Street Smart Chicago

Anthropology of War: U of C wonders what can be accomplished

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“Culture” was not in the quiver of NeoCon concepts launching Operation Iraqi Freedom. When insurgents started targeting occupiers, the Departments of State and of Defense asked cultural anthropologists: “Why do they hate us?” and “How can we target Iraqi hearts and minds?” Now, twenty-four anthropologists gather at the University of Chicago to ask what mission their discipline might accomplish.  Run on military time, the Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency conference occurs in ivyed Haskell Hall. “Lux ex Oriente” (“Light from the East”) is chiseled in stone near the entrance. “All hail to the glorious and imperial future, rich with the increasing spoils of learning and the multiplied triumphs of faith,” declared a reverend professor in his July 1, 1895 corner-stone address for the Haskell Oriental Museum, now home to the Anthropology department.  Samuel Huntington’s best-selling battle cry “clash of civilizations” is tactically useless for thwarting improvised explosive devices. “Culture” is now deployed to pacify local populations. “Human Terrain” teams include civilian anthroplogists. Military planners “dream that culture can fix what thousands of tons of munitions broke,” argues Washington prof David Price. “We should use anthropology to keep us out of these invasion fiascos in the first place.”  Price researches the history of American anthropologists colluding with the American government. He notes one employed by the White House who scanned the Chicago Defender and other newspapers to pinpoint labor uprisings that might strike munitions plants during WWII.  A University of Chicago political scientist diagnoses our “clinically insane intervention” as an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The generals are trying to “get it right” in Iraq and Afghanistan, after screwing up Vietnam. Lending expertise to counter-insurgency was roundly condemned. “I think it’s a sin to help occupy another country,” shares one scholar. Yet another adopts military metaphors for his talk about working for the Air Force: “Teaching Anthropology to the Military Masses: Reflections of an Academic Insurgent.”

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