Learning from our failure at weaponizing anthropology

Summary: While we begin a new round of wars we still learn about dark aspects of the first round. For example, that psychologists assisted the US torture program in addition to the doctors and attorneys who participated. A book by David Price looks at another group violating their professional standards in join our wars — anthropologists in the (recently closed down) Human Terrain Teams. It is a story rich with lessons about modern America, if we wish to learn from our experience rather than repeat our mistakes.

Weaponizing Anthropology (2011)
Available from Amazon.

“Anthropology: a room filled with white people, talking about non-white people.”
-— Maximilian C. Forte (2009).

Weaponizing Anthropology:
An Overview

by Maximilian Forte at Zero Anthropology
19 August 2014

Excerpt posted with his permission


For  members of the wider public who want to understand the deep and broad transformations wrought by the latest round of US imperial expansion since 2001, David H. Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State is indispensable reading {2011; Price is Prof of Anthropology at St. Martin’s U; bio here}. …

The book … is a succinct description and analysis of the militarization and securitization of American anthropology following the US’ launch of its “war on terror” since 2001, and the US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

… Price offers a critical overview of the ethical stakes and political consequences of the renewed incursion of the CIA onto US university campuses, the appropriations of anthropology for the purposes of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in general the uses by military and security apparatuses of “cultural knowledge” as a strategic tool for the purpose of conquest and control. Price takes us through various intelligence programs that enlist academics, such as the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program and the CIA’s Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence (ICCAE), and the military programs that recruit social scientists, such as the Human Terrain System (HTS) and the Minerva Research Initiative, both run by the Pentagon. …

The Politics of Anthropology (and Memory)

“Somewhere between 1971 and today,” Price remarks, “American anthropologists lost their collective sense of outrage over the discipline being so nakedly used for counterinsurgency,” and one reason for that is the “degeneration of historical memory,” he argues. Price adds that “fewer Americans know the history of the CIA’s legacy of assassinations, coups and death squads and a history of undermining democratic movements”.

Add to this the increased corporatization of the university, the fear around the loss of funding, progressively diminished academic independence, self-censorship, and the jingoism of a “fervently militarized” post-9/11 US, Price notes. As one result, we have a case where “the discipline as a whole refrains from stating outright opposition to anthropologically informed counterinsurgency”. Even now there is still a bias against “political” critiques: “there remains a great resistance to confronting the ways that disciplinary ethics are linked to the political context in which anthropology is practiced”.

… He writes that professional associations focused on ethics, while sidestepping politics, “ignore the larger political issues of how anthropological engagements with military, intelligence, national security sectors relate to US foreign policy”. Instead, he says, associations like the AAA try to position themselves as neutral, when instead what they are doing is acquiescing through silence. …


The CIA on Campus, Again

Part 1 … focuses on the CIA’s efforts to reinsert itself in US campuses, with considerable success. In particular, the Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence (ICCAE) link campuses to the CIA in some new ways, such as by actively recruiting women and minority students via events such as “CIA Day” at Trinity Washington University. Price explains that university classrooms are being transformed into “covert training grounds for the CIA” and other intelligence agencies, “in ways that increasingly threaten fundamental principles of academic openness as well as the integrity of a wide array of academic disciplines”.

The credibility of American academics could be seriously damaged as a result of whole spate of intelligence links to US universities, something apparently not at the forefront of the minds of academics who act as “compliant appendages of the state”. Today, US academia “is increasingly tethered to hidden patrons and clients,” while “the number of dissident scholars is easily exaggerated”.

Price speaks of “the CIA’s colonization of America’s consciousness”, adding to Catherine Lutz’s conceptualization of “the military normal,” which she explained as the case where “core militarism reaches into all elements of cultural life until its presence is seen as proper, normal and good”.

