"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 10, 2007

Anthropology Goes to War, Part 3

Anthropology and counterinsurgency in Thailand

Water torture (or water boarding) as directed by US military personnel in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand

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

The secondary thrust of the United States’ containment policy in South East Asia (the primary being direct invasion) was to undermine communist influence through “development.” Walt Whitman Rostow, esteemed Kennedy/Johnson liberal and influential policy advisor, wrote in his Stages of Economic Growth,

“We must demonstrate that the underdeveloped nations---now the main focus of Communist hopes---can move successfully through the preconditions into a well established take-off within the orbit of the democratic world, resisting the blandishments and temptations of Communism. This is, I believe, the most important single item on the Western agenda.” 29

The importance of anthropology’s role in this regard was emphasized in the official Counterinsurgency in Thailand report.

“The social scientist can make significant contributions to . . . designing programs to win or strengthen public support [for the Thai government]. . . What kinds of economic, social, and political action are most effective in building national unity and in reducing vulnerability to insurgent appeal?” 30

To that end the Thailand effort involved “157 anthropologists, engineers, ordnance specialists and other researchers [as] part of Project Agile, the Pentagon’s worldwide counterinsurgency research program.”31 The Thailand project was largely assembled and funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the primary multilateral investment institutions, under the auspices of the Department of Defense. 32 There was never any doubt about the project’s intentions. USAID, in their letter to University of California Regents about their need for social scientists, stated that the project was geared towards “dealing with development and counterinsurgency problems, issues and activities, including research, relating to AID activity in Thailand.” 33

One of those involved in this development program, anthropologist Michael Moerman, remembered the project was

“initially described to me as devoted to developing techniques by which the Thai government could evaluate the success of its own programs. By the second meeting it became clear that some leading members . . . were seriously attempting a counterinsurgency justification for their work.” 34

This was acknowledged by USAID before a Congressional hearing in 1969.

“Except for a modest amount of technical assistance projects, most of which we are gradually phasing out, our assistance in Thailand is concentrated on counterinsurgency activities; approximately 75% of our total effort is in this field.” 35

Most anthropologists joined the counterinsurgency project out of both professional interest and a desire to help the Thai villagers. In Moerman’s case, “It seemed clear that the US and Thai government would harm villagers less if they knew more about them.” 36 For Cornell anthropologist Lauriston Sharp, career motives played a role as well, stating, “It [was] also important to keep the growth of the discipline moving.” 37 Anthropologist Herbert Phillips (who participated in the development of a paramilitary “village defense corps” 38 in violation of the Geneva Conventions 39) had overlapping interests. “In my own case curiosity, both professional and personal, about how the U.S. Government actually functioned in Thailand was at first as strong a motive as the possibility that I might be of assistance to Thai villagers” 40 and “I [wanted] to work on some problems if I could get an unclassified paper out of it.” 41

Those being researched, however, had different concerns:

“What is your purpose in coming here, and what kinds of questions are you going to ask us? . . . You are not going to take the names of villagers and tell the police that we are communists, are you? We would die if you did . . . If they come to take us away, in that manner, it will surely kill us, because we are opposed to communists here.” 42

In a detailed account of one counterinsurgency effort, migrating Hmong villagers were viewed to be “potential” insurgents (using USAID research techniques) and were forced to resettle to less fertile farmlands. The Hmong “were forced to steal food rather than starve,” which then developed into a “full-scale rebellion” once the Thai Border Patrol Police “responded.” The Thai government “deployed troops and helicopters and finally resorted to heavy bombing and napalm” to battle these “communists.” 43

When the Thailand activities became public knowledge (after student anti-war activists secretly copied Moerman’s files) any justifications anthropologists had for their activities were shrouded in the dubious nature of the entire project. In the language of the AAA Mead Committee report investigating this controversy:

“It is clear that anthropologists now have to face the possibility that a publication of routine socio-cultural data about identified village communities . . . might be used for the annihilation by bombing or other forms of warfare of whole communities . .” 44

Others understood, correctly, that this was not a new development.

