Anthropologists don’t do anyone a favor by taking their ball and going home.

I keep turning over in my head some of the issues that are troubling the AAA these days, in particular the Human Terrain Systems project, and the question of AAA’s (and the anthropologists within the organization’s) stance on it. (and there is more in the current Anthropology News)

I get, I really do, the suspicion with which Roberto Gonzales and others view the government, the military, and their projects (especially the war) in Iraq. I hate the war, think it never should have been started, and find the whole paradigm of War as imposed on the complex global problem of terrorism to be repugnant.

That said, I don’t think that anthropologists do anyone any favors by taking their ball and going home. The standing from which we criticize is much shakier if we (collectively) are not engaged with the military or the government. That is not to say that we have to agree with them. It is to say that, if history is any indication anthropological knowledge is used by organizations and individuals whether we agree with them or not. So I think the question becomes: how much worse will things get if we don’t become more active bearers of this information, if we don’t inject ourselves into situations we have been avoiding because we have been so badly burned before? If some of our colleagues are choosing to work within the government and military as anthropologists, wouldn’t it be better for us as a discipline to think more carefully about what that kind of work should look like, rather than declaring that such work should not happen at all.

And what about motive? I certainly disagree with anthropologists who think that they should be helping the government or military to “win the war,” whatever that means in Iraq. But if anthropologists are there to stop the war, or to help create conditions for less conflict across the board, through increasing genuine understanding and engagement among disparate parties—well, I can get behind that, and see where smart, ethical people might think that’s a worthwhile project.

I don’t think I need to agree with the reasons behind everyone’s research to find it valid. I don’t think we need to accuse people of being evil or naive or anything else if they are undertaking work that we ourselves would not. I do think there are lines to be drawn, as a discipline, around ethical and unethical behavior in wartime research. The more people who participate in this discussion, the more anthropology as a whole can truly contribute to the broader political debate about the war. And maybe even help change the course of things to something more constructive than the status quo.

2 thoughts on “Anthropologists don’t do anyone a favor by taking their ball and going home.

  1. Donna

    Arrgh. Thinking too much made me incoherent. That last ‘graph should end with, “…the more anthropology as a whole can truly contribute to the broader political debate about the war. And maybe even help change the course of things to something more constructive than the status quo.”

    NOW you can read it.

  2. Donna

    M. McFate and David Price were both interviewed on NPR again today, this time on “Here and Now.”
    David made interesting points about how this is not about anthropologists helping the military think more anthropologically per se, but about the specifics of the HTS program.

    I’d like to know more about the HTS program, I think. The specifics are important. What is happening on the ground is crucial. The critique needs to be grounded in what is actually happening, and I don’t know enough about it to do more than muse and wonder and speculate.

    Anthropology needs to be involved here. The specifics will require truly open discussion within the discipline, not name-calling and avoidance.

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