Militant Forces and the Legacy of Anthropology: A Review of David H. Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

Price, D. H. (2011). Weaponizing Anthropology. CounterPunch and AK Press.

Shrapnel was invented by an Englishman of the same name. Don’t you wish you could have something named after you? – Kurt Vonnegut, Man Without a Country, 2005

In reading any piece of activist literature, it is wise to determine the intentions laden in its words and to critically reflect on what kind of action should be taken. Given activism’s penchant for being on the periphery of controversy and mobilizing against dominant forces, newcomers to the field may find themselves swept up in the fervor of injustice with the urge to enact immediate social change. Alternatively, newcomers may also find themselves deflated by the helplessness of the situation presented, thus quelling their desire to become involved in some way, however ‘small’ that might be. David H. Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology (2011) is a call to social scientists, namely anthropologists, as well as wider audiences with an interest in the activities of imperialistic institutions. He is concerned about anthropological knowledge and anthropologists involved in military-state activity, primarily focusing on Human Terrain Systems (HTS). Thus, his topics do not veer far from two main themes: (i) anthropology’s ethical positions and responsibilities, and (ii) the imperialistic actions of the U.S. military-state to both the field of anthropology and foreign cultural milieu.

Price’s book is also, in part, a counter-attack against manuscripts such as the Human Terrain Systems Handbook and the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Price tells us the Handbook aims to “[engineer] the ‘trust of the indigenous population’” (p. 103) but instead “compartmentalizes the project as something separate from larger neo-imperial missions of invasion and occupation” (p. 103). Price describes the Manual as essentializing the concept of ‘culture’ in the form of a short manuscript aimed at training soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics (p. 185-186). Thus, Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology is a pocket-sized book, comprised of short chapters, sports an attractive black silhouette of a military drone on a red background with stark white letters. It is accessible reading, tailored for both anthropologists and the layperson. He speaks plainly and openly about his lack of trust in the military-state, its administrative roster, and their earnest claim that they are acting in order to save lives. Throughout the book, he gives us various accounts of different investigative routes that all point to the same thing: the rampant abuse of anthropological knowledge by the U.S. military-state produces a perverted rendition of contemporary anthropological stances and positions on social, political, and cultural conflicts.

From a methodological point of view, studying ‘up’ or the study of elites presents some dynamic practices of anthropological data collection. Price’s book is not an ethnography, at least not in the conventional sense. He does not employ participant observation, but relies on a number of other methods, including: analysis of both public and leaked documents, interviews, questioning government funding of select university programs, and provoking responses from elites and their institutions in order to create an opportunity for response and critique.

This list of alternate methodological approaches is less a criticism on the lack of traditional participant observation and more of an observation of how the study of elites must be conducted in the face of authority and structures of power. For example, he tells us the training grounds for educating CIA agents takes place at select universities, under various program titles (i.e. PRISP, ICSP, NSEP). These programs are designed for the development of specific skill sets in order to produce a “thorough understanding and deep knowledge of particular areas of the world” (Simons, 2003 in Price, 2011, p. 35). While it may be common knowledge that this kind of training takes place, Price notes that there has been next to no public reaction at the increase of government funding to these programs, post-9/11. One could argue that this might be a necessary step in the face of national security, and yet, as Price notes, the continuing expansion of these programs shows no signs of stopping (p. 34). What is worrisome is the public’s complacency as unchallenged social and cultural change is organized, mobilized, and put into action by the military-state.

Another example of challenging the state’s actions is the prolific amount of academic material that the state plagiarized in the production of their Counterinsurgency Field Manual (p.118-124). It is not only a violation of copyright laws, but also a blatant mismanagement of scholarly work and interpretation. Furthermore, the role that the University of Chicago Press played in making the Manual a piece of “domestic propaganda” (p. 127) cannot go unchecked for its potential danger in rekindling public support for imperialistic efforts disguised as defending notions of freedom and democracy. Price reports how criticisms from various public magazines and blogs, such as CounterPunch and Small Wars gathered enough attention to draw out military officials’ responses. Despite the military’s unsatisfactory responses, Price makes it evident how academic and military goals regarding interpretations of passages are at polar ends, and that the military is more than comfortable in violating copyright laws and misrepresenting academic positions without having to adequately attend to academic scrutiny and critique (p. 122-123).

