Enlisting the Social Sciences

By Roberto J. González

Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. David H. Price. Petrolia, CA: CounterPunch and AK Press, 2011.

Weaponizing Anthropology
by David H. Price

Over the past twenty years, David Price has carefully untangled the twisted history of American anthropology’s troubled relationship with the FBI and its grim encounters with McCarthyism. In his most recent book, Price unflinchingly sets his sights on the present. Weaponizing Anthropology is a blistering exposé of the post–September 11 militarization of the social sciences and the growing presence of the CIA and other intelligence agencies on American university campuses. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, this gripping book is a powerful example of politically committed social science.

Price begins by reviewing historical moments in which anthropology was deployed for war. He convincingly argues that the “weaponization” of anthropology during the two world wars, the Vietnam War, and now the “war on terrorism” led to ethical crises and, eventually, professional ethics codes. But an obsessive focus on ethics can sometimes result in avoidance of political action—or, worse yet, indifference. Price argues that historical amnesia about CIA-orchestrated coups and assassinations and about the agency’s support for death squads has contributed to apathy among many US academics today. At the same time, the growing “corporatization of university campuses has left underfunded departments willing to consider anything that promises to provide funding.”

It is in this context that US intelligence agencies have returned to American campuses over the past decade. In response to the September 11, 2001, attacks, several new scholarship programs were created, including the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, the Intelligence Community Scholars Program, and the National Security Education Program (NSEP). These initiatives are particularly insidious for two reasons: first, because they help foster an atmosphere of fear in the classroom (since scholarship recipients remain unidentified); and second, because they typically require “payback.” Scholarship recipients are obligated to work for national security agencies after graduation or else face the prospect of paying back their financial awards, plus steep penalties. This is not an idle threat. Price describes the case of Nicholas Flattes, a University of Hawaii student who received an NSEP scholarship but then decided not to seek work in the national security field. In 2008, the Department of Defense contacted Flattes with a demand that he either begin working for a US national security agency or pay the cost of the scholarship and penalties. For Price, the significance of this episode is the way in which Pentagon officials are using debt as a means of pressuring Flattes and perhaps others to do national security work.

Another post–September 11 program is the Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence (ICCAE), originally created to diversify the pool of US intelligence agents by pumping funds into universities with large numbers of African American and Latino students (among the grantees were Florida A&M University and the University of Texas–El Paso). Such programs are problematic because they ultimately threaten academic freedom by “bring[ing] chills to open classrooms. . . . As ICCAE students graduate and begin careers at the CIA, NSA, FBI, and other agencies requiring security clearances, accounts of all sorts of academic discussions stand to make their way into intelligence files.” Price’s deep historical knowledge of US spy agencies’ infiltration of student organizations, militants like the Black Panthers, and other activist groups through programs like the FBI’s COINTELPRO effectively informs his analysis of the present.

The Pentagon created still another initiative, the Minerva Consortium, in 2008 to promote social science research in narrowly targeted areas such as “Chinese Military and Technology Research” and “Studies of Terrorist Organization and Ideologies.” Though some might applaud the Pentagon’s newfound interest in social science, Price is skeptical: “Minerva only funds those who already are aligned with Defense’s basic vision of the world. . . . [The] Soviet model of directed social science funding will make America’s critical perspective more narrow precisely at an historical moment when we need a new breadth of knowledge and perspective.” History tells us that such research can distort science and ultimately become self-defeating. In particular, the case of the biological sciences in the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1960s (in which the erroneous theories of Trofim Lysenko were promoted by Soviet leaders seeking to justify agricultural centralization and other policies) provide a clear example of how bending science to the needs of a powerful state can have catastrophic consequences.

A fascinating section critically deconstructs military texts, including a handbook created for the Human Terrain System (a controversial army program that embeds social scientists with combat brigades), the US Special Forces adviser guide, and the much-heralded US Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency (the brainchild of General David Petraeus). Price’s most startling finding is that Field Manual 3-24—eventually republished by University of Chicago Press— includes dozens of passages lifted from the works of Victor Turner, Max Weber, Anthony Giddens, and others. What emerges from a critical reading of the military manuals is clear: the simplistic notion of culture presented in these texts is in high demand not because it is accurate or innovative but because it fits well with the perceptions and needs of those working in military and intelligence agencies.

In the concluding chapters, Price develops this idea further by taking on the “COIN Team” (contemporary counterinsurgency theorists). His devastating critique of its anemic theoretical and methodological proposals reveals that the US military is relying on an outdated, reductionist, and untenable concept of culture “as a controllable, linear product” for large-scale social engineering in Iraq and Afghanistan. He notes, “The COIN Team thinks that it can leverage social structures and hegemonic narratives so that the occupied will internalize their own captivity as ‘freedom’ . . . [but] culture can’t be hacked in the simple ways the military is being told it can.”

Despite the dark subject matter, Price’s prose is often leavened with humor—for example, his comparison of the COIN Team and Sasha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” character is hilarious. But the broader message of Weaponizing Anthropology is serious: now, more than at any other time since the McCarthy era, academic freedom, intellectual inquiry, and social science as we know it are being threatened by what sociologist C. Wright Mills once called “military metaphysics.” This rousing book will inspire many readers to resist these troubling trends.

Roberto J. González is professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. He has published four books, including Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca and Militarizing Culture: Essays on the Warfare State. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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