Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Scientists in Moral Panic: Debating ‘Mercenary Anthropology’

Posted in African Politics, Culture, Global Africa by ruben eberlein on July 20, 2009

‘There are certain reasons why anthropologists should commit themselves to working with armed forces’, writes Swedish anthropologist Mats Utas in his exclusive text for this blog while discussing the ‘moral panic’ that he says is besetting his research field. Join the debate on the subject!


Debating Mercenary Anthropology: Maintained Scholarly Ignorance
or New Engagement With the Global Warscape

By Mats Utas
Head of the Africa Programme at the Swedish National Defence College
and Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI), Uppsala

In the US there has been a long debate on ‘mercenary anthropology’, social anthropologists working in the army, ravaging the disciplinary landscape of cultural and social anthropology, and although I should state that I currently would see many problems in cooperating with the US armed forces, or the Danish army for that matter, due to their cumbersome commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, I still describe the debate within our discipline as one of moral panic. What is really a mercenary anthropologist, what is embedded anthropology, more than hanging out on the wrong side, and just how useful are anthropologists in the ‘human terrain’ currently so popular in military parlance? I want to discuss these issues from a Swedish perspective where I also suggest that there are certain reasons why anthropologists should commit themselves to working with armed forces. If we want to see changes in global military behaviour we need a social anthropology that is engaged, not ignorant, with current forms of military action. We therefore need to put ourselves in the same trenches as the military since morally saturated attacks from another trench will be perceived only as enemy attacks.

I am a cultural anthropologist (or social anthropologist if you wish) with a long-term research commitment to countries in conflict in West Africa – Sierra Leone and Liberia in particular. Last year I was approached by the Swedish National Defence College. They wanted me to head their Africa programme. It was a part-time commitment and the attractive part of it was that I would be in control of funds where I myself could pretty much decide the focus of research as long as it was related to conflict on the African continent. Sweden is, still today, more or less neutral and has kept a low profile in the war on terror (or the terror on terror), and Swedish military interest in Africa is by and large peacekeeping missions. The Africa programme at the Defence College aims at servicing the army with knowledge about areas in conflict and potential future conflicts where a Swedish EU or UN force could employ as a neutral (as neutral as one can be anyway) and stabilising force. It was far from an easy task, but after looking at pros and cons I decided to accept the offer of the Swedish National Defence College and I am currently directing their Africa programme. Does this imply that I fit into the derogatory category of ‘mercenary anthropologists’?


Moral panic has entered US social anthropology

and the American Anthropological Association in particular. 


If I would have been a political scientist no one would probably have objected to my choice but being a social anthropologist I have received numerous comments from good friends and peers within the discipline. Their worries have been in part influenced by anthropologists’ historic guilt and in part by the ongoing US debate. Moral panic, I suggest, has entered US social anthropology and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in particular. Indeed anthropologists must not sell their souls to any kind of repressive programme and we must be careful not to be tricked into situations where our regular research ethics could be set aside – but to state that any cooperation with military institutions is ethically wrong appears to be a questionable path to take. This kind of non-commitment charter is, I would argue, just a way of putting ones head in the sand and risks ending up as an act of ignorance only. US anthropologists somehow need to come to terms with the fact that they live in a militarised country and that they must in one way or another engage with this in order to act for change (i.e. demilitarise the country) – something that is central not just for them but for people all over the world. I would argue that the world cannot afford to sit idle with an American military logic rapidly polarising the global political landscape.

It is important to remember that all relationships with the military do not imply the same type of structural involvement, just as doing work with the military means different things depending on which country one works in (it is obvious that engaging with the armed forces in Sweden or Switzerland is not the same as in US or North Korea). Specific task and regional political logic should guide us in how we commit ourselves. There are, however, certain kinds of tasks that we should not get involved with and that is for instance direct military intelligence. Where research material can not be published for military reasons we should certainly stay out: We must keep working with open sources. Similarly we should not be involved in intelligence work where individuals are pointed out (unless this information is already available in other open sources). There is nothing wrong in teaching militaries how to understand some of the social complexity that exists in social life instead of letting them base their actions on social stereotypes. This is something that is happening anyway. Many anthropologists have been approached by military intelligence staff during conferences and lectures and others can account for how militaries use material they have already published. This is inevitable (unless we stop publishing) – and most probably not a bad thing as long as it is structure and not individual – it is social science and not intelligence gathering.

