Under Construction: Making Homeland Security at the Local Level

Jeremy Keenan takes issue with a book that is 'the epitome of all that anthropology should not be'

January 29, 2009

What is a "security anthropologist"? I am not sure I know, except that Kerry Fosher, author of Under Construction, calls herself one. Fosher is the US Marine Corps' command social scientist at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia. What, one might ask, is a "command" social scientist? One who salutes before interviewing, or lets the interviewee "stand easy"?

I have no idea, but it certainly does not sound like the direction in which the social sciences want to be going. She also serves as a "research and practice associate" at the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT) at Syracuse University. For readers not familiar with INSCT, check the website. After the martial music, its introductory video (http://exed.maxwell.syr. edu/exed/sites/nss) tells us that its national security studies program is open to civilian and military leaders. Yet 100 per cent of the alumni mentioned in its latest alumni newsletter hold senior positions in the US Defence Department and associated intelligence services.

Under Construction's rough edges, seemingly endless ethical soul-searching and tortuous methodological concerns make it an unrewarding read. Few theses make good books and this is no exception.

Imagine my surprise, on checking with the publisher, to learn that the book is an extensive revision, with new fieldwork, of the author's prize-winning dissertation. While the American military-intelligence-security establishment may well afford Fosher's work iconic status, there are no such accolades from this reviewer: Under Construction is the epitome of all that anthropology should not be.

Fosher began an anthropological study of counterterrorism in Boston shortly before the 9/11 attacks. She thus found herself in the unique position of being able to observe the "construction" of "homeland security" in a major US metropolitan area in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when security became the paramount concern of virtually everyone involved in governing the US. Her study of the development of the homeland security "community" in the Boston area is therefore unique.

The reasons for writing the book, she says, were because she "wanted to show US homeland security as practice, as something that is not monolithic but constructed, not impenetrable but accessible to field research and analysis".

"Second, I wanted to describe the methodological and ethnographic challenges faced by those studying (and/or engaging) with security-related topics at a time when the discipline is struggling to position itself with respect to US national security (my emphasis)."

On the first count, the book is unconscionably prosaic, being little more than a study in public administration, itself not normally the stuff of page-turners. Fosher's use of anthropological technique does provide a better understanding than might be given by a systems analyst of how the Boston "homeland security community" managed itself during these critical times. But the book has no wit, no humour, no sadness, no life. "Life", the essence of anthropology, has been squeezed out of the pages under the author's suffocating mantle of moral introspection.

However, my core criticism of this work is directed at Fosher's relationship with the US military-intelligence-security establishment. She has not gone as far as some other anthropologists in their support of the military. She at least gives the impression in Under Construction of wanting to work within normalised anthropological ethical practices in the study of military communities (as distinct from using anthropology to help the military understand "enemy" cultures).

The fundamental problem with her position, however, is that she seems to think that working in and for the military (albeit in a "corrective" position) can somehow be separated from its larger mission and project.

That larger mission and project is one that has carried the greatest nation on earth (in the eyes of many) through the most shameful period in its history. It is the project of illegal invasion and occupation; of rendition and torture; of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; of complete disregard for international law, fundamental human rights and freedoms; of deception, disinformation, lies and dissemblement; of fabricated false flag terrorism incidents; and of killing and bringing suffering to tens of thousands of innocent peoples in the name of the global war on terror and in the cause of US imperialism. It is a project in which there is absolutely no ethical ambiguity in the role that anthropologists should be playing. Ethics cannot be separated from politics, no matter how hard some anthropologists might be trying.

Fosher admits to being warned that "if you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas". While she will have no trouble in shaking them off, the University of Chicago Press may find it more challenging.

Many in the academic community have argued that this internationally respected publisher damaged its reputation last year when it republished the US Army and Marine Corps' Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a title that has attracted charges of plagiarism from anthropologists such as David Price.

The UCP would do well to note that change is coming to America, and it is coming from Chicago.

Under Construction: Making Homeland Security at the Local Level

By Kerry B. Fosher
University of Chicago Press 288pp, £32.50 and £12.00
ISBN 9780226257433 and 257440
Published 29 December 2008

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