"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Oct 6, 2007

Anthropology Goes to War, Part 1

Anthropologists in the war effort from "savages" to "terrorists"

This is the first part in a three part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Petition for anthropologist's non-participation in counterinsurgency

The New York Times reported yesterday on the military's use of cultural anthropologists in the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq in what they refer to as a "crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations."

As the Times reports:

In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authorized a $40 million expansion of the program, which will assign teams of anthropologists and social scientists to each of the 26 American combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since early September, five new teams have been deployed in the Baghdad area, bringing the total to six.

Before turning to evolutionary research I was a burgeoning cultural anthropologist myself (and even did preliminary work with the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico) so I'm familiar with both the history of anthropology and the ethical problems involved when anthropologists use their training to aid military maneuvers. It's a complex issue that, on one hand, helps to minimize misunderstandings between soldiers and the local population. However, if anthropologists are using their cultural knowledge to allow the military to better manipulate or exploit local people in an illegal military occupation then there are significant concerns.

So I disagree with my friends at who state that

anthropology can help the war effort. I’m glad the head honchos have considered experimenting with social science to deal with problems that would never be solved by gunfights and military might.

This uncritical enthusiasm is troubling since it shouldn't be forgotten that anthropology has long had a connection with militaristic expansion. As Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss notes:

“It is the outcome of an historical process, which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered, their institutions and beliefs destroyed while they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence.” 1

The history of anthropology is usually taught with the more enlightened emphasis of cultural theory, however anthropology’s primary role throughout history has been the observation and administration of colonial policies in Western imperialism. 2

Throughout most of the nineteenth century government policy had little need of attaining specific knowledge of the societies that were being transformed or eradicated. Gradually, however, it became clear that the task of administration would be easier and more efficient if means were found to “pacify” the indigenous populations. 3 Training programs in anthropology were an integral component of colonial administration from the discipline’s inception until World War II, and were taught by such notable theorists as Raymond Firth, Meyer Fortes, Lucy Mair, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski. 4 This was justified, according to the latter, because:

“The Native still needs help . . . Shall we therefore mix politics with science? In one way, decidedly, ‘yes,’ because if knowledge gives foresight and foresight means power, it is a universal stultification of scientific results to insist that they can never be useful or used by those who have influence. . . The truth is that science begins with applications.” 5

If one goes back far enough even the liberal view is indistinguishable from that of the racist imperialist. President Thomas Jefferson, father of American anthropology and "friend to the Indian," came to support and continue the genocidal policies begun by George “Town Destroyer”6 Washington who famously ordered

"the immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more." 7

According to Jefferson,

“[t]his unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.” 8

Furthermore, in a letter to his Secretary of War, Jefferson ordered

“if we are ever constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.” 9

Jefferson later explained that this was “necessary to secure ourselves against the future effects of their savage and ruthless warfare” since all “benevolent” efforts at development had failed. 10

Click here for Part 2


[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, "Anthropology: Its Achievement and Future," Current Anthropology, vol. 7, 1966, p. 126
[2] Eric Wakin, Anthropology Goes to War, University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Monograph Number 7, 1992, p. 20
[3] John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 2nd ed., Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Co., California, 1982, p. 80
[4] Wakin, p. 21
[5] Bronislaw Malinowski, Dynamics of Culture Change, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945, pp. 4-5
[6] As the Iroquois came to know him.
[7] David E. Stannard, American Holocaust, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. pp. 118-121
[8] Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee, New York: Harper Perennial, 1993, p. 308
[9] Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, ed, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Definitive Edition, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, Washington, 1905, Vol. 11, p. 345: August 28, 1807; see also: Jefferson’s letter to John Adams
[10] Ibid. p. 24: Jefferson’s December 6, 1813, letter to Baron von Humboldt

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liquid-thalweg said...

please let me know where you got this picture...also I have put a link to this article in my forum on this issue:

Thank you for sharing your words here on what i feel is an important issue...and a necessary debate.

Eric Michael Johnson said...

Thanks for the kind words. The photo is from the New York Times article that first reported on this story. It can be found here.