Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service
of the Militarized State
By David H. Price
Counterpunch, 2011, 211 pages
Review by Kristian Williams
David Price’s new book, Weaponizing Anthropology, explores the connections between counterinsurgency and anthropology, both historically and at present. Price (a professor at St. Martin’s University in Washington) discusses the military uses of anthropology—assisting in colonization, advising on drone attacks, the ethical norms the discipline has developed in response, the political agendas underlying recruiting and funding practices, the work anthropologists do in war zones, and the use the military makes of the information anthropologists collect. Price also criticizes the militarization of the discipline on professional, ethical, political, and theoretical grounds.
There are at least three ways that military collaboration threatens the discipline’s integrity. First, research priorities tend to follow the funding. As the Pentagon becomes an important source of grants and employment, its agenda also tends to govern which areas receive social science attention, which questions seem interesting or important and, ultimately, what sort of knowledge is considered relevant. This effect is doubtlessly exacerbated by the presence of intelligence agents on campuses—which inevitably creates a stifling, McCarthyite sense that classroom discussions and academic research are being monitored.
Second, similar dynamics will influence where, how, and whether anthropologists conduct fieldwork. Researchers now face a dilemma as their loyalties are divided between military sponsors and soldier-colleagues, on the one hand, and the people they study, and (ideally) live among, on the other. Finally, the research military anthropologists produce will be selectively read according to the military’s narrow aims and it will be ideologically filtered, both by cultural preconceptions and by the instrumentalist outlook of its drab green audience. Price writes, “[T]he military adopt[s] inadequate cultural models…not because these models do a good job of explaining the world as it is; they are instead selected because they do a good job of explaining the military’s institutional view of the world to itself.”
In short, the entire arc of study, from conceptualization to conclusion, is corrupted by its contact with militarism. Whatever survives the corrosive effects of this process probably isn’t really anthropology anymore. Observing that anthropologists tasked to Human Terrain Teams have, on average, seven minutes to confer with their sources, Price notes, “seven minutes isn’t even enough time for an ethnographer to get properly confused.”
Reflecting on the military’s tendency to select theoretical frames without regard for the arguments supporting them, or their potential implications—as though finding a suitable theory was as simple as switching channels on a TV—Price notes: “The Counterinsurgency Field Manual’s approach to anthropological theory was not selected because it ‘works; or is intellectually cohesive: it was selected because it offers an engineering-friendly, false promise of ‘managing’ the complexities of culture as if increased sensitivities, greater knowledge, panoptical legibility could be used in a linear fashion to engineer domination. It fits the military’s structural view of the world.”
The end result, he argues, is that military anthropology has the same relationship to anthropology as Soviet genetics had to actual biology: ideological justification passing itself off as science. The irony, of course, is that systematically deceiving oneself is not a good way to win a war. But then again, Price suggests, neither is counterinsurgency: “The [U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency] Manual admits that in order for counterinsurgency to succeed, an open acknowledgement of, and corrective action towards fundamental problems must occur…but the Manual does not say what is to be done if the fundamental causes to be addressed are neo-colonialism, the installation of illegitimate governments, and illegal invasions. Counterinsurgency cannot talk its way out of this dilemma.”
He goes on to conclude, “Once a nation finds itself relying on counterinsurgency for military success in a foreign setting it has already lost.”
As a book, Weaponizing Anthropology has quite a few problems. Trivially, the type is too small, especially in the book’s numerous block quotes, some of which go on for pages at a time. More importantly, there is no clear principle of organization. The book contains a great deal of unnecessary repetition, and one point follows another with little sense of development, or even transition. The book very much feels like a dozen part-scholarly, part-journalistic articles hastily stitched together. Which is, in fact, exactly what it is—most of these chapters began their lives as articles for Counterpunch. This problem is chiefly one of presentation: were the book arranged as a collection of essays or journalism, it would work well. As it stands, however—a short volume with a dozen chapters—unwitting readers may be forgiven the confusion created by abrupt changes of subject, and are justified in whatever frustration comes from the search for a consistent narrative or cohesive argument to give the book some unity.
However, Price’s work represents a significant step forward in a critique that has been slowly forming within anthropology over the last several years. The military’s return to counterinsurgency—marked by the 2006 release of its new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and then the promotion and celebration of warrior scholars like General David Petraeus—brought with it a renewed interest in the martial applications of anthropology. Suddenly anthropological research was being funded with military grants, anthropological texts were copied verbatim into military documents, anthropological theory was sifted for combat-ready ideas, and social scientists were hired to serve on Human Terrain Teams. Price’s book recounts that story and some of the profession’s response—the criticism and resistance mounted first by individual academics, and then by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, and finally by the American Anthropological Association and university departments wary of being co-opted.
Price’s writing is a piece of that history. It was Price who detected plagiarism in the new Army Field Manual, interviewed a whistleblower from the Human Terrain program, and publicized the MARDEX war game, which pit the U.S. Army against environmental activists in the Midwest. Price also helped to found the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, and sat on the American Anthropological Association’s committee reviewing its Code of Ethics. All of that is reflected—with a refreshing absence of grandstanding—in Weaponizing Anthropology.
