Applied Ethnography and the German Military in Afghanistan

I went to a workshop Friday in which anthropological involvement with the German military in Afghanistan was described. The German army is participating in the NATO operation in northern Afghanistan, which is in one of the more peaceful areas of that country. An ethnologist, Dr. Monika Lanik reported on the difficulties in developing inter-cultural competence in the context of deployments. Ethnographic competence is considered important because the German military is taking on a new international character as a result of peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia. Dr. Lanik pointed out that this is as much a diplomatic function as a military one. As a result, this new type of military operation requires diplomatic skills which in turn implies ethnography.

In the case of Afghanistan, German military have provincial reconstruction teams. This context requires soldiers to be aware of patronage relationship, the context of the drug trade, and modern versus traditional values. Dr. Lanik noted that awareness of such “deep play” goes well beyond the simpler tasks involving the recognition of ethnic symbols, or actions likely to accidentally give offense. Rather it reflects a need to focus on the deeper context that culture provides for not only a peacekeeping, but economic development.

The ethnographic training of German military personnel asks them to recognize the context that their own culture provides in what they are trying to accomplish. As in any military, both military and national culture is inter-twined and taken for granted by the soldiers. In such a context, a job for the ethnographer is to ask soldiers what part of their world view is a consequence of their military training, what part is a result of German culture, what emerges out of their personal biography, and finally what is brought by the local culture? As in any culture, there are naïve assumptions that home culture is universal, and can be imputed to the people with whom they will negotiate. The job of the ethnologist is much the same as it is with any institution—train and teach for inter-cultural competence.

There is controversy associated with the German mission in Afghanistan. The German mission in Afghanistan is itself politically controversial in a country which sees its military as strictly for domestic defensive purposes. How long the German forces should stay in Afghanistan is an on-going political question raised frequently in the German Parliament.

Some German anthropologists also raise the issue of whether anthropologists should be involved with the military at all, even though the German military is focused strictly on defensive purposes. As in the United States, it is framed as a question of professional ethics—and the question is asked whether providing ethnographic advice is appropriate at all.

2 thoughts on “Applied Ethnography and the German Military in Afghanistan

  1. See, this is very interesting, and is something that I think AAA should pursue, in finding out just what Anthropology as a discipline in the U.S. should/can do about the ethics of anthropology and the military, including programs like HTS. It sounds like the mission of the German military is quite different than that of the US Military, and that can also play into very different discussion about what is at stake in anthropological participation in that mission.

    It seems as though anthropologists are more involved in training the military, in the German scenario, while in the U.S., much of the controversy is about anthropologists having the war zone as their field site (and for whom they are then doing their fieldwork).

    Roberto Gonzales and the other members of the Concerned Anthropologists group are correct in saying (among other things: that we need to know more about what is going on with anthropological inquiry and the military in Iraq. And that what we do know about is raising red flags. Perhaps our German colleagues could help us think aloud about all of this, and perhaps ethical standards could be forged together, out of the sharing of information and concerns.

  2. Several comments…

    It seems to me that American academic anthropologists see the work of anthropology as being only “research” in the academic sense. Few anthropologists (or social scientists) have the luxury to do this. But much of social science is about training people to think critically about social problems. Where they do this is after they graduate is not really the responsibility of the academy or the AAA. Rather it is left to the winds of the initiative of the individual and the labor market.

    I think that the military is a legitimate place for anthropologists to work, as it is for plumbers, doctors, psychologists, pollsters, politicians, journalists, nurses, electricians, and a range of other professions. Military service by its very nature raises unique ethical questions about the use of violence for all these professions, and as a result a body of national, military, and international is available to confront those who cross ethical lines, whatever their professional training might be. I have no doubt that at times these laws are weakly enforced. However, the solution is to enforce existing laws against torture, illegal detention, etc., not (to paraphrase Donna), pick up your anthropological toys and go home.

    A further though I have is about the nature of anthropology and governmental power. I think Max Weber is the one who wrote that governmental power is always at some level dependent on a combination of physical or psychical force. As the US military in Iraq sometimes has found out, pure force only works only for the spot the soldier is standing on, and the area the gun is pointed out. “Psychical force” or more benignly, legitimacy, for better or worse is facilitated by the use of the social sciences in both war zones, and countries at peace.

    Particularly in this context, I see little point in anthropologists unilaterally asserting that they have a special claim to righteousness, and can therefore regulate anthropological behavior in ways that other professions cannot. There is no point in anthropologists simply taking their toys home, and refusing to play. What is more, as the German example shows I think that anthropologists have a critical role to play in facilitating the development projects that are ultimately central to replacing physical force with more persuasive approaches to governance.

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