I Hope That The Human Terrain Teams Read The Deceivers by John Masters: An Anthropological Novel

One of my favorite all-time historical novels is The Deceivers by John Masters. Published in 1952, the protagonist William Savage is an administrator in a remote district for the British East Indian Company. The book is set in 1825. Savage speaks four Indian languages, and has spent 19 years in the colonial service. As a colonial administrator, he is “the law” in his district. But to do this, he lives in an Indian village, embedded in Indian cultures and languages. No garrisoned “Forward Operating Base” with a VCR, pool table, video games, or other comforts of home for him!

Savage discovers a nihilistic death cult, the Thug, which waylays, robs, and kills travelers. Turns out that the cult has been around for 200 years during which it has killed something like one million people across India, including dozens in Savage’s own district. In short, it is the world’s greatest murder mystery. Savage goes undercover, learns about the intricacies of the Thug cult dedicated to the goddess Kali. He even learns to strangle using a cloth rumel. After some rip-roaring good adventures and spooky mysticism, Savage convinces the British colonial powers that they have a responsibility to pursue the cult, and make India’s roads safe for travel. And though it is beyond the scope of the novel, the British do this—by enforcing the laws in ways that both respect British legal traditions, and destroy the anarchy in which brigands, death cults, and robbers flourish. John Master’s interpretation of this is made possible by both his own personal experience in India—he was the fifth generation of his family born in British India—and attention to the importance of ritual, religion, empathy, and morality in ordering human affairs.

The strength of the novel is in its story—it is a great adventure book. But my latest reading also impresses on me that it is an anthropological story too. The British are imposing their justice system, rooted in western morality, in early nineteenth century India. This is a problem that sometimes crosses cultural boundaries effectively, but at other times exposes British naivete. Spookier, are the accounts of how the religious cult ties together Thug gangs Masters’ cleverly describes the power ritual gives them to kill, rob, and terrorize. Which of course leads the book to another important anthropological point, which is that religion and religious commitment are essential to understanding people, and what they do. Finally, the book implicitly illustrates how important anthropological skills like empathy, language skills, and cultural understanding are for understanding another cultural world. In doing this, Master’s makes the point that cultural experience matters—what makes possible Savage’s investigation in the first place is his affinity for India, and his ability in four languages.
This for me brings up anthropology’s recent engagement with the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Agree or disagree with it, in at least one important way, the empire-building project of the British in the early nineteenth century, and the American in the early twenty-first century is similar. Both are challenging cults rooted in pre-modern conceptions of religious ecstasy which glorify killing and death. The odd thing is that the British, with their long-term commitment to empire do the anthropologically correct thing and develop staff like Savage (or perhaps for that matter Masters’ own real-life family) that engage with locals to extend their concept of empire.

But the Americans in their wars against Al Qaeda and other groups in Afghanistan and Iraq, have shorter-term post-imperial goals, and perhaps as a result do not engage their opponents as effectively. After reading The Deceivers, the American effort really seems like “empire light” because it substitutes high-tech for culturally savvy administrators like Wiliam Savage. America’s post-imperial mindset, along with an implicit faith in the capacity of American technology, law, and economic might complete the substitution. Thus, today, the Americans are more comfortable with the technology of drones that can be “flown” over Afghanistan from a desk at CIA headquarters in northern Virginia, than they are with developing language skills which are created only by living for years in a culture. This preference for short-term technological fixes is I think ultimately the culture that Mark Dawson and others from the Human Terrain Team are up against when trying to peddle anthropological ideas. They want the Americans to think like William Savage. But in the American war effort, technology, not cultural competence, is central.

On a certain level, I appreciate that the US American military is becoming aware that culture matters when confronting nihilistic cults like Al Qaeda. But let’s face it, despite the fact that Al Qaeda may have some similarities with the nineteenth century Thug cults the US military is not producing the William Savages to confront Al Qaeda. Instead they are creating computer jockeys who reduce the problem to what is seen on a computer screen. In doing this, they ignore the power of ritualistic cults, and religious mysticism that drives such groups in the first place.

Programs like Human Terrain Team could presumably fill this hole, but I doubt if they ever will. If HTT does their job, they will point out the limitations of drone attacks in destroying religious cults rooted in ethics very different than that of the US military. Ultimately, I wonder though whether the modern US military with its own culture invested in high tech is suited to confront traditions of religious ecstasy, nihilism, and the anarchy of remote places like today’s rural Iraq, rural Afghanistan, or rural Pakistan. If today’s planners don’t quite believe this sociologist from Chico, they should have a look at John Master’s book The Deceivers. Besides enjoying a good read, they may also get some advice about how to confront the ninilistic religious cults like Al Qaeda.