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by Alexander Cockburn


The CIA and the U.S. Army have been diligently recruiting American anthropologists to help them in the "War on Terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the activities of these embedded ethnographers are provoking increasing outrage in the profession.

There is nothing novel about the recruitment of such scholars. Occupying armies have long relished the services of anthropologists to give them expert assessments of the dispositions of the natives. When he was researching his classic studies of the Nuer in Southern Sudan in 1930, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, the founding father of British social anthropology, was filing secret intelligence reports on the movements of the tribesmen, which enabled the British Air Force to drop bombs on them.

Two years ago, the American anthropologist David Price, based at St. Martin's College in Washington state and author of books on the use of anthropologists by U.S. government agencies, disclosed that the CIA was offering secret scholarships of up to $25,000 to train intelligence operatives and analysts in American university classrooms for careers in the CIA and other agencies. Unknown to their fellow students, these CIA scholars report regularly to their secret sponsors.

Now anthropologists are in turmoil over recent news stories dramatizing the direct participation of U.S. anthropologists in "human terrain teams" in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they brief U.S. forces on native customs. Back in the United States, Homeland anthropologists like Felix Moos at the University of Kansas offer preliminary training courses for U.S. counterinsurgency personnel based at Fort Leavenworth. Moos has been denounced by some colleagues as being "a killer for hire."

One radio debate between Price and U.S. anthropologist Montgomery McFate, a "Human Terrain Team" member in Afghanistan, featured McFate describing how expert ethnographic knowledge of Afghan customs enabled U.S. Army Teams to view with tolerant understanding homosexual practices between Afghan guerillas and teenage tribesmen. Two officers participating in the radio debate remained prudently silent during the exchange.

Now the uproar is lapping over the ankles of General David Petraeus, currently presiding over the so-called "surge" in Iraq. In September, Petraeus testified in Congress and drew much admiring comment in the press for his performance. Equipped with a PhD for a thesis on the war in Vietnam, Petraeus was hailed as a scholar-general, equally at home in the library and the foxhole. Petraeus cemented this reputation by editing the U.S. Army's new "counterinsurgency field manual," now published by the University of Chicago and selling briskly.

But this week, Price has detonated an scholarly explosion profoundly embarrassing to both Petraeus and Montgomery McFate, who is the co-author of a core chapter in the counterinsurgency manual on the role of anthropological knowledge in military operations. On Tuesday, under the headline "Pilfered Scholarship Devastates General Petraeus's Counterinsurgency Manual," the newsletter CounterPunch released a 4,000-word article by Price detailing a large number of unacknowledged "borrowings" in the manual's third chapter (the one coauthored by McFate) from other works (disclosure: I am the co-editor of the newsletter and website CounterPunch).

The view of the great German sociologist Max Weber on "power and authority," Price writes, "are reproduced in the body of the Manual, without quotation marks, as if they were the words of Petraeus' staff. ... In some sentences, the Manual so directly follows the vocabulary and structure of sentences in other works that the sources can easily be identified. For example, the Manual's (3-26) entry for 'ethnic groups' says: 'An ethnic group is a human community whose learned cultural practices, language, history, ancestry, or religion distinguish them from others. Members of ethnic groups see themselves as different from other groups in a society and are recognized as such by others.'

"Elements of this definition closely echo a passage in Anthony Giddens' 2006 Introduction to Sociology text (5th ed, p. 487), discussing ethnicity: 'Different characteristics may serve to distinguish ethnic groups from one another, but the most usual are language, history, or ancestry (real or imagined), religions and Members of ethnic groups see themselves as culturally distinct from other groups in a society, and are seen by those other groups to be so in return.'"

In recent years, the charge of plagiarism has been deadly to many reputations, and though Price avoids directly using the word, it is doubtful that others will be so prudent. Petraeus has many enemies. So, in her field, does McFate, the heroine of many puff pieces in recent months.

Next month, the American Anthropological Association meets to discuss charges that the discipline has been prostituted and anthropologists around the world endangered by the activities of the Human Terrain Teams. The University of Chicago Press faces severe scrutiny for its role in promoting what appear to be shoddy scholarly practices. This week's exchanges between Petraeus and McFate are, one can safely assume, likely to be acrid.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor   November 3, 2007   (

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