Ethical questions for the embedded

Jeremy Keenan on why researchers who align themselves with the military will face criticism

October 2, 2008

On both sides of the Atlantic, military and intelligence agencies are keen to recruit anthropologists.

The most recent attempt is Project Minerva, the Pentagon's $50 million (£ million) initiative to mobilise anthropologists and other social scientists to do research in aid of the "War on Terror". Two years ago, the American anthropologist David Price disclosed that the CIA was offering scholarships of up to $25,000 to train intelligence operatives and analysts in US universities for careers in the CIA and other agencies. At the same time in the UK, the Economic and Social Research Council attempted to politicise research by offering substantial research funds to social scientists willing to undertake highly questionable research on "combating terrorism by countering radicalisation". These endeavours and the debate surrounding them have been well documented in Anthropology Today and Times Higher Education.

Price, as the foremost authority on the ways in which anthropology has been used by the military, has been at the centre of this debate. His latest book is the second in a three-volume series examining American anthropologists' interactions with intelligence agencies. The first, Threatening Anthropology (2004), examined McCarthyism's effects on anthropologists, while the third, still to come, will explore anthropologists' interactions with the CIA and Pentagon during the Cold War.

In this volume, Price documents how anthropology and anthropologists (most of them American) helped win the Second World War. It is a work of immense scholarship, historical importance and, like all his work in this field, courageous. Price writes about what goes on "behind" the anthropological scene, revealing, by dint of hard work and commitment, what some within the discipline might prefer to leave unsaid.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died in August, said that while an ordinary man was obliged "not to participate in lies", artists had greater responsibilities. "It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!" In what is a sad reflection on the state of the world we inhabit, it has increasingly become the task of anthropologists to "defeat the lie".

Price's corpus of work has already made a substantial contribution to that end. Anthropological Intelligence, however, is more than a moralising, historical tome. It is a fascinating read: objective, sensitive, well balanced and, at times, both disturbing and amusing. There is also much humorous trivia. For example, Gregory Bateson (Margaret Mead's husband), knowing the Burmese belief that the colour yellow portended the end of a period of foreign occupation, tried to turn the waters of the Irrawaddy River yellow. However, his dye worked only in salt water.

Part of Carleton Coon's contribution to the Allies' North African campaign was to collect "mule turds", send them by diplomatic pouch to London, where they were made into plastic facsimiles, returned and used as anti-tank explosives. Coon won a Distinguished Service Cross. How many German tanks were destroyed by "turd bombs" is not known.

Price highlights throughout the significant role of Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, in trying to steer anthropology down the right ethical tracks, while individual chapters give rich insights into the roles of the professional associations in the war effort; Allied and Axis anthropologies; the contributions of anthropologists, often as spies, in the Japanese, Latin American, Asian and North African theatres; J. Edgar Hoover's Special Intelligence Service, the Office of Strategic Services and the roots of the CIA; and the postwar shift from anthropologists' fight for freedom to the fight for free markets, client states and US imperialism. His concluding chapter, "Postwar ambiguities", is a must for anyone who is concerned about the subject's current ethics.

The publication of Anthropological Intelligence is timely, coming as it does when many anthropologists are concerned about the militarisation of their subject through the use of "embedded ethnographers" and the US military's Human Terrain Programme (HTP), which teams social scientists with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan to help soldiers better understand the local culture.

A primary architect of the HTP is the Yale University-trained anthropologist Montgomery McFate, herself a member of the Pentagon's HTP in Afghanistan and co-author of a core chapter in the US Army's new Counterinsurgency Field Manual (which credits Lieutenant-General David Petraeus as co-author) on "The role of anthropological knowledge in military operations".

However, McFate's standing at the Pentagon as a champion of "mercenary anthropology" has been put in doubt by a Mother Jones investigation published in July. It alleged that McFate and her mother-in-law, Mary McFate (alias Mary Lou Sapone), are "freelance" spies, and that Mary McFate's family intelligence-gathering business infiltrated and spied on numerous "opposition" movements in the US, including groups lobbying for gun control.

The controversy over Montgomery McFate and her family, which owes much to Price's scholarship, illustrates the ethical difficulties that continue to confront anthropologists who choose to align themselves with the military and intelligence services.

Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War

By David H. Price

Duke University Press 400pp, £59.00 and £14.99

ISBN 9780822342199 and 42373

Published 4 July 2008

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