Cap and gown, helmet and uniform

Anthropologist David Price contributes an article (subscriber-only link, sorry) to the latest issue of Counterpunch.  Under the title “Resistance’s Half-Life: Militarization and the Growing Academic Silence,” Professor Price contrasts the widespread refusal of American anthropologists to join military-sponsored research projects during the 1960s with the far more compliant attitude of their counterparts today.  Professor Price’s narrative begins in 1965, when sociologist Johan Galtung, then director of  the Institute of Peace Research in Oslo, publicized Project Camelot, a plan under which social scientists would work under the direction of US military and intelligence officials to produce a study of insurgent movements and counterinsurgent operations in Latin America and elsewhere.  In response to Professor Galtung’s efforts, both Latin American public opinion and US academic associations demanded, and received, official assurances from the Johnson administration that Project Camelot would be canceled and that the warmaking organs of the Washington regime would not use scholarly research as a pretext for activities “which in the judgment of the Secretary of State would adversely affect United States foreign relations.”

Later attempts by the military and intelligence agencies to press social science into the service of covert operations met with equally strong resistance.  Professor Price illustrates the resistance defense contractors were likely to encounter from social scientists with a series of highly amusing quotations from an exchange between sociologist Pierre van den Berghe and the late Hans Weigert, in which Professor van den Berghe patiently explains why he would regard it as unethical for a scholar to conduct intelligence work for the United States in the Congolese Republic, while Weigert responds with name-calling.

Professor Price reports:

Because I have written about the militarization of anthropology since the mid-1990s, after the post-9/11 recruitment renaissance began, I often received copies of recruitment emails forwarded to me along with the angry replies that scholars had sent to the unwanted solicitors. I have a file of these forwarded angry replies from 2004-2008, when these feelers from the military and contractors were seen by many as shocking. Sometimes a single recruitment emailing would be forwarded to me by a dozen concerned scholars. These were then new, previously unthinkable proposals, shocking that they were made so openly and broadly circulated. In many cases, the approached anthropologists vented spleen in ways reminiscent to Van den Berghe’s above response, giving history and ethics lessons to would-be recruiters – who I’m sure generally did not read past the first few lines of anger and deleted the replies, or perhaps deleted the sender from an e-list. Certainly no minds were changed from these responses, but the reaction measured the outrage many anthropologists felt over these disciplinary border intrusions. In some instances it is possible to deduce having obviously taken the contract.

In the last four years, these messages have ceased to come Professor Price’s way.  He draws an ominous conclusion from this silence.  US society has become thoroughly militarized; “there has been a shift in the acceptance that these military and intelligence intrusions into our daily lives are now a normal feature of our world. These military advances into academia have become regular features of our social fabric. These are the social facts of a militarized society.”  Perhaps it no longer occurs to scholars that they have an obligation to something other than the dictates of the national security apparatus.

Professor Price quotes a phrase coined by anthropologist Catherine Lutz: “the military normal.”  Professor Price describes the military normal as “the ubiquitous spread of the military into all aspects of American daily life and consciousness, advancing at such a rate that we internalize the militarization of everything from police departments, hiring practices, educational processes, discussions of healthcare, workplace regimentations, to an extent where the militarization of everything becomes a normal part of our cultural fabric in ways we hardly notice anymore.”  Professor Lutz herself described it in these terms in the abstract of the paper where she introduced the phrase:

Prevailing mainstream media discussions of the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a deeply restricted kind of range, focusing on how the wars are being .fought, or should be fought – with what tactics, for how long, and with what level of “success.” The pundits, with the populace in tow, debate whether the military is stretched too thin, well-enough resourced or not, or in need of tens of thousands more troops to do the job. They do not ask more fundamental questions about the US military, history’s most powerful and most globally expansive in its positioning. This talk considers the emergence of what can be called the military normal in World War II and its wake, the contemporary political economy of the military, as well as the cultural understandings that currently legitimate it.

Professor Price complains of a growing silence that has resulted from the rise of “the military normal.”  Both of these descriptions make it clear that the silence is a natural consequence of this process.  The heart of the process itself is the reverse of silence.  The military and the intelligence agencies can carry on their operations and the moneyed elite that controls the US political system can reap profits from those operations untroubled by public opposition even if scholars speak out against them, if the public is not in the habit of listening to critical voices.  Silence is what we experience when we listen in quietness; what our warlords wish on us is not quietness, but noise, constant, deafening noise, noise sufficient to knock all impertinent questions and inconvenient qualms out of our heads.  Cable television, talk radio, the internet, and other outlets of prefabricated opinion produce a great deal of noise, and often suffice to drown out the unfamiliar voices that present us with complex, closely reasoned, ethically challenging arguments.

Surely, however, that sort of noise is not adequate by itself to drive scholars to abandon ethical standards based on ideals of disinterested inquiry and service to a truth that exists independently of national allegiance or corporate profit  and take up positions as functionaries of a warmaking regime.  A different kind of noise is necessary to bury those ideals so deeply that they no longer trouble the mind of the potential recruit.  Professor Price touches on this kind of noise at the end of his article.  Listing the developments that have discouraged scholars from holding to principles that would lead them to refuse war contacts and speak out against them, he includes “three decades of neoliberal programs’ impacts on student loan debt, campus austerity programs, and new promises of military funding.”  Scholars working in American universities from the 1960s through the 1990s may have had many realistic possibilities of making a living.  A scholar who would not subject his or her research project to the warmaking ambitions of the power elite might in those days have been confident that other, more peaceful opportunities would present themselves.

Today, the noise that rings through the halls of the American academy is the noise of desperation.  Every year, graduate schools produce more Ph. D.s; virtually every year, universities hire fewer faculty members.  The newly minted doctors of philosophy generally enter the glutted labor market saddled with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.  Therefore, the alternative facing an academic today is rarely between ethically acceptable and ethically unacceptable work.  Rather, the academic must choose, on the one hand, to making himself or herself agreeable to whoever might be in a position to grant the favor of a career, or, on the the other hand, to vanish from the academic world and sink into a life of poverty.   When noise like that is battering away at one’s mind, it can be difficult indeed to hear the voice of conscience.