17 May 2011

Militarizing Anthropology (Culture, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 2008, pps. 6-10)

"Social Scientist on a camel!"--photo and caption by the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System

By Maximilian C. Forte
Associate Professor
Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University

Originally published in the newsletter of the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA)--click here if the link does not work.
“While many anthropologists express concerns about disciplinary ties to military and intelligence organizations,contemporary anthropology has no core with which to either sync or collide and there are others in the field who openly (and quietly) support such developments.”
--David Price, anthropologist, author of Anthropological Intelligence (March 12 / 13, 2005, Counterpunch)
“As one HTT [Human Terrain Team] member said, ‘One anthropologist can be much more effective than a B-2 bomber – not winning a war, but creating a peace one Afghan at a time’.”
--Website of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System

For close to two years now American anthropology has witnessed heated debate concerning the embedding of anthropologists in counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan under the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System. Much of the debate has centred on the ethical issues of secret research, informed consent, confidentiality of informants, and the requirement to do no harm.

Critics have argued, among many points, that social scientists are being used to better refine targeting, given that the Assistant Undersecretary of Defense, John Wilcox, noted: “the human terrain enables the global kill chain.” Recruits receive at least $300,000 per annum when in the field, a major incentive for some, even if two social scientists (both PhD students) have been killed (one from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, the other from a suicide bomber in Iraq).

The American Anthropological Association's Executive Board issued a statement critical of embedding anthropologists in counterinsurgency teams, followed by a broad final report still critical of HTS, and very recently a call to all members to consider a complete revision of the entire Code of Ethics of the association.

Up until July of this year (2008), this debate seemed to be largely confined to American anthropology, and to the Human Terrain System, even when several other U.S. government programs recruit anthropologists and other social scientists in espionage and national security research, such as the National Security Education Program (NSEP), the Intelligence Community Scholars Program (ICSP), and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP), the latter instituted with the support and guidance of Felix Moos, anthropologist at the University of Kansas. Moreover, even the principles and mechanisms behind the Human Terrain System have been incorporated in newly expanded designs for the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), and its Latin American and Caribbean Command (SOUTHCOM), to better penetrate local cultures and expand the nature of U.S. military presence in those regions, in part with the aid of social science research.

"Sometimes it gets kinetic," reads the caption to this photo from the Human Terrain System


While in 1988 a CIA spokeswoman bragged that they had enough professors on their payroll to staff a large university, since 2001 this collaboration has grown further: as David Price noted, “many institutions are cultivating closer relations with intelligence agencies. New campus intelligence consortia are forming. Most of these are organizations like the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security…which aligns research and teaching at member institutions with the requirements of Bush’s war on terror” (“CIA Skullduggery in Academia: Carry On Spying,” Counterpunch, May 21 / 22, 2005).

Suddenly, however, with the implementation of the Pentagon’s new Minerva program, the import and impact of the militarization of the social sciences has now widened considerably even beyond these areas of concern, and beyond the social sciences in the U.S.


As of the end of July, the U.S. Department of Defense formally instituted what it calls the Minerva Research Initiative, and is now accepting grant proposals. In the DoD’s Broad Agency Announcement (W911NF-08-R-0007) outlined the following five areas of investigation that it supports:

(1) Chinese Military and Technology Research and Archive Programs;
(2) Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Changes within the Islamic World;
(3) Iraqi Perspectives Project;
(4) Studies of Terrorist Organization and Ideologies; and,
(5) New Approaches to Understanding Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation.

The DoD awards will be paid out to universities, and will range from $500,000 to $3 million (US) per annum, with the average award estimated at $1.5 million per annum.

What is important to note, besides the size of the awards and the nature of national security research that is being promoted, is that foreign universities and foreign researchers are also encouraged to participate: “This MRI competition is open to institutions of higher education (universities) including DoD institutions of higher education and foreign universities, with degree-granting programs in social sciences. Participation by foreign universities either as project lead or in a supporting role is encouraged” (p. 4).

