The Price is Right: Reading Up & Reading into Weaponizing Anthropology

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

“Weapon: A thing designed or used for inflicting bodily harm or physical damage.”

“Weaponize: Adapt to use as a weapon.”

                                                                        – Oxford Dictionary (Online)

 Anthropology is at war! Price has made that absolutely clear with his little book (or perhaps, as one of my cohort suggested “manual”) Weaponizing Anthropology (2011). This may seem somewhat shocking to many anthropologists and social scientists, because we are not accustomed to war. War is the ideological opposite of our practice. We do not engage in war, we engage most thoroughly critical thinking and knowledge production. Our ethos is of cultural understanding, sensitivity and conflict resolution. Few and far between are those who research socio-cultural phenomenon for the explicit purpose of social engineering, control, surveillance, targeting and “intelligence” within academia. Codes of ethics and protocols have been well established within the social sciences, especially anthropology, for experiments conducted using human subjects, and these stop studies for such nefarious purposes from ever being undertaken (a by-product of war). However, academics are one thing and the military is another. As this essay will show, though there may be moral and ethical codes which are in place to safeguard knowledge from being used to harm individuals/societies within anthropology, the military has no problem using any knowledge or ‘intelligence’ as such. Therefore, as those who both research and document culture, it is our job as anthropologists to protect the people(s) we work with and also the knowledge we ‘produce’ of the culture(s). This all translates to confronting a military academic complex. Anthropology is at war with the military, over the use of our knowledge and the real people that knowledge is based on.

The United States Military believes that anthropological knowledge is of some intrinsic value to them, which is a very impressive compliment, but one which we should rather not accept. The utilitarian ends to which the military would distort anthropological methodology and culture theory are a reflection of the differences between the two. For anthropology and the military are not that dissimilar. Both, wish to achieve conflict resolution, both want to protect (security and safety) people and both (at least ideally) want a similar outcome: peace. The major difference, however, is how these things are achieved and for who. The military holds a singular view of what culture and people should have peace and protection, while anthropology believes that these rights should exist for everyone (in many culturally relative ways). Knowledge for both is used as a transformative tool. The military is a discipline of guns and war. Anthropology is one of cultural knowledge, understanding and sensitivity (relativity). So here we are presented with a quandary. We can either accept the military’s role and its limitless reach by way of our government, either by diligently aiding in any form required of us, or we can continue to remain blissfully unaware that the military is using our knowledge for killing people and social engineering. Of course, there remains a third option, which may have existed outside of the scope of the answers of our discussion, namely, anthropology going to war with the military.

It is impossible for a discipline such as anthropology to go to war in any real sense of the meaning described in the definitions provided above, ethically we cannot engage in actions which will harm or potentially harm people(s) (I would include: especially their bodies). However, there are actions for recourse, though we need to be creative and resourceful in this the time of our attack. I believe what Price has offered in Weaponizing Anthropology (2011) can be seen as a very intuitive response, and I shall discuss some of his stronger points below, while overlooking some of his more fantastical allegories. (Though I strongly recommend it as essential reading for any student of anthropology or politics.) In doing so, I will highlight some of the areas in which anthropology has been attacked by the military, namely; infiltration of the university; commandeering of academic knowledge; and scholar recruitment.

The US military has made its way back unto the university campus (if it had ever left). Where once anthropologists may have been their own benefactors, studying who and what they choose to by their own predilection, now they are very much tied to the university system and are reliant on funding to continue their research. This has put them at the mercy of funding institutions and in an uncomfortable situation in which they must balance their endeavors with opportunities for making a livelihood. As one discussant in our seminars pointed out, how are we to remain ethical towards our subjects if we rely on money from others to study them? Does this not put us in a situation of exploitation? As much as I would like to believe the conjecture that anthropology at one moment in their history broke from Colonialism, I just do not see it. Was it between the moment we worked for the British Empire and WWII or later, before we helped develop counterinsurgency methods to be used in Vietnam? Following that, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the CIA and other intelligence agencies (Homeland Security, FBI, NSA) are funding anthropologists on an undisclosed number of campuses around the United States. These manifest through the National Security Education Program (NSEP) and funding opportunities such as PRISP and ICSP. The goal of these funding opportunities is to recruit future intelligence operatives and HTT members. Of course, the recruits for such funding serve a dual purpose of keeping an eye on dissident/unpatriotic scholars. The effect that such funding, plus “summer camps” has on students may be forceful enough to overpower any sentiments of cultural history and relativity which may have been possible to achieve. Just as worrisome is the fact that NSEP scholarships come with mandatory work within a national security institution attached to it. Price’s illustration of Flattes’ situation is representative of how anthropologists can get roped into such predicaments and left with few (if no) options to choose from. There is some sympathy voiced by Price for accepting such funding, especially in an atmosphere of educational funding cutbacks. However, “through such financial academics are increasingly becoming if not comfortable, then compliant appendages of the state” (Price 2011, 53). This speaks directly to our discipline’s amnesia concerning our involvement in the continued history of colonialism.

