Beeman on Anthropologists in Iraq
Brown University anthropologist, William O. Beeman, recently published Lethal Field Work: Anthropologists Cry Foul Over Colleagues’ Aid to Iraq Occupation in Le Monde diplomatique (the link is to an English version on Alternet). Beeman is probably one of the anthropologists who most successfully publishes in the popular press, drawing on his fieldwork in the Middle East to comment especially on US foreign policy in regular columns. In this article, he covers the basic outline (very basic) of the recent controversy over the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) in the US military.
One of the principal proponents of cooperation is Montgomery McFate, a Yale PhD anthropologist and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. In a seminar on 10 May 2007, McFate presented a plan that was influential in establishing the HTS project. She pointed out that the U.S. military spends almost nothing on social science research that would be crucial to the success of operations, and recommended an approach to closing the cultural knowledge gap.
The article really does not add much to the anthropological discussion of anthropology’s potential role in Iraq, certainly nothing beyond what’s already been covered on this site and on others, like Savage Minds. In fact, the article is so general that the only reason I provide a link to it is to note that this mostly internal discussion in our field is only leaking out in very limited forms. I’m left perplexed by the article, frankly. Either Beeman does not know about, or chooses not to write with any recognition of much more extensive debate in our field, including some much stronger opinions than those he relays: basically, that there is a conflict, with some anthropologists doing HTS-related work, even when not experts in the regions involved, and other anthropologists criticizing them and pushing for a resolution to prohibit intelligence gathering for counter-insurgency by anthropologists.
I usually like Beeman’s columns, but this one left me flat. If this is how discussions within our field are being relayed to those outside it, then the effect of any critiques of these programs is liable to be negligible. The debate sounds polarized and, oddly, comes out muffled, balanced between those who want to use anthropology to reduce casualties and those who worry that anthropology will be used as a weapon. Do we use anthropology for good or for evil? Is that really all this debate is about, because if that’s it, then it’s a pretty easy debate to resolve: I’m for good and against evil. But I think that if the debate is reduced to this flat of a discussion, the general public isn’t going to really understand why its still going on. ‘What are you guys carrying on about? Just use anthropology to decrease casualties and don’t assassinate people. What’s your problem?’
In this case, I think a simple moral framing actually robs the public account of much that is engaging in this debate. The methodological, pragmatic, structural, and other difficulties of doing serious ethnography, and of using anthropological knowledge in these settings, the likelihood of becoming ethically compromised, of having data compromised by its use, and the epistemological challenges of anthropology in war are, in my opinion, also amenable to popular accounts. And these all make the simple, do-we-use-anthropology-as-a-weapon-or-to-save-lives framing, actually more interesting because it becomes clear the question is not so simple.