On Anthropology and Empire

Robert Lawless in Counterpunch:

In the September 30, 2009, online edition of CounterPunch in an article titled “Country of Constant Sorrow: McChrystal's Afghan Desolation,” Vijay Prashad wrote,

“Enter a war zone with the expectation that the heavy armor will coerce the population into electing a favorable head of state; if this fails, then take refuge in your anthropologists, who will find a quick way to ‘nativize’ the war and help you clamber onto the helicopters. The country you have left behind is now more of a humanitarian disaster than when you self-righteously flew in on the wings of humanitarian interventionism.”

The notion of anthropologists being helpmates in the First World conquest of the Third World seems now to have become embedded in the day-to-day understanding of the Bush-initiated Iraq-Afghanistan cultural-military fiasco. Whether political scientists, philosophers, area specialists, or whoever actually fills the “societal” expert position on the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) teams, anthropologists apparently are to take the blame. And anthropologists themselves are not exempt from furthering this notion.

Perhaps the most notorious anthropologist associated with the U.S. military’s HTS is Montgomery McFate, who writes primarily for military publications and whose pivotal article “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency” appeared in the April 2005 issue of Military Review. A hapless mix of shoddy history and misdirected anthropology, her article was, nevertheless, reprinted in the 2007 edition of Annual Editions Anthropology — along with articles by Conrad Kottak, Richard Lee, and Ralph Linton, and in the 2009 second edition of Classic Readings in Cultural Anthropology, edited by Gary Ferraro — along with brand-name anthropologists such as Horace Miner, Clyde Kluckhohn, Edward T. Hall, Richard Lee, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Why McFate deserves to be in this company is unclear; there are many other articles by respectable anthropologists that clearly explained the HTS affair. [Among them have been David Price’s path-breaking contributions on this site and in our CounterPunch newsletter. Editors.] Making McFate’s piece widely available only further sullies anthropology.