January 25, 2006

*Not New, But New to You

The following is a short paper I wrote last semester, which was supposed to be a reaction to this and this, answering the question of whether or not it is ethical for anthropologists to assist the Department of Defense with information about wartime enemies.

In "Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of Their Curious Relationship", Montgomery McFate aims to illustrate that more anthropologists are needed by the Department of Defense to aid in America's warfare. McFate's stance is that anthropology is a valuable--yet underutilized--tool for the military. He gives an overview of anthropology's successes and failures during wartime, and a brief history of the science as used by the government. The successes are generally found in the first half of the 20th Century, whereas the failures center around the Vietnam War and current era.

In World War II, McFate says that knowledge of Japanese culture was very important to the war effort, and helped immensely in ending Japan's involvement. President Roosevelt was "convinced the Japanese were 'culturally incapable of surrender'", and was able to know enough about their society to realize it was important to "leave the emperor out of the conditions of surrender". In this case, anthropological knowledge helped bring the war to a faster end.

McFate blames the failure to win in Vietnam at least partly on the military's refusal to learn from anthropologists. Marine General Victor Krulak, in particular, was sure the military could force "the peasants (to) do what's necessary". Anthropologist Gerald Hickey was largely ignored by the military establishment, and derided by politicians and soldiers alike as not aggressive enough. In Iraq, McFate blames incomplete anthropological knowledge for Abu Ghraib. It was believed that the Iraqis' sexual humiliation would allow them to be blackmailed for information. Instead, sexual humiliation "only destroys honor, and for Iraqis, lost honor requires its restoration through the appeasement of blood." The blackmail attempt failed.

If Japanese culture had not been taken into account by the United States government, how much longer would World War II have dragged on? How many more lives would have been lost? The answers to these questions are not easy to come by, but it does seem entirely likely that many more people--Japanese and American alike--would have died if anthropological knowledge had been lacking or ignored. The refusal of anthropologists to cooperate with the Department of Defense would not have protected the Japanese. Cooperation in this case helped stop more casualties. The failures of Vietnam from an anthropological standpoint increased the length of the conflict--and therefore increased the numbers of casualties as well.

Since the Vietnam era, McFate says anthropologists have been less likely to sacrifice their ethics in order to help the war strategists. Because anthropologists' studies are supposed to be publicly available, giving the military information on completed studies should not be at all ethically questionable. Performing research at the behest of the military is a gray area. However, I believe that withholding information is more dangerous than releasing information. Withholding information will not prevent war, but it does have the potential to shorten war and save lives. As the AAA's statement on ethics says, it is the anthropologist's responsibility to "do everything in their power to protect the physical, social, and psychological welfare...of those studied." An anthropologist has the unique power to help limit the damage caused by war. Any refusal to divulge information to the military is unlikely to persuade the military to cease operations. Is this choosing the lesser of two evils? Perhaps it is, but it is important to realize that actual human lives are at stake. It is necessary to take a pragmatic view rather than a lofty, philosophical view of the ethical question.

Posted by Jennifer at January 25, 2006 02:13 PM | TrackBack


Very interesting.

Thank you for giving me something to think about that I had never considered before.

I hope you are both well and successful in your efforts at the university.

Posted by: Jack at January 26, 2006 09:04 PM