… The reasons for removing the CIA from US campuses are many. Among those which Price emphasizes are: a) the “reprehensible deeds of the agency’s past” (although here he needed a word like “record” rather than “past,” since its reprehensible deeds more than just continue into the present and near future); b) the fact that the CIA on campus “further diminishes America’s intelligence capacity while damaging academia,” by narrowing the terms of discussion and essentially creating university echo chambers; and, c) because “the primary impact will be to transform segments of universities so that they learn to limit themselves and to adapt to the cultures of the intelligence agencies”.

Deconstructing the Manuals of Cultural Warfare

Part 2 of the book provides many illuminating anthropological insights into four separate documents produced by the US military (in some cases with the help of military-employed social scientists), these being the Human Terrain Team Handbook, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the Stryker Brigade Report, and the Special Forces Advisor Guide (which are not analyzed in the chronological order of their publication).

Human Terrain Handbook

Human Terrain Team Handbook

As one of the leading critics of the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), and thanks to a series of leaked documents published by WikiLeaks and sent on to David Price for review and commentary, Price begins with the Human Terrain Team Handbook. Overall, he finds that the Handbook contains an “underlying logic that anthropologically based non-lethal subjugation is good”. The aim, as revealed by the Handbook, is “to make populations…‘legible’ and thus controllable” by “engineering the ‘trust of the indigenous population’”.

The problem is that HTS “compartmentalizes the project as something separate from neo-imperial missions of invasion and occupation”. HTS supporters thus “insist they operate outside of any form of structural or historical forces” that link them to conquest. Instead, HTS defenders seem to think that “declared good intentions and visions of reduced harm” are significant enough by themselves, and that their employees are somehow capable of transforming large bureaucracies, not just from within, but from the bottom up.

Written at a level of “high school or middle school…sophistication,” the Handbook outlines simplistic methods to catalogue members of occupied populations for entry into remote databases, with an especial preference for network analysis and geospatial intelligence. Guiding such methods are “neo-positivist notions that social control…can be achieved by the recording of, and then manipulation of key variables”. HTS’ project of “social engineering” will supposedly be achieved by “simplistic, atheoretical notions of culture,” mixed in with some “marketing research techniques”.

Price concludes that the Human Terrain Team Handbook reflects “a broken high tech version of colonial projects that many anthropologists hoped had become part of a shameful disciplinary past”. With the now glaringly obvious failures of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq — failures predicted by critics like Price — it would be interesting to see HTS defenders, if any are left, try to argue against reality yet again. Maybe instead of serving as compliant boosters and cheerleaders, the mainstream media would be wise to give critics more space, and not cast them as caricatured outsiders.

FN 3-24: the COIN manual

Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24)

Price’s critique of the fake scholarship of the much touted Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) seems to be even sharper, better elaborated and reasoned in this rendition. I had made light of the documented plagiarism in the Manual (not expecting fine scholarship from the Pentagon), but Price explains why not taking that seriously is a big mistake.

First, Price begins by noting how the new Field Manual was widely touted in the media as a “smart new plan,” with plenty of praise for its scholarship and open peer review process. This was to be “a new intellectually fueled ‘smart bomb’” with a “brilliant new breed of scholars who could build culture traps for foreign foes and capture the hearts and minds of those we’d occupy”. (Never mind their obvious inability to win over critics at home, with whom they shared language, culture, common forms of socialization and enculturation, etc.; somehow they would turn the Taliban against themselves.)

Media propagandists were also furnished by the US Army itself, such as Robert Bateman (notorious for his many jejune comments and threats on this very site) who was the author of one such piece that is quoted by Price, and is now available only here.

… On one side, plagiarism in the Manual reflects a lack of original formulation and is “a useful measure of the Manual and its authors’ weak intellectual foundation”. However, as Price adds, “the ways that the processes producing the Manual so easily abused the work of others inform us of larger dynamics in play, when scholars and academic presses lend their reputations, and surrender control, to projects mixing academic with military goals,” such as HTS.

{T}he Manual does indeed have footnotes and references — and these are used selectively. Price scrutinized this selectivity and found an interesting pattern:

“The instances in which the Manual does use quotes and attributions provides one measure of its status as an extrusion of political ideology rather than scholarly labor, as these instances most frequently occur in the context of quoting the apparently sacred words of generals and other military figures—thereby denoting not only differential levels of respect but different treatment of who may and may not be quoted without attribution” (emphases added).