Weaponizing Anthropology is an important contribution to the literature on militarism and its effect on the social sciences. Less progress is evident, however, in terms of an agenda for resistance. Price recommends that:
professional associations give up the cloak of neutrality and bring the
political issues to the foreground
colleagues go public with their criticisms of the military’s influence
in the disciplines and the CIA’s presence on campus
- the history of the FBI and CIA be taught in class as a means of countering official propaganda, discouraging collaboration, and impeding recruitment
Such recommendations are a start, but they seem like weak remedies for a powerful illness. They amount to campus solutions to society-wide problems.
But Price does also mention this tantalizing fact: “Past wars found anthropologists working much more successfully as insurgents, rather than counterinsurgents….” During World War II, for example, Edmund Leach led an insurgent group in Burma, Charlton Coon smuggled arms to and helped train Resistance fighters in North Africa, and Tom Harrisson armed native insurgents in Borneo. The possibilities for a new, politically engaged anthropology are very hopeful indeed—just don’t count on getting tenure.
Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, and Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy. He is one of three co-editors of Life During Wartime, which collects papers from the April 2011 Counter-Counterinsurgency Convergence.
Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond
By David Gilbert
PM Press, 2012, pp.352
Review by Seth Sandronsky
David Gilbert came from comfort in a Boston suburb. But as a Jewish person, he felt the pain of those in discomfort and there were scores of them among national minorities. Gilbert took that sentiment and ran with it as a liberal initially, and then a radical in those days when revolution became a part of the national consciousness. His memoir, Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond, traces that trajectory from the author’s empathy to solidarity with people oppressed for reasons of race, gender and class at home and abroad. Black power and war in Vietnam were the two driving forces of Gilbert’s political awakening, propelled in no small measure by Third World Marxism.
The memoir covers his coming to understand and act against the trio of empire, male, and white supremacy. Written from Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York—where he is serving a life sentence for the 1981 robbery of an armed Brink’s truck that resulted in multiple deaths—Gilbert’s memoir, edited by Terry Bisson, is open and honest on many levels. One level is his personal account of changing relations with family members. Then there are the evolving conditions in and out of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weather Underground organization (WUO), and the groups they collaborated with. Decolonization struggles shaped Gilbert. He came to see them in light of African Americans fighting Jim Crow discrimination stateside. The WUO, in following a strategy of “armed propaganda,” aimed to spur whites into solidarity with non-white foreign and domestic freedom fighters.
Gilbert never loses sight of why he fought against this: to liberate its perpetrators and victims and overturn a salient feature of class society, U.S.-style. Class struggle is the motor force of history, according to Karl Marx, which Gilbert agrees with, but he fits patriarchy and white-skin privilege into that social analysis.
His section on his life underground opens a window to clandestinely battling the state apparatus, such as the Pentagon, that facilitates war and waste. Gilbert acts and writes to strengthen revolutionary practice and theory, no small feat during his six years of hiding. Further, he and WUO members grappled with a gendered division of labor. That and other “internal weaknesses,” plus government repression—such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO counter-insurgency policy that destroyed the Black Panther Party—herald the WUO’s demise.
Aboveground in Denver, Gilbert worked for wages and continued his activism. As comrades arrived and departed, he gained new insights about WUO’s break-up. It’s a complex process amid complicated times. Suffice it to say that “criticism and self-criticism” of white-skin privilege and nonwhites’ struggles was relevant then and remains so today.
As the 1970s ended, Gilbert went back underground. Allied with the Black Liberation Army, he participated in a failed and fatal armored truck heist. He narrates his and his co-defendants’ arrest and prosecution. Here, Gilbert’s answers raise further questions about that time. Media attention to such alleged crime and punishment was lurid, clouding more than it clarified. Gilbert’s memoir, in part, corrects the historical record with insights on fighting power and wealth with like-minded others for a more humane way of life for all.
Wrapping up, Gilbert reveals how delicate it is to work with individuals for collective liberation against a mix of oppressions. This is my main takeaway from his thoughtful book.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento.
Who Speaks for American Jews?
A conversation with filmmakers Deborah Kaufman
and Alan Snitow
Interview by Lisa Mullenneaux
When Deborah Kaufman launched the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 1981 she expected occasional controversy. But nothing prepared organizers for the near-riot triggered by the 2009 screening of Rachel, Simon Bitton’s documentary about the late peace activist Rachel Corrie. Amid charges of anti-Semitism on the one hand and censorship on the other, Kaufman and her husband Alan Snitow set out on a cinematic quest to explore the contradictions of American Jewish life. The result—Between Two Worlds—covers the fractious questions of loyalty to Israel, intermarriage, and interpretations of the Holocaust.
MULLENNEAUX: Between Two Worlds begins with the fury unleashed on Festival Executive Director Peter Stein and Daniel Sokatch of the Jewish Community Federation (now, of the New Israel Fund) for screening Rachel. But it also shows a festival audience booing Dr. Michael Harris of Voice for Israel. When did you know that this firestorm would spark your next film project?
