Engaging the Military

Despite social scientists' legitimate opposition to helping the Pentagon in ways that violate scholarly ethics, their research and perspective are needed to shift U.S. policy, writes David Vine.

September 21, 2009

Over the past two years, there has been considerable controversy over attempts by the Pentagon to recruit anthropologists and other social scientists to assist in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the “global war on terror.” Like the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association, which banned members’ participation in torture and interrogation, anthropologists have widely criticized the use of anthropology in counterinsurgency as unethical.

Of particular concern has been the U.S. Army’s “Human Terrain Team” program under which (sometimes armed) social scientists are embedded in brigades deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide cultural knowledge that assists with combat operations. Many anthropologists agree that the Human Terrain program and other counterinsurgency activities violate the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics, which commits members to do no harm to the people with whom they work, prohibits covert research, and requires researchers to obtain informed consent and to avoid doing things that could endanger the work of future anthropologists. Many have likewise criticized the recruitment of anthropologists as an effort to forestall bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, continuing the policies that have left the United States mired in deadly, unpopular wars.

Spurred by such concerns, in October 2007, the executive board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) called the Human Terrain program “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.” Between 2007 and 2008, more than 1,000 anthropologists agreed to boycott the program, signing a pledge of non-participation in counterinsurgency as part of a campaign organized by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (I am a member of the steering committee).

Supporters of the Human Terrain program have often claimed that those opposed to working in the wars are advocating total academic disengagement from the military and a retreat to the ivory tower. This could not be further from the truth. Most opponents of the Human Terrain program, myself included, are not categorically opposed to work and engagement with the military. To the contrary, many believe that anthropologists can ethically teach soldiers in classrooms, train peacekeepers, or consult with military and other government officials about cultural, social, historical, and political-economic issues.

Indeed, the campaign against anthropological collaboration in counterinsurgency has coincided with and helped fuel a recent efflorescence of research and work on an expanding array of issues related to the military and foreign policy. Far from calling for a retreat to the ivory tower, a growing number of anthropologists are actively involved in research both with and about the U.S. and other militaries, foreign policymaking and policymakers, war, conflict, and militarization.

Inspired by anthropologists like Laura Nader, Kathleen Gough, Mina Davis Caulfield, Marshall Sahlins and Eric Wolf, anthropologists have studied topics as diverse as nuclear weapons policy, the training of foreign military personnel at the School of the Americas, the shadowy world of the global arms trade, and the harmful effects of military bases. My own research has investigated the creation of the secretive U.S. base on Britain’s Indian Ocean island Diego Garcia, the expulsion of the island’s indigenous people during development of the base, and the significance of the base for U.S. foreign policy.

As a result of this work, I recently attended a two-day meeting of anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and political scientists organized by the newly founded Eisenhower Research Project for the Critical Study of Armed Forces and Militarization. Hosted by co-directors Catherine Lutz and Aaron Belkin and project manager Christina Rowley at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, participants discussed subjects as diverse as U.S. military spending (which now equals or exceeds that of all the other nations of the world combined), military checkpoints in Iraq, the increasing use of remote-controlled robots and other advanced technologies in war, the military’s role in the war on drugs, the militarization of the U.S. border, the armed services’ dependence on so-called military wives and military families, and the role of Hollywood and popular culture in glorifying war.

Most importantly, the interdisciplinary group of scholars dedicated itself not just to conducting research on military issues, but also to attempting to influence national conversations and public opinion about military and foreign policy. For too long in the past anthropologists and other social scientists have indeed isolated themselves in the ivory tower, ceding policy debates to international relations and security scholars, to think tanks generally invested (intellectually or literally) in war, to arms manufacturers’ lobbyists, to pundits, politicians, and the Pentagon.

Our nation is at a critical moment in determining the role the military is going to play in the world and the shape of our relations with other nations. President Obama has indicated his desire to chart a different course in the nation’s foreign policy from that of President Bush, to make diplomacy, cooperation, and engagement the hallmarks of U.S. international relations.

And yet, while slowly trying to extricate the nation from a deadly, illegal war in Iraq, we appear ready to repeat the same mistakes of that war, and Vietnam before it, in pursuing an increasingly violent war of occupation in Afghanistan — a nation where the British and Soviet empires failed before us in their attempts to impose foreign rule. Rather than learning from these past mistakes, from the lesson that there can be no military solution to the challenge posed by the Taliban and others resisting occupation, the escalation of U.S. troops and bombing in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is an increasingly bloody diversion from the political, economic, and diplomatic initiatives that must be at the heart of any solution to violent conflict.

Given the growing crisis in Afghanistan, which threatens to derail Obama’s agenda abroad and at home, the skills and original perspectives of anthropologists and other social scientists are desperately needed to build a new direction for U.S. military and foreign policy. This will mean conducting research of direct relevance to the U.S. military, to the State Department, and to the dynamics of U.S. global relations. This will mean shedding anthropologists’ traditional hesitancy about proposing proscriptive solutions to identified problems (the bread and butter of many international relations scholars). This will mean writing not primarily for academic audiences but instead for policymakers, politicians, and the wider public.

It will mean doing so not in the pages of (generally obscure) academic journals, but in the op-ed pages of newspapers, for blogs and major web outlets, and for the likes of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. And it will mean building on efforts like the Eisenhower Research Project to create a new breed of policy think tanks — think tanks staffed by a diverse group of social scientists, driven by empirical research, and frequently working in collaboration with military leaders and others in the national security bureaucracy to create new policy approaches.

The Pentagon’s efforts to recruit anthropologists for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan represent the failure of U.S. foreign policy rather than innovation. They are a return to the sad beginnings of anthropology — the “handmaiden of empires” — when the discipline was born as a tool to assist in the rule and control of colonized peoples in Africa, Asia, and North America. The recruitment of anthropologists represents the misguided belief that victory in Iraq and Afghanistan can be achieved through better tactics — if only we could fight smarter, know more about their cultures, and embed anthropologists with the troops, then we would “win”! — rather than realizing that the real lesson these wars is that wars of invasion and occupation should not be waged at all.

The nation must use this moment to embrace a permanent and fundamental change in our military and foreign policy. We must finally reject a foreign policy of invasion and occupation and embrace a new kind of foreign policy based around non-aggression, diplomacy, international cooperation, and the protection of human needs and human lives as the best way to ensure the security of the country and the world. With members of the military and an engaged citizenry as our partners and allies, anthropologists and other social scientists have a critical role to play in this process.


David Vine is assistant professor of anthropology at American University. He is the author of the recently released Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia(Princeton University Press) and co-author of The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, or Notes on Demilitarizing American Society (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009).


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