Performance of commitment

I am really starting to read in earnest again, as much as my schedule permits with the two kids and a crazy busy work life.  Over the weekend I configured an RSS reader and refreshed the list of blogs I’m following.  For a long time, most of the compelling blogs I was reading were related to technology trends, but I’m amazed at the proliferation of blogs by anthropologists in the past few years.  It is so great to be able to skim for fresh, compelling content and not have to wait for stale irrelevant journals to appear via snail mail on my doorstep!

One of the thought-provoking blogs I’m currently subscribed to is Zero Anthropology.  The most recent post by David Price is about an anthropologist named John Allison that recently resigned from the U.S. military’s Human Terrain Systems (HTS) program.  I think what was so compelling for me is that anthropology has historically been very critical of anthropologists working in the for-profit arena, so the criticisms of anthropologists participating in HTS hit closer to home than I might like to admit.  However, the blog post is not about criticizing John for his participation in HTS.  David engaged in a extended dialogue with John about his experiences in the HTS training program, and that conversation – made visible through David’s blog post – demonstrates fundamental ethical issues with HTS that cannot be reconciled with our training as anthropologists.

On one hand, I agree that the HTS program is exceedingly problematic.  In the simplest terms, I just don’t think it’s possible for social scientists to support our military objectives and significantly, consistently help indigenous people in a war zone at the same time.  Even if small-scale successes do occur, the priorities of the military will prevail in the big scheme of things.  Does that mean social scientists should not engage at all?  I don’t know.  Social scientists who need to work (as John Allison did), those who believe that an insider’s view on the program is needed, or those who believe they have the power to resist the discourse of such a totalizing system may feel that it’s a viable job opportunity.

In fact, shortly after Price’s initial post, a comment was posted by  someone in the reserves who is trained as an anthropologist.  He argues that anthropological involvement in the military is critical, since change needs to happen from the inside.  He says, passionately that:

I’m an anthropologist, and I’m also a soldier in the reserves, and we need more, not less influence from anthropology there. Regular army soldiers are not big picture thinkers, and Spec. Ops. where I am, doesn’t have a lot of influence on them. We need help. I’m sick of being a soldier trying to fight the system, and I’m getting out. I’m getting out, because its hard to change things as an enlisted soldier. Officers and civilians, like HTS members, can influence and change things. You might think they can’t, but you are speaking from a position that stems from your imaginations, not empiric reality. We arescientists [sic], not a novelists. Actually, I have influenced those around me on the ground and if I wasn’t there, then things would be worse in many way. Often people are just waiting for one brave soul to step forward and say “this isn’t right, we shouldn’t do this”.

And in a follow up comment:

Let me ask you this. Would you prefer that the small minded, rednecks were alone in the army with no counter weight to their influence on representing your country abroad?  You want people like me there, and I’ve suffered to represent the American people overseas in a more positive light.

“Holden” as he signs his comments on the blog, truly believes that he can make a difference from inside the military … and perhaps he can.  In fact, one of the ways I make my peace with working in a corporation is that most Americans work in corporations, and it’s beneficial to bring an anthropological perspective (notice I didn’t say anthropological influence) to the context.  In fact, as early as 1969, Laura Nader argued for the importance of ‘studying up’.  But, as I addressed in my earlier blog post about SAP’s Top Talent program, I regularly struggle to retain my perspective as an anthropologist while enacting my role as an employee.  As Jaffe describes in a 1995 NAPA journal article called The Limits of Detachment: A Non-Ethnography of the Military, there is a “tension between the experience of legitimate membership and the practice of ethnography”, because “the dynamics of involvement/detachment are extremely complex and are influenced by factors that the ethnographer can only partly control”.  She goes on to say that

One of the first lessons of military training has to do with the display of ideology, the performance of commitment [emphasis mine].  The military establishment understands that the conditions of military membership challenge common American social conceptions of egalitarianism and individualism.  Consequently, the military demands a display of ideological commitment from tis members at almost every juncture of military life.  … The training process imposes a new, albeit restricted, idiom of self-expression in which the foregrounded message is commitment and belief in the justice and integrity of the system.

And so, while I think it’s laudable to want to change the practices of HTS and other projects from the inside, I also believe it’s exceedingly unlikely.  However, I am not sure that it serves a purpose to ostracize anthropologists who do participate and hope to effectuate change.  I agree with Price that (should the HTS continue) the military will eventually train its own social scientists, who will be willing to carry out the work without question.

What about people who choose to serve with the hope of having a positive impact?  Without walking in their shoes and fully understanding their experience, it’s just not possible for me to judge.  I personally would not choose to work in a project such as HTS, but I am also very blessed with a good working situation and a strong support system.  I also have a family history that has given me plenty of occasion to consider where I stand on these issues.  My father is an engineer who made a conscious decision not to engage in research that supported the military production of the company he worked for.  Part of his commitment to that path was because his father (my grandfather) was made to move with his family to Washington State, and to use his scientific expertise to support the Manhattan Project.  When my grandfather received a bronze plate for his service to the US government, he drilled a hole in it and made it into a bird feeder.  So I, like my grandfather and father before me, am clear that this is not a path I would personally choose (and my personal circumstances thankfully don’t require it at the moment).  But I still wonder … who am I to judge?

I struggle specifically because there are so, so many situations that are less clear than walking the streets of Afghanistan carrying a weapon and working alongside US military personnel.  For example, should we levy criticism at anthropologists working in our National Laboratories, even if their charter is to raise awareness about the value and significance of cultural differences?  What about social scientists at NASA?  And what about those who have supported the improved advertising of the Army for the purpose of recruiting young people with the approval of their parents?  And what about those social scientists who work for manufacturers of military equipment like Lockheed Martin?  And now we’re really close to the heart of the issue … because in fact, SAP is a software provider for multiple branches of the US military.  Now, I am not personally responsible for the development of our software, nor for the implementation of that software to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our Armed Forces.  But I am responsible for helping to make SAP employees – including those who sell and implement our software – more effective in their daily work.

So, unlike John Allison, I am thankfully not being asked to wield a gun. But where is the line, really, as I perform my commitment to SAP?  For all the reasons outlined above, I do not feel I can judge the choices being made by other social scientists.  Maybe others are more fortunate than I, and they are able to make their living in an academic setting or another environment absent these tensions.  But not I.  And therefore, who am I to judge?

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