KAUFMAN/SNITOW: American Jewish identity has been a lifelong concern, but what we see is a narrowing of the lines of inclusion. There’s been an intense debate in the U.S. about whether or not American Jews will survive. The complaint is there’s too much intermarriage, alternative life styles, low birth rates. Even in the 1960s there were warnings that Jews would disappear. We started with that fear. Then, as you’re doing your research, things pop up, such as the controversy at the 2009 Festival. We weren’t planning to film there, but that eruption became a way to frame Between Two Worlds.
A lot of Jews, particularly young people, are turning off because of the toxicity of these debates. The Jewish establishment often makes people feel they’re not entitled to speak. We wanted to break that down, to suggest opening the debate to more diverse opinions, and to challenge the idea that only donors can determine who gets to speak inside the Jewish community.
Those that fund cultural events like our film festivals. Wealth is centralized among Jews, as it is in the general population (our 1%). These donors are very powerful and feel they can dictate what should happen because they’ve proved themselves in the business world. So money becomes the imprint of entitlement.
Do you agree with Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace that pressure to support Israel unconditionally has increased in the U.S.?
We’ve entered a new stage. Israel has the most right-wing government in its history. There’s been a crackdown on human rights groups in Israel with the same attempts to defund them that we see in the U.S. Just as 9/11 was a defining “moment” in American life, the 2009 Gaza invasion was a “moment” for many Jews, who felt alienated by Israel’s behavior. The ethical questions raised by the continuing occupation can’t be easily ignored. We have to face these questions because we’re Jewish. It’s part of who we are. That’s why it’s wrenching inside the Jewish community to discuss loyalty to Israel.
Now might be the time to ask how Between Two Worlds was received by Israeli audiences and reviewed by media?
It was well received at the Jerusalem Film Festival—beyond our expectations— and the film was reviewed favorably in Haaretz and on Israeli radio. But Israeli audiences feel that American Jews are different. We didn’t see the efforts to censor diversity that we have here in the U.S.
Jerusalem is also where the Simon Wiesenthal Center is building its museum of tolerance, ironically on part of an historic Muslim cemetery. Though the Israeli High Court rejected a lawsuit that might have stopped it, some residents interviewed in your film felt that this Los Angeles-based project would only mean trouble.
What residents reacted to was the high-handedness of the museum project. Many felt: “Why should American Jews lecture us on the meaning of the Holocaust?” That negative attitude crosses the political spectrum in Israel. But what concerns us about the museum of tolerance is how victimization undermines coalition and the possibilities of achieving peace. Rabbi Hier [Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center] is saying one thing while doing another. Isn’t he trivializing the Holocaust by using it in this way?
Would you agree with Rabbi Hier that the memory of the Nazi Holocaust is as powerful as ever?
Yes, that was our experience presenting this film to many audiences. It’s mentioned in the film when a Berkeley student at the debate on divestment from Israel identifies herself as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Both sides of the political spectrum use the memory of the Holocaust to justify their positions on Israel-Palestine. A huge amount of money has been raised to create museums and memorials to that event. It has a profound place in our understanding of our history and our place in civilization.
Your parents made utopian commitments of a very different nature. Alan, your mother hid her Communist past in order to become a leader of the American Jewish Congress. Do you feel you inherited her need to fight for justice? Is that need part of the American Jewish tradition?
SNITOW: Yes to both questions. The Jewish tradition is a rich tradition of debate that includes progressive and regressive political and social movements. Historians in our film insist there is no single movement. You can find in the Bible commands to “Kill the Amalekites. Wipe them out. Kill their cattle as well.” But you also find calls to respect the stranger because you were once a stranger yourself.
Deborah, your father was a passionate Zionist. What problems did that create in your family?
KAUFMAN: Problems? No, it created the warmth of nationalism. When you feel you belong to a tribe and a nation, you feel great. It was when my sisters and I grew up that things started to change. My father was a conservative Zionist, who followed the Jabotinsky-Begin line. My mom was a left-wing Zionist. So they had disagreements about Israeli politics before my mom moved there when I was a teenager.
In 1975 I actually saw what was going on in Israel-Palestine and that made me question the Zionism I had grown up with. More challenging was my sister’s conversion to Islam. But my father’s gift to us was his acceptance of these changes. He knew he had to accept his children if he wanted to maintain relationships with them. As a result we have an amazingly diverse family who love and respect each other. We disagree at times, but do so with a lot of love.
What has surprised you about the rollout of Between Two Worlds?
We’re learning that these battles go on in many non-Jewish communities. Members of our audiences tell us they relate to being an outsider, an infidel, and they ask: how does one dissent respectfully? We hope that by examining deeply the issues in the film we’re encouraging people to speak out without fear.
Lisa Mullenneaux is a journalist and publisher based in Manhattan and Woodstock, New York. She has written for Z since 2006.