Skip to content

The ?soul-less? war on terror

by rahnuma ahmed

?a particular kind of violence is intrinsic to imperialism, and imperialism is a danger not merely to the populations invaded but also to the soul of the imperialist. [italics added]
Talal Asad, anthropologist, Comment on ?Clash of Civilizations?
AMERICAN patriotic journalist Thomas Friedman is a ?small indication?, according to Asad, of the damage done to imperialist souls. Asad quotes Friedman, who wrote soon after the Iraq invasion: ?The ?real reason? for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Afghanistan wasn?t enough because a terrorism bubble had built up over there ? a bubble that posed a real threat to the open societies of the West and needed to be punctured. ?. The only way to puncture that bubble was for American soldiers, men and women, to go into the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, house to house, and make clear that we are ready to kill, and to die… Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would be fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could, and because he deserved it, and because he was right in the heart of that world.? Smashing. Hitting.

They could. And they did.

The ?spurious reasons? advanced by US President George W Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair were, of course, different. It was ?to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to end Saddam Hussein?s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people?.
Nearly five and a half years on, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in 1,255,026 Iraqi deaths (, 3.4 million internally displaced Iraqi refugees, 2.2 to 2.4 million Iraqi refugees living abroad. The number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the US is 3,222.
US military casualties number 4,150. Other coalition troops 314. Iraqi Security Force deaths number 7,924. Contractor deaths have reached 444. Three hundred and twenty thousand American veterans of the Iraq war have brain injuries. According to internal e-mails written by Dr Ira Katz, the Department of Veteran Affair?s head of mental health, suicide attempts among Iraqi war vets are about a thousand per month.
According to March 2008 estimates, the invasion and occupation has so far cost $526 billion. The estimated long-term bill is $3 trillion (Foreign Policy In Focus).
And the damage done to imperialist souls? It is beyond reckoning. It continues unabated.

Anthropology for warfare, or ?culture? spies.

The Pentagon has devised a programme for recruiting anthropologists in the ?war on terror?. Situational awareness, it seems, is not enough. ?Cultural awareness? of the people invaded and occupied is needed to win the war. Lieutenant Colonel Fred Renzi, US Army (Military Review, Sept-Oct 2006), cites an incident to illustrate what is meant: Retired army Major General Robert Scales had asked ?a returning commander from the 3rd Infantry Division how well situational awareness (read aerial and ground intelligence technology) worked during the march to Baghdad?. The reply was, ?I knew where every enemy tank was dug in on the outskirts of Tallil.? But the only ?problem was my soldiers had to fight fanatics charging on foot or in pickups and firing AK-47s and [rocket propelled grenades]. I had perfect situational awareness. What I lacked was cultural awareness. Great technical intelligence…wrong enemy.?
The programme, known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) is run by the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). It recruits anthropologists, and other social scientists, to ?understand the people among whom our forces operate? (?hit? and ?smash?), and also ?the cultural characteristics and propensities of the enemies…?. The US military, according to the HTS website, needs to improve its ability to ?understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed?. As Renzi writes, information is needed on indigenous forms of association, local means of organisation, and traditional methods of mobilisation which create ?invisible? networks (of support), and are available to America?s ?adversaries?.
In other words, those occupied and conquered have not welcomed their liberators, the insurgency is strong, Iraq has turned into a quagmire.
The function of Human Terrain Teams will be to provide direct ?social-science support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis?. These will be used by brigade commanders and their staff ?as part of the military decisionmaking process?. The programme is run by BAE, a contracting agency. The modus operandi is in many ways similar to Blackwater (a private military company, also known as ?the world?s most powerful mercenary army?), since anthropologist ?embeds? are not people who are already in the military, but ?contracted? to work alongside the military, embedded in army units. The starting pay is over $100,000. It can reach a high of $300,000, a tax-free amount if the period of service abroad is more than a year.

