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Anthropologists and the US Army, yet again

18 October, 2007

As I read the posts on anthropology and the war in Iraq, perhaps because I am currently teaching research methods, I am continually struck by a problem that our field doesn’t seem to be discussing; the fact that the ‘subject’ of the research is hopelessly muddled in the accounts of people like Marcus B. Griffin, PhD. In one of his most recent posts, he makes this very clear. So, although I have moral, ethical, and political reservations about the use of anthropology in war, in this particular case, I also have serious doubts about research design.

Which brings up the following article about Human Terrain in BBC News that mentions me. What is more, they mention, as do two other articles to date, the same blog entry about my having cut my hair high and tight, lifting weights (with LT Gato) and shooting well with standard small arms weapons. What seems to have been lost on readers, perhaps due to my lack of writing clarity, is that the post was telling my students that in order to do good ethnographic research, one needs to immerse in their culture. And doing so in Army culture was very important to successfully conducting research in Iraq because the culture of soldiers and the American cultures they bring with them to Iraq are very important to understanding the problems that occur during the peace and stability operations currently in place.

I am not ashamed to say I am honored to have been mentored in the weight room, at the range, and in the field here in Iraq by highly professional soldiers. Cutting my hair and taking their instruction seriously by trying my best to shoot well was my way of giving them respect in return. These are rituals of social acceptance and make possible good ethnography. The next blog entry to get latched onto by detractors will probably be an upcoming post regarding the honor of bestowing on me further unit acceptance and recognition for living with them in a combat environment: awarding me the 1st Infantry Division Combat Patch and Coin. As my commander told me on Saturday after I briefed him and the staff on my team’s progress: “Duty First! Continue Mission!”

I am honored by their acceptance and encouragement. There is no shortage of great research that can be conducted with the Army that leads to better human lives. Stay tuned!

Griffin seems to be establishing excellent rapport, approximating himself to the locals, learning to see the world from their perspective — all the things that we hope long-term fieldwork will do. BUT, his subjects are his fellow soldiers, not Iraqis. When it comes to doing research on Iraqis, he approaches them as… well… ‘terrain.’ We learn that he flies over them to do a survey. I mean, I can’t stop giggling about this as an ‘ethnographic’ approach to research. I’ll have to add ‘arial survey’ to my ethnographic methods course (although one can never be sure if the ‘subjects’ might hide from your survey if conducted from a military helicopter).


Because I also do research on groups of men engaged in violence (in my case, in sports), I have some sympathy for Dr. Griffin. Some of the attacks on this sort of research can be a kind of anti-bloke-ism (justified in part because of the anti-intellectualism of ‘blokey’ groups), squeamishness (the violence grosses me out too sometimes), or an assumption that the research necessarily sympathizes or identifies with the subjects (which seems to be stronger now in anthropology with so much auto-ethnography and ‘native anthropology’ going on). In fact, Griffin’s right; there’s great ethnographic research to be done on military units, including how they socialize new members with notions of ‘honour’ and through the use of awards, recognition, and layers of initation. Along this line, I find Heckler’s book, In Search of the Warrior Spirit, to be a fascinating account; in his case, he did martial arts with special forces soldiers. The struggles of the men to overcome their own doubts, to deal with the pain and physical durress of training, to fashion group cohesion in stressful situations, and to come to a sense of honour, ethics, and morality that makes sense to them as soldiers is fascinating. I’d also recommend works by psychologist and former US military officer, Dave Grossman, especially On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, and On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Combat in War and in Peace.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the tendency among anthropologists to use ‘violence’ as a very broad, undifferentiated term covering a lot of phenomena (symbolic violence, structural violence, etc.), while it highlights subterranean social struggle, also serves to blind researchers to relevant local distinctions in types, degrees, and forms of violence that are incredibly important to participants. For example, ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ violence in sports and law enforcement looms large, and we do little to help our understanding as ethnographers if we ignore relevant ‘native’ distinctions, and then heap other things that the natives don’t consider ‘violence’ under the umbrella. The possibility that forms of legitimate and illegitimate violence (or other distinctions) might be linked does not make the categories any less important to participants.

