Cutting through the bullshit.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Handmaidens of imperialism

Last week, lenin wrote about a new document that the Blackwater mercenary company had put out for its employees, ‘Learning to Think like an Arab Muslim: a Short Guide to Understanding the Arab Mentality’. Jeff Sparrow took up the same issue on leftwrites, reiterating that

Seymour Hersh pointed out the relationship between the bizarre sexualised tortures employed in Abu Ghraib and the academic work of one Raphael Patai, the co-author of The Arab Mind.

Jeff also refers to a piece discussing Patai’s coauthor, Norvell de Atkine, whose introduction to the 2001 reprint was published in the Middle East Quarterly (11:3) in 2004. In the course of his discussion, Jeff asks that we

Imagine the (justified) outcry were some university found to be teaching from a book entitled The Jewish Mind or The Negro Mind or something of the sort.

Ironically, it transpires that in 1996, the year he died, Wayne State University Press in Detroit did, in fact publish Patai’s The Jewish mind (still in print)!

The Blackwater document turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg. Jeff hints at the bigger picture when he quotes Max Blumenthal’s piece on de Atkine, who ‘heads the JFK School of Special Warfare’s Middle East department, which is essentially a university for US Special Forces and PSYOP specialists.’

When I was looking at the American Anthropological Association site the other day, this notice caught my eye.

Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist and Pentagon consultant, was among those profiled in the Dec. 18, 2006, article in the New Yorker “Knowing the enemy: Can social scientists redefine the 'war on terror'?” The article discussed the relationship between the government and anthropology, as well as McFate's work with the U.S. Department of Defense, including Iraq and her Pentagon project Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain. CORHT involves social scientist teams who will serve as cultural advisers on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pilot teams are slated to leave next spring. The article's author wrote that McFate told him she is making it her “ 'evangelical mission' to get the Department of Defense to understand the importance of 'cultural knowledge'.”

The author of that article (The link to the New Yorker site doesn’t work. This link is to a copy of the article.), coincidentally, is ‘Eustonian George Packer’, who, the Euston site gushes, ‘has a brilliant essay at The New Yorker. It’s about David Kilcullen and Montgomery McFate, and their ideas on how to defeat the radical Islamists.’

McFate’s central concern is that without detailed anthropological knowledge of the adversary’s culture, the Global War on Terrorism is doomed to failure. As she writes in ‘The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture’ (Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 38)

The changing nature of warfare requires a deeper understanding of adversary culture. The more unconventional the adversary, and the further from Western cultural norms, the more we need to understand the society and underlying cultural dynamics. To defeat non-Western opponents who are transnational in scope, nonhierarchical in structure, clandestine in approach, and who operate outside the context of nation-states, we need to improve our capacity to understand foreign cultures.

These adversaries neither think nor act like nation-states. Rather, their form of warfare, organizational structure, and motivations are determined by the society and the culture from which they come.

To confront an enemy so deeply moored in history and theology, the U.S. Armed Forces must adopt an ethnographer’s view of the world: it is not nation-states but cultures that provide the underlying structures of political life.

The existing military is not equipped to do this.

Although success in future operations will depend on cultural knowledge, the Department of Defense currently lacks the programs, systems, models, personnel, and organizations to deal with either the existing threat or the changing environment. A Federal initiative is urgently needed to incorporate cultural and social knowledge of adversaries into training, education, planning, intelligence, and operations. Across the board, the national security structure needs to be infused with anthropology, a discipline invented to support warfighting in the tribal zone.

Some in the military have begun to realise that there is a problem.

According to Andy Hoehn, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, “The unprecedented destructive power of terrorists—and the recognition that you will have to deal with them before they deal with you—means that we will have to be out acting in the world in places that are very unfamiliar to us. We will have to make them familiar.”

…As Andy Marshall, Director of the Office of Net Assessment, has noted, future operations will require an “anthropology-level knowledge of a wide range of cultures.” Currently, however, DOD lacks the right programs, systems, models, personnel, and organizations to deal with either the existing threat or the changing environment.

But the will does not yet exist to implement the fundamental changes that are required.

A Federal effort is needed to infuse the national security structure with anthropology across the board. While this idea may seem novel, anthropology was developed largely to support the military enterprise.

Socio-cultural analysis shops, such as the Strategic Studies Detachment of 4th Psychological Operations Group and the Behavioral Influences Analysis Division of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, are underfunded, marginalized, and dispersed. Because they lack resources, their information base is often out of date. Task Force 121, for example, was using 19th-century British anthropology to prepare for Afghanistan. With no central resource for cultural analysis, military and policy players who need the information most are left to their own devices. According to a Special Forces colonel assigned to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, “We literally don’t know where to go for information on what makes other societies tick, so we use Google to make policy.”

To prevail in the new ‘human terrain’, the military must learn how

…using preexisting indigenous systems creates legitimacy for the actions of the occupying power, indigenous social organization (including tribal and kinship relationships) determines the structure of the insurgency, and avoiding the imposition of foreign norms will generate public cooperation.

Recognizing and utilizing pre-existing social structures are the key to political stabilization in Iraq.

