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”.

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We worry about rule-breaking by the underclass, not the upper class

Summary: The daily press gives us lurid tales of the underclass breaking social norms, but seldom does so about the more serious lost professionalism that helps the upper class. Before we tinker with American society to reverse our rising inequality, we should understand the processes that created this problem. I believe we not only don’t understand the causes, we don’t even clearly see the deep changes in American society during the past few decades — during the Boomers’ years. This is another post about our poor vision of America.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Our Broken Society


  1. Breaking social norms.
  2. Loss of professionalism.
  3. Rise of self-interest in other occupations.
  4. Conclusions.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  Breaking social norms

We talk a lot about underclass break society’s behavioral norms. In his 1986 book Beyond Entitlement Lawrence Mead (Prof Pol Sci, NY U) taught us to fear their increasingly “dysfunctional” behavior: criminality, drug use, promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, excessive rates of divorce, etc. Sadly we seldom notice the breaking of norms occurring just as strongly in the upper classes — with greater effect on our social cohesion and level of inequality.

(2)  Loss of professionalism. Broken professions.

Like the word “gentleman”, the meaning of “professional” has eroded away to a bland sense of well-behaved. Managing conflicts of interests was a major factor distinguishing professionals from other trained people. For example, doctors, accountants, and attorneys balanced their clients’ interests vs. theirs as business people vs. those of society. Attorneys were expected to act as “officers of the court”. In an epidemic doctors were expected to place the public’s health above that of the patient’s and their own. Accountants were to maintain the integrity of the financial reporting system that guides the money flows of our society.

These standards were often honored in the breach — America was never Heaven — but during my lifetime they have collapsed. What’s happened in medicine and law clearly shows the problem and the result.

In the early 1980’s doctors realized they the controlled America’s health care checkbook, and could leap from affluent to wealth by “optimizing” their practice: bringing in-house diagnostic and out-patient services and then over-utilizing them, taking de facto bribes from drug and medical device companies, and in a hundred other ways. Conferences and articles gave step-by-step instructions, and their incomes rose — varying widely by specialty, skyrocketing for the most aggressive doctors (see this paper, and a later one).

Only slowly did the pushback arrive, the current push to disenfranchise them — turning decision-making over to the HMO’s, enmeshing doctors in paperwork, authorizing less-trained technicians to do aspects of their work, and eventually automating much of their work.

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Education is not a solution to automation

Summary: We’re on course to repeat the mistakes of the first 2 industrial revolutions in the 3rd. The wonders of increased productivity benefit the 1%, while the middle class seeks easy but chimerical ways to preserve their way of life. Anything but the work and risk of collective political action. Today we examine the favorite recommended cure to automation: more education. It works as well as frogs climbing over each other to escape a pot.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Frog Pile
Without growth, education doesn’t help the group. Just a lucky few.

More education is the most common response to the job losses and wage stagnation caused by automation. People, young and old, frantically train and retrain themselves for jobs in the ever-shrinking pool of jobs supporting a middle class lifestyle. Only lately has the futility of this become obvious, as experience shows its flaws.

Nick Bunker (Washington Center for Equitable Growth) gives a summary of the fallacies: “Is higher education the answer to reducing income inequality?” — The money paragraph, undercutting the key assumption of more education as a solution:

Intuitively, then, increasing the supply of educated workers should reduce inequality as it would increase wages among a broader supply of more educated workers. But that assumes the demand for educated workers will continue to rise. Problem is, recent research finds that the demand for skilled labor appears to be on the decline.

See this article for more about this, and links to research. It’s true even for advanced STEM degrees. That’s the bad news. Now for the worse news.

Education puts workers on a new kind of boom-bust cycle.

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More symptoms of decay: professional associations abandoning their standards and obligation to protect us

Summary: About the failure of our professional associations to uphold their own standards and defend the the people — defend the Republic.  That’s an essential element of professionalism, apparently lost in 21st century America.


The deterioration in the Republic proceeds at a speed beyond my worst fears (underestimating this was my worst mistake on these pages in 2010).  Not just the government, although its institutions rot at an alarming rate.  Torture, surveillance, assassination, foreign wars based on lies — the by now usual long list.  It’s the failure of our private institutions that astonishes me.  The ones that the Founders hoped would contain the government and defend our liberties.

Now attorneys write briefs justifying torture, wars without legal authorization, surveillance and detention without warrant, and indeed limitless Executive power under the authoritarian justification of the President as Commander in Chief.  It’s not lone actors, as the State legal associations have de facto ratified these actions though their inaction (e.g, the Pennsylvania Bars inaction on John Yoo, and the Alaska Bar inviting him to be their keynote speaker).  And judges openly applauding the President’s violation of the laws.

Perhaps worse (as we expect little good from attorneys) doctors participate in torture.  Long rumored, now documented in “Neglect of Medical Evidence of Torture in Guantánamo Bay: A Case Series“, Vincent Iacopino (Adjunct Prof of Medicine, U of Minnesota) and  Stephen N. Xenakis (Brigadier General, US Army, retired), PLOS Medicine, April 2011.  Will the State Medical Associations act on this clear violation of medical ethics?  Abstract:


In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, the government authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques that were previously recognized as torture. While the complicity of US health professionals in the design and implementation of US torture practices has been documented, little is known about the role of health providers, assigned to the US Department of Defense (DoD) at the US Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO), who should have been in a position to observe and document physical and psychological evidence of torture and ill treatment.

Methods and Findings

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