Monday, July 7, 2008

The U.S. military's quest to weaponize culture

The Pentagon seems to have decided that anthropology is to the war on terror what physics was to the Cold War. As an anthropologist, this makes me very nervous.

Where former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believed that the United States would vanquish its enemies through technological superiority, his replacement Robert Gates has said that cultural expertise in counterinsurgency operations will be crucial in the future wars he anticipates.

When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind."

For those anthropologists who don't judge the vitality of our discipline solely in terms of revenue streams, the Pentagon's new interest in culture is worrying. So far the Pentagon has announced two major initiatives to mobilize anthropological knowledge for war. The first is the Human Terrain Team system, to which Gates allocated $40 million in September 2007. The Pentagon plans 26 Human Terrain Teams--one for each combat brigade in Iraq and Afghanistan. The five-person teams include three military personnel. Each team also includes an anthropologist--or another social scientist--who will wear a military uniform and receive weapons training. Described as doing "armed social work" by David Kilcullen, an Australian expert in counterinsurgency who advises Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, the teams elicit information from villagers for Pentagon databases and provide cultural orientation to U.S. military leaders.

According to a scathing article in Newsweek, thus far, few of the embedded social scientists recruited speak local languages or know much about local culture. For example, the best-known embedded anthropologist, Marcus Griffin of Christopher Newport University in Virginia, is mainly knowledgeable about Filipino hunter-gatherers and Freegan dumpster-divers in the United States. One wonders how useful his military colleagues find his "cultural expertise."

Last year, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a statement condemning the use of anthropologists in Human Terrain Teams. Why would the AAA object to anthropologists doing their bit for the war on terror? After all, perhaps anthropologists could help smooth out some of the cultural misunderstandings between U.S. troops and locals that have exacerbated violence in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this political correctness run amok?

One cannot grasp AAA's concerns without understanding that anthropologists have a unique research method that brings with it special ethical responsibilities: We engage in what one anthropologist has called "deep hanging out" with people, passing the time with them, often day after day for months, painstakingly earning their trust and getting them to tell us about their worlds. What distinguishes anthropology from espionage (apart from anthropologists' impenetrable jargon) is that we seek the consent of our subjects, and we follow an injunction to do no harm to those we study. According to the anthropological code of ethics, our obligations to those we study trump all others--to colleagues, funders, and nation. (It's for this reason that Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, famously condemned four colleagues for using anthropological research as cover for spying during World War I.)

Embedded anthropologists are on shaky ethical terrain because they cannot realistically get free consent from their interlocutors while dressed in camouflage and traveling with U.S. soldiers in Humvees. Similarly, they cannot control the use of the information they collect for the military, and thus, cannot ensure it isn't used to harm communities they study. For instance, during the Vietnam War, under Project Phoenix, anthropological knowledge was used to target villagers for assassination.

There's also the obligation to colleagues. Most anthropologists report at some point being suspected of working for U.S. intelligence by those they study. I experienced this myself when doing research in Russia. Therefore, every anthropologist in camouflage casts a pall of suspicion over the rest of us.

The second Pentagon program is Project Minerva, which Gates announced in April. Funded at $50 million over the next five years, Minerva is designed to mobilize social scientists for open research related to the war on terror. Gates mentioned his hope that anthropologists would apply. The projects envisaged under Minerva include translating and analyzing captured Iraqi documents, helping collate open-source documents pertaining to Chinese military policy, researching the relationship between Islam, violence, and terror, and proposing new experimental fields, which as Gates put it in his speech, might be as useful in the war on terror as game theory proved during the Cold War.

Minerva doesn't entail the obvious ethical liabilities for anthropologists that mar the Human Terrain Team experiment. Also, to give the Pentagon its due, military program officers have striven to make this program as open as possible: Captured Iraqi documents and information about Chinese military programs will be posted to websites where they will be accessible to scholars, or curiosity-seekers, anywhere in the world. Likewise, the call for proposals to research Islam and violence, or to develop new inter-disciplines, emphasizes that the research will be unclassified and that scholars from any country are free to apply.

Still, following the announcement of Minerva, Setha Low, AAA's president, wrote PDF to Gates and others expressing some concerns about the program's implementation. (Full disclosure: I was consulted about the letter's phrasing.) AAA's core concern is that the Defense Department has a well-established track record funding research in science and engineering, but not the social sciences-- and especially not anthropology. There are, however, federal agencies--the National Science Foundation (NSF) comes to mind--that have great experience in funding exactly the kind of research at Minerva's core. If the federal government wants to fund free and open scholarly research on, say, Islam and terror, why not do so through the normal channels for inviting and adjudicating such research? NSF is skilled and practiced at doing peer review of such research; Defense is not.

While the obvious danger that concerns the AAA is of an amateurish and misshapen review process that produces a research program that isn't all it could be, there's a deeper and less obvious danger, too. When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind. The public comes to accept that basic academic research on religion and violence "belongs" to the military; scholars who never saw themselves as doing military research now do; maybe they wonder if their access to future funding is best secured by not criticizing U.S. foreign policy; a discipline whose independence from military and corporate funding fueled the kind of critical thinking a democracy needs is now compromised; and the priorities of the military further define the basic terms of public and academic debate.

For all of these reasons, I know that Franz Boas would have been as worried as I am.