Ignornance or Innocence? Scholars and the National Interest Abroad

Can academics ethically and practically embed in military?

Today’s NY Times has a piece about anthropologists embedding with army units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some scholars are petitioning for voluntary refusal of scholars to join military efforts, citing the loss of credibility their professions faced after scholars joined US military counter-insurgency efforts in Southeast Asia. Always considered CIA in drag, economic development teams

Why and for how long have scholars been enmeshed in military options? Is their independence, like that of journalists, diminishing since the first Persian Gulf War?

I cannot offer a full history of scholars and the military. There were many European psychologists involved in WWII US military studies of “shell-shock,” now called PTSD. Language specialists and mathematicians contributed to intelligence and code-breaking operations. In the 1960s and 70s anthropologists and economists, along with Foreign service officers, provided economic opportunity to South Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian villages to inoculate against Viet Cong sympathy and support.

[Such a counter-insurgency strategy provides fascinating connections that military representatives could not likely develop. A former US Foreign Service officer recounted to me the following story. Due to the agricultural, livestock and mechanical training the his team provided one Vietnamese town, a local leader revealed that several dozen US military personnel were imprisoned nearby and local Viet Cong were persuaded by this appreciative community to release them to the economic development team. When Army officials got wind of this, they refused to allow the team to participate. The memory of the prisoners trapped by bureaucracy remains with this man.]

The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military by reporter Dana Priest recounts a 19 year old Army private entangled in property disputes and recriminations between Serb and Bosnian neighbors during NATO peacekeeping of the late 1990s. Priest then describes civil affairs personnel — police & lawyers — serving key roles in reestablishing democratic institutions. More recently, members of the American Psychology Association attempted, unsuccessfully, to bar their members participation in military interrogation such as Abu Graib.

I intend to post later about the State Department’s ORHA (Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance) plan to establish “rapid response teams” of anthropologists and political scientists with regional expertise to advise military peacekeeping and civil reconstruction efforts once a “hot-spot” erupts. In the meaning, it is clear peacekeeping, reconstruction and counterinsurgency efforts require skills and mandates that tactical fighters do not possess. Scholars who participate in such efforts are unlikely to remain free of suspicion being CIA or military any more than State Dept. folks. Therefore, I agree future independent scholars on research will face great hostility. However, I maintain that scholars can and should play a more constructive role in contributing to improving democracy-building efforts. Otherwise, they maintain their innocence at the expense of our national ignorance.


One Response to “Ignornance or Innocence? Scholars and the National Interest Abroad”

  1. scottdinsmore Says:

    I should add that critical scholarship has suggested there was never a neutral position for academics vis-a-vis national military interests. Rather, fields such as anthropology *began* as imperial projects. Although opening chapters of ethnographers since the mid-1980s describe personal bias and the “positionality” of the writer, every scholar remains implicated in the “field of power” which permits their ethnographic effort in the first place.

    Though what this means for their voluntary involvement in military, reconstruction and peace-keeping efforts remains debatable. Let’s at least establish a correct set of premises, especially when one considers the normalized distrust of national interest in social science and humanities departments.

    A future discussion could explore the sources of such attitudes, dangers and antidotes.

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