The soul of anthropology

The involvement of anthropologists in US military projects is not new, as Nayanika Mookherjee points out in a discussion moderated by her in ASA Globalog (Association of Social Anthropologists). Its historical precedents are to be found in the colonial roots of anthropology. Not only that, she adds, it reminds anthropologists of Project Camelot, the social science research project initiated by the United States Army in 1964, aimed at assessing the causes of war, and preventing these through government action. According to critics, the project was aimed at strengthening established governments and crushing revolutionary movements in Latin America.
There is a critical difference, however, between anthropology?s previous and current engagement with counter-insurgency programmes. Anjan Ghosh, in his post to the ASA discussion says, since Human Terrain Teams are embedded with combat units, anthropologists ?are directly involved with combat operations?. As part of combat units, anthropologists wear army fatigues and carry guns (Newsweek, April 21).
The project of embedding anthropologists to gather ?ethnographic intelligence? (Renzi) has ?caused anger?, ?uproar?, ?intense debate? in anthropological circles, and in the professional bodies of anthropologists. As David Price, who teaches anthropology at St Martin?s University in Washington, and author of Weaponizing Anthropology says, both sides are passionate. Both sides are worried ?about the soul of their discipline?.
Embedding ethnographers with military units raises ethical issues. Price says, fundamental research ethics require that research subjects ? those on whom, or with whom, research is being carried out ? have voluntary, meaningful and informed consent, that they?re told what?s going to be done with the research, and that no harm should come to those who are studied. ASA?s president John Gledhill says working for the military would foster suspicion within universities worldwide. It would cause problems in the field. ?If we are writing about sensitive areas, we anonymise place names and, often, people. If research enables people to identify human beings, there is no guarantee that nothing harmful is going to happen.? And, of course, suspicion can spread, it can stick. ?If people on the ground in foreign countries get the idea that some anthropologists work for the CIA, then they are not going to feel like being very friendly.?
Those who speak for HTS, like Felix Moos, an anthropology professor at the University of Kansas, deride the ?divide between academe and the intelligence community? because it is detrimental to national security interests at home and abroad. Those against cite the involvement of anthropologists in the Vietnam-era military project called CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), which mapped the human terrain, and identified suspected Viet Cong sympathisers. This later led to the assassination of 26,000 suspected Viet Cong.
The recent swing in British universities towards teaching and researching programmes on international security has been noted for its ?affinity? with the research agenda of UK funding bodies such as the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). Filippo Osella, one of the contributors to the ASA blog says the ESRC?s Radicalisation Programme, seemingly open-ended, focuses only on Muslims/Islam. It thereby assumes that existing forms of radicalism are internal to Islam as a religion, and that all Muslims are potential terrorists. ?Radicalisation is thus seen as a Muslim social problem.? This precludes analysis of radical state policies, of radical ?Western? state policies. How Muslims look at Western foreign policies is something that is taken for granted, it is part of a wider reluctance to engage with debates among Muslims that is taking place globally, on the role of western neo-colonialism.
Postscript: The US defence secretary, Robert M Gates (president of Texas A&M university before becoming defence secretary), in a speech had called on the Pentagon to embrace intellectuals. On the other hand, anthropologists circulated an online pledge calling on their fellow anthropologists to boycott Human Terrain Teams, particularly in Iraq.
The hitting and smashing in Iraq continues. The damage done to imperialist souls continues.
First published in the New Age on Monday, 1st September 2008

Published inRahnuma Ahmed


  1. I.K.Shukla I.K.Shukla

    The war of global terror and torture being waged by the empire will be ceaseless and relentless pursuant to its objectives. With the UN emasculated, with the NATO turned into an auxiliary of the Pentagon, and EU into its annexe,
    the US lawlessness – preemptive strike, regime change, extraordinary rendition – will be rampaging unpunished,unbound, to soak this century in blood and destroy as much as possible of human civilization. Imperialist soul is an oxymoron. Imperialists have never been accused of having souls.
    Wish Drik on its 19th anniversary countless returns of the day.

Leave a Reply