, (b) that institutes these other structures, such as the national security state, etc. The great thing about human systems, however, is that they are not run by gods–so you find elements of (a) working against the grain of those in (b) and vice versa. Hence the constant need to stabilize and pacify us, until the system begins to run out of resources to do so.

  4. John Allison

    Exactly! We have: a) republicans and b) democrats. This great human system is not run by gods, it is run by …. welllllll it is run by someone someplace … Brandenberg, Gutenberg, Bilderberg the somethingberg group; who can pay more for ads and such than I can. It can buy Super Bowl time on TV.. If I will just shut up, and get a job or do my job faster, then , there will be pie in the sky. You got a fork? … Oh, that’s right, they took our forks at the security check.

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