Thursday, October 11, 2007

Anthropologists helping the military in Afghanistan?

It is interesting how many people have written me notes about the news that anthropologists are working with the military in their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of them are asking whether this is a good idea.

Because I care about the Afghans I am pleased to think that perhaps there is some interest in trying to relate to the Afghan people as people – at least that's better than beating a house door down first and asking questions later. Of course none of us wants anthropology to be tainted by its connection with government activities. We anthropologists see ourselves as serious scholars wanting to know the truth as we can best discover it, whereas governments always have an interest in what is to be “known” by the public. Not only governments, of course; everyone involved in a situation has an interest, of course. The anthropologist’s task is to discover not only what falks are saying – what their rhetoric is -- but also what their respective interests are and their interests relate to their public pretensions. That means we have to be good listeners and good interpreters of what we hear and see, not just stenographers.

American anthropologists are more sensitive about how they relate to government than anthropologists in some countries [like France, it seems to me, for instance], and that goes back to Boas's quarrel with anthropologists during WWI over the use of anthropologists as spies, and in the Vietnam war, in which anthropologists seemed to have been used to collect information about the “enemy” [again, as intelligence agents]. I am hoping that in the Afghanistan case, at least, the services of anthropologists to the military are useful and uncorrupted by the connection. For them to help the army become more aware of the sensibilities and problems of the local populations would seem to be a great service -- anyway, if anthropologists have anything to contribute to the world this has to be it. So far, what I have read about anthropologists in Afghanistan sounds like they have actually helped the military deal usefully with the problems of the folks on the ground. So, good for them.

Of course, the truth eludes us – all of us, including anthropologists. We get lied to, told stories for reasons of effect, given claims that are entirely self interested, etc., etc. – so anthropologists, for all their claims, have problems of their own. So their utility is only as good as their ability to discern information. Lets hope these guys are good.

I do think the "anthropologists" involved [whatever their background is matters a lot: how good their grasp is of the language, how well informed they are on local customs, etc.] may be taking a risk, because it is easy for all of us to take self-righteous stands that provide no real help to anyone. The AAA has done so many times, sometimes foolishly, in my opinion.

For now, I think we should withhold judgment; at least give this policy a chance. It would be great if in fact anthropologists could help the military resolve some of the problems on the ground. If there is to be a winning of “hearts and minds” this could help. Anyway, it is a better approach than bombing households about which we know almost nothing and taking offensive action whenever in doubt. RLC

1 comment:

Sami said...

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