Military reviewers and government employees are looking specifically for proposals that are relevant to Pentagon goals. The focus of areas (2) and (4) is to “elucidate the relationships amongst social, cultural, political, religious and economic factors that interact to foster political violence, terrorism or insurgent behavior” (p. 17). The Pentagon notes the following disciplines as “relevant”: “anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, social and cognitive psychology, and computational science.”

This project also calls on academics to themselves identify an organization or an ideology as “terrorist” without providing any guidelines or list of suggested organizations and ideologies. Surveillance is intended, over the long term, and anthropologists are specifically called upon, as “the relevance of context and situation may require field research” (p. 20).

The effort is aimed at studying “behaviour networks, groups, and communities over time” with an “urgent need” to locate terrorist organizations and populations sympathetic to them. “Especially helpful to the Department of Defense,” the document states, is, understanding where organized violence is likely to erupt, what factors might explain its contagion, and how to circumvent its spread.

Research on belief formation and emotional contagion will provide cultural advisors with better tools to understand the impact of operations on the local population. This research should also contribute to countermeasures to help revise or influence belief structures to reduce the likelihood of militant cells forming.(p. 21)

Recently, the National Science Foundation has partnered with the Pentagon in vetting applications for Minerva funds, submitted through the NSF. For some, including the Executive of the American Anthropological Association which announced its “pleasure” in seeing the NSF conduct peer review of applications submitted to NSF’s $8 million share of Minerva’s overall budget of $50 million, the NSF seal of approval seemed important in ensuring independence from the Pentagon, despite the fact that the Pentagon devised, structured, and funded the program. There were even some early suggestions that the NSF and the Pentagon would sign a memorandum of understanding that allowed the NSF to allocate the funds in a way that researchers who won grants could turn down any funding that came directly from the Pentagon. But as David Glenn of the Chronicle of Higher Education explained, there is no allowance for researchers to turn down DoD funding. The DoD may offer to supplement the funding of NSF funded projects of interest to it, and only in that situation would a researcher, in receipt of a NSF award, be allowed to decline additional DoD funding.

The National Science Foundation’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences released its calls for applications under the title, “Social and Behavioral Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation (NSCC).” Full proposals are being sought for a deadline of October 30, this year. Projects will be jointly reviewed by the NSF and the Pentagon, and funded by the Pentagon.

Thus far there has been no public discussion by either the NSF or the AAA about the ethics of Minerva projects. For example, one of the areas of research for which applications are invited is titled the “Iraqi Perspectives Project.” Part of the description of the background of this research field reads as follows:
In the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a vast number of documents and other media came into the possession of the Department of Defense. The materials have already been transferred to electronic media and organized. Yet these comprise only a small part of the growing declassified archive and its potential, combined with the open literature. This continuing collection offers a unique opportunity for multidisciplinary scholarship combined with research in methods and technologies for assisting scholarship in automated analysis, organization, retrieval, translation, and collaboration (p. 19).
The Chronicle of Higher Education in an article on July 1, 2008, titled “Controversy Continues to Dog the Deal to Move Iraqi Archives to Hoover Institution” speaks of seven million documents being moved to Stanford University, to a conservative think tank housed there (the Hoover Institution). This has been done over and against the protests of the Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archives who has demanded the return of Iraq’s documents. Foreign scholars are being called upon to write Iraqi history for the Iraqis, while denying the data to Iraqis themselves.

Broader problems stem from the thinking that structures the fields of study as outlined by the Pentagon. Like its British counterpart and predecessor, the Economic and Social Research Council’s “Global Uncertainties: Security for All in a Changing World” (and its precursors), Islam is the primary target of Minerva, as a source of violence and radicalization to be monitored and penetrated by academic fieldworkers.

