Mid East battle of the sociologists

A new phalanx of anthropologist-warriors are being recruited, carrying “cultural scripts” to battle.

Mark LeVine article - BAE Systems
BAE Systems has been expanding its “Human Terrain Systems” from the already struggling pool of academia [GETTY]

I received an email from BAE Systems the other day. According to the company’s website, BAE is the largest military contractor on earth, with 100,000 employees globally “engaged in the development, delivery and support of advanced defence, security and aerospace systems in the air, on land and at sea.”

The subject line of the email read “International Employment for Social Scientists”. I couldn’t imagine what BAE would want with me, given that my published views on the military industrial complex don’t exactly resonate with the company’s business model.

But given the sorry state of academia in the United States these days, and especially California (the new Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, has proposed another half a billion dollars in cuts to the University of California, the United States’ premier public institution of higher learning), I couldn’t help being curious what the “market” was offering for academics outside the university system.

And besides, the email featured a nice photo of several Middle Eastern-looking women in hijab smiling and interacting with what appears to be an American or European woman, presumably a “sociologist”.

She’s not wearing a hijab, but she is wearing a keffiyeh-type scarf around her shoulders (I guess this means she’s gone “native” and has developed a profound connection with her subjects).

Who knew BAE would be so interested in global feminist solidarity?

Academics in the kill chain

Well, I quickly understood, the company is in fact interested in no such thing. Instead, printed over the photograph in block lettering is the phrase “Human Terrain Systems” (HTS). I almost spilled my coffee.

I had assumed that the Human Terrain System was retired along with president Bush and the neocons who spent much of the 2000s trying to militarise academia in the service of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the email informed me otherwise. Instead, like so much of Bush administration policy towards the Middle East, the HTS program is clearly continuing under his successor.

Originally conceived in the mid-2000s as the Iraqi insurgency gained strength and the US was making little headway in Afghanistan, the “Human Terrain Systems” program brought anthropologists and other scholars or so-called experts into the military “kill chain” to advise field commanders on how better to interact with the local populations in the territories under occupation.

Sociologists and particularly anthropologists are considered crucial to the HTS program because, the argument goes, they have the skills to collect data – what the CIA would likely call “intel” – on “key regional personalities, social structures, links between clans and families, economic issues, public communications, agricultural production, and the like.”

The US military believes such information will help it manage its occupations more successfully.

One of the few PhDs who has worked with HTS declared that “I’m frequently accused of militarising anthropology… But we’re really anthropologising the military.”

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of professional sociologists and anthropologists don’t see it this way. They voice strong displeasure at the HTS program, not merely on ethical grounds (the use of scientific knowledge to occupy and even kill people), but because the funds for HTS-sponsored research comes at a time when most social science funding is way down.

Staking out new terrain

As funding for graduate studies and teaching positions dries up across the country, HTS boosters have imagined retaining young academics as “an Individual Ready Reserve” of scholar-warriors who could be deployed as needed to situations where the US military is engaged.

Ironically, the methodologies the program utilises includes concepts like “cultural scripts”, with which few young scholars would have more than a passing familiarity.

Such antiquated notions fell out of favour among anthropologists a generation or more ago because of the simplistic and misleading representations of local cultures they offer.

Not to mention that when such theories were previously used by academics in the service of counterinsurgency programs during the Vietnam War, they didn’t exactly bear much in the way of fruit (other than for “scholars” like Samuel Huntington, responsible for the strategy of carpet bombing civilians to force them from the countryside to the city, who was rewarded with a lifetime sinecure at Harvard for his services).

Given how Vietnam turned out for the US military, one might imagine it wouldn’t be recycling outdated academic theories from that bygone war.

But then as now, the few scholars who support the co-mingling of soldiers and scholars argue, in the words of another HTS supporter, that “the real purpose of all of this is, how do you convince the people to come over to your thinking, or at least to approximate your thinking… Only social scientists… can give the military the knowledge it needs to complete that task with a minimum of violence.”

A charade too good not to believe?

Similarly, a visit to the HTS Careers website invites recruits to “forge an era of better understanding” through engaging in “advance cultural operations field research” and “offer[ing] socio-cultural expertise to US command personnel”.

These are two of the more creative euphemisms for intelligence gathering I’ve heard in a long time, but I can’t imagine many legitimate academics not seeing through the charade.

Apparently BAE system is more sanguine about recruitment prospects than am I.

“We ask you to share this information about the HTT program with talented social scientists in your network who may be interested in applying to the program,” the email explained. “We are seeking up to 100 qualified candidates for this opportunity.”

Arab language skills, however, are “not required”. This makes sense, since if you assume all those tribesmen you’ll be dealing with are following a well-worn “cultural script”, you really don’t need to understand what they’re saying to you as you interrogate – or rather, interview – them.

In the emerging discipline of militarised scholarship, such knowledge is not so important.

Indeed, the email from BAE argues that for a young or just un(der)employed academic, being a member of an HTT would be a great resume booster, helping struggling academics to “Enhance their professional credentials through field research; Make a real-world difference in the lives of people; [and] Receive a rewarding salary.”

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that militarily-relevant research would be publicly disseminated any time soon (isn’t that what landed private Bradley Manning in so much trouble?). Indeed, when I emailed the representative listed in the email, I was told that all publications would have to be “approved by the government”.

So much for academic freedom.

And that last remark certainly feels like a dig at those in academia making a less “rewarding” salary than BAE seems to be dangling before us.

But in today’s culture the market rules; BAE is clearly betting that a younger generation of scholars, with few chances for full time academic jobs, will join the company in putting profits ahead of principle.

From the boardroom to the classroom

What BAE and its government allies don’t realise is that the corporatisation-cum-militarisation of higher learning is to academia what Al-Qaeda or religious extremism are to democracy: a cancer that if not removed as soon as it’s detected, eats away at the fabric of the university until it becomes a gaunt shell of its former self.

As the monumental changes