From Everlasting to Everlasting: A Review of David Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

Price, David. (2011). Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

 “Who controls the past,” ran the party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory.

— George Orwell, 1984

In the introduction of Weaponizing Anthropology, Price (2011) reminds us that WWI was the Chemist’s war, WWII was the Physicist’s war and the current era of war is “envisioned by many Pentagon strategists” (p. 2) as the Anthropologist’s war. Anthropologists and social scientists have increasingly been courted, both on and off of the academic campus, by the military and intelligence organizations. In particular, anthropological knowledge and expertise is desired to fix structural holes and assist in counterinsurgency operations with Human Terrain Teams (p. 2). Cultural expertise is highly regarded as a new form of weaponry in modern warfare; it will help to define who the enemy is and refine knowledge of how best to kill the enemy (p. 195). Many provocative questions arise from reading Price’s work. The questions which resonated most deeply with me regarding our anthropological responsibilities are: who is our research for? And how will it be used?

One need not look too far to see the potential ramifications of our research. If we were to go back to WWII, the Manhattan Project provides us with a perfect case study of the quandaries and dilemmas that face researchers in times of war. Nearing the end of the war many had feared that Germany would develop a bomb and that is, in large part, what drove scientists in the United States to feverishly pursue the prospect of the atomic bomb. Indeed, Einstein had even written to President Roosevelt warning of the possibility that Germany could develop the bomb (Rosen, 2011). However, Germany surrendered before the bomb was complete and, as we all know, the bomb was then used as the decisive factor in ending the war in the pacific theatre and forcing the unconditional surrender of Japan.

Oppenheimer, the former head of the Manhattan Project, firmly stood behind his research, at least initially (Cotkin, 2011). He later lamented, however, “[p]erhaps I was a fool, but I had thought that this ultimate violence would discourage the use of any more violence” (Beach, 1946). Of course, it is extremely unlikely that anthropologists would create a weapon equivalently capable of the devastation of the bomb. Nevertheless, it does not mean that weapons cannot be created, and that these weapons cannot be damaging. This is something Price is provoking us to contemplate when we consider who our research is for and how it will be used. Further, his work encourages us to evaluate the motivations which drive our research.

Feynman, another physicist who worked on the Manhattan project, was more ambivalent, or detached, about the dilemma which scientists face. Although he too struggled in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he ultimately concluded that our research “enabl[es] power to do either good or bad – but it does not carry instructions on how to use it” (Feynman, 1988). There is great truth to this comment, as no one is omnipotent. We cannot possibly conceive of all of the ways in which our research may be utilized, for good or bad. However, Feynman’s words also carry a disavowal of responsibility. When we say that we create tools but are not ultimately responsible for how the tools are used it raises the question of who is? Someone is responsible. Price admonishes us to accept responsibility, as researchers, for the work we produce.

In the latter part of the book, Price provides us with a detailed account of what is currently occurring with Human Terrain Systems (HTS) which, in effect, allows us to consider what will happen as well. He is, in a sense, warning us of the potential for things to come and encouraging us to consider how our work will be used. Even in 1945 the implications and applications of the bomb were not unforeseen. A petition  signed by almost 70 physicists working on the Manhattan Project (Dannen, 1945) as well as the Franck Report (Federation of American Scientists, 1945) both discouraged the use of the bomb and encouraged President Truman to consider the moral implications of its use against civilian populations in Japan. The scientists came to realize that they had weaponized physics in an intractable way. Once the bomb was completed it was out there for all to use, and it could not be taken back.

As HTS utilize anthropologists for their counterinsurgencies they are weaponizing anthropology. In spite of the fact that the ethical codes which guide our discipline seem irreconcilable with participating in these operations social scientists continue to enlist. Our class discussions revolving around this issue brought up a variety of opinions about the legitimacy and ethics of anthropologists participating in HTS. While the overwhelming majority of us would agree that, as anthropologists, we should not participate in this form of ‘research’ there was also acknowledgement of the realities and complexities of our daily lives. In Chapter 9 Price presents us with the case of John Allison who wound up working for HTS after losing his job. While there, he seemed to espouse a true belief that he could change the culture from the inside, but resigned from his position a year later after realizing military culture is not easily, or ready to be, changed. Allison represents an idealistic archetype, one who believes that they can change the system from within. However, he would later discover that this change does not come easily, if at all. The question was posed in our discussions as to whether change from the inside out is the only way, or even the best way, to effect change. Like many of the questions arising from this book, there are no easy answers.

On the other side of the coin, however, even if we choose not to participate in HTS or produce secret military/government reports it does not prevent our work from being utilized. Our research is freely available for all to access. We cannot stop our work from being used, from being misconstrued or simply taken for malevolent purposes. As was the case, as Price points out, for Georges Condominas whose work had been used by the military for quite some time without his knowledge or consent (p. 129). Additionally, even if we attempted to contemplate all of the ways that our work might be construed we could likely never conceive of every one of them. It does not mean that we should not try, just as the physicists tried to forewarn of the dangerous implications of the bomb in 1945. However, this reality leaves anthropologists in an ethical quandary. How can we protect our work, and our participants, from being misused? This was another question which evoked a great deal of debate within our class discussions, but here we found again that there are no easy answers.

Price’s work gives us the opportunity to examine our own past, present and future as anthropologists. The stakes are often raised in times of war, and the lines of morality become blurred. However, the Manhattan project should remind us that the past and the future are intrinsically linked and ‘everlasting,’ as Orwell had cautioned. Perhaps it should ultimately lead us to reflect upon who controls the present and what that means for our future?

Bibliography:

Beach, Clark. (1946, October 20). A-Bomb Jarred ‘Oppy’ Out of Pleasant Ways, and He Can’t Get Back. Washington Post, Pg. B3

Cotkin, George. (2011). Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Dannen, Gene. (1945, July 17). A Petition to the President of the United States. Retrieved from http://www.dannen.com/decision/45-07-17.html

Federation of American Scientists. (1945, June). The “Frank Report”: A Report to the Secretary of War, June 1945. Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/franck.html

Feynman, Richard P. (1988). The Value of Science. Retrieved from http://www.phys.washington.edu/users/vladi/phys216/Feynman.html

Orwell, George. (1977). 1984. New York, NY: Signet Classic.

Rosen, Rebecca J. (2011, November 23). ‘I’ve Created a Monster!’ On the Regrets of Inventors. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/11/ive-created-a-monster-on-the-regrets-of-inventors/249044/

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “From Everlasting to Everlasting: A Review of David Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

  1. Thanks very much, and it was also useful to have this wider, longer historical context to frame the discussion. That you chose to focus on the work of physicists around the production of nuclear weapons, ties in, in fact, with how the Network of Concerned Anthropologists chose to name itself, modelling itself in part on the prior generation of Concerned Physicists. That Hugh Gusterson, a leading critic of HTS and a founding member of the NCA, spent years researching nuclear weapons labs, also points to this wider and deeper historical engagement between academia and the national security state.

  2. Thank you so much for your comments. I was not aware that the parallels between the two disciplines, in relation to the themes presented in Price’s work, ran so deep. It is, perhaps, a ‘happy coincidence’ that I drew ties between the two.

    Additionally, thank you for such a great class with really engaging and challenging materials! Last, but certainly not least, a huge thank you to all of my peers who made this class an exceptional learning experience for a beginner anthropologist such as myself.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s