Sunday, July 25, 2010

Academia and the Military

Posted by Chris at 5/3/2007 9:32 AM ...

Abu Muqawama brought up an interesting issue yesterday, when he pointed out the challenges facing academics who lend their expertise to the military to enhance understanding of cultures that our troops suddenly find themselves operating in. Beyond the significant issue of simply getting heard by leaders when you have a message they either don't understand or don't want to understand, you have the idea among some academics that by helping out the military in this way, you are somehow aiding and abetting imperialism. As Abu Muqawama points out, having this information can not only save lives on both sides once a conflict starts, but could potentially alter decisions to use troops in the first place.

The immediate example is that of Montgomery McFate, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who is working to convince military leaders that anthropology is an important tool for their arsenal. The potential for the use of Anthropology and History to prevent or wage wars is important - the challenges of both Vietnam and Iraq have roots in a lack of understanding the cultures our military operates in, with negative results for both the United States and the enemy of the moment. This goes to the heart of counter-insurgency doctrine, and could prevent not only casualties, but war crimes committed out of fear, frustration, revenge, anger, or the belief that only horrors inflicted will have a significant impact on an opponent's forces.

So there is an opportunity for social scientists and other academics to positively influence how the military operates by helping them understand other cultures. This includes simple thinsg like not insisting that Muslim women remove their hijabs at security checkpoints, or teaching language and social skills, but also includes helping soldiers understand the complexities of the history and culture of a place. All of things things influence how American actions and decisions are perceived by others, and also relates to how those decisions are made.

Of course, there is another side to this issue: is it ethical for academics, particularly social scientists who work closely with their subjects as anthropologists do, to work in the disguise of peace and understanding to then use their new knowledge and skills with the military for the purpose of subjugating foreign lands? I think this goes back to the issue of Just War. If you fight only Just Wars, based on the Augustinian doctrine, this is no problem - you are defending yourself and others from a legitimate and potent threat. However, if there are ulterior motives involved (we need natural resources, want revenge, think we are morally/intellectually superior), you may well have a moral and ethical dilemma.

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