Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Anthropology and the Military

Below is a comment i left on Marc Tyrell's blog re the McFate/HTS situation.

Here are some other links to informative commentary on what is taking place.

Open Anthropology
Culture Matters
Savage minds
Washington Post
Mother Jones
Blue Girl Red State
If i Ran the Zoo
United States Institute of Peace

I believe persons involved in Anthropology need at the very least to consider much of the information and come to a personal understanding of the issues.

My thinking as posted to Marc Tyrell's blog:

Hi there and thanks for putting forward another punta de vista on the McFate situation.

Having followed the internet trail on this for a few months now I read with interest what you had to say.

Im struck by the differences in how many persons with anthropological backgrounds engage the issues.

For me, and my subjective 21st century ideas on what anthropology is and should be, it is an oxymora - like cruel kindness - to place military action and anthropology together. This is made even more problematic when the military action is preemptive because as such any anthropologist on the ground who at some level believes they are trying to help the situation is nonetheless an apologist for the use of military force against people who were not aggressors. It feeds into a wider notion that the action in Iraq was lawful, which it was not, and provides legitimacy to the US political myth that the action in Iraq was about 9/11 when its really about oil and geopolitics. Anthropology needs to recognise how it is being used to effect this hegemonic mind f**k, both in Iraq and afghanistan…

Another interesting cultural difference between your idea on anthro and mine, was this notion of the group and interaction you use, i liked the picture you painted, however i prefer to look at things from the individual up, and the individual’s ability/agency to perform many different acts depending on the audience situation. Ie performance, and performing certain behaviours, mannerisms, language, cultural identifiers etc is at the basis of social interaction. Sometimes peoples’ performances are as close to honest as can be, many times, the honesty is removed for necessity and need be that good or bad, and then there is the performance of those who deliberately try to mislead, something i believe McFate has done on many different levels from the anthropology community, the general public, the military community, herself and most importantly the people on the ground who she is claiming to help.

Anthropologists, in my humble opinion (and related to the experiences in our anthropological past - anthropology mixed with the military always harms someone) should be involved in non military solutions to cultural difference and furthermore, again from my point of view, should be against coorperation between the military and anthropology.

Military action is rarely about redistributing wealth to make things better for all persons in the world, the current military complex is about sustaining neoliberal capitalism, stratification and capturing new markets. And while i doubt there is such a thing as a doctor evil sitting in a room making individual decisions to perpetuate the vast economic and social inequalities in the world - the system is nonetheless self perpetuating. The connection between anthropology and the military makes this perpetution worse by legitimising it under a cloak of benevolence which is only khaki green deep.

At a fundamental level i think this mcFate situation raises ideas about what sort of world you want to live in, one that continues along the same path it has been on since 9/11 or something better. i know im for the latter.

The partnership of the military and anthropology is a symbolic performance that explicitly rejects the idea of fundamental societal change and keeps our eyes focussed on the short term road in front of us which is certainly not heading toward social justice but rather a increased acceptance of the current militarised world.

To end, I guess i sound like an old hippie (not that there is anything wrong with that), but i became an anthropologist because i wanted less war and inequality in the world, less gun diplomacy, and more understanding and honesty.

The McFate saga might paint on the surface this is what she is about, but as we all know you have to get beneath the surface to really see what is going on, and embedding anthros with military units creates an asymmetrical situation between those we study and ourselves. Whats worse is it misrepresents the actual work the military is trying to perform as positive, when infact it is nothing short of a strategic invasion that the UN deemed unlawful.

The views that have sprung up around the mcFate issues made me feel disheartened at first but now im reinvigorated because we are all (as both you and max point out) being politicised by the issues, being public intellectuals because we must take a stand in order to define our intellectual projects. As people draw their lines in the sand perhaps those who are against the combination of military and anthropology can mark their field and ethics as such, while those who disagree can mark their terrain as such. Or perhaps its far more complex than this duality…for me though it isnt - anthropology and the military is an oxymoron


Maximilian C. Forte said...

I saw this posted on Marc Tyrell's blog, and I would like to link to it now that it stands out as its own post. I was really glad to see this.

Dylan said...

Hi Max, ive been reading much of the links and commentary you have made. thank you for all the effort youve put in and for youre level of critique. I believe it is needed. Please feel free to link. Ive been meaning to post on open anthropology for a while but then i follow a hyperlink somewhere and it ends up there. best.

Marc Tyrrell said...

Hi Dylan. Excellent set of comments on my original post; thank you for them. You certainly raised a lot of interesting points.

I'd just like to comment back on one point you made about "anthropology mixed with the military always harms someone". While I would agree with that as a general statement, I think that there is a real problem with the assumptions underlying it, namely that a) if Anthropology were not involved, the harm would not happen and/or b) that harm always increases when Anthropology is involved. BTW, I'm assuming hat the second assumption stems from the assassination squads coming out of the remnant of the CORDS program in Vietnam.

The first assumption, I would consider to be ethically invalid since it does not include the potential for "harm reduction". A good analog would be the practice of medicine which, while it is often associated with harm and sometimes causes the harm is, on the whole, more about reducing harm than causing it. Would you consider it as ethically valid for medical doctors to withdraw their services from the military?

This really gets to the heart of a lot of the discussions Max an I are having over ethics. Both of us, while we disagree o the answer, believe that individual Anthropologists have to have both the right and he power to choose for themselves in much the same manner as a doctor would.

And no, you don't "sound like an old hippie" because you want to see less violence < GRIN>. I think everyone who takes the entire debate seriously, and that specifically includes the military, wants to see less violence. What we are debating is tactics for reducing violence and freeing individuals so that they can choose which tactics they wish to use.