What Would Smedley Butler Do?

“To wage war, become an anthropologist.” That’s the opening line from a 2007 article in the U.S. Army War College journal “Parameters.” The feature, by Oxford educated historian Patrick Porter, says, “from the academy to the Pentagon, fresh attention is being focused on knowing the enemy.”

Today anthropologists are busy at work for the CIA and Pentagon. The CIA recently funded an effort – the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program – to train up to 150 analysts in anthropology, each of whom receive a $25,000 a year stipend, tuition support, loan paybacks and other benefits with the proviso that they work for an intelligence agency for 1 ½ times the period covered by financial support. These are secret scholar-spies circulating in our anthropology departments. They cannot reveal their funding source. Then there are the Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain Teams in which the military actively recruits anthropologists to provide counterinsurgency data for its occupying armies. As private contractors anthropologists can make up to $300,000 a year for their service.

That’s not fair! As an anthropologist, I want equal time in the War College. In the February 2008 edition of the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, Captain Nathan K. Finney, an anthropologist with the Human Terrain System, called for informed discussion with his anthropology critics. “Let us open our minds as our anthropology professors instruct in Anth 101 and objectively discuss each other’s ideas and concerns in order to find the best way forward together” (Finney: 8).

OK. I’d like to take Finney up on his offer and have access to the military and its soldiers directly. I have a ten-point curriculum. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, a bit more background context-after all, that’s what anthropologists do.

About Face, Forward March

I agree with the idea that “to wage war, become an anthropologist.” The trouble is that it turns out that we are on different sides of the war. “Human Terrain” anthropologists are with imperialism. I’m with Gramsci. You remember Gramsci, that Italian Communist revolutionary who wrote spellbinding theories of culture in his “Prison Notebooks,” while rotting away in Mussolini’s jail. Importantly Gramsci spoke of two wars. The “war of position” generally referred to a tactic of informal penetration (a passive revolution, a war of education) that was necessary when open warfare or a “war of maneuver” (armies across borders) is not advised or possible.

Gramsci’s enemies were capitalists and fascists. Who are the enemies of the U.S. Army War College? According to Porter it’s “Marxist revolutionaries, Palestinian nationalists, and Hezbollah net-warriors” (Porter: 57). That wide net would include Gramsci. In short, the CIA/Human Terrain military anthropologists have aligned themselves with a national security state apparatus in wars of position and maneuver against critical anthropologists and indigenous peoples.

Let’s be clear about what CIA anthropologists and the Human Terrain anthropologists are NOT doing: “studying up” at power. This leaves the troops vulnerable. Enlistees need informed consent before signing on the dotted line. Soldiers need actionable intelligence so they can decide whether the cause is right.

Only a fourth of my students, on average, can even identify Iraq on a map. With such widespread ignorance it is easy to see how Reverend Jeremiah Wright can be demonized for his claims that 911 represented an occasion when the chickens came home to roost. The public knows little about the chickens.

The Military anthropology of my youth

When I went to graduate school, in anthropology, in the early 1980s at Temple University, the emphasis was on Marxist anthropology and social revolution. My mentor, Peter Rigby, was fond of saying, “Men make revolutions. Anthropologists are men. Therefore anthropologists make revolutions.” Rigby was a brilliant Cambridge educated Africanist who studied and advocated for the Maasai. On his curriculum were Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, Stanley Diamond, Kathleen Gough, Laura Nader, Bernard Mugabane, Levi Strauss and Samir Amin.

Following Rigby’s precepts, we understood, came with risks. In 1983, my anthropology student friend Richard Cross, 33, a freelance photojournalist, was killed on the Honduran border while covering the U.S. supported Contra War against the Sandinistas (along with Los Angeles Times correspondent Dial Torgerson). Back then we led or participated in antiwar demonstrations (El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, first Iraq War etc.) raised money for medical relief in Nicaragua and wrote for newspapers including the New York Guardian, the Philadelphia City Paper and the University City Review. We spent a good deal of time at the House of our Own bookstore on Pine Street in West Philly, educating ourselves, as Mother Jones said, for the coming conflicts. During the Central American wars we felt a vital sense of urgency to “stop the Pentagon, serve the people,” as one activist group was named at the time. This was good applied anthropology.

What Would Smedley Butler Do?

My first days of classes at the US Army War College would be dedicated to Smedley Butler. He’d no doubt place education – truthful military education with all its contradictions- at the forefront of social life, most especially in the military itself! Ultimately the military rests on well-trained soldiers who have the capacity to make ethical judgments. Here he is on war:

“War is just a racket. . .It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. . .There isn’t a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its ‘finger men’ to point out enemies, its ‘muscle men’ to destroy enemies, its ‘brain men’ to plan war preparations, and a ‘Big Boss’ Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism.” Butler is one of only two Marines ever to hold double awards of the Navy issue Medal of Honor. Butler laid his reputation on the line with this searing 1933 speech. “It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. . . .I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. . .In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. . . .I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.”