From an insider’s perspective, Price gives us John Allison’s account of his experience as an anthropologist working for HTS. Price says, “the significance of John Allison’s insider account of HTS training is found in the details he provides about the program’s inability to address basic ethical or functional issues” (p. 171). Allison was open to HTS reform, but Price says he is not convinced that HTS, a fundamentally unethical program, can be fixed such that it could employ competent anthropologists — and rightly so: anthropologists are not ‘social doctors’ remedying the ails of human conflict, nor are they ‘journalists’, simply reporting on events. Rather, in my view, social and cultural anthropologists are akin to detectives, piecing together complex puzzle pieces. As far as the ‘science’ in ‘social scientist’ goes, they are balanced and pragmatic about the knowledge they manage to piece together. In this way, the role of the anthropologist in the context of human conflict is to be a stoic figure that should be employed as a force to help level the field where power imbalances are clear and unjust. As a human being, in the sense of possessing a moral code, practicing anthropology becomes a personal ‘sense’ of what is right and wrong. Much of our class debate took place around the idea of being able to endure being involved in direct work with the HTS program. What was particularly telling about my classmates’ positions is that while everyone seemed to agree that participating in HTS would not be for them, there are different degrees to which we each understood the necessity of such programs in the face of political and cultural conflict.

Another question that was raised about Price’s book was: “why do we think there is a heavy focus on this book in intelligence gathering and targeting?” In my view, it shows one of the ways that anthropological knowledge can be used globally by non-anthropological agencies. This proves anthropology’s methods of data collection as an invaluable resource, but it also demonstrates its potential for cultural genocide and imperialism. Price tells us that anthropology’s involvement in counterinsurgency efforts exacerbates issues and tensions between military forces and local residents/cultures. Price makes it evident through his account of John Allison that regardless of an anthropologist getting involved, the military’s agenda will continue to create problems for foreign territories. Thus he presents us with the moral dilemma of letting the military-state go unchecked versus dirtying one’s hands in the name of protecting both anthropology’s name as well as minimizing damage in foreign territories.

The issue that Price does not attend to in this book, however, is anthropology’s value to the public. Or in another way, to what end can anthropologists serve as a tool for mounting their own ‘weapon’ against imperialistic forces while maintaining their dignity, endurance, and values? When we consider the media’s sensationalism, western lifestyle (purchased through ‘oil money’ and consumerism), and lack of interest in a deep understanding of foreign cultures, a different kind of challenge presents itself to anthropology. That is, anthropology must bring its concerns to the public, and to a much wider realm than activist domains. In order to do this, perhaps a first step should be that instead of fighting the military-state at its own game, of which they are the experts, anthropologists should re-focus on its own expertise. In an address to anthropology’s involvement with HTS, the American Anthropological Association (2007) has positioned itself and its knowledge as a distinct and separate entity, despite the state’s pillaging – but to what end? (http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/statement-on-HTS.cfm).