“The Thailand episode is only the latest violation of the conscience of anthropology; in retrospect we see that anthropological projects calculated to interfere in the affairs of others have a long, and not entirely visible, genealogy.” 45

In the end, the AAA censored only two anthropologists: Eric Wolf and Joseph Jorgensen of the AAA Committee on Ethics, for blowing the whistle. 46

“[T]heir public denunciations, thus involving the Association . . . their use of unethically procured documents without public denunciation of the sources of such materials [and the] accusations of colleagues . . . has endangered research access for all anthropologists in Thailand and probably elsewhere as well.” 47

Years later, anthropologist George Foster, who was a member of the AAA Board during the controversy, stated,

“after the 1971 bloodletting, the whole thing disappeared as an issue. I don’t believe that three-quarters of the anthropologists practicing today know about it . . . There are more anthropologists working for the government---ten times more---than before.” 48

In light of this history I believe two conclusions can be made. First, the current use of anthropologists for counterinsurgency operations is by no means a new development, but this fact should give us pause rather than justify our existing policy. Second, anthropologists have been complicit in the domination and expropriation of non-Western societies for more than a century.

This history can be altered if we have the collective will to do so. It will not be easy and the stakes are high. As anthropologists Eric Wolf and Joseph Jorgensen alerted us in 1970:

“It is reasonable to anticipate an accelerating effort to centralize power and control resources on a global scale by the US government, and by the multi-national corporations based in the US. Accordingly, we can expect that as people in the poorest and most dependent areas multiply, and as their living conditions worsen, the men at the center of power will demand to know ever more about the deprived, "under-developed," and oppressed, as groups and as individuals. As the Thailand papers show, the government is less interested in the economic, social, or political causes of discontent than in techniques of neutralizing individual or collective protest.” 49

We are currently in a military adventure that Alan Greenspan has admitted is “largely about oil” 50, a fact that was obvious all along but was too “politically inconvenient” to mention in polite company. The discipline of anthropology has made progress over the years and there is a great deal that we can be proud of. However, if we believe in the integrity of our discipline and the pursuit of freedom for all peoples then the price is eternal vigilance. The choice, as always, is our own.


[29] Walt Whitman Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1971, p. 134
[30] AIR, Counterinsurgency in Thailand, p. 1; cited in Wakin, p. 96
[31] Peter Braestrup, “Researchers aid Thai rebel fight: US defense unit develops anti-guerrilla device,” The New York Times, March 20, 1967
[32] Wakin, pp. 119-20
[33] Agency for International Development, “Amendment No. 3 to the Contract Between the United States of America and the Regents of the University of California,” 1 September 1968, 4.; cited in Wakin, p. 6 & 128
[34] Michael Moerman, letter to the editor, AAA Newsletter, 12:1, Jan., 1971, 9-11; cited in Wakin, p. 105
[35] Testimony of Robert H. Nooter, Acting Assistant AID Administrator for East Asia, and Frederick Simmons, Director, Office of Southeast Asia Affairs, Southeast Asia Bureau (U.S. Congress. Committee on Government Operations. Foreign Operations and Government Information Subcommittee, Hearing on Thailand and the Philippines, June 16, 1969, p. 3; cited in Wakin, p. 119
[36] Moerman; cited in Wakin, p. 136
[37] IDA, “Thailand Study Group,” 4 July, 1967, 6; cited in Wakin, p. 59
[38] Excusing it because he was involved in already existing policy; Wakin, p. 121
[39] United Nations, Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Article 11:7 & Article 51:1
[40] Herbert Phillips, Between the Tiger and the Crocodile, p. 38 (note 13); cited in Wakin, p. 122
[41] IDA, “Thailand Study Group,” 5 July, 1967, 3; cited in Wakin, p. 62
[42] USOM/Thailand, Research Division, Village Changes and Problems: Meeting with Village Leaders and Residents of Ban Don-Du, Tambon Khwao, Amphur Muang, Mahasarakam Province, February 10, 1967 (Bangkok: USOM/Thailand, Research Division, July 1967); cited in Wakin, p. 139
[43] Alfred W. McCoy, “Subcontracting Counterinsurgency,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (Special Issue: Vietnam Center at S.I.U., December 1970), pp. 56-70; from Wakin, p. 141
[44] Davenport, et. al., “Report of the Ad Hoc Committee to Evaluate the Controversy Concerning Anthropological Activities in Thailand,” 27 September 1971, p. 4; published in full from Wakin, p. 290
[45] Eric R. Wolf and Joseph G. Jorgensen, “A Special Supplement: Anthropology on the Warpath in Thailand,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 9, 1970, p. 11
[46] Margaret Mead would later show her personal anger by spitting on Jorgensen at a Chicago meeting.
[47] Davenport, et. al., p. 4; cited in Wakin, p. 206
[48] Interview, May 30, 1991; cited in Wakin, p. 234
[49] Wolf and Jorgensen, p. 15
[50] Peter Beaumont and Joanna Walters, "Greenspan admits Iraq was about oil, as deaths put at 1.2m", The Guardian, September 16, 2007