Anthropologists argue that doing field research goes beyond being the ‘fly on the wall’, with its tools for social overview, and rather being ‘flies in the soup’, with tools for both unravelling social complexity but also geared towards social construction. If social embeddedness is part of the method for a subtle social anthropology then we must ask ourselves what happens with us if we enter alongside a military machinery, such as the US or Nato forces in Iraq or Afghanistan? Is it at all possible to carry out anthropological research? What happens if the fly in the soup becomes a ‘Stealth bomber in the soup’? My argument is simply that anthropological research cannot be efficient if the researcher is brought in alongside the heavy guns of imperial machinery. An anthropologist in military fatigues cannot conduct high quality fieldwork – results become seriously flawed. In this situation what the mercenary anthropologist can give to the military power is impotent research findings; in consequence not very much to fear.


Other social scientists can understand and unravel

socio-cultural complexity as good as anthropologists.


Fieldwork is by anthropologists hailed as the golden key to ‘thick’ cultural understanding. Indeed there is something unique about the method that has the capacity to get under the skin of local societies on another level than quantitative methods. And it is interesting that Western armies realise that at a time when few other state bodies give us much credit (private corporations have however also realised the potential of anthropology). Yet there is a tendency apparent in the mercenary anthropology debate to elevate participant observation and anthropological method to the only way of really understanding the socio-cultures of the Other. But I believe it is time for us social anthropologists to climb down from our high horses and acknowledge that other social scientists can understand and unravel socio-cultural complexity as good as us and that Western military do not stand and fall with anthropological participation: If not anthropologists – then others can do the same job, but maybe (but certainly not certainly) with less commitment to the local community. A military breed of semi-social scientists may for instance do much more harm if starting to apply both anthropological methods and trying to put anthropological findings into military practice (as is currently happening).

Social anthropology is still rife with colonial guilt and although we should be embarrassed and keep remembering what some of our scholarly fathers and mothers did it should not push anthropology into being a counter-state science (making anthropology into basically an anthro-apology for the past). Here it is important to keep in mind that anthropologists are not just dead tools, but rather by engaging with state functions we may work for change – much less so if we remain counter-state. Most of us who have worked with development and emergency aid programmes can acknowledge the difficulties of such work for change, but also the urgent needs for these engagements. Certainly there are similar needs for engagement with the military. Although far from a preferred tool most of us would agree that a national army still has an important role to fill in the nation state. Furthermore I think most would equally agree that in internal warfare the lack of national armies protecting the entire (not partial) population is a root problem in many concurrent conflicts and here international peacekeeping troops still have a role to fill. Many commentators have pointed out that peacekeeping troops at times both prolong and worsen conflicts. Yet still it is worth pointing out that peacekeeping troops, at least in the short term, keep war related casualties down and moderate crime against humanity (the genocide in Rwanda was made possible due to the withdrawal of UN forces).

At the same time, peacekeeping troops certainly have their share of problems. The tragic outcome of US and UN troops in Somalia in 1992-95 is well accounted for. US peace enforcers and UN peacekeepers (including staff from Italy and Canada) tortured and brutally targeted not just Somali rebel soldiers and militia, but also civilians. Likewise peacekeeping troops all over Africa have been involved in sexual exploitation and abuse of civil populations. These incidents accounts for serious obstacles for future peacekeeping missions – and if lessons are not learnt there is a genuine risk that peacekeeping missions do more harm than good. Here there is a dire need for anthropologists and other social scientists with area specific knowledge to guide Western peacekeepers so they will not turn brutal as was the tragic consequences of US and UN troops in Somalia. We also need Western peacekeepers to do less harm than what has been the case in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the DRC where sexual exploitation and abuse of local population has been tragically commonplace.


 A mental abolition of racial difference appears to have failed.


