Thomas Barnett, the military, and anthropology

Mark Dawson posted the video of Thomas Barnett’s talk to on Febrary 2 in the expectation that you might be pissed off, or you might be impressed. I appreciated seeing it. I was mostly impressed, and not too pissed off even though I disagree with a number of Barnet’s basic assumptions about how the world and the military work. Anyway, Barnett seems like an articulate guy, and I recommend you have a look.

In the video, Barnett recommends separating the US military’s war making capabilities, from its nation building activities which he calls “sys admin.” One of the more memorable points he makes is with regard to the invasion phase of a military operation where he recommends using single pumped up nineteen year olds, and the post-invasion phase where he recommends careful and thoughtful 40 year olds with families. This makes sense to me.

Barnett’s reasoning is fine on this point, except that one thing is missing from the whole presentation. That something is anthropology, or more generally social science. Although Barnett is implicitly hinting at anthropology when he discusses the role that the military should play in post-conflict situations plays, he never utters the word. The result is that he concludes that having older, more careful, and more culturally sensitive military is important to post-war reconstruction in places like Iraq. He concludes that the current military bureaucracies, the IMF, and unnamed NGOs be adapted to this.

But why not go the next step, and conclude that reconstruction is better undertaken by old anthropologists rather than old military guys retrained to do anthropology? Military training and culture is focused on logistics, security, intelligence, engineering, and weaponry. This is in turn focused by a strict command system which requires approval from remote headquarters before decisions to engage an enemy are made. Such an institution may be a great way to make war as Barnett points out. But the military would seem a poor place to develop people ready to engage local communities in post-war reconstruction, which implies a range of interests that are distinctively non-military. After all, it is such a command structure that created the catastrophe of Abu Ghraib.

Some of the things that applied anthropologists do better than military include things like project management in the context of cross-cultural relations, identification of “corruption,” understanding the strengths and weaknesses of strong clan systems, development of language skills, etc. These are of course all skills and awarenesses unlikely to emerge out of a centralized military hierarchy. (Or, for that matter the highly centralized State Department hierarchy). Some other things unlikely to emerge out of the military culture are the capacity to eat strange things with a smile, be extremely patient in difficult cultural circumstances, and make decisions without reference to a remote and inaccessible headquarters. Indeed, it sounds like applied anthropology to me.

This of course begs a question in the case of the current American wars in Iraq which is that given that military logic got us involved in the first place, can anthropological knowledge repair the system? I think that it is too late for anthropology (or any other social science) to “save” Iraq for the Americans now. As Barnett points out too much military logic has dominated American policy toward Iraq during the last five years with the result that repair is unlikely. Instead the United States will ultimately deal with the refugee flight, and other catastrophic consequences of withdrawal from Iraq as the occupation force is worn down. Again, I would propose that these will be circumstances best dealt with by old anthropologists, and some of the NGOs that Barnett at least tangentially mentions.

Perhaps in this context the most important productive message that anthropology can deliver is that the military as it is designed now is a poor institution for nation building. The trick though is to provide an alternative institutions for nation-building and refugee relief, which few institutions besides the military does systematically. Anthropology can contribute to the hopefully coordinated search for such alternatives.

As Mark Dawson pointed out in earlier posts on, keeping the anthropological toys in the ivory tower meant only that nineteen year olds in Iraq get to figure out for themselves that giving out soccer balls with the Saudi flag on it is a bad idea. Or, as Barnett pointed out, the nineteen year-olds themselves figured out that reflective Ray-ban sunglasses are a bad idea. In short, military people will “do” anthropology whether they have formal training or not. Again, I disagree with Barnett that simply moving around the administrative boxes in the Pentagon is the answer. Bureaucracies are needed to deal with post-conflict situations in places like Darfur, Iraq, and future catastrophes. The question is who will design them?


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