My US Army War College Course.

In my anthropology teaching in the university I always encourage U.S. war veterans to speak before the class whether they were in favor of the given war (Vietnam, Grenada, Nicaragua Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq I, Iraq II and so on) or not. It is compelling, experiential knowledge from engaged participant observers that rivets the attention of others. It is an excellent corrective to media representations.

A central purpose of anthropology is to help citizens recognize their ethnocentrism so that they can think more clearly about the world. So, if I had a chance to teach “Introduction to Anthropology” at the War College, here is how I might do it.

Day 1: Orientation: Discussion. Introductions. Overview of Course. Where are you from? How long have you been here? What’s the best thing about the military? What’s something you’d like to see changed? Film screening: In the Valley of Elah

Day 2: Smedley Butler Day. Review and discussion of War is a Racket Speech; View and discuss Eisenhower’s farewell address. Read Uri Avnery’s “The Military Option” in CounterPunch. Film screening and discussion: Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Day 3. NACIREMA: Discussion Where is this? What is capitalism? Discussion of Marx’s labor theory of value. George Carlin on Football & Baseball.

Day 4: Fieldtrip to US Veteran’s administration hospital. Tour Guide: Wheelchair veteran Bobby Muller from Vietnam Veterans against the War

Day 5 Iraq Veterans Against the War Day; How to file CO, information on war resisting. Film screening and discussion: Hearts and Minds

Day 6. How to keep from Dying: Are you safe? Discussion of April 17, 2008 RAND report which details 101,000 U.S. casualties a year. See “Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery. Other Readings: Grand Theft Pentagon: How they made a Killing on the war on Terrorism.

Day 7: Rod Ridenhour and the My Lai Massacre. Discussion of war hero Ridenhour who was a whistleblower against this war crime. Discussion of Geneva Convention. Film screening: In the Year of the Pig

Day 8: Hitler and Totalitarianism: Can it happen here? Film screening: Seven Days in May

Day 9: Debate on Iraq War. Two teams of four students per team will debate the question “Is the War in Iraq a Just War?” Like college debate, students will be responsible for arguing both sides of the issue in two debates.

Day 10: The Deceptions of Military Recruiters. What did they tell you? Read “Lies Military Recruiters Tell” by Ron Jacobs.

A “Butler Brigade” of Military Anthropologists

I asked two leading anthropologists and war scholars, Barbara Johnston and David Price, “If you taught anthropology at the US Army War College (or West Point), what would you teach?” Johnston is the author of numerous books including, “Half-Lives & Half-Truths, Confronting the Radioactive Legacy of the Cold War (2007) and “Consequential damages of nuclear war- the Rongelap report” with Holly Barker (Left Coast 2008). Price is author of the groundbreaking, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (2004).

“I just gave a lecture at the University of Hawaii in a class of ROTC students a few weeks ago,” said Johnston. “Part of what I taught was the lingering and intergenerational consequences of nuclear war. Students/future military officers were less interested in that than in my description of the complicated and difficult work to build rights-protective space that allow reparations and the right to remedy to emerge in Guatemala. This got their attention. So I would teach a course on ‘waging war, making peace’ that specifically examines current efforts to remedy the ugly, ulcerating messes we humans have made in the name of ‘security’ The anthropology of war – the study of human histories, motivations, experiences and outcomes – is, unfortunately, quite an evolved field of study. It is very easy to make war. It is hugely difficult to bring about a true and lasting peace. Even in those cases where peace is declared, through political negotiations and formal legal instruments, the distance between reparation and remedy is often too vast to achieve a meaningful and lasting peace.”

Price would employ classic anthropology in helping students to get around false patriotism. “I’d do a mix of readings like Levi Strauss on kinship, Marshall Sahlins on the original affluent society, Harris & Wagley on race, Geertz on thick descriptions, Nader on studying up. But I would add some works focusing on power and ideology. I think Cathy Lutz’s Homefront or David Vine’s forthcoming book on the military displacement of the peoples of Diego Garcia would be a nice book to use. One of my favorite essays to use in intro classes of any sort is Boas’ 1917 essay on patriotism: ‘I believe that the purely emotional basis on which, the world over, patriotic feelings are instilled into the minds of children is one of the most serious faults in our educational systems, particularly when we compare these methods with the lukewarm attention that is given to the common interests of humanity'” (Boas 1917). “Rather than using anthropology to solve problems of occupation and insurgency,” said Price, “we should use anthropology to keep us out of these situations in the first place. But promises of functional anthropological counterinsurgency (even false promises) only encourage civilian and Pentagon planners to envision more of these invasion fiascoes as problems that anthropologists can solve after the mess has been made.”