At times listening to aid workers and peacekeepers is a scary experience. Over all those years that have passed since the abolition of slavery a mental abolition of racial difference appears to have failed. Although difference is no longer biologically based, instead it is now cultural and one can only marvel (and despair) at some of the stereotypes found among expatriate populations, including aid workers and peacekeepers. Culture, the key domain of anthropologists, and comprehension of cultural difference and cross cultural communication is a main obstacle for peacekeeping missions. For social anthropologists engaged in Africa it should be a responsibility to work towards changing views on the continent. After all we are more morally committed than Western foreign correspondents endlessly pondering the African heart of darkness (especially the conflict spots on the continent).

Unfortunately there is still a need to rehumanise Africa. One basic task for the anthropologist engaged with Western military is to get into the heads and minds of many still ignorant militaries (of course all are not) that Africans are a no lesser human kind. This is urgent. So rather than opting out altogether, anthropologists should take on the task of informing these militaries. In the long run that would make room for structural change on the global arena, and on the African continent it would certainly form the basis for more efficient peacekeeping making new humanitarian tragedies like Somalia less likely.

Do you disagree with Mats Utas? Would you consider working with the military in your country? Send your comments and perspectives on this issue!

6 Responses

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  1. fatou2002 said, on July 20, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I think Mats Utas makes a very important point. I was in a similar situation 2 years ago, when I decided to apply to an open call for proposal by The Slovene Ministry of Defense in cooperation with our Agency for Scientific Research for a ‘study on ‘conflict and cultural differences in Africa’. Many colleagues were critical or at least sceptical of my decision. However, as one of the very rare anthropologists in Slovenia with field research experience in Africa (I’ve been doing research in Burkina Faso in since 2000) I figured it was better that I am part of such a research group than to stand aside and let someone with no Africa experience do the research and help perpetuate the existing stereotypes about Africa and Africans. I find that so far I have in no way compromised my ‘moral anthropological principles’, and since the project is drawing to a close, I don’t think there is much danger in doing so in its last couple of months. I find that people of the Ministry of Defense, who, in most part, have never set foot in Africa, and know very little about the African continent, its people, their history/culture , are only benefiting from the material we provide for them and at the same time, I don’t think any of the material we have provided will in anyway harm the local population in Africa, if one day members of Slovene Army venture on a peacekeeping operation there. In fact I believe that the advice we provide will allow the peacekeepers to act in a way that is more respectful of the local cultures and practices than it has been known in the past.

    Liza Debevec, IAPS, SRC SASA

  2. Jan said, on July 20, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    This is an important topic and Mats’ contribution is much appreciated. He makes several interesting points. Mats seems to be in an “ideal situation” where he is in control of funds, can (almost) do whatever he wants, has full control over the findings, and is additionally employed by a comparatively “friendly” military. This puts him in a comfortable position vis-a-vis his US colleagues.
    I think the discussion amongst US anthropologists is less guided by a general notion of guilt as Mats argues than by the concrete circumstances: The US military is transforming to be “up to speed” with the new asymmetric security challenges. This transformation has materialised in new doctrines (counterinsurgency manual, stability operations manual) as well as in new institutions (human terrain systems, Africom). Both emphasise the relevance of non-combat/humanitarian/development activities which benefit local populations and which require cultural knowledge and understanding. Counterinsurgency is only one variant of this expansion. Africom’s primary mission to engage in conflict prevention is another. By doing so, the US military expands activities further into realms which many would argue sholud be dealt with by civilian means. The interdependency of security and development has become a dogma for politicians as well as for the military and many development practitioners (you can’ have one without the other). But maybe there is a line that critical social scientists don’t want to see crossed. And maybe that is why the discussion about “mercenary anthropologists” has become as energetic as it is.