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Oldfart said...

I'm sure much the same can be said of physicists, chemists, biologists and many of the other -ists who are patriotic enough to participate in war efforts. The job of the military is to win....period. The techniques the military uses to win may be less than polite science. The fact that we haven't "won" a war since WWII might imply that our military, tho exceptionally good at what they do, are not the people to choose for the desired outcome.

As ex-Special Forces from the Viet Nam era (thought I never got to Viet Nam), a lecture or two or three by a cultural anthropologist would have been welcomed. Problem is, the military never stayed with the concept of the Special Forces long enough. Instead, they brought in conventional military to end an (perceived) unconventional threat.

The input of cultural anthropologists in ending or "winning" an unconventional war (including the so-called "war on terror") would be of great benefit should we ever seek to fight such a war with intelligence and wisdom instead of brute force.

That is not likely in the near future and is not likely at all unless all kinds of scientists remain involved in the policy process where that is possible. It certainly won't ever happen if scientists, including anthropologists, drop out altogether.

Eric Michael Johnson said...

That's all well and good but for one small detail. What is your definition of "winning" in the present circumstances?

Oldfart said...

Obviously, at least to me, winning in Iraq means never having invaded in the first place. But....the Idiot In Charge felt otherwise and now we are there. So, winning in Iraq means doing whatever is necessary to stop all the killing, rebuild the infrastructure, ensure a stable government and get the hell out. Cultural Anthropologists could be of great help in that kind of "winning". It is called "winning the peace."

As for Afghanistan, we had more right to be there (IMHO) but we are not "winning the peace" there because we no longer have the resources to devote to Afghanistan thanks to the Idiot In Charge.

In both places we are up against local folkways and mores that are totally alien to us. Not only do our soldiers act like bulls in a china shop, they don't even recognize that they are breaking local customs. One British group complained that US marines tried to set up a camp in a local cemetery. They just don't care. That is not always the case and may not even be mostly the case but common sense will tell you that violating local mores even once is enough to poison the local population against you. And, IMHO, anthropologists could help with that.

And they might be able to if the State department was in charge instead of the Military, if those in the State department had even a modicum of interest in the local peoples, and if the Idiot In Charge exerted the proper supervision over the process (had an actual plan to win the peace).

Eric Michael Johnson said...

You're assuming the stated reasons for invading were the administration's actual motivations. There was a threat (even an unconventional threat) to US interests and it was simply mismanagement and a mistaken ideology that got us into this mess. The march of folly rather than the march of conquest. In order to win we need to return to the original mission. Nevermind that Afghanistan was never a concern to the current administration. Only 11,000 troops were initially sent in 2002 because the main buildup was for Iraq (Rumsfeld even thought that limited amount was too many).

The current invasion has very little to do with the "Idiot in Charge." Bush knows next to nothing about foreign policy and so relied exclusively on Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other members of the Project for a New American Century in his administration. PNAC had decided in 2000 that the US needed to invade Iraq and stated so publicly (see their report "Rebuilding America's Defenses"). The so-called war on terror merely became a justification for pursuing, what PNAC called, Pax Americana and what sober commentators refer to as American global hegemony.

The goal is and has always been to dominate the second largest supply of the world's energy resources and establish a permanent military installation in the heart of the Arab world. Winning the hearts and minds of the local people is merely an afterthought that makes the task of "pacification" easier. This is the role that anthropologists are expected to play. After nearly a hundred years of dominating the region through proxies and supporting a range of corrupt dictators, the current administration has returned to direct colonial control and now suddenly pretends they care about hearts and minds.