Empires and the Sullying of Anthropology

In the September 30, 2009, online edition of CounterPunch in an article titled “Country of Constant Sorrow:  McChrystal’s Afghan Desolation,” Vijay Prashad wrote,

“Enter a war zone with the expectation that the heavy armor will coerce the population into electing a favorable head of state; if this fails, then take refuge in your anthropologists, who will find a quick way to ‘nativize’ the war and help you clamber onto the helicopters.  The country you have left behind is now more of a humanitarian disaster than when you self-righteously flew in on the wings of humanitarian interventionism.”

The notion of anthropologists being helpmates in the First World conquest of the Third World seems now to have become embedded in the day-to-day understanding of the Bush-initiated Iraq-Afghanistan cultural-military fiasco.  Whether political scientists, philosophers, area specialists, or whoever actually fills the “societal” expert position on the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) teams, anthropologists apparently are to take the blame.  And anthropologists themselves are not exempt from furthering this notion.

Perhaps the most notorious anthropologist associated with the U.S. military’s HTS is Montgomery McFate, who writes primarily for military publications and whose pivotal article “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency” appeared in the April 2005 issue of Military Review.  A hapless mix of shoddy history and misdirected anthropology, her article was, nevertheless, reprinted in the 2007 edition of Annual Editions Anthropology — along with articles by Conrad Kottak, Richard Lee, and Ralph Linton, and in the 2009 second edition of Classic Readings in Cultural Anthropology, edited by Gary Ferraro — along with brand-name anthropologists such as Horace Miner, Clyde Kluckhohn, Edward T. Hall, Richard Lee, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard.  Why McFate deserves to be in this company is unclear; there are many other articles by respectable anthropologists that clearly explained the HTS affair. [Among them have been  David Price’s path-breaking contributions on this site and in our CounterPunch newsletter. Editors.]  Making McFate’s piece widely available only further sullies anthropology.

Anthropology hardly needs a renewed association with First World empires; it has obviously had difficulty living down its close association with colonialism in its formative recent past.  The great British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the most important founders of modern anthropology who provided a model for nonjudgmental, systematic, long-term fieldwork — the hallmark of anthropology — was director of the International African Institute in London for a few years, and in that position he was concerned primarily with helping British colonial officials with their problems.  One specific problem for Britain centered on getting the indigenes to work hard on the cash-crop plantations owned by the Europeans.  In a 1929 article Malinowski wrote:

“The simplest experience teaches that to everybody work is . . . unpleasant, but a study of primitive conditions shows that very efficient work can be obtained, and the Natives can be made to work with some degree of real satisfaction if propitious conditions are created for them. . . . In Melanesia I have seen this applied on some plantations.  Use was made of such stimuli as competitive displays of the results, or special marks of distinction for industry, or again of rhythm and working songs. . . . Such things must never be improvised — an artificial arrangement will never get hold of native imagination.  In every community I maintain there are such indigenous means of achieving more intensive labour and greater output.”

And in further advising about the duties of the anthropologist Malinowski wrote, “He should formulate his conclusions in a manner so that they can be understood by those who carry out policies.  He also has the duty to speak as the natives’ advocate, without, however, succumbing to an outburst of pro-native ranting.  Through comparative study he can discover and define the common factor of European intentions and of African response. . . . Knowledge gives foresight, and foresight is indispensable to the statesman and to the local administrator, to the educationalist, welfare worker, and missionary alike.”  Notice that it is European intentions and African response.  Notice that “knowledge” and “foresight” is for the European colonialists, not for the “natives.”

No anthropologist in these early years suggested that anthropology should be used to help the indigenes throw off the yoke of colonial oppression or that anthropologists should study the contradictions and weaknesses of colonial imperialism so that the indigenes could strike at the heart of the oppressors.

Malinowski was, of course, a product of his time.  And before World War II it was widely assumed in the colonial metropoles, that colonialism was beneficial in the long run to everyone; backward peoples were, after all, being civilized so that they could enjoy the benefits of modernization and civilization in the future.  And these early anthropologists strove to enlighten the rulers and protect the ruled from the more brutal aspects of colonialism, such as forced labor.  Today, however, most anthropologists have moved beyond this 1920s colonial version of the discipline.

Some anthropologists even at the time escaped this ethnocentric perspective.  Franz Boas, the founder of U.S. anthropology, famously critiqued anthropologists involved with the U.S. military in World War I in his 1919 letter to the Nation titled “Scientists as Spies.”  His student, and my first anthropology instructor, the great Melville J. Herskovits, refused government financial assistance for Northwestern University’s African Studies program and he also refused to accept government officials into the Ph.D. program.  These towering figures certainly would not allow anthropology to be sullied.  The discipline did, however, suffer some sullying during World War II and the subsequent Cold War.  Anthropologists’ activities in World War II are examined in David Price’s 2008 Anthropological Intelligence, and the Thailand part of Project Agile is examined in Eric Wakin’s 1992 Anthropology Goes to War.  One would hope, however, that modern-day anthropologists have learned the lesson and that such sullying and empire-helpmate activities would no longer occur.

