Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Anthropologists go to war

Recent news reports relayed the experience and perspective of anthropologists working with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This has sparked several debates in many anthropological online communities. The debates are interesting and lively.

A point of clarification though is the use of the term WAR. Do the terms 'war in Iraq'. 'Iraq at war', or even 'anthropologists at war' presuppose that there is war in Iraq? (I'm talking about Iraq primarily and not Afghanistan).

Isn't it more of an occupation by a few countries, primarily by one country, of Iraq? One anthropological perspective of war is that it is a "top-down" process initiated by national leaders based on ideology and/or vested interests/agendas. These leaders also continually attempt to justify or rationalize the reasons for war/invasion.

As you all know, if you look at the rationale for invading Iraq, agreeing or disagreeing with it influences how you think the role of anthropologists should be. This is the moral perspective.

Historically, the role of anthropologists working with governments in times of conflict, particulary the U.S. government or military (Southeast Asia) or the British colonial authorities, has been critized for its moral contradictions, contributions to furthering imperialist (anthropology, the handmaiden of colonialism), geopolitical, and even now neoconservative agendas, and further oppression of indigenous populations.

Now you can criticize me for being too general and you can cite individual contributions or local instances of good works by embedded anthropologists.

Fine, but we go back to the primary question:

If there was no war, invasion, or occupation, would there be a need for anthropologists embedded in the military?

Anthropologists working for the military imply engagement with the military as an institution. The operative word is engagement. The end goal of the anthropologist should be to influence policy, vision, goals, objectives of the institution. Are anthropologist really in a position to do so?

On the other hand, if you are for the war/occupation, say so, and go help the military and accept the consequences of your actions.

If you are against the war/occupation, then your work as an anthropologist should be towards ending it, not rationalizing or making warfare "more human" or even anthropologizing the military. A more human war is an oxymoron term.

My last point is this. As some of my cohort/batchmates like to remind one another, these are historical times. Prior to the Nov. 2006 U.S. Congressional elections when Democrats regained Congress, there were several instances when anthropologists among many other disciplines should have stood up and spoken against the Iraq invasion, the attacks on scientific integrity, the cooptation of regulatory agencies, the increased social exclusion and income inequality, the distortions of the immigration issue, Katrina, even the 2004 AAA fiasco, etc. Many did speak up and acted, but many more did not. The silence was deafening.

By 2008, there will probably be a Democrat President and it will be easier to speak up against what is morally wrong. But don't you think it was better to have spoken during the 'dark' times rather than when it is safe to do so?


From the Network of Concerned Anthropologists

Roberto J. González (2007). "We Must Fight the Militarization of Anthropology." Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2. (Download at gonzalez-militarization.doc.)

Sharon Weinberger (2007). "When Anthropologists Go To War (Against the Military)." Danger Room-Wired Blog, September 19. (Access at

Scott Peterson (2007). "US Army's Strategy in Afghanistan: Better Anthropology." Christian Science Monitor, September 7. (Access at

Roberto J. González and David H. Price (2007). "When Anthropologists Become Counter-Insurgents." CounterPunch, September 28. (Access at

Hugh Gusterson and David Price (2005). "Spies in Our Midst." Anthropology News, September. (Access at

Roberto J. González (2007). "Towards Mercenary Anthropology? US Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24 and the Military-Anthropology Complex." (Access at

Kilcullen, David (2007). "Ethics, Politics, and Non-State Warfare: A Response to González." Anthropology Today vol. 23, no. 3. (Access at

McFate, Montgomery (2007). "Building Bridges or Burning Heretics_

David Glenn (2007). "Petitioners Urge Anthropologists to Stop Working with Pentagon in Iraq War." Chronicle of Higher Education News Blog, September 19. (Access here )

Boas, Franz (1919). "Scientists as Spies." The Nation, October 16. Reprinted in Roberto J. González, ed. (2004) Anthropologists in the Public Sphere, pp. 23-25 . Austin: University of Texas Press. (Access here)

David H. Price (2004). "'Like Slaves': Anthropological Notes on Occupation." CounterPunch, January 6. (Access at

David H. Price (2002). "Present Dangers, Past Wars, Future Anthropologies." Anthropology Today 18(1). (Access at

David H. Price (2007). "Anthropology and the Wages of Secrecy." Anthropology News, March. (Access at

David H. Price (2002). "Lessons from Second World War Anthropology: Peripheral, Persuasive, and Ignored Contributions." Anthropology Today 18(3). (Access at

David H. Price (2007). "Buying a Piece of Anthropology, Part I: Human Ecology and Unwitting Anthropological Research for the CIA." Anthropology Today, vol. 23, no. 3. Access at

David H. Price (2007). "Buying a Piece of Anthropology, Part II: The CIA and Our Tortured Past." Anthropology Today, vol. 23, no. 5. (Access at

Roberto J. González (2007). "Patai and Abu Ghraib." Anthropology Today, vol. 23, no. 5 (Access at

Scott Canon (2007). "Anthropologists Debate Ethics of Working on War Effort." Kansas City Star, September 30. (Access at

David Rohde (2007). "Army Enlists Anthropologists in War Zones." New York Times, p. A1. Access here

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