McFate provides a potted history of the role of anthropologists in war, that’s worth repeating,

Frequently called “the handmaiden of colonialism,” anthropological knowledge contributed to the expansion and consolidation of British power during the era of empire. In the United States, the Department of Defense and its predecessors first recognized culture as a factor in warfare during the Indian Wars of 1865–1885, resulting in the formation of the Bureau of American Ethnology under Major John Wesley Powell. During World War II, anthropologists such as Gregory Bateson served the war effort directly, first conducting intelligence operations in Burma for the Office of Strategic Services, and later advising on how to generate political instability in target countries through a process known as schizmogenesis. American anthropologists produced ethnographies on the Axis powers that facilitated behavioral prediction based on national character.

While Ruth Benedict’s 1946 study of Japanese national character, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, is the best known, studies such as Ladislas Farago’s German Psychological Warfare (1942) collect dust on library shelves. Their predictions were often highly accurate: following recommendations from anthropologists at the Office of War Information, President Franklin Roosevelt left the Japanese emperor out of conditions of surrender.19

While he was acting as an adviser to U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1965, British expert Sir Robert Thompson suggested that anthropologists be used to recruit aboriginal tribesmen as partisans. Indeed, anthropologists excelled at bridging the gap between the military and tribes. Special Forces in Vietnam, for example, were assisted by Gerald Hickey in working with the Montagnards.

When Packer asked ‘why a social scientist would want to help the war effort, she replied, only half joking, “Because I’m engaged in a massive act of rebellion against my hippie parents.”’ Apparently, ‘McFate grew up in the sixties on a communal houseboat in Marin County, California.’ And now she wonders,

So where are the anthropologists now that the Government needs them? Although the discipline’s roots are deeply entwined with the military, few anthropologists are interested in national security. Their suspicion of military activity stems from a question of ethics: if professional anthropologists are morally obliged to protect those they study, does their cooperation with military and intelligence operations violate the prime directive? They believe it does. This conclusion was based on a number of defense projects that sought to use anthropological tools in potentially harmful ways. In 1964, the Army launched Project Camelot, a multinational social science research project, to predict and influence politically significant aspects of social change that would either stabilize or destabilize developing countries. The effort was canceled in July 1965 after international protests erupted in target countries. Critics called Camelot an egregious case of “sociological snooping.”

Partly because of abominations like Project Camelot, anthropologists have often attracted suspicion when they move into communities and start observing and asking a lot of questions. Obviously, as soon as it becomes widely known that the Pentagon is fielding teams of anthropologists for its Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain program, it will impact on all anthropologists in two ways, quite apart from their ethical concerns. For one thing, there has always been a problem that the people whose culture you are interested in may not be that keen for you to know about them. Many have trusted anthropologists to represent them to the colonial powers and been disappointed. In the 1980s, during the Warumungu Land Claim, anthropologists’ field notes including information imparted in confidence, were successfully subpoenaed. As I recall, the anthropologist retained by the claimants opted to turn over the notes rather than face gaol. Those kinds of betrayals are bad enough, but who would tell an anthropologist anything when there is a real possibility that they’re a spy? Apart from the danger of collecting no, or bogus, information, there’s also an enhanced risk of physical harm to people who will now quite justifiably come under suspicion.

An anthroblog, Savage minds, puts it this way, recalling an earlier episode.

This is why most anthropologists look down on covert research, why Franz Boas exposed the activities of anthropologists who had worked as spies during WWI —in the words of the current referendum to uncensure Boas:

Boas insisted on the distinction between researchers — scientists whose lives are dedicated to “the service of truth” — and spies under the employment of the US Government….

It is crucial that anthropologists be taken at their word in the field—not being able to dispel these perceptions can be harmful not only to our research, but to our lives.

So it’s not just a question of ethics, as McFate thinks.

While anthropological knowledge is now necessary to national security, the ethics of anthropologists must be taken into account. In addition to direct discussion and debate on using ethnographic information, policymakers and military personnel must be trained to apply anthropological and social knowledge effectively, appropriately, and ethically.

Meanwhile, McFate’s colleague David Kilcullen, who is not only an anthropologist, but a lieutenant colonel in the Australian Army, Roberto Gonzales writes,

who is under contract at the State Department's counterterrorism office. Among other things, Kilcullen is in charge of writing a new counterinsurgency manual. In his work, Kilcullen refers to counterinsurgency as "armed social work" and maps out a range of extremists, providing a guide for military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. At times it reads like an anthropology fieldwork guide: "Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion, and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader, and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district." At other times, Kilcullen's tone is brazenly militaristic: "Counterinsurgency is a squad and platoon leader's war, and often a private soldier's war. Battles are won or lost in moments: Whoever can bring combat power to bear in seconds, on a street corner, will win."

In fact, he provides this and much more apparently sensible advice to company commanders in the field in his article ‘Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency’.

He has developed an influential new theory of ‘global counterinsurgency’

today’s insurgencies differ significantly — at the level of policy, strategy, operational art and tactical technique — from those of earlier eras. An enormous amount of classical counterinsurgency remains relevant. Indeed, counterinsurgency provides the “best fit” framework for strategic problems in the War on Terrorism. But much is new in counterinsurgency redux, possibly requiring fundamental re-appraisals of conventional wisdom.

