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Culture and the U.S. Military

24 April, 2007

Another article on the relationship between anthropology and the military in the US.  This article is quite sanguine, putting a positive spin on the instrumentalisation of culture for military purposes.  It makes clear that it is the concept of ‘culture’, not merely ethnographic data, which is gaining value in military circles.

Anthropology covers a number of subjects, but the study of culture — including language, religion and ethnicity and the social mores that surround them — are the areas of most interest to organizations like the U.S. military that seek to operate successfully in different societies. “Actually, the anthropological community has a history of working with the U.S. military,” said Robert Albro, visiting assistant professor of anthropology and international affairs at GWU.

Whether it was profiling World War II and Cold War-era leaders for the military or studying Vietnamese villagers during the Vietnam War as targets of the Viet Cong insurgency, “the need for cultural awareness — or soft knowledge — by the military existed and is now increasingly sought after,” he explained.

Some academics fear the military’s search for such expertise is a “weaponizing of culture” that could lead to their co-option and ethical missteps, Albro said. But a wider consensus finds collaboration is appropriate, and “anthropologists and the military are increasingly working together” on important issues like the factors that underlie and motivate sectarian violence and religious extremism.

I’m not sure of the accuracy of the statement that “a wider consensus finds [this sort of] collaboration appropriate”.  In my experience the notion that anthropologists should use their data and connections, often obtained under circumstances of confidentiality, to aid military objectives is highly contested within the discipline.  I think the article also neglects the extent to which previous collaborations between anthropologists and the military have been criticised within the discipline.

Study of Culture Increasingly Important to U.S. Military

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dylan Sherlock permalink
    25 April, 2007 1:24 pm

    If there is consensus, it’s against this latest recruitment campaign as reflected in the AAA’s conference last year.

  2. Jovan permalink
    27 April, 2007 3:07 pm

    Yes, indeed. Although not involved in American anthropology, my impression has certainly been that the weight of opinion has been against anthropologists working with the military.

  3. Robert Albro permalink
    28 April, 2007 1:41 am

    This article, circulated online in ways little different from a piece of journalism, originated from a communications person at DOS apparently on hand for a small conference on “Anthropology Knowledge and the US Military and Intelligence,” organized by the Program on Culture in Global Affairs of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University on April 13. The meeting brought together a group of folks, all trained as anthropologists, examining the contentious relationship between anthropology and the military and intelligence from a variety of vantage points of collaboration and work. Notable in the DOS piece is a pronounced positive spin and slant — bearing little relation to the actual content of presentations at this meeting — giving the strong impression that anthropology is largely unproblematically on board iwth the specific terms of the current military interest in the culture concept, cultural awareness, cultural intelligence, cultural terrain, etc. This is, I’m afraid, a gross distortion of the meeting. My own contribution examined the military’s way of thinking about cultural terrain to point out the extent to which this was a different appropriation of the culture concept from the increasingly ambivalent reception it receives among anthropologits themselves, and so, we need to remain aware of the different, much more istrumental, applications of cultural knowledge in military contexts. Not at all an endorsement. My own position is that we (both anthropolgists and military/security/intelligence institutions) need to pay more attention to the terms of our own discussion and debate in sorting through if/how anthropologists might work with military colleagues, given distinct means-ends priorities. Noting these differences is a fundamental step in anthropologists being able to more appropriately, and realistically, gauge the ethical terms of their work in these arenas. This article, in short, made a complete hash of a much more skeptically balanced set of exchanges at the GWU meeting.

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