Scientists in Moral Panic: Debating ‘Mercenary Anthropology’
‘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!