As David Price argued, “Minerva doesn’t appear to be funding projects designed to tell Defense why the U.S. shouldn’t invade and occupy other countries; its programs are more concerned with the nuts and bolts of counterinsurgency, and answering specific questions related to the occupation and streamlining the problems of empire” (“Inside the Minerva Consortium: Social Science in Harness,” Counterpunch, June 24, 2008). Hugh Gusterson has also argued that the effect of these multiple military funded social science programs is to weaponize culture:
"When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind. The public comes to accept that basic academic research on religion and violence “belongs” to the military; scholars who never saw themselves as doing military research now do; maybe they wonder if their access to future funding is best secured by not criticizing U.S. foreign policy; a discipline whose independence from military and corporate funding fueled the kind of critical thinking a democracy needs is now compromised; and the priorities of the military further define the basic terms of public and academic debate. (“The U.S. Military's Quest to Weaponize Culture,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 20 June 2008).

In approving of NSF peer review of Minerva grants, a letter from AAA President Setha Low to the U.S. Office of Budget and Management states very simply: “We believe that it is of paramount importance for anthropologists to study the roots of terrorism.” Going further, a July press release from the NSF quoted David Lightfoot, assistant director of NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate as saying:
To secure the national defense was one of the original missions we were given when we were chartered in 1950. We’ve always believed that sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other social scientists, through basic social and behavioral science research, could benefit our national security. In fact, we’ve always done so through various research projects. The MOU [Memorandum of Understanding with the Pentagon] gives us another tool and more resources to do what we’ve always done well.

As mentioned, the Pentagon is inviting foreign researchers and their universities to participate in the Minerva program. Conditions in Canada seem ripe for its spread here, given Canada’s own intervention in Afghanistan and the government’s collaboration with the U.S.’ “global war on terror,” and the relative paucity of social science research funding. A minority can hope to win a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and even fewer will ever get a grant close to the maximum of $250,000 spread over three years. Canada Research Chairs, fewer in number but with more funding, still cannot compete with the massive amount offered by Minerva, whose maximum grant is 12 times higher than the maximum offered by SSHRC to a researcher. With greater pressure from university administrations to secure more and more research funds, from all possible sources, it is just a matter of time before we find Minerva advertised by our own campus research offices, and taken up by researchers here.

Canadian anthropology is not insulated from its American partner. Many Canadian anthropologists, if not most, also belong to the AAA, and travel to the U.S. for annual meetings of the AAA and/or its member associations. We share the same space on editorial boards of journals. We often jointly organize conferences between CASCA and the American Ethnological Society (AES). Some Canadian departments are modeled on the American four-field system. Prominent faculty in anthropology have served both in Canada and the U.S. We have undergraduates from the U.S., and a good number of our graduates earning degrees in anthropology in the U.S. We use the AAA’s code of ethics and its case studies as part of our teaching materials. We read and adopt texts by our American colleagues, published in the U.S.

Though the list could continue, one could add that given the dominance of American anthropology worldwide, even if none of the preceding were true this fact alone would ensure an eventual impact on how our discipline is reproduced, presented to the wider world, and received (if at all).


We can unwittingly or unwillingly collaborate with the U.S. intelligence regime in other ways as well. There is the possibility that both travel and open access publishing could jeopardize the wellbeing of our collaborators. Those who travel to, or through the U.S., can have all of their printed and electronic documents seized, scanned and copied, thus breaching any promised confidentiality, as a result of a new Department of Homeland Security program.

Indeed the same applies for the U.K. Given that these two countries often serve as gateways to the countries to which anthropologists travel in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, it means we can no longer, in good conscience, make any vows to maintain confidentiality. That also puts us in conflict with our own campus ethics review panels, which also jeopardizes the tenure of our grants.

The U.S. military has also instituted Intelink-U, and “distance drilling” that involves providing U.S. intelligence with up to 85% of its information requirements from open access materials on the Web. Everything we do, and whatever we do next as anthropologists, will have to take these broader realities into account, and we need to immediately start thinking of our individual and collective responses.
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