Anthropology’s weapon is knowledge. The elite institution of anthropology is not without its own set of fundamental flaws, given its colonial history as well as its catering to hegemonic and hierarchal practices of ‘academic stardom’. Rather than attending to other institutions’ shortcomings, and in the face of global crises such as HTS programs, anthropologists must first come to terms with its own discipline. This is not to say that those who are well invested in their respective fields should halt all action. I am saying that in order to gather and mobilize anthropology as a movement, there must be some agreement that a consensus must be reached. Simply disassociating and doing separate research cannot and will not garner public support. If military movements have taught us anything, it is that they possess the ability to unite people under a common belief in order to achieve a goal. Even when there is a lack of agreement, the notion of uniting and achieving a goal is a difficult thing to resist. There are other valuable and admirable traits to the military, such as its ability to discipline troops and produce and mobilize a sense of goal-oriented ‘order’ to its actions. Some may write this off as brainwashing, and I would not be the first to object. Still, the prospect of militaries disbanding and disarming themselves is a pipe dream left to fiction and sci-fi, and as such, we must consider the potential of what it means to agree to collectively rally against authoritative and imperialistic forces. As far as the discipline of anthropology operates, it plays out something like this: in order to understand anthropological theory and practice and become anthropologists, students undergo their own rite of passage, and yet the outcome is often riddled with a hazy set of indeterminable ‘cultural values’, without a clear sense of a goal in mind. My questions then are: what is the point of discipline without a goal? Upon acquiring competence in their theoretical area of study, where are anthropologists going with their disciplined knowledge? Do they intend to act in solidarity? Without a clear sense of purpose, I find it difficult to see how anthropologists can mobilize its ‘forces’ (students, scholars, and those in public fields). As individualistic as they may be, and in order to produce knowledge that the lay public can find accommodating and useful, it is in contemporary anthropology’s interest to publicly reevaluate how they promote the benefits of understanding and to find common ground between different people, not simply assert it.

Additional Works Cited:

American Anthropological Association. (2007). Statement on HTS: American Anthropological Association Executive Board Statement on the Human Terrain Systems Project. Retrieved from http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/statement-on-HTS.cfm, accessed April 13, 2014.

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3 thoughts on “Militant Forces and the Legacy of Anthropology: A Review of David H. Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

  1. Excellent questions (and very difficult to answer, hence my praise), and very well-written–thanks.

    One point that came up during seminar discussions, that you also raise, and probably did not get as much time as it required is the question of the methodology of the book, and whether or not it is an ethnography, and why that matters. I am a bit resistant about not seeing Price’s work as participant observation, even if it is not “sold” as such by Price: clearly Price is a participant-observer, in the truest sense of the idea, within the structures of institutionalized and disciplined knowledge production. He is not an outsider. He may be an outsider to the military and intelligence agencies, but these have entered his domain of work…so the idea of “outside” becomes rather blurred.

    We were all participant-observers in this seminar, studying anthropology as an institutional form, from within the institution. Our written ethnography is this “blog”. Whether “the public” will appreciate that fact is another matter, and one that we cannot determine.

  2. Thanks, Max. I agree about Price being a ‘participant’, and that while this book might not be a conventional ethnography, it does attend to what one can expect from studying military elites and their institution(s). Also, consider how Price received direct responses from military officials — does that not therefore implicate and acknowledge him as part of the active field? Additionally, as I argue above, his book is a form of active participation — it is not a stagnant piece of work — as far as I am concerned, it can be considered as a counterattack to the military literature he criticizes. To me, this is a form ‘responsible’ activism, or maybe I should say activism with the potential to endure. What remains to be seen is if this kind of work can start to be widely disseminated and well-received by “the public” without being labeled as propaganda.

  3. Thanks very much Ravi. Unfortunately, there are those who will insist on labelling it “propaganda”, regardless. I recall being confronted with the accusation of being “subjective” and “ideological” for using the phrase (not my own), “national security state”–as if observing and acknowledging the existence of such an objectively verifiable fact is somehow impossible. On the other hand, it validates “ideology”, for if my “ideology” allows me to see what is invisible to “you”, and to problematize what is taken for granted as ordinary and unremarkable, then hooray for “ideology” and subjectivity. Again, unfortunately for some (or many in the US), criticism is not “science”, especially critique of power. They seem to forget that the root of all science is skepticism and the refusal to simply believe. Well, what can I say…they make their own burning beds.

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