I think that there’s nothing inherently immoral about doing ethnographic research on military units or groups of violent men. This sort of research is incredibly important for confronting a range of applied anthropology issues, such as the social processes leading to group action, both violent and other (e.g., surrender); the socialization of group members during training; the organization of violence itself, including the ways in which it is carried out and social dynamics of violence; how de-militarization of ex-soldiers might better function; the long-term psychological and physiological effects of war on veterans; the cultural dimensions of militarization (or the successful suppression of widespread consciousness of ongoing war, as now seems to be the case in Australia and the United States).

But this is NOT ethnographic work on Iraqis, and it will do little to help effect positive change in the situation on the ground, unless it leads to better understanding of how the conduct of US troops contributes to the continuation or escalation of violence. Griffin acknowledges that ‘the culture of soldiers and the American cultures they bring with them to Iraq are very important to understanding the problems that occur during the peace and stability operations.’ I agree wholeheartedly. The danger with Griffin, in my opinion, is that he seems to be willfully ignoring that, to the degree he becomes closer to the US military units, a gulf opens between him and many Iraqis (though not all). Clearly, the HTP (Human Terrain Project) is not intended to be merely a study of US military units to help them to be better organized, controlled, monitored, or led. The HTP supposedly helps the US military to understand the situation and views of Iraqis in Iraq, in order to lead to better military actions and state building. Griffin is happily getting to know the community he’s working with — the US soldiers — becoming socialized and better fitting in. But the best POSSIBLE solution that Griffin can hope for is that he will successfully be socialized into the US military’s way of seeing things, thereby undermining completely his ability to pursue the stated goals of the HTP with respect to the perspectives of Iraqis. If he were really using ethnographic methods to understand the ‘human terrain’ (and I share Jovan’s discomfort with this term, intentionally throwing it around cavalierly), he would also need to be lifting weights with ‘insurgents’ (or ‘terrorists’), moving about with Sunni soldiers, learning how to get food with civilians stuck in conflict zones, or similar activities. When he writes, for example, of seeking to help with the management of internally displaced people and their effect on the water infrastructure, I don’t see how his close ethnographic rapport with US soldiers can have much to offer the effort. The more he learns to ‘see like a soldier’ (apologies to James Scott), the less likely he is to be able to interject anything distinctive into the discussion of ways to deal with this sort of problem.

Some of the AAS commenters on the HTP have argued whether or not the HTP is ‘anthropology.’ I think it clearly is; it is grounded in an awareness of human cultural diversity and a holistic sensitivity to the complexity of human life, however mercenary or politically suspect are its goals. Its methods, however, do not seem to be the least bit ethnographic, judging from Griffin’s descriptions. If ethnographic research methods involve intimate contact, conviviality, and an attempt to understand another person’s point of view, the only ‘ethnography’ Griffin is doing is with US units. And, I must continue to point out, I think that this is legitimate, as long as it is recognized as such. How Griffin is going to tell his units anything about Iraq or Iraqis that they don’t already know (presumably, they too have been flying around in helicopters ‘surveying’ the terrain, human and otherwise) is just beyond me.

Whether or not anthropologists should be involved in the US war efforts is a separate question; as I’ve written elsewhere, I think blanket declarations one way or the other do little to sort out the real ethical and moral issues involved. For example, it seems to me from a great distance away that, at the moment, because of the way that the war is being conducted in Iraq, the space for anthropologists to really contribute to inter-cultural understanding and community autonomy is very limited. I suspect that there are places and projects that could be done following what, to me, is the first ethical principle of field work: avoid harming your subjects more than you help them. But what is clear here to me is that the HTP likely suffers from some very serious, perhaps fatal, flaws in research design. Even if it is moral and it does work, it seems unlikely to produce the sorts of information that its advocates and participants might want. The whole endeavour then threatens to drag anthropology into discredit and disrepute on multiple levels: association with a morally-dubious war, participation in a steadily worsening social situation, studying ‘subjects’ in order to manipulate them, poor research design… At the end of the day, I suspect that even the US Army is likely to become frustrated with what they get from their poorly-positioned researchers trying to do ‘ethnography’ at arm’s length from their subjects. The fact that US Army brass seems to be very happy with the product of such poorly-designed research suggests to me that, even with all the flaws, the information that they are getting is better than anything that they might normally get. Didn’t Sun Tzu say that ‘All war is based on deception.’ In this case, perhaps willing self deception?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob Hutton permalink
    27 November, 2008 9:25 pm