  3. Alec said, on July 22, 2009 at 8:48 am

    I recently took a position at the University of New South Wales (at the Australian Defence Force Academy) as a lecturer in human geography, to teach military undergraduates from the Australasia-Oceania region about development geography (or development studies). After reading the comments in this blog, I recalled some early work on the ‘military and development’ (Kaldor, M. 1976 in World Development) that might be of interest. As social scientists, I think we can offer important insights into the role of the military in developing, conflict and post-conflict countries. The US speaks of ‘hearts and minds’ but this is unlikely to happen when promises, for example, of clean water and electricity are not kept. How long does a post-conflict scenario last? What is post-conflict? How do people interpret these concepts? I use, as much as I can, my research experiences in sub-Saharan Africa and in the South Pacific to, hopefully, raise awareness of the plight of people in developing countries, make people and culture less abstract to otherwise inexperienced cadets, who may find themselves in, say, Sudan or the Solomon islands. This is a unique opportunity for social scientists, both, anthropologists and geographers, to positively engage in.

  4. ruben eberlein said, on July 22, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    It is certainly to the point that much depends on the nature of the military in your specific country when one considers working with them. Open source, no intelligence gathering and strict adherence to the usual ethics are non-negotiable in any case, as Mats correctly writes.

    What concerns the German situation, I myself am not prepared to work with an armed force whose commanders and persons in charge on a political level engaged in anti-Serbian propaganda throughout the 1990-s. Remember the using of the so-called Operation Horseshoe (Hufeisenplan, Plan Potkova) – whose existence is in doubt until today, when I am not mistaken – in order to legitimize the NATO attack on the Kosovo back in 1999. Generally, the approach vis-à-vis the Milosevic regime cannot be considered a strategy suitable for defusing violent conflict, but to the contrary. It is, however, not my intention to understate the crimes of Serbian forces during the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo crisis.

    Moreover, the Bundeswehr presents itself today to stand in the traditional line of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his assassination attempt against Hitler on 20 July 1944. It is unbearable that this army takes pride in an anti-Semitic warmonger who stood by the Nazis until the very last minute. This is what Stauffenberg wrote his wife at the beginning of World War II from Poland: ‘The populace is an incredible mob, many Jews and a lot of mixed race. A people that only feels comfortable under the knout. The thousands of prisoners will be good for our agriculture. In Germany, they are certainly of use, hard-working, willing and frugal.’ On Monday this week, the force honoured this thug once again by way of a public swearing-in ceremony in front of the Parliament.

    The participation in the assault on Kosovo was the initiation of the new Germany, its final emancipation from the post-war era. It was justified with the grotesque reference to the Holocaust and the lessons allegedly learnt from it. According to this logic, the killing of the European Jews qualifies Germany today to act as a force for the good of all mankind – also with the military. That is simply disgusting.

    One last comment: The deployment of German soldiers in UN forces often substitutes for an elaborated and coordinated civil policy vis-à-vis zones of crisis which is missing in many cases. Take the Sudan: Two dozen soldiers from Germany in a country that many fear will collapse soon, but no strategy (and obviously no interest) how to engage on a diplomatic level. The collaboration with warlords in Afghanistan is another case in point.

    Taken all this together I come to the conclusion that I do not want to be involved in it at all.

  5. kate said, on July 23, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    This is a reply from a female Swiss social anthropologist who has conducted research in a post-conflict, rebel-held town in West Africa.

    Switzerland is a country very obsessed with its neutrality. I have grown up with the ideal of being neutral and linked to it is the idea that we have to keep communication open towards all sides. Therefore, not to engage with the military because I disagree with what they do, seems awkward. How can we expect something to change, if we have stopped to believe that in bringing in our views, we can work for change?

    As we have a militia system in Switzerland, in almost every family somebody has served in the army for some time in his/her life. If the bone of contention is that social anthropologists are employed by the military or in the defence department, the crucial question to me is how independent the researcher remains in his research.
    I am curious to learn what questions you, Mats Utas, have conducted researched in for the National Defence College. And apart from anti-racial thinking and behaviour, what do you think you can contribute to the military as a specialist for violent conflicts in Africa?

    One might ask, what does it actually mean to work for an institution? I think two things have to be kept apart: Many people simply assume that working for goes hand in hand with agreeing with. And this is a wrong conclusion.
    I have had a similar experience when I started to work as a consumer ethnographer for big companies, the second industry that has discovered the value of anthropological research, as Mats Utas has mentioned.

