January 29th, 2007
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by anthropologist Roberto J. Gonzalez of San Jose State University that deals with the struggle against military dominance of that field. It shows how anthropologists are deeply troubled by the abusive roles of psychologists. Psychologists struggling to transform the American Psychological Association should join forces with these progressive anthropologists:
We Must Fight the Militarization of Anthropology
By ROBERTO J. GONZALEZ
When students take introductory courses in cultural anthropology, they learn the techniques necessary for understanding daily life in peasant villages or among bands of hunter-gatherers. Professors teach them about the importance of building rapport with informants, the insights gained from cultural immersion, and the benefits of linguistic fluency — while interacting with people in the Amazon Basin, the Kalahari Desert, or the Australian outback.
But students rarely learn that today a small but growing number of Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Department, and State Department officials and contractors are promoting militarized versions of the same techniques as key elements of the “war on terror.” Military and intelligence agents seem to be particularly interested in applying academic knowledge to interrogation and counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East and Central Asia, and at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Recent events have dramatically demonstrated that anthropological and other scholarly information is a potentially valuable intelligence tool. But history tells us that such information can easily be misused when put into the wrong hands. That is why we, as scholars, must make a continuing effort to speak out against the misappropriation of our work. Last summer the governing council of the American Psychological Association, under tremendous pressure from the rank and file, passed a resolution prohibiting members from engaging in torture or training others to use it — although the statement allowed members to assist in interrogations. In late fall, a colleague and I presented a resolution at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association unambiguously opposing torture and the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of torture. Those present at the business meeting unanimously passed the statement. Now we must find ways to promote a wider discussion of the issue.
Early evidence of using culture as a weapon came from the Abu Ghraib scandal revealed in 2004. That year the journalist Seymour M. Hersh reported in The New Yorker on the brutal practices of U.S. personnel at the Iraqi prison. Hersh included a quote from an unnamed academic who noted that the anthropologist Raphael Patai’s 1973 book The Arab Mind was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” Hersh implied that Patai’s depiction of “sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression” in Arab cultures provided U.S. interrogators with culturally specific material that could be used to recruit Iraqi informants — and, with or without official approval, to develop torture techniques tailor made for Iraqi prisoners. If true, that marked a new and dangerous phase in applied anthropology. (Ruth Benedict’s classic study of Japanese national character, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, published in 1946, had helped the U.S. military — to create a peaceful post-World War II occupation in Japan.)
Widespread concern erupted among anthropologists about how interrogators might use readily accessible ethnographic data for the abuse and torture of prisoners. Would the possibility lead anthropologists to censor themselves? Would they be recruited for interrogation or counterinsurgency work? Would collaboration with spy agencies or interrogation teams create global mistrust of scholars conducting research abroad? Those and many other questions arose in rapid succession.
In some cases, the answers appeared quickly. 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. (By this time, reports about the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program and its secret prison network had appeared.) The CIA’s covert dealings with anthropology-association officials during the cold war had set an ominous precedent, as had the involvement of social scientists in the ill-fated Project Camelot, a 1960s counterinsurgency-research project planned by the Pentagon for use in Latin America. The CIA’s job announcement was eventually retracted, and the anthropology association assembled a special committee to examine the roles played by anthropologists in military and intelligence work.
Other anthropologists were troubled by the findings of the historian Alfred W. McCoy, who has recently analyzed how interrogation techniques used by U.S. spy agencies have rapidly evolved over the last several years to incorporate behavioral-science research. His 2006 book, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, examines how physically brutal torture methods were augmented by the work of American and Canadian psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s. Their research, with covert government financing, led to the discovery that sensory deprivation, disorientation, and self-inflicted pain could more effectively (and more rapidly) break down the human psyche than could physical assaults.
Such social scientists unwittingly paved the way for what McCoy calls a “distinctively American form of torture,” relying primarily on psychological assaults, which would be used extensively by the CIA and its proxies during the latter half of the 20th century. The techniques were codified in a 1963 counterintelligence manual, now declassified, which makes chilling reading even today.
The latest developments in the science of suffering have provided another component to the interrogator’s tool kit — cultural manipulation. Since 2002, U.S. interrogators have used Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (so-called Biscuit teams) of psychologists and other social scientists. According to McCoy, U.S. agents at Guantanamo Bay have created a “de facto behavioral-research laboratory” that goes beyond using psychological stressors by attacking “cultural sensitivity, particularly Arab male sensitivity to issues of gender and sexual identity.”
Last December even more news appeared regarding the use of social-science expertise by military and intelligence agencies when George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, reported the emergence of anthropological counterinsurgency experts. His article profiles the Australian anthropologist David Kilcullen, 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.”
Meanwhile at the Defense Department, a new office, the Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain, has been created to tap into social-science knowledge. Its director, Steve Fondacaro, is recruiting social scientists to join five-person teams in Iraq and Afghanistan as cultural advisers; pilot teams are scheduled to begin work in the spring. Fondacaro has at least one anthropologist on his staff.
The fact that Kilcullen and others are eager to commit social-science knowledge to goals established by the Defense Department and the CIA is indicative of a new anthropology of insurgency. Anthropology under these circumstances appears as just another weapon to be used on the battlefield — not as a tool for building bridges between peoples, much less as a mirror that we might use to reflect upon the nature of our own society.
Spurred by such revelations, Kanhong Lin, a graduate student at American University, and I crafted the resolution opposing torture and the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of torture that we brought to the anthropology association. At the group’s annual business meeting, nearly 300 anthropologists — the largest number in years — packed the conference auditorium and unanimously adopted the resolution.
The resolution is being submitted to the full membership by mail ballot this spring. It is important that all our members, particularly those who were not at the business meeting, know what led up to the meeting’s vote. It is important that scholars in other fields know, as well. At the anthropology conference, there was widespread discussion of whether the earlier resolution by psychologists — who condemned scholarly participation in torture, but not in all interrogations — had gone far enough. These are issues that scholars need to discuss widely.
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.
Roberto J. Gonzalez is an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. He is most recently the editor of Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power (University of Texas Press, 2004)