The “noble war” narrative and the problem with focusing on personal moral choices (review of ch. 11)

Price, David H. (2008. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Negect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham and London: Duke University Press

In chapter 11, David Price ends his quest to understand anthropology’s involvement with the war effort by looking at how war-related work affected the development of the discipline, and opened the way to the justification of Cold War-related anthropology. He also discusses, on ethical grounds, some of the questionable uses of anthropology that were dealt with in the previous chapters. Again, as mentioned during previous seminars, the vocabulary he uses gives credence to the narrative of a grand war against Nazi barbarism. On page 267, he states that “[u]sing anthropology to combat and defeat fascism seems, in retrospect, to have been not only a logical but also a noble undertaking under conditions of total warfare”. Two pages later, he describes the Nazis as “evil enemies” (p. 269). On page 280, he repeats that “[t]he war’s fight against fascism was a noble one”. In Price’s rhetoric, these statements usually appear right before he introduces a critique of anthropological practices. They probably serve as a way for Price to avoid alienating his more conservative readers, who could classify him as an anti-American radical. But isn’t he overdoing it, considering that he already mentioned his support for the fight against the Axis powers in the preface? Is the myth of the noble war against fascism still so prevalent that he feels obliged to re-state it before making any criticism?

In some cases, this reaffirmation of the myth might actually be historically problematic. For example, on page 274, Price says that “total warfare was the only way to combat the Nazis”. Was it really the case? I am no specialist of World War II, and even less of military strategy, but I have often heard it said that the Soviet contribution to the destruction of Hitler’s forces was greater than that of the United States. If it is so, it is possible to think that the Allied forces could have won even if the US had not been committed to total warfare, which means that the most unethical warfare methods could have been avoided. In any case, Price’s statement probably needs careful historical revaluation.

One of the important points discussed by Price in this chapter is anthropologists’ relative silence concerning their war experience. Very few published writings dealing in any depth with what they did during the war (p. 266). Moreover, much later, when some scholars tried to critically examine anthropology’s contribution to WWII, their efforts were met with hostility and with defensive rebuttals (p. 278). This probably explains in part why Price is so prudent in his own critiques. However, this silence is somewhat surprising. One would expect that such a major event would lead to a profusion of personal accounts. Unfortunately, Price does not try to provide an explanation for this discretion on the part of his war-involved colleagues. Maybe it is simply because many of them wanted to quickly turn the page and move on. Or maybe it is because some of them felt some form of guilt over what they did during the war, as seems to be the case with Gregory Bateson. But if it is so, it would somewhat contradict the idea, implied by Price, that most were moved by a strong commitment to combat the Nazis. If such a sentiment was dominant in the field, we could expect anthropologists to talk about their deeds with pride.

As to the questionable uses of anthropological knowledge and skills, it is a bit troubling to see that Price at times seems more concerned with their impact on the discipline than on the people affected. For example, he argues that “[u]sing anthropologists to train native peoples to fight as guerillas was also a logical and effective application of anthropologists’ skill sets” (p.  266) given the nature of the war. He later suggests that this sort of work damaged American anthropology’s credibility, but he does not ponder on the fact that it is extremely problematic to enroll people to fight in a foreign power’s war. In the case of populations conquered by the Japanese, if there is already a local desire to fight the occupying power, it might be justifiable to provide support. But there is a good chance that, for the natives, the victory of one side or the other will only mean the replacement of a colonial power by another, as implied in the previous chapter, when Coon mentions that it was hard to explain to the natives who supported the US side why their condition did not change for the better (p. 250).

Although he does admit that ethical codes are not always effective and can be distorted by various political interests, Price seems to put a lot of faith in them. In fact, adopting clearer and stronger ethical guidelines is the only practical measure he suggests to reduce the problems associated with anthropological engagement in war efforts. To me, this highlights one of the weaknesses in Price’s approach: his focus on the personal moral choices of individual anthropologists. With such a focus, direct criticism of what his colleagues of the past have done would appear judgmental and quite inappropriate, considering that he is writing from a distance, without ever having to experience the hardships and the intensity of war. By focusing instead on more structural factors, such as how having a specific position in the anthropological field brings you closer to state interests, or how organizational needs shape intellectual production, he could have criticized situations without putting all the blame on the shoulders of specific individuals. He might also have suggested measures that could hypothetically be more effective than ethical codes, such as advocating for more public funding by autonomous research councils, in the hopes of making CIA or private foundation funding less attractive. During seminar, it was also suggested that a systematic analysis of the career paths – before and after the war – of the anthropologists who contributed to the war effort and of those who didn’t would have provided major insights on the incentives to participate.

Putting aside criticism, I have to mention that Price’s book, although it has some flaws, makes for a very compelling read. It is also a well-researched, thoughtful and broad work which contributes uniquely to our understanding of anthropology’s dealings with power.


One thought on “The “noble war” narrative and the problem with focusing on personal moral choices (review of ch. 11)

  1. Pingback: 2015: Just Another Year for Empire | ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

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