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War and Anthropology

Critical Review #1 Prepared by Curran Jeffery
Anthropology and Counterinsurgency:
The Strange Story of their Curious Relationship
Montgomery McFate, J.D., Ph.D.
March-April 2005, Military Review,

Scholarship and war are strange bedfellows. But the end of World War II brought them together to prevent what could have been even a bloodier conclusion to tragedy than we already had. The work of anthropologist Ruth Benedict (The Chrysanthemum and the Sword) convinced The White House to leave the Emperor out of the demands for surrender. In the Mythos of the Japanese people, the Emperor was sacred and absolutely to be obeyed. The fact that he was treated with respect and accepted surrender made it possible for the Japanese people to not fight to the last one standing which is what the American High Commanded had expected despite Hiroshima. He was treated with respect (unlike Hitler and Mussolini) because FDR accepted Benedict’s insights into the Culture of Japan and saw them as a path to Peace.

Fast forward 30 years to America’s tragic failure in Viet Nam. Anthropologists had presented the military commanders the approach of “hearts and Minds.” Counter insurgency is not the same as traditional European war between industrialized nation states where the guy with the most guns wins. It’s about people living in their villages, dealing with outside forces they often don’t understand. Although many of the officers saw the wisdom of understanding the Vietnamese people, the high command continually opted for overwhelming force. You’re using helicopters and tanks against an unseen enemy fighting a tribal war.

These two examples illustrate the conflict between traditional ideas of military strategy and the reality of counterinsurgency where cultural and religious values come into play. It highlights the dilemma of scholars who must deal with the possibility of their work being used to harm the people they researched. They must also deal with the possibility that with holding their research can make a bad situation even worse. There is often not an easy answer.

Dr. Montgomery McFate is well positioned to do applied anthropology in military and national security affairs. After UC Berkley, Harvard, and Yale, she earned her Ph.D in 1994. After the events of 9-11, she saw as her mission to convince the American military establishment the need to have a cultural understanding of the adversary. She is on the faculty of the US Navel War College. She is very controversial. Many anthropologists frown on her attempts to work with the military as a return to “colonial anthropology.”

Her point is well made: partially by tragic hindsight. If the American military brass had understood that the conflict in Viet Nam was not a military battle between super powers but a civil, political, economic conflict between local groups within Vietnamese society, we might have been able to broker a peace rather than create a blood bath. The Vietnamese people didn’t want any outside power to determine their fate. The Taoist principle of Universal Harmony and the need to return to it was shared by all Vietnamese. This could have been used to find a way forward. Instead, the American Military replaced the French in support of a Roman Catholic ruling elite that oppressed the Buddhist majority. We could have been seen as liberators but instead we became just another foreign oppressor who had to be driven out of the country just like the Chinese, the Japanese and the French.

Insight and wisdom can come from many sources. Cultural anthropology has yet to be overused. In today’s flashpoints, the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Africa, the conflicts often originate in conflicting religious loyalties. Yet there have been times when these same groups lived together in at least tolerance if not peace. What makes the difference? Can an era of peaceful co-existence be created and maintained? Is there any common ground? After all, Islam and Christianity share Jesus. These are questions that need to be asked, worked with, and answers found. For example, archeologists have established that the ancestors of the Jewish people are also the ancestors of the Palestinians. The adversaries are cousins.



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