“Social scientists cannot ignore the political context in which their knowledge will be used in limited ways by those who fund it” (Price 2011, 64). This was a point that seemed to be a recurring theme throughout most of this book’s discussion and within our seminar. How is the knowledge we are producing being used for unintended purposes which go directly against an anthropological code of ethics (be it personal and/or institutional)? The production of knowledge in the university has been altered by the intrusion of the military in such processes and is becoming normalized (if not outright accepted). It has been argued by Giroux (2007), that this directive is another sign of the military’s appropriation of all facets of US culture for its own ends. Price explores this situation through the example of ICCAE and the University of Washington, in which the media overlooked the military’s “intrusion” on campus, concerned faculty members were pushed aside and administration gladly accepted the increased funds provided by the military arm of the government under secretive auspices. And, this situation is unfortunately not unique to the University of Washington. This is a threat to academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge everywhere. It also funnels knowledge production in a manner which leads to a very specific sort of knowledge being constructed, which is very damaging to the institution of knowledge itself (perhaps best described in a word: university) and interestingly enough the military as well. Price attributes these changes to a culture of silence, which may be unfair considering the lack of attention garnered by academics from politicians, the media and the general public. Yet, being more public may be just the solution we are looking for, regardless of how the shortcomings of those before us may paint a different picture.

The last and most scary development for the future is the US military’s use of anthropologists and other social scientists for implementing HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has been both as team members on the ground trying to “win the hearts and minds” of the people(s) the US is trying to bring “democracy” and “peace”, and the incorporation of anthropological works into a Counterinsurgency Manual. Anthropologists are recruited into HTT for targeting and intelligence gathering. Something our methods and skill-set are particularly suited for according to the military. Which sounds reasonable and convincing, except that all anthropological methods employed by the military are skewed and distorted for alternate means. Our abilities are reduced to a number of result garnering functions, which seek to identity “goodies” from “baddies”. However a manual was produced from anthropology to make such judgment-laden appraisals is beyond me. But Price sheds light on the misuse of years of anthropological research and theorization in his presentation and assessment of the COIN Manual. Theories, concepts and definitions from a variety of anthropological sources are haphazardly pasted together in a way which is hardly reflective of their original context and/or intent. Price shows how the manual is geared towards social engineering, stereotyping and population control rather than anthropological understanding. As well, those anthropologists who are employed on HTT are usually of the less qualified variety. While those who do question the party line and demand answers for unethical methods, are summarily silenced or expulsed. In the wake of some form of backlash from academics the military has even divined to establish their own education centers to produce their own social engineers of future wars, effectively bypassing any academic roadblock which may have prevented their hegemonic efficacy. As such, anthropological infiltration and attempts for reform are strongly curtailed by denying entrance and stymied by the military’s unflinching bureaucratic desire for the application of anthropology in war. Can the military be infiltrated and affected from within? Both John Allison and Price would have us believe not.

In our class discussions, we could not come to any practical, functional or pragmatic suggestions as how to overcome the military’s use of anthropology for ends/means for which it was not intended. The conversation turned quite heated and many were frustrated by what seemed like running against a brick wall. The conversation also turned militant, leading to calls for “absolute revolutionary action” and a “need to put our lives on the line in that sense… we need to be courageous.” It has to be acknowledged that the military is taking a “hands on approach” to curing the ills of the world, which could be argued that anthropology is not. If the definition of ‘good’ is how well something accomplishes the task it was designed for, the military is far better than anthropology. We are not activist and many an anthropologist bemoans the fact that we are very ineffectual in government policy-making and other social-institutions (how much this is true I have yet to see, but arguments lie on either side of the equation). Is this anthropologists’ fault, or the system we live in? Consistently in graduate studies we are told of the great honor and sheer chance it is to actually ever become an academic (read: full tenured professor). And, the idea of achieving less than such a status is a failure and representative of a waste of time, money, and resources necessary to complete a graduate degree is consistently reinforced. In such a clime, how are we to educate the political and cultural leaders of tomorrow? How are we enacting social change?

If we “don’t see the point in studying war”, how will we ever defeat it and its propagators, the war mongers? Maybe we should take a cue from our newest and brightest foe (and an old friend) the military and “know our enemy”. If we have no knowledge of the military, on what will our revolution be based our? If dialectic exists between war and peace (which I would argue it does), should we not question war to see what it can reveal of peace? Anthropology is poorer than the military in every material sense of the word; the army has the budget and funding of many small countries. The only thing we have is our knowledge, which is gradually being (mis)appropriated. The military knows the value of our knowledge, they pay top-dollar for it, because “you have the pentagon saying, ‘it’s junk’” about its technological advancements, which are not going to win wars without the intelligence and targeting. Something anthropology can do very well, according to some accounts.

If everything I have mentioned above is true and the questions I raise are valid, is it not time for some action? As anthropologists in the field, is it not our duty to protect those people(s) who we work with? What do we do when the US Military rolls into the places where we are researching? What then? Is it okay to combat violence with violence? I think not, violence begets violence. For “weaponizing anthropology is distorting anthropology.” Should we not be educating our people? Educating all people? “Shouldn’t we focus more on public anthropology?” It is not time to stop playing Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, because “anthropology needs you”?

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2 thoughts on “The Price is Right: Reading Up & Reading into Weaponizing Anthropology

  1. I would like to thank Professor Max Forte and my cohort for this wonderful semester. In writing this post I tried to always keep your many comments and voices in mind. You are all truly inspirational people and I look forward to our talks again, both in and out of the classroom. All the best, your friend J

  2. Thank you Jordie.

    “War is the ideological opposite of our practice. We do not engage in war, we engage most thoroughly critical thinking and knowledge production. Our ethos is of cultural understanding, sensitivity and conflict resolution. Few and far between are those who research socio-cultural phenomenon for the explicit purpose of social engineering, control, surveillance, targeting and “intelligence” within academia”

    –amazing then, how “controversial” this point of view is for so many in the realm of US “military anthropology”.

    An excellent essay, I enjoyed reading this. As for more minor points, you might want to correct the various typographic errors that appear throughout (again, I am an expert in spotting these in the work of others, rather than in my own…something about a log in one’s eye comes to mind).

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