Academics on the front lines

Abbey Steele highlights an interesting op-ed and article in the New York Times covering the controversy in the American Anthopology Assosciation (and elsewhere) over cooperation between academic anthropologists and the US military in Iraq:

Speaking of anthropology and “armed social work,” this U of Chicago anthropology prof thinks the Human Terrain System (read: deployment of anthropologists to translate culture to American soldiers) shouldn’t be officially boycotted by the American Anthropology Assoc: “The real issue for academic anthropologists is not whether the military should know more rather than less about other ways of life — of course it should know more. The real issue is how our profession is going to begin to play a far more significant educational role in the formulation of foreign policy, in the hope that anthropologists won’t have to answer some patriotic call late in a sad day to become an armed angel riding the shoulder of a misguided American warrior.

I’m reminded of a dinner conversation this week with Mike Wessells, a psychologist at Columbia U who (like my wife and me) work closely with former child soldiers. Mike is one of the most thoughtful people I know, and he is outraged that the American Psychological Association allows its members to work with the military in interrogations, especially the so-called enhanced interrogation. Supporters of the cooperation point out that it is better to be involved as a force for positive change (an argument similar to that in the op-ed Abbey notes above). I’m sympathetic to this view.

At dinner Mike pointed out, however, that psychologists early in their career may not have the self-possession, the reputation, or the financial freedom to be able to freely speak their mind and denounce interrogation tactics they see as illegal or inappropriate. That is, we may overestimate their ability to influence and (if the time comes) to be whistleblowers. I think he has a point, one that transfers wasily to the case of young embedded anthropologists.

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