Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When Anthropologists Attack

I guess it's not surprising that an anthropologist that's accepted an Army invitation to teach the officer corps how to use cultural awareness to finetune American counterinsurgency doctrine will end up having a positive view of the Army's inviting anthropologists to teach the officer corps how to use cultural awareness to finetune American counterinsurgency doctrine. But I have to admit, I find this surprising:

Since the military's mission is to execute the policies of our democratically elected officials, can...anthropologists really deny commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan the cultural knowledge they need to wage a war they were charged by their political leaders with fighting? Is it ethically more correct for them to retreat from the world and leave others to do the fighting? Is the moral response to cynicism about politics and military power to do nothing, or...to censure those who choose to do something? (p. 17)

Those are the questions that Sheila Miyoshi Jager feels are begged by her colleagues' criticism of the cooptation of anthropology for military use. The idea that war, once declared, gives the military a moral claim on academic knowledge seems like a stretch even within the logic of the Bush administration's wartime imperial presidency. But Jager's an eager participant, as is obvious from her rapturous descriptions of Gen. David Petraeus' overhaul of the Army's counterinsurgency manual, the celebrated FM 3-24:

FM 3-24 has been described as "radical" and "revolutionary" by Time Magazine, and it has received rave reviews in the New York Times. Understanding the cause for FM 3-24's enthusiastic reception is itself noteworthy, notes Sarah Sewell, "because it seems to point to the overwhelming feeling of a majority of Americans that the United States is adrift in the world with no foreign policy to guide it in Iraq and elsewhere." Americans are "simply confused about the nationís strategic purpose in wake of September 11, 2001..." Once again, Americans are wrestling with a "disillusionment about politics and military power, and the debacle in Iraq has reinforced a familiar cynicism that risks disengaging Americans from their government and America from the rest of the world." In an attempt to understand America's new role in the world and also to stem the growing disillusionment about politics at home, they have looked to FM 3-24 for answers: "The doctrine's most important insight is that even -- perhaps especially -- in counterinsurgency, America must align its ethical principles with the nation's strategic requirements." (pp. 13-14)

You got that right, folks. Adrift, confused, disillusioned and disengaged, America is looking to the FM 3-24 for answers. I guess if nothing else pans out, Gen. Petraeus has a promising future on the self-help circuit.

And perhaps I'm misreading that last sentence, but it seems to me that it's gotten the equation frighteningly backwards: It's our strategic requirements that we must measure against our principles. To do the reverse reduces our principles to the level of mere window dressing. It is, nevertheless, ironic to see that the War On Terror, if it accomplished nothing else, did manage to make moral relativism more palatable to the right.

Jager seems to have fallen prey to the anthropologist's worst enemy, namely losing one's academic objectivity and identifying with the host culture. Here's her admiring citation of Petraeus' warm and fuzzy appeal for more culturally sensitive... Wait a minute, what's that word I'm looking for? Oh, yeah. I know. Propaganda:

In chapter 5, "Executing Counterinsurgency Operations," the manual encourages the development of counternarratives "which provide a more compelling alternative to the insurgent ideology and narrative. Intimate cultural familiarity and knowledge of insurgent myths, narratives and culture are a prerequisite to accomplishing this." (p.13)

Jager's monograph also contains some eye-openers of the purely absurd variety. The following passage would be sidesplittingly funny for its deadpan lack of self-awareness if it didn't reveal that such a major shortcoming in the American military's strategic thinking was addressed only last year:

As part of the "cultural turn" within the DoD, new lessons on National Cultures in the standard Strategic Thinking course and a new series of Regional Studies courses were introduced into the curriculum in 2006-07. The aim of these courses is to teach students about the importance of cultural awareness and understanding of "how other regions, nations, and societies view themselves and others" and the effect of this awareness on policy and strategy formulations and outcome. This is a significant shift away from the traditional focus on American interest and policy in foreign areas... (p. 6)

Or this:

Every dimension of the framework must be appreciated as both a cumulative and revisionist process of not only the actual historical experience, but also memory of that history for memory often distorts history for contemporary purposes. (pp. 6-7; Emphasis definitely all mine.)

It's a shame, because Jager's principle policy proposal is insightful. Instead of lumping all of our enemies together in an "Us against them" approach that serves to magnify their power, we should be using our cultural understanding of our various adversaries to emphasize the differences among them. The anthropologist's version of divide and conquer. But it's lost amid the unquestioning cheerleading that surrounds it.

Finally, there was a point just after the invasion of Iraq that President Bush was fond of evoking occupied post-War Japan. So this passage about how we used an understanding of Japanese culture to advance the implantation of democracy there got me thinking:

Hirohito was miraculously transformed from Japan's preeminent military leader who oversaw a brutal 15-year war against Asia and the United States to an innocent Japanese victim and political symbol duped by evil Japanese militarists. The surprising and rapid transition from Japanese militarism to Japanese democracy was made not through the imposition of American democratic values and norms, but by a not-so-subtle manipulation of Japanese cultural symbols and meanings, including a rather blatant manipulation of history. (p. 8)

If only we'd framed the invasion of Iraq as an effort not to liberate the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, but to liberate Saddam Hussein from the inner circle of evil Baathists who had used him as a puppet for the past thirty years. It would have been a not-so-subtle manipulation of Iraqi cultural sympbols and meanings, including a rather blatant manipulation of history. But it might have worked.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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