As Price wrote on October 1-15, 2009, however, in an article in CounterPunch newsletter titled “Anthropology, Human Terrain’s Prehistory, and the Role of Culture in Wars Waged by Robots,” “Human Terrain Systems is not some neutral humanitarian project, it is an arm of the U.S. military and is part of the military’s mission to occupy and destroy opposition to U.S. goals and objectives.  HTS cannot claim the sort of neutrality claimed by groups like Doctors Without Borders, or the International Committee of the Red Cross.”  In October 2007 much to its credit the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association denounced HTS for its failure to follow the fundamental principles of anthropological ethics.  Out of the 261 comments from members of the American Anthropological Association in the blog accompanying the statement of the executive board the vast majority overwhelmingly condemn the participation of anthropologists in HTS.

The few anthropologists engaged in these neocolonial enterprises cannot be said to represent the discipline, but they have received considerable publicity thereby sullying anthropology’s reputation.  Exactly what they expect to accomplish anthropologically is not entirely clear.  They are a fairly motley bunch.  The ones that we have information on seem to have little if any expertise in the Middle East.  And most of them are not exactly forthcoming about their activities — nor is the U.S. military.

One who has written rather openly is Marcus Griffin, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Illinois and who, until recently, was an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, a rapidly growing public university with an enrollment of about 5,000.

Griffin has been the subject of several articles, has written about his experiences in his own blog, and has briefly replied to criticism in the anthropological blog Savage Minds.  In an article in the April 21, 2008, issue of Newsweek titled “A Gun in One Hand, A Pen in the Other” written by Dan Ephron and Silvia Spring it is pointed out that Griffin “had never been to the Middle East before he arrived in Iraq last fall,” though he had spent much of his life in the Philippines with his anthropologist father who does research on the Agta of Northern Luzon.  Ephron and Spring noted that although he is a civilian Griffin wore army clothing and carried a rifle.  The reporters stated, “For their services, the anthropologists get up to $300,000 annually while posted abroad — a salary that is six times higher than the national average for their field.”

The rest of the Newsweek article is largely critical of the HTS program, which, it reported, “was handed to BAE without a bidding process.”  BAE Systems is a company that apparently lives off U.S. Department of Defense contracts.  According to their website, BAE Systems currently has positions open for HTS Reachback Research Center Analyst, Human Terrain Systems Analyst, Human Terrain Systems Research Manager, and HTS Team Leader.

A more critical article by Dahr Jamail in the May 1, 2009, edition of Truthout titled “An Anthropologist and Army Medics Work at a Medical Clinic in the Shabak Valley in Afghanistan” pointed out that HTS developed “into a $40 million program that embedded four or five person groups of scholars in the aforementioned fields in all 26 US combat brigades that were busily occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.”  Jamail reported that Griffin, “while preparing to deploy to Iraq at part of an HTS team, boasted on his blog, ‘I cut my hair in a high and tight style and look like a drill sergeant . . . I shot very well with the M9 and M4 last week at the range . . . Shooting well is important if you are a soldier regardless of whether or not your job requires you to carry a weapon.’”

An article meant to be favorable toward HTS and toward Griffin was datelined Baghdad and released by the American Forces Press Service on January 25, 2008.  Titled “Anthropologist Helps Soldiers Understand Iraqis’ Needs” and written by Sgt. James P. Hunter, U.S. Army, it characterized Griffin as “an anthropologist working for the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team” who is bringing “his knowledge and experience to the fight” and “is helping soldiers better understand the needs of the Iraqi people.”  The article focuses on Griffin’s study of Iraqi local markets, which he toured accompanied by an armed escort.

In responding to questions of ethics posed by anthropologists on the popular blog Savage Minds in August 2007, Griffin wrote:

“I am deploying in a few days and time is very short.  I work sixteen hour days and can expect to do so from now on seven days a week until I’m given R&R in six months.  That is not an exaggeration.  I am not evading questions about ethics, I simply cannot devote the time to my blog because my blog is not my job, just a way to show my students how I am doing my job away from the classroom.  I write in it when I can.

“As for going native, how can I possibly help the Army use fewer bombs and bullets to achieve the operational goal of securing neighborhoods from sectarian, criminal, and political violence if I don’t know anything about Army culture and don’t seem to care about living as they do?  Living with the Iraqi population is simply not an option — the last time I checked people get their heads cut off or are shot by a sniper for lingering around.  Personally, I think going to Iraq tests the current relevance of anthropology.  We’ll see how relevant the discipline is and how well or poorly I perform as an anthropologist.  My blog will contain posts about it all.  My next entry will be from downrange.  Ciao.”

Griffin’s blog is currently unavailable.  Griffin is no longer with Christopher Newport University and is, in fact, now employed by BAE Systems.  In response to questions I recently posed to Griffin, he wrote on October 7, 2009, “I am currently getting ready for a trip to Afghanistan and not able to give answering these questions priority.  Perhaps when I return next month I will have more time.”

In a similar fashion to the problems faced by psychologists dealing with the role of a few of their cohorts’ compliance with torture, anthropologists will need to cleanse the standing of  the profession not only by careful discussion of the issues but also by taking action that clearly separates the discipline of anthropology from war, spying, empire building, and military adventures.

ROBERT LAWLESS teaches anthropology at Wichita State University . He has done fieldwork in the Philipinnes, Haiti , Florida and New York (studying urban hippie communes in the early 1970s).  He can be reached at robert.lawless@wichita.edu