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New York Times publishes Shweder opinion piece on anthropology and war

28 October, 2007

The New York Times yesterday (well, today in New York) published an opinion piece by Richard A. Shweder on anthropologists working with the U.S. military. Shweder points out that what they are doing is not so much anthropology as playing cultural tour guide/ Miss Manners:

It turns out that the anthropologists are not really doing anthropology at all, but are basically hired as military tour guides to help counterinsurgency forces accomplish various nonlethal missions.These anthropological “angels on the shoulder,” as Ms. McFate put it, offer global positioning advice as soldiers move through poorly understood human terrain — telling them when not to cross their legs at meetings, how to show respect to leaders, how to arrange a party. They use their degrees in cultural anthropology to play the part of Emily Post.

He also opines that for the American Anthropology Association to condemn the use of anthropology in this war would be to “[shoot] oneself in the foot”:

How have members of the anthropological profession reacted to the Pentagon’s new inclusion agenda? A group calling itself the Network of Concerned Anthropologists has called for a boycott and asked faculty members and students around the country to pledge not to contribute to counterinsurgency efforts. Their logic is clear: America is engaged in a brutal war of occupation; if you don’t support the mission then you shouldn’t support the troops. Understandably these concerned scholars don’t want to make it easier for the American military to conquer or pacify people who once trusted anthropologists. Nevertheless, I believe the pledge campaign is a way of shooting oneself in the foot.

… I think it is a mistake to support a profession-wide military boycott or a public counter-counterinsurgency loyalty oath. And I think it would be unwise for the American Anthropological Association to do so at this time.

Unfortunately, he does provide much explanation for this opinion; instead the article meanders through some peculiar terrain (no pun intended!) with a claim about the Ottoman Empire’s longevity relative to the British Empire being due to its cultural relativism and an anecdote about Montgomery McFate encouraging U.S. soldiers to be more tolerant of Afghani homosexuality.

I was disappointed. I’m an admirer of Shweder’s work and I can only suppose that a more coherent article was cut by the New York Times for the sake of space. The article in its entirety can be read here: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/27/opinion/27shweder.html.

L.L. Wynn

2 Comments leave one →
  1. gregdowney permalink
    29 October, 2007 10:34 am

    Lisa —
    Like you, I read the piece a couple of times, and like you, I share the sense that something was cut from it. There seem to be uncharacteristic gaps in the argument. Shweder makes some pointed criticisms, such as his disappointment with the fact that ‘anthropologists’ with the US military aren’t really doing ethnography or other anthropological research but rather acting as ‘protocol experts’ for military personnel working with local people on nonlethal missions. Of course, this is worthwhile work; I’d rather have an occupying military at least not be completely insensitive to the attitudes, mores, and perceptions of the people they have been sent to rule over, but I still think that Shweder appears in this version of the editorial to be wading in pretty cavalierly to some pretty dubious arguments.

    As I’ve mentioned on some of the earlier posts related to anthropologists at war, I’m not actually opposed to us getting involved in post-war reconstruction efforts or some of the other ‘non-lethal’ missions that the military conducts. I don’t think soldiers are inherently evil, nor is everything they do necessarily bound to be unethical and immoral. I’m opposed to some of the boycott language because I can imagine situations in which anthropological intervention in support of well-thought-out military action would be both ethical and moral. HOWEVER, the comparison to the Ottoman Empire seems to me to be pretty telling.

    Certainly, I’d rather have Ottoman-style or Roman-style ‘imperialism’ compared to the possibility of a more Spanish-style conquest cum conversion effort. Absolutely. Better to be an imperial overlord that allows the humble subjects some degree of freedom in matters relating to religion, culture, childrearing, etc., than a conquering power demanding absolute submission and transformation of all defeated peoples. But are those really the two choices? And since when do we assume that imperialism of any sort is not worth commenting upon? This is why I think that there must be some gaps in the Shweder piece, something that was edited out. He really can’t be saying, well, as long as we’re an imperial power that lets the locals engage in their own distinctive hanky-panky then maybe it’s all for the better. Yikes!