    I believe that Dr. Griffin probably has similar concerns about the methodological limitations for studying Iraqis in Iraq with the US military, that is, not being able to integrate and become part of the Iraqi people and work with them closely poses severe limitations on the anthropologists ability to understand the problems they face and the way they view their situation. I hope that you do not take Dr. Griffin’s blog posts too out of context and therefore undermine the good work that these anthropologists are doign for the US military, albeit with severe (recognized) limitations.
    Firstly, the post that you refer to by Dr. Griffin was posted while he was still undergoing training with the US military pre-deployment. Therefore, there was nothing else to write about but the US military and US military culture. Throw an anthropologist into a new culture and of course s/he will report on that new culture.. even though it was not the ultimate goal of the program. At that point, Dr. Griffin had not even set foot in Iraq, so there was nothing to report with respect to Iraqi culture. He was just reporting on his experience of being an applied anthropologist being part of a new program with the US miltiary, as much for his students as anyone else.
    Secondly, doing anthropology in a war zone is severely limiting. I am sure that Dr. Griffin would have loved to go and live with an Iraqi villager for the duration of his deployment, however security concerns prohibited this. I believe that this severe limitation did not go un-noticed by the deployed anthropologists, and I am sure that they were as frustrated as you at the methodological limitations that this imposes on naturalistic/ethnographic study of cultural anthropology. However, is it not better to have trained eyes observing from a perspective closer than researchers in their offices? (discuss!).
    Thirdly, I think there is another important issue here which relates to the relevance of the anthropological data to the “customer” (in this case, the US military). In this instance of applied anthropological study, there is also a need for a thorough understanding of the user of the data that comes from the anthropological study and the uses of those data. I believe that, although flawed, the idea for the HT Teams is to support better use of anthro/cultural data by the US armed forces to do a better job of accomplishing their mission. This requires that the anthropologist also understands the military’s requirements, their questions, the issues that they are dealing with, and then translating that into meaningful research questions for studying the local population. This includes helping the US military ask questions that can be answered by this type of study, especially when the methodologies are limited, the time frames are limited and so forth. It is therefore as important for the anthropologist to be embedded with the military customer (in this case the Brigade Commander and his staff) in order to understand what questions they have about the local culture and what is driving those questions. This allows the anthropologist to provide a different perspective for the commander in accomplishing his mission, and potentially can have a large influence on how that commander does his job.
    This is a tough balance and, as you have pointed out, there is the possibility of the anthropologist going native in the wrong direction (taking on the values and perspectives of the US military). But again, there is the supposition that as an ethical, educated, and experienced observer of the world, the anthropologist is less prone to this type of behavior and more able to remain objective about both sides of the equation.
    This is a key challenge for aapplied cultural anthropologists who are looking for answers to the challenges and questions posed by their employer, and tied by the constraints of the working environment (in this case, severe security restrictions). But is this not better than postulating and ruminating from afar? At least the trained anthropologist recognizes the methodological issues and can identify strategies to overcome them as best they can. Someone without this training will fall foul of the very myopia that you describe in your blog. I do not believe that the post that you quote from Dr. Griffin is a fair reflection of the actual events that transpired, but merely the existing context in which it was written, and that trained anthropologists in the HTP should be given more credit for their knowledge, skill and experience (and therefore by supposition, objectivity and recognition of methodological limitations) than you give them in this post. It should be noted also that being a trained anthropologist is not a prerequisitie for selection to the HTP, however. For me, this is the bigger worry. But, I applaud the US military for allowing civilians into their command posts to advise their commanders and to provide the objectivity and cultural perspective that would seem to be so critical for achieving peaceful aims in stabilizing the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and supporting the recovery of these countries.

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