Anthropologists on the Front Lines

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Tomas Munita / New York Times / Redux

U.S. soldiers look on as Afghan Army troops meet with tribal elders trying to resolve a land dispute in Shabak Valley, Afghanistan.

Academic conferences tend to be fairly sedate affairs, at least to the uninitiated, and the American Anthropological Association's (AAA) annual meetings are usually no exception. But this year's, held recently in Washington, D.C., was a downright raucous gathering, certainly the liveliest and most intemperate since the divisive days of the Vietnam War, when some anthropologists were attacked for willingly or unwittingly abetting violent counter-insurgencies. There was some serious name-calling ("torture-deniers," even "war criminals") as well as threats to name names, censure or expel certain colleagues.

The reason for the furor was a small but growing number of colleagues who are collaborating with the U.S. government's war on terror. Two years ago, the CIA quietly started recruiting social scientists, advertising in academic journals and offering princely salaries of up to $400,000. But in the past few months the Pentagon has taken its work with the ivory tower to a new level. In September, Washington turned a pilot project called Human Terrain Teams into a full-fledged, $40 million program to embed four- or five-person groups of scholars — including anthropologists, sociologists and social psychologists — with all 26 U.S. combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although it's too early to fairly assess how these new field teams are faring, some preliminary reports are encouraging. From Afghanistan, the 4th brigade (82nd Airborne Division) reported a 60-70% drop in attacks — and a dramatic spike in capture of Taliban and allied Pakistanis and Arabs — after anthropological advisers recommended redirecting outreach from village elders to focus on the local mullahs. One mullah was reportedly so moved after being invited to bless a restored mosque on the nearby U.S. base that he quickly agreed to record an anti-Taliban radio ad. "That sounds too good to be true, and I am sure there are other sides, but the principle is certainly logical, which is whoever is in charge is the one you want to deal with," says James Peacock, an Indonesia expert at the University of North Carolina, who chaired an ad hoc AAA commission to study the profession's involvement in national security matters. (He notes it is the same lesson Holland learned — in Indonesia, in 1870 — from a Dutch anthropologist, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, who helped end a 30-year war with independent-minded Aceh province virtually overnight.)

In the wake of the colossal mishandling of the Iraq occupation, this new partnership manifests the military's renewed appreciation of the importance of culture. "The more unconventional the adversary, and the further from Western cultural norms, the more we need to understand the society and underlying cultural dynamics," argues Montgomery McFate, a Navy anthropologist, and early advocate of what she says is best described as anthropologizing the military, not militarizing anthropology.

Yet many in the profession contend that any collaboration of this nature compromises their field's integrity. Anthropology deployed under such circumstances will become "just another weapon... not a tool for building bridges between peoples," argues Roberto Gonzalez, an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and leading member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

Because of their field's tainted history as the "handmaiden of colonialism," modern anthropologists have always been on guard to avoid anything that smacks of exploitation or oppression of their subjects. Core professional ethics standards require voluntary, informed consent from subjects, and that anthropologists (like doctors) do no harm. But the AAA is not actually a certifying body, which means that despite fervent petitioning, it has no real power to ban members from working with the national security agencies — leaving it to individuals to decide where to draw ethical lines.

Even anthropologists who are already working with the military acknowledge that this is a major challenge. "You are trying to be loyal to two communities — your subjects, and to the brigade you are attached to. It puts you an impossible situation," says one of the dozens of civilian anthropologists working within the military, who requested anonymity because of his opposition.

Given such ethical dilemmas, it's no wonder that Washington is also trying to develop its own in-house expertise in the social sciences. As it now does to help recruit experts in foreign languages, the government has begun programs to attract anthropologists and other academics before they develop any of their profession's qualms. Typically, students are connected with an intelligence agency early on in their academic career, attending special summer camps and soaking up the agency's own unique culture. David Price, who teaches the history of anthropology at St. Martin's University in Lacey, Washington, notes that such cultivation can end up defeating the purpose. "The intelligence agencies are [seeking social scientists] because they want to get smarter, to think outside the box, but it is very clear to me this will just reinforce what the box is," he says. "They are trying to capture their minds before they enter the class, so that they will already be thinking in agency-like way — so these programs will have the opposite effect."

In any event, it will tbe years before the government can be self-sufficient in these increasingly important fields of study. "Across all the services, if you could wave a magic wand and make all the changes that needed to happen in professional military education overnight, in 20 years they would have caught up in terms of cycles of how long it takes to build general officers," explains Kerry Fosher, an anthropologist currently teaching Marines. "Until that happens, intelligence and pre-deployment training have to spin at triple time in order to make up for the fact that the schools are not yet spitting out people who can be more intelligent consumers of cultural information."

Nor is there any guarantee that more social-science expertise in the U.S. military will mean more enlightened policy. "We had a lot to tell [the Administration about post-invasion governance] before they actually invaded but they were clearly so completely besotted by the idea that this was going to be a quick strike," says William O. Beeman, an Iran expert and chairman of the AAA's Middle East chapter. "They just blew us off, they absolutely would not talk to us, [and] it is no satisfaction to be able to say, 'we told you so, and we were right.'"