    But I’m not going to criticize Shweder for saying this because I find it very hard to imagine him penning the words. Ottoman-style or otherwise, imperialism so that the US can secure vital resources, or move military bases, or ‘fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here’ is still inconsistent with the most basic of human rights. To me the problem is not whether anthropologists go to war; it’s which war and which missions in the war. But I’d say the same things for the soldiers involved.

    But like you, Lisa, I found this piece disappointing, lukewarm, and inconsistent with what I know about Shweder. I think there was probably a longer piece that questioned the wisdom of the boycott, which I can see good reason to argue against, but the version we read here is less than convincing.

  2. Joe permalink
    2 January, 2008 1:44 am

    The Charlie Rose Show featuring Sarah Sewall and Montgomery McFate talked about many things that are similar to what Metro Police did in Baltimore to lower crime in the 90’s by changing to a Community Policing Model. Counter Insurgency, in some ways is a spin on a Community Policing Model used by US Police for over 2 decades. The Brits used this model, but with more of a Martial Law style of policing in Ireland to defeat the IRA.

    By placing Iraqi and US Military Police, Military Intel and Contractors in an area where they can study, learn, conduct surveillance and communicate with the locals of a specific area in Iraq, they can slowly counter an insurgency and change people’s mindsets. The basics are that, this would help us in finding the bad people…the “hard-liners” and who can then be arrested, removed or eliminated. Finding the straw the breaks the camel’s back is what they are ultimately trying to do.

    Much of this is a joint effort that would include distribution of reading materials, controlling news and other biometric / psych-ops programs. By having small community meetings with local politicians, business owners, and people of that community that are looking for a “positive change” is what makes the wheels spin on this style of operation. This “change” that would be the topic and discussion of meetings, would be for violence to end and for people to not live in fear. They have to re-educate and slowly change the Iraqi’s and also empower them to defeat their insurgency. Working with the local population and gaining their trust is what primarily needs to take place.

    Sure there are going to be numerous ways of learning more about these people by tapping into local phone lines, seeing what they are doing on their computers, find out who they are communicating with and by putting troop / contractors out there who are going to learn their education levels / finding out what their beliefs and systems are in their native tongue. Are they friend or foe? How can we gain their trust? This is very much a surgical style of operation, compared to what has been used in the past during a War. Will it take time? Yes. Can we do this with a reduced presence of military forces on the ground in Iraq? Yes, but it will increase the amount of analysts and linguists in the rear who are going to crunch information. SPSS and Research Methods will definitely have to be used and key foreign national figures will have to be found or invented, in each region, to help guide the rest of those individuals in the local community to a positive change and outcome.

    It was interesting that Montgomery McFate discussed her dissertation about Counter Insurgency Operations in Northern Ireland by the British. She said that this was where she learned most of her knowledge and information on COIN. The thing I don’t get is, Montgomery said her idea of Counter Insurgency was more hands off, when the facts are that the Brits treated Ireland very much like a Police State and Martial Law was imposed on Ireland by the UK. If one has read up on the Special Branch’s informers and their handlers, particularly since security sources have, in recent years, played up the role of a “double agent” within the IRA known as “steaknife” (or stakeknife – spellings vary), he was the key individual who was responsible for finding and eliminating three of the top leaders in the IRA. Raids on houses in Ireland occurred on a regular basis, for those who were suspected of being involved with the IRA or even being a sympathizer to the IRA. Raids purposes included the planting or removing of listening devices. A Sunday Times article (14 April, 2002) claimed the removal of covert bugs was the motive behind the raids.

    So can we expect that a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus will likely occur in Iraq for the next decade or more? Who knows, but I think Montgomery McFate needs to stop jerking me off from behind and not try so hard to paint a pretty picture of how COIN Operations work. It is War, isn’t it? Hopefully things will get better in Iraq and we‘ve learned from the mistakes that have been made in the past.

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