It was this “fake scholarship” which was used as “a critical element of the Manual’s domestic propaganda function”. Finally, what Price also highlights is what the Manual sets out as the role of anthropologists: “what the military wants from anthropology is to offer courses in local manners so they can get on with the job of conquest”.

Stryker Brigade Report

An Initial Impressions Report on Operations in Mosul, Iraq

David Price then turns his attention to the third document, also published by WikiLeaks, the December 2004 “Army Stryker Brigade Initial Impressions Report on Operations in Mosul, Iraq”. The comments are not organized around any one theme, ranging from the Report’s praise for the willing complicity of embedded reporters in not reporting anything that might even slightly embarrass the military, to the authors’ frank acknowledgments of the difficulties they were facing in a complex environment that did not consist of people cheering US forces with offers of flowers and candy.

The main point made by Price in this section has to do with how, from early on (just a year after the invasion of Iraq), the US military began to highlight the need for cultural knowledge, and how it envisioned the function of anthropologists: as pry-bars.

Special Forces Advisor Guide

Special Forces Advisor Guide

In the final document analyzed, published by WikiLeaks in 2008, Price examines the Special Forces Advisor Guide (TC 31-73). The Guide, Price maintains, provides a significant opportunity for anthropologists “to critically consider not only the ends to which this desired anthropology will be put, but also the types of anthropology that the military seeks”.

For example, when it comes to “culture,” the Guide conceptualizes it as “nothing more than a measurable set of values that can be understood, compensated for, and therefore not only navigated but engineered to one’s advantage”. The Guide holds firm to antiquated views of cultural “traits,” which are then linked to simplistic analyses of “personality,” based on ethnocentric assumptions. The Guide thus offers “crude culture characterizations” and “cartoonish representations of regional cultural stereotypes” — for a scathing reaction to these, see Lawless’ review of the book, which focuses on this document.

The military, as Price observes, is “drawn to fantasies of hard science,” which has it endorsing such things as Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s “Values Orientation Model”. The military wants identifiable elements that can be measured, because it is attractive to a military bureaucracy “so imbued with engineering”. To speak of military anthropology then is to speak of the poverty of military anthropology.

Newsweek, 8 March 2010
Newsweek, 8 March 2010.

Farewell to Counterinsurgency Fantasies

The final part of the book is a mixed collection of essays dealing with the present and future of counterinsurgency and drone warfare. What attracted me the most in this part of the book is that which will occupy this concluding section: “counterinsurgency as fantasy.

While the Counterinsurgency Field Manual discussed above deploys the words of Max Weber, as a gloss of authority and respectability, it fails to examine “how historically difficult it is for external occupiers to acquire the forms of legitimacy that Weber recognized”. Price quotes from William Polk’s 2007 book, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq, on this point: “the single absolutely necessary ingredient in counterinsurgency is unlikely ever to be available to foreigners,” and that ingredient is legitimacy.

The counterinsurgency theorists of today fancy themselves as being able to get the occupied to “internalize their own captivity as ‘freedom’”. This reflects a delusional quality on the part of the COIN gurus.

For me, one of the most poignant comments comes towards the end of the book: “once a nation finds itself relying on counterinsurgency for military success in a foreign setting, it has already lost”. A senior French commander speaking to a journalist is quoted as explaining, “we do not believe in counterinsurgency,” because “if you find yourself needing to use counterinsurgency it means the entire population has become the subject of your war, and you either will have to stay there forever or you have lost”.

As I write, the US has returned to war in Iraq, while in Afghanistan it seeks to force acceptance of a residual number of thousands of US troops to remain in the country for many years to come.

———————— End Excerpt. Read the full reveiw!  ————————

Maximilian Forte

About the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numberous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013).

See his publications here; read his bio here. He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading.

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

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