The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex

In order to answer Price’s call, we need to form broader alliances. In his urgent book, “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex,” (2007) social theorist Henry Giroux carefully documents how a new form of authoritarianism has swept the country – largely unnamed and unrecognized – turning the university into a “hypermodernized militarized knowledge factory.” He credits President Eisenhower for sounding the alarm in his famous 1961 farewell address, in which the President eloquently made the case against the “misplaced power” and “unwarranted influence” of the military in civic life. Giroux sums up Eisenhower’s position as a fear that, “by making war the organizing principle of society [we] had created a set of conditions in which the very idea of democracy, if not the possibility of politics itself, was at stake” (Giroux: 14).

Giroux reminds us that Eisenhower actually had used the phrase the “military-industrial-academic-complex,” deleting it just before his television talk. Later Senator Fulbright captured the essence of the fear. “In lending itself too much to the purposes of government, a university fails its higher purpose” (Giroux: 15). Giroux charts layer upon layer of sophisticated methods which the National Security State brings to bear upon a university system that presently looks like a deer caught in the headlights. He is blunt, “Given the seriousness of the current attack on higher education by an alliance of diverse right-wing forces it is difficult to understand why liberals, progressives and left-oriented educators have been relatively silent in the face of the assault (Giroux: 185).”

The future of the university as a democratic public sphere is at stake. It is one of the last places where citizens can feel free to question authority and utter dangerous thoughts, he argues. Giroux asks universities to consider severing all relationships between the university and intelligence agencies and war industries. This includes military recruiters.

Returning Fire

Porter spends a great deal of time discussing the military’s “cultural turn,” and their “cultural counter-revolution” currently in place after “the revolution in military technology” left occupying armies flat footed in Iraq. “A return to an anthropological approach to war it is hoped, ‘will shed light on the grammar and logic of tribal warfare,’ and create the ‘conceptual weapons necessary to return fire'” (Porter: 48).

It’s significant that the army is now appropriating theories from a Marxist revolutionary who died in prison. These days it sometimes feels to me that the U.S. military is establishing beachheads into the universities, while we retreat to the prisons. This past year (August to May) I taught “Introduction to Anthropology” to 37 women in a maximum-security prison in Michigan. I did it for free since the state does not pay for university education there. My work is part of the Gramscian “cultural turn” against domination. Some women were military veterans. When asked about her military experiences one said, “It was lie upon lie upon lie. I was promised I’d have a safe job but the next thing you know I was ordered into a combat zone.” She feared for her life. And yet, as of a few weeks ago, felons, like these women, are eligible to enlist to go to Iraq. Even though she is against the war, one inmate is thinking about it, since it’s so hard for a convicted felon to get a decent job.

In my experience, military recruits, soldiers and college students are overly blind to “actionable intelligence” like history and anthropology. This ignorance makes them easier prey for U.S. imperial engagements. A young man or woman thinking about military enlistment needs to deeply reflect on Butler’s idea of “Big Boss Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism” before they sign on the dotted line. At boot camp, soldiers need a proper military education so they can actively know how to resist immoral orders, report abuse and leave the military as a C.O., and university students require critical military education it in order to help lead civic engagements against the national security state.

That’s why I and many of my fellow anthropologists want access to the US Army War College.

Richard Cross, as a journalist, was a public anthropologist serving the people. He diagnosed the “culture, resources and power” dynamics in an imperialist war to generate knowledge to further democracy. Free speech trumped imperial speech. The only way I can see anthropologists having anything to do with the US military, is to do the same. Butler apparently felt that way too. “I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.”

BRIAN McKENNA can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com


Blum, William. A Brief History of U.S. interventions 1945- Present, Z Magazine, 1999.

Boas, Franz. “Patriotism.” Originally read at Columbia University, March 7, 1917. Published in, Race and Democratic Society, by Franz Boas, p 156-159, New York: J.J. Augustin Publisher, [1917. orig.] 1945.

Butler, Smedley. War Is a Racket. Los Angeles: Feral House, (1935; reprint, 2003).

Finney, Nathan K. The Military and Anthropology, SfAA Newsletter 19:1, pp. 7,8, 2008

Giroux, Henry. The University in Chains, Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex. Boulder: Paradigm, 2007.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: Intl. Publishers, 1971.

Johnston, Barbara Rose, ed. Half-Lives & Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School for Advanced Research, 2007.

Miner, Horace. Body Ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist 58:3, 1956.

Porter, Patrick. Good Anthropology, Bad History: The Cultural Turn in Studying War. Parameters, Summer 2007, pp. 45-58, 2007.

Price, David. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.

Rigby, Peter. Persistent Pastoralists. London: Zed, 1985.

A version of this article appeared in the Newsletter of the Society for Applied Anthropology, May 2008.



Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com