    During my fieldwork, one or the other rebel leader thought I was a spy, although they had signed my research authorisation long before. In my experience, there is a continuum between social science data and intelligence. And I presume this is the same for the work of a journalist? Have informants ever revealed you more details than you wanted to know?

    One last remark on the sexual habits of peacekeepers. I can assure you that it is not just the Western peacekeepers who exploit the local population; I have witnessed many colleagues from all African regions, Eastern Europe, South America and Asia, alike. Neither, do I want to conceal that I know local young women who are ready to engage in sexual relationships and these women do not belong to the least well-off female population. It might come as a surprise to some people, but the rebels were more respectful to me than some of the international peacekeepers.

  6. Mats Utas said, on July 26, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Thanks for your interesting responses to my text. Kate, in particular, asked me some direct questions that I will briefly respond to. First however I would like to ask, as it came up in the response from Jan, whether any of you have more direct knowledge on how current US counterinsurgency on African turf really works. It would for instance be good to have some comprehensible information from the Sahel region – what is really going on? Again my fear is that due to their lack of cultural understanding they will only speed up the “clash of civilization” – pushing Pangaea further apart. I recently met up with some scholars we may call “technically related” to such a programme and was yet again scared of their complete lack of understanding of the region. The Sahel was treated as a social void where al Qaida tumbles around freely. What more than violent medicine can such scant knowledge suggest? I would also like to know more about what types of counterinsurgency strategies US is currently trying in Somalia, more than once again aiding in creating havoc by sending in arms. What is done with the hearts-and-minds components?

    Ruben, when he discussed NATO anti-Serb propaganda and the attack on Kosovo, pointed out that humanitarian missions are not always that humanitarian. This point naturally holds much merit in some conflicts in Africa. Somalia again, and other conflicts where war on terror converge and intercept local conflict, becomes obviously problematic to “peace-keep” as aiding any faction simultaneously means shifting the balance in the international game as well. Any interim government, that is aided by Western forces, even if only financially, cannot negotiate with Islamist troops. It does not matter that the current interim president Sheikh Sharif has declared Sharia law, or that he once was leader for the Islamic Courts Union, his mere association with West (but also with Ethiopia) render any solution impossible. It is thus obvious that any peacekeeping force in current-day Somalia with the current state of world affairs cannot be neutral – the present AU force in the country is a proof of that.

    What more than anti-racist thinking can we aid African peacekeeping missions with, asks Kate. I think that in addition to helping them adapting to a more modern understanding of Africa we can provide contextual knowledge that greatly enhances possibilities for both successful peace brokering and keeping. Our 2009 programme at the Swedish National Defence College has focus on informal structures of security and its close connections with informal politics and economy – important worldwide but absolutely crucial for an understanding of post-colonial Africa. We look at this from both current and historical perspectives. My own research has been on the roles of Somali businessmen in Nairobi and their political roles in the current conflict in Somalia. Here we have also tried to take an activist standpoint researching in what way they can be used as peace brokers.

    It is interesting to note that by looking into informal power structures we get close to the interest of military intelligence as they have a keen interest in locating these key characters that can be used (or eliminated) in conflict zones. During the height of the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone I was several times approached by military intelligence staff asking for help locating such characters. I have always stated that I will be happy to aid them in understanding socio-cultural structures but that I will not point out individuals. And as I previously stated I believe we must stick to that approach. In a way knowing who these individuals are is part of knowing details that you do not want to know, as Kate also asked about. There is naturally a lot of other knowledge that comes with researching conflict that one does not want to know and that at times makes relationships in the field difficult to reconcile. Certainly I have at times asked myself how I can enjoy the company of a certain person who I know has abused just about every charter of humanitarian law.

    Finally I think it is important, as Kate does, to point out that working for an institution does not mean to always think as they do, or agree with them. It is vital that we can keep our own voice. But this is already a dilemma when we work for UN agencies and some INGO’s where we typically sign away the ownership of our findings and let the agency have a final saying of whether to release sensitive findings or not. Many researchers have been silenced by such contracts. When signing contracts with humanitarian aid as well as humanitarian military missions all “muting clauses” should be avoided.

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