Part 2: As folks head into the AAA, a few thoughts about anthropology in the military

I used to listen to right wing radio like Rush Limbaugh from time to time or the yahoo’s on FOX news and be amazed that people actually listened to that crap as if they were credible new sources. I feel the same sometimes about my continuing engagement in the rants (others and my own… I am certainly not off the hook) about anthropologists in the military and HTS as the focal point for that conversation. What I read rarely makes me happy, it does not inform, clarify or improve understanding, and generally focused on tearing down what’s misunderstood in favor of the moribund status quo of anthropology. As I said in my previous entry, I am not expecting to change minds and I find the rhetoric on the topic is best classified as hysteria. Yet, I still listen, read, often roll my eyes and on occasion I get to have a conversation with a critic that’s interesting, useful, challenging and fun. Usually it’s a conversation that ends with neither my mind nor the others persons being changed, but helping each other refine and clarify our positions for ourselves and each other. Those are always grand conversations to have.

But yet I still read and listen, as you are doing now. Granted, my rants are informed by actual current experience working with the military, so it is true enough that I am one of the few people in this conversation it seems with actual, albeit limited, field experience to contribute (there are a LOT of people out there with a great deal more experience working with the military than my paltry 3 months, but I have not seen them weighing in so far. I wish they would as they are to me far more credible critics). But, I am hardly wringing my hands and stressing about if I am being fair and balanced either. If you are looking to a blog for peer-reviewed unbiased data, your dissertation committee may want to check into those reference sources you have been using one more time.

Yet, we continue. In one of these conversations I realized the big issue that I care about is that anthropologists don’t close the currently opened door on an opportunity to be effective change agents in military, intelligence and strategic policy. Sounds lofty sitting here in a wooden building in Iraq, but why not? That’s how it works sometimes, you start with a small piece of the problem and people see the value of what you bring and then you are handed a larger bit of the problem and so on. After a while, say 10 or 15 years, you have created a form of the discipline were you have policy makers consulting anthropologists as trusted advisors before taking action. We did it in the corporate world, why is it so hard for anthropologists to believe it’s possible for anthologists to be individually very influential in the governmental, military and intel worlds?

However, as one of my friends reminded me, and in my ranting had forgotten, I don’t have a dog in the HTS vs. Anthropologist fight, who’s “turf” this work belongs to is not my concern (This is a contract, not a career), but I do care about anthropologists turning their backs on an opportunity to be effective over half-baked ideology. All you have to do is mention the military in many anthropology circles and people will create a haunted house of oppression and tyranny (sorry for the Halloween reference) in their minds with no real understanding or factual basis as to why, other than some vague historical references and a few stories from nearly a half century ago. Yet, it’s a topic people love talk about but very rarely actually come face to face on facts with. I wonder if a lot of people continue the conversation out of something akin to morbid curiosity, like peeking over the wall when you were 9 years old at the crazy old guy in neighborhood that everyone was afraid of. We all had the bogeyman in the local area, or sometimes just that big abandoned house, and it was not until we go older we learned it was just a lonely old man or an empty old house and the story we grew up with was far more tasty and interesting than the reality behind the curtain.

And really, isn’t that what all the hype around the HTS boils down to for anthropologists? Just the neighborhood bogeyman made manifest? Nothing people complain about in the HTS is new or unique in this situation: take a look at USAID, State Department, any numbers of NGO’s. All the same issues exist, why is the HTS singled out for special hysteria on the part of a few people?

I don’t know all the reasons but one that strikes me is part of the bogeyman theme. For all the complaints about a lack of transparency, this is the first time that a military/attempt-at-an-anthropology-partnership has been directly brought forward that people can see, feel, talk, to, debate and touch. People have been forced to grow up, borrow some flashlights from the closet and explore the spooky house down the road. Every odd sound makes you scream and every irregular dark patch is imagined to be the blood stains that complete and confirm the long told story of gruesome murder in the adolescent mind. But gradually, as the eyes adjust, the creaks are just an old house settling and the stains are evidence of nothing more than water rot. This is a potential time for the discipline to grow a little bit more and shake off some of the more childish notions about the nature of what evil and oppression means in the world and see it as it really is. Or maybe its anthropology going back to adulthood after a stint in 2nd childhood? True, it’s not as exciting, you don’t get to feel as self-righteous as much, but you cannot live in illusion forever.

This is also why I don’t see much point in the military or intel communities to bother engaging with the AAA at all. I’ve said it before on this topic:  why try to date someone that does not want to date you? It’s as silly for a program like the HTS to seek the approval of the AAA as it would be for a corporation employing anthropologists too. There is no legitimate reason to worry about currying favor with the larger community of anthropologists, none. It confers no credibility, it is not interested in providing a hiring pool, and there is little interest by the AAA in moving a potentially new field forward unless it conforms to the very limited and ideological box of a vocal minority. Trust me, never once in my corporate career or since I have been here has anyone inquired as to the status of my membership in the AAA. If you provide good, credible, actionable results that all that is asked.

3 thoughts on “Part 2: As folks head into the AAA, a few thoughts about anthropology in the military

  1. John Smith

    What about the reputation of anthropologists in the future?

    Perhaps you could listen more to the arguments people are making, and respond to them sometime.

  2. I just choose not to particpate in this due to my own self determination and my own self will.

    I choose to focus my mind, my career on the future of value that I set forth in my educational efforts.

    I am in no way going to endanger myself or my fellow countrymen by voting against the HTS since it has yet to be established they can be of value.

    I choose to believe that my credibility and my intentions will be proof of my trustworthy intentions.

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