Anyone that has spent time reading my entries in this blog already knows that I am an advocate of anthropologists working in all levels of government, military and intelligence communities. The latest entry into the conversation is from this New York Times piece entitled “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones”.
By all accounts in the press, which I readily acknowledge from personal experience can be a dubious source, the presence of anthropologists has been effective in actually reducing the violence in some areas. In the article the reporter naturally seeks out the opinions of people that are of the opposing view, and that is only due diligence. An issue I have with all the reporting of the controversy is it focuses on anthropologists that only think its evil. I have seen little written that reflects the anthropologists that I have discussed the topic with that don’t have a major concern with it. They might disagree with someone’s interest in working in the military out of their political views, but even then, I have not run across an anthropologist that would turn their back on a colleague that chose to do so. Its just a difference… no more no less.
The quote in the piece that for me underscores that lackluster argument that most anthropologists provide against working with the military is from Roberto J. González, an anthro professor at San Jose State University. He simply dismisses those anthropologists in the program as “naïve and unethical.” Frankly that’s a cheap shot for which he has no evidence that I can ascertain. Has he spoken with the anthropologists in question? How does he know they did not wrestle with their own ethical issues and simply come to a different conclusion than his own? I have minimal experience with the military (not as an anthropologist, in my former profession as an instructional developer), and found the people in the military to be a lot like people I meet in businesses, schools, movie theaters and anthro departments. Human beings with desires, needs, egos, gifts and flaws. Some are boy/girl scouts and some are rotten and most are just people doing a job.
To suggest that an anthropologist that works with the military is naive is saying that they have somehow gotten through life and grad school without ever once picking up a newspaper or being yammered at by the local Marxist hold-out. Dr. Gonzalez, you the and Network of Concerned Anthropologists are not the only social scientists aware that the US government, military and intelligence agencies have all committed abuses in the past and undoubtedly will in the future. But it seems the solution to that would be to encourage people that have the views you hold dear to be a part of those communities where change is much more likely. But as always, criticism is much easier than solutions.
The one issue that I do understand, and I don’t have a ready answer for, is the risk of an anthropologist being accused of covertly working for the government while in the field. I don’t think it’s a good enough reason to simply not to do any government related work. Fieldwork is indeed risky, and I would like to believe that any anthropologist planning on working in a high risk environment has done due diligence in ensuring they have proper contacts, people to vouch for them, etc. But it has to be remembered that the anthropologists that are working in the HTS with the military are not there in a covert capacity. They are there as anthropologists.