The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: Or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society

January 14, 2010

The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual - its authors call it a pamphlet - may well come to be regarded as the most important work to emerge from America's social sciences so far this millennium. It was written by some of the founders of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA), 11 anthropologists who came together in 2007 to express their concerns over recent efforts to militarise the discipline.

A preface by Marshall Sahlins, the respected elder of US anthropology, radiates powerful indignation at what he considers to be the duplicity and lack of intellectual integrity of the US military's designs on anthropology. The book itself is both a rejoinder to the December 2006 publication of The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and a timely reaffirmation of the fundamental ethics, humane idealism and professional standards of anthropology.

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual was published as part of a well-run publicity campaign to convince the US public that a smart new plan was under way to salvage the lost war in Iraq. The core of this intellectual "smart bomb" for victory in Iraq was to legitimise the war by "academising" or, more precisely, "anthropologising" it.

To paraphrase Alexander Leighton, the US military used anthropology the way a drunk uses a lamppost - for support rather than illumination.

The head of the task force to appropriate anthropological theory to the leveraging of a Pax Americana on to a resistant Iraq (and later Afghanistan), was America's latest "scholar-warrior", General David Petraeus, PhD. The Counterinsurgency Field Manual was his baby. The Pentagon, which hyped this new dream of cultural engineering as a "rare work of applied scholarship", was ably assisted in its assault on the American public by the University of Chicago Press, which would republish the Counterinsurgency Field Manual in 2007 and then flog it into the bestseller lists.

Launched in a media frenzy that saw it splashed across National Public Radio, ABC News, NBC, The New York Times, Newsweek and beyond, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual was pitched as the philosophical expression of Petraeus' intellectual strategy for victory in Iraq. It included Petraeus' original foreword, a new foreword by counterinsurgency expert Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl and an introduction by Sarah Sewall, director of Harvard University's Carr Center Program on National Security and Human Rights.

The heart of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, however, and the section most demanding of the NCA's response, was its discussion (in chapter three) of "Intelligence in Counterinsurgency". Drafted largely by anthropologist Montgomery McFate, the most outspoken proponent of this cultural turn, it teaches counterinsurgents how to "weaponise" indigenous cultural information.

The NCA's rejoinder, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: Or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society, is more than a deconstruction of the University of Chicago Press edition of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual: it is a total disembowelment.

The NCA authors expose what they allege to be the Counterinsurgency Field Manual's pretentious and faked scholarship, citing an incoherent, simplistic and outmoded understanding of the social sciences, especially anthropology, and what they allege to be shocking plagiarism. Dozens of passages in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual are said to have been lifted from uncredited sources: this, the NCA authors argue, was the University of Chicago Press' contribution to the Bush Administration's "information war", and they ask how such a prestigious publishing house could stoop to being the vehicle of faux scholarship.

In contrast, the authors of The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual - Catherine Besteman, Andrew Bickford, Greg Feldman, Roberto Gonzalez, Hugh Gusterson, Kanhong Lin, Catherine Lutz, David Price and David Vine - strip America of its ill-fitting imperial drapes to reveal an anguished state of fear, violence, duplicity and permanent war. Their contributions give us razor-sharp, authoritative and scholarly insights and analyses of America's militarised society: the statistics of its militarisation; the history of counterinsurgency; the rise of the "military normal"; violence and the American self-image; the militarisation of knowledge; the appropriation of the social sciences, anthropology especially and human intelligence; the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM); the prospect of war for a new generation - and they counter with proposals for "a humanpolitik"; a new human-centred foreign policy.

The NCA authors are to be thanked and congratulated for their courageous and urgently necessary work, which, as we stand teetering on the brink of an Orwellian future, is recommended as essential reading to all students of the social sciences, and beyond.

The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: Or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society

By Network of Concerned Anthropologists. Prickly Paradigm Press, 140pp, £9.00. ISBN 9780979405754. Published 18 September 2009

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