Grant McCracken writes of the internal conflict within the discipline of anthropology regarding the use of trained anthropologists as consultants in the ongoing overseas military engagements of the U.S . “Within anthropology” is not entirely correct, I admit, the reason being that anthropologists serving as advisors to military commanders in Afghanistan (such as Montgomery McFate of Yale extraction) are being de facto excommunciated from the discipline by academic sociocultural anthropologists. Hence, it is a debate “about anthropology” rather than “within.” This makes it truly interesting. I guarantee that the vast-vast majority of academic anthropologists are furious about McFate. Hugh Gusterson, who I remember as an applicant to Stanford’s Anthropology in the year of the departmental split, expresses the concerns of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists through the Pledge of Non-Participation in Counter-Insurgency. Not only did Bush dismiss the anti-Iraq war demonstrations, which were reenactments of ant-Vietnam war demonstrations in the 1970s that fueled the radical liberalization of anthropology in the decades to follow, but he went as far as to employ professional anthropologists to assist him in his overseas military interventions.
While I can hardly write as eloquently and intriguingly as Grant, I can contribute the following set of scattered observations on the debate. (For my earlier reflections, see this.)
1. American international policy in the 20-21st centuries is a direct continuation of the military campaigns waged against American Indian tribes in the late 19th century. (The first colonial expedition of the nascent American nation in the Philippines in 1895 employed both military specialists and military tactics developed during Indian Wars.) Ironically the most democratic nation in the world has a rich experience of fighting tribal groups – a new take on the democratic peace theory. Alternatively the U.S. does not have an experience of fighting an enemy on its own turf, or of unleashing a war against a worthy adversary. Hence the American mentality always confuses war and peace: fighting a war to attain peace or killing people for the sake of saving them.
2. Throughout the 20th century American Indians were the most active volunteers into the American Navy and Army. Even earlier, tribal groups often switched loyalties and supported the American Army in its wars against other tribal groups when the occasion seemed appropriate. They never formed a single anti-American force.
3. Franz Boas, who most academic anthropologists consider the “father of anthropology,” established anthropology as a serious university discipline and a sovereign social institution through the systematic description of American Indian cultures and languages. He criticized the legacy of Morgan, Powell, Mooney, Cushing and other early American anthropologists, who had sustained a deep personal rapport with American Indian communities, for its amateurish tinkering with the data.
4. Military intelligence of which today’s Human Terrain project is a specimen entered the arsenal of modern warfare around the time anthropology realized itself as a full-blown university discipline. The need to collect, process and distribute information about a social entity other than one’s own emerged, therefore, simultaneously in different spheres of the modern world. As humans were entering a globalized world, they needed special intelligence to frame questions pertaining to cultural differences and to create a new set of legal and ethical interpretations of such perennial problems as violence, safety, security, rights, etc.
5. When in the 1930s John Collier, the mastermind behind the Indian New Deal and a foremost applied anthropologist, approached Boas with a plea to support him in the economic and political revival of Indian tribal communities, Boas, according to Collier, did not “yield a helping hand.” While Boas’s own thoughts of this matter are not known to me, it seems possible that he considered Collier’s effort rather futile and even self-serving as far as “real” Indian problems were concerned. It can easily be construed that under the guise of pan-Indian revitalization and tribal self-government, Collier was submitting the tribes to even greater control of the state by imposing Euro-American models of law and polity onto largely clan- and band-based societies. In the presence of ethical uncertainty, anthropologists prefer to retreat into their academic offices. It is easier and safer to slowly build individual careers, develop academic schools and earn prestige for the discipline than to risk to lose all that in the turmoil of real world problems. Even if it involves milking local native communities for information and watching exotic languages go extinct, it is still easier.
6. In the post-war decades, American anthropology took advantage of American economic expansion (thanks to the weakening of the European superpowers during World War II) to abandon American Indian research for South East Asia, the Middle East and other remote parts of the world. The more disengaged from American Indian communities American anthropologists grew, the more they identified with their own old primitive fantasies. “Taking a native point of view” amounted to absorbing tribal spiritual power and constructing the discipline as a community of ethically pristine and economically secure academics.
7. It seems likely that the development of ethical formalism (or “intentional disengagement,” an “uninformed unwillingness to learn about what actually goes on,” and a “blanket condemnation,” in McFate’s words) in contemporary anthropology is rooted in the primal inability of American anthropologists to relate in ways other than formal description or aesthetic musing to native communities within the U.S. Probably because the U.S. did not have a social-national structure remotedly comparable with clan-tribal structure.
My conviction is that anthropologists should be everywhere where, using Erving Goffman’s phrase, “the action is.” Whether military, governmental, corporate or other. This does not mean that I suggest using anthropologists to kill people. (With modern military technology, stooping and bespectacled anthrohitmen can hardly contribute anything substantial to the weapons of mass destruction.) This does not mean that I “endorse” McFate’s Human Terrain project. This means that anthropologists’ presence in any applied field is as normal as their assumption of teaching positions in universities. If a person faces an ethical choice, it is up to him or her to resolve it. Some people will fail, others will triumph. This is just life. This may happen or not happen in an academic classroom and in a theatre of war.
But there is no universal ethics applicable to what anthropology should be. Professionally, anthropology is just a way of being in a company of fellow humans and mixing reflection with spontaneous response to produce stories, lessons, facts, and rolls of intellectual documents. Being an anthropologist in the military must feel like being midway between a field surgeon and a field journalist. If anthropological competence “contributes” to something else, it may very well transform it, as McFate suggests. If one’s reputation is tarnished, like Martin Heidegger’s as a result of his support of the Nazis [Heidegger was a philosophical anthropologist, to be exact], it still tells us more about humanity than all the blanket condemnations of concerned anthropologists. Gustersons, Gonzalezes and other philanthropes can be reproached for exercising anthropophobia in a sense first formulated by Greeks in their religious polemics with Jews and Christians.
The relevance of anthropology to the military also depends on the country and the theatre of action. It never occurred to the Russians to use their ethnologists to “further” the government’s goals in Chechnya. Instead, they complemented the regular forces with secret police who possessed their own unschooled ethnological competence. The bloodshed therein has turned out to be unimaginable. The Russian strategy in Afganistan in the 1980s was called the Scorched Terrain project. A perfect antithesis to Human Terrain. It had worked perfectly well until the U.S. began to supply the insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades. Maybe anthropologists even “in the service of violence” would have contributed to its confinement, since human beings as such possess no human value until their humanity is encoded in some kind of “anthropological” thinking embedded in institutions.
It is impossible to say anything definite about Montgomery McFate and other military anthropologists. There is just not enough evidence. But one thing seems to be certain: American academic anthropologists need to be throughly “anthropologized,” as Grant calls it, or “Americanized,” as Collier’s sidekick, lawyer Felix Cohen, wrote in 1943.