My Kind of College Professors: Anthropologists Put Their Boots on the Ground in the War on Terror

By James Ottavio Castagnera

(Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University.  Author/Co-Author of 13 books, he is writing a new book on the impact of the War on Terror on higher education for Praeger.]

Anthropology’s involvement with the U.S. military and intelligence establishments began with a 2004 pilot project, the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program.  The CIA and other American agencies funded the graduate educations of students, unbeknownst to their faculty and fellows students.
Even more controversial was the appearance of anthropologists in uniforms.  The controversy was jump-started early in 2004, when investigative journalist Seymour Hersch published “The Gray Zone” in The New Yorker.   The most sensational aspect – the news peg – of the story was the shocking interrogation techniques that took place at the Abu Ghraib Prison, photos of which would soon circulate around the worldwide web.
However, the aspect of Hersh’s scoop which ignited an academic controversy was his assertion that,
The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March 2003, invasion of Iraq.  One book that was frequently cited was “The Arab Mind,” a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996.  The book includes a twenty-five page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression.

Hersh quoted from Patai’s book.
“The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women… and all the other minutes rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world.  [Homosexual activity] or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity.  These are private affairs and remain private… [T]he biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.

It was not long before Hersh’s article drew responses.  In fact, they were almost instantaneous.
This mention of Patai’s book (on the sole authority of “an academic [who] told me”) sent journalists scurrying to read it – and denounce it.  Brian Whitaker, writing in The Guardian, called it a “classic case of orientalism which, by focusing on what Edward Said called the ‘otherness’ of Arab culture, sets up barriers that can be exploited for political purposes.”  He quoted an academic  saying, “The best use of the volume, if any, is for a doorstop.”  Ann Marlowe, in Salon.com, called it “a smear job masquerading under the merest veneer of civility.”  Louis Wermer, in Al-Ahram Weekly and elsewhere, embellished Hersh’s account with a made-up detail: The Arab Mind, he wrote, “was apparently used as a field manual by U.S. Army Intelligence in Abu Ghraib prison.”… Only Lee Smith, writing in Slate.com, suggested that critics had misread Patai, whom he described as “a keen and sympathetic observer of Arab society,” a “popularizer of difficult ideas, and also a serious scholar.”

The controversy festered, then bubbled to the surface inside the walls of academia in 2007.  This time it was not a dead anthropologist’s reanimated book that set the kettle boiling.  This time a news story about living anthropologists was the catalyst.  On September 7, 2007, a story in The Christian Science Monitor asserted,
Evidence of how far the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency strategy has evolved can be found in the work of a uniformed anthropologist toting a gun in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.  Part of a Human Terrain Team (HTT) – the first ever deployed  – she speaks to hundreds of Afghan men and women to learn how they think and what they need.

This piece was followed by one a month later in the International Herald Tribune.  Datelined, “Shabok Valley, Afghanistan,” it stated,”
In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a demure civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

The commander of the 82nd Airborne Division was quoted as claiming, “We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist’s perspective.… We’re focused on the enemy.  We’re focused on bringing governance down to the people.”  He added that combat operations had been reduced by 60 per cent since the anthropologists’ arrival.
Yet, the article continued, “criticism is emerging in academia.   Such criticism is not hard to find.  Just two days after the Herald Tribune piece, which also appeared in the parent New York Times, Professor Marshall Sahlius posted on the blog “Savage Minds” a piece he styled “an open letter to the New York Times.”
To the Editor:
The report (Oct. 11) of the killing of two Iraqi women by hired guns of the State Department whose mission was “to improve local government and democratic institutions” bears an interesting relation to the story of a few days earlier about the collaboration of anthropologists in just such imperious interventions in other people’s existence in the interest of extending American power around the world.  It seems only pathetic that some anthropologists would criticize their colleagues’ participation in such adventures on grounds of their own disciplinary self-interest, complaining that they now will not be able to do fieldwork because the local people will suspect them of being spies.  What about the victims of these military-backed intrusions, designed to prescribe how others should organize their lives at the constant risk of losing them?  What is as incredible as it is reprehensible is that anthropologists should be engaged in such projects of cultural domination, that is, as willing collaborators in the forceful imposition of American values and governmental forms on people who have long known how to maintain and cherish their own ways of life.

The open letter quickly drew dozens of replies.  One of the more expansive and thoughtful responses came within hours of Sahlius’s posting.
This question is not simply about anthropologists who work with the military (although, of course, their intrusions put peoples [sic] lives in peril and are therefore much more likely to evoke emotion and passion from us).  Some anthropologists who work for development organizations, non-military government agencies, conservation organizations, and the like transport Euro-American ideas about how people ought to live in the world and provide data that ends in cultural domination all the time.  I keep wondering how these anthropologists working for the military are any different from anthropologists I know who work for conservation organizations that have as a goal the full-scale transformation of people’s socio-ecological ways of living and being in the world.

It was only a matter of weeks before the American Anthropology Association

weighed in with its own hefty report on the issue.

The AAA Commission’s Report

The final report of the American Anthropology Association’s cumbersomely christened Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities was released on November 4, 2007.   The report opened with candid recognition that “The longstanding habit in anthropology of making a divide between applied/practicing anthropological research and independent/academic anthropological research is challenged by their increasing meeting on the same grounds and research terrains.”
Looking back over their shoulders, the commission members noted that the relationship between anthropologists and the military/intelligence services “varied, partly depending on the character of USA wars; World War II (a ‘good’ war) evoked patriotic service by anthropology while Vietnam (a ‘bad’ war) evoked condemnation by anthropology of service” by practitioners of the discipline.   Analogizing the War on Terror to the Cold War – both being periods of “low intensity but sustained conflict” — the commission described Anthropology’s challenge as being “to define ethically defensible research in complex environments of collaboration.”
The commission rightly spun off a Practitioner Subcommittee charged with ascertaining just what anthropologists working with military and intelligence organizations are doing.  The subcommittee identified 35 potential subjects and interviewed 18 of these. Some of the report’s resulting recommendations are:

• Encourage continued openness and civil discourse on the issue of engagement with security institutions, among AAA members. It is unacceptable to demonize people who have chosen career paths in the national security community, simply because of their political viewpoints, choice of employer, or other affiliation. In a professional academic society like the AAA, civil discourse and respectful exchange should be the norm, while closed minds are unacceptable. We encourage members to continue thoughtful and long-term public discussion of the ethical nuances of engagement in print fora; for example, by publishing articles in such venues as Anthropology News.

• The concept of informed consent including multiple settings in which it may be compromised, undermined, or rendered impossible to obtain: In particular, develop specific language regarding work with vulnerable populations and contexts in which consent may not be free, voluntary, or non-coerced.

• Work transparently: Everyone involved needs to know who you are, what you are doing, what your goals are, and who will have access and when to the information you are given (and what form this information will be in). Do not participate in funding programs that will not publicly disclose sources of funding.

• Do no harm: Take the actions you need to take to make sure your work harms no one directly and, to the extent possible, indirectly.

• Be clear about your responsibilities: Work through and communicate to all involved to whom you are primarily responsible, and for what.

• Publish your work: Make sure to share the results of your work publicly to the extent possible

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2 Responses to “My Kind of College Professors: Anthropologists Put Their Boots on the Ground in the War on Terror”

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