Among his observations of the novel aspects of counterinsurgency redux,

In modern counterinsurgency, the side may win which best mobilizes and energizes its global, regional and local support base – and prevents its adversaries doing likewise.

…In modern counterinsurgency, the security force “area of influence” may need to include all neighboring countries, and its “area of interest” may need to be global.

…In modern counterinsurgency, the security force must control a complex “conflict ecosystem” — rather than defeating a single specific insurgent adversary.

…In modern counterinsurgency, “victory” may not be final — “permanent containment” may be needed to prevent defeated insurgents transforming into terrorist groups.

…In modern counterinsurgency, secret intelligence may matter less than situational awareness based on unclassified but difficult-to-access information.

What McFate misses entirely, but Kilcullen recognizes as a feature of modern insurgency is that

in several modern campaigns — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example — the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in “resistance warfare”). Such patterns are readily recognizable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counterinsurgency theory.

But this does not lead to the obvious conclusion – that the insurgency emerges from a population with genuine grievances and often foremost among them is an invading army and the presence of an occupation force. They proceed from the assumption that it’s ok for the invaders to be there. They don’t question what they might be doing in somebody else’s country. They know history, some kind of history, but it hasn’t penetrated that these military interventions serve somebody’s purpose and that the purpose is almost certainly not the wellbeing of the insurgent population. In fact, the US in particular has a long record of occupying other people’s land, starting with the gruesome genocide of the indigenes and proceeding with permanently annexing half of Mexico. In more recent times, it has been content to install truly vicious dictators to brutalise people whose resources it covets. The Iraqis certainly haven’t forgotten Saddam already. And even if they had, the ‘moderate Arab’ sheikdoms to their south are sufficient illustration of what makes the occupiers happy. There may be some truth to the view that the Iraqi insurgency in particular would not have grown so fast if the occupiers had refrained from humiliating their mothers and raping their sisters, but I’m not sure they care whether the occupiers speak Arabic or drink tea the way they do.

McFate says, ‘I do not want to get anybody killed…I see there could be misuse. But I just can’t stand to sit back and watch these mistakes happen over and over as people get killed, and do nothing.’ And yet, her real concern is explicitly what is the most effective way to win a military conflict. And that can only mean achieving military objectives, like control over the oil, or a compliant government that will suppress workers’ rights, or whatever. It’s still a war and it’s still about power and control. Ultimately the best that can come of cultural sensitivity on the part of the invaders is that they’ll feel better about themselves and conquer and subdue the target population more efficiently.

Fortunately, McFate and Kilcullen do not have a great deal of company among the anthropological community. I was relieved to learn in Packer’s article that McFate complains, ‘I end up getting shunned at cocktail parties’. Gonzales points out,

In October 2005, the anthropological association, the discipline's largest professional organization, posted a CIA job announcement in several of its journals. The association accepted the advertisement without wide consultation of its members. Many anthropologists were outraged.

Furthermore, when he and Kanhong Lin put their motion calling for immediate withdrawal of ‘all U.S. military personnel, intelligence agents, and subcontrators from Iraq’, and prosecution of ‘all individuals who have committed war crimes against Iraqis’, among other things, to the AAA conference,

Those present at the business meeting unanimously passed the statement. Now we must find ways to promote a wider discussion of the issue.

He concludes

Although academic resolutions are not likely to transform U.S. government policies, they do articulate a set of values and ethical concerns shared by many scholars. We who adopted them hope that the recent resolutions will extend and amplify dialogue among anthropologists - and others - around issues of torture, the "war on terror," and the potential abuse of social-science knowledge. We also hope that they will prompt us to directly confront - and resist - the militarization of the social sciences at this critical juncture in the history of the American academy.

Clearly there are still anthropologists whose level of cultural sensitivity doesn’t extend past ‘us’ and ‘them’ and who aim to emulate Patai, De Atkine, and their predecessors. But most have absorbed the lessons of their discipline more deeply and harbour sounder ethical principles than that. I hope they really do take it a step or two beyond carrying a conference resolution. Of course we’ll never know, but I’d like to think that Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain will never recruit enough social scientists to field even one team. I hope the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP), ‘designed to train intelligence operatives and analysts in American university classrooms for careers in the CIA and other agencies’ on ‘financial stipends ranging up to $25,000 per year’, will return all that money to consolidated revenue. And I hope to see a big AAA contingent with banners on the streets of Washington DC today.


  1. Those academicians who become educational consultants and helpmates to brutalizing imperialists, lured by tenure, grants, access to power, and an exciting international career, may be happy not to see themselves as many others see them. Nevertheless, they are professionalized criminals who side with the wealthy plunderers against the rest of us and the planet. Most of them probably are not convinced fascists but instead are bright opportunists and individualists with little or no sense of class or collective solidarity who merely want to lead an exciting, stimulating life addressing complex problems and processes.~H/

  2. “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

    J. Robert Oppenheimer

    1. EH, thanks for posting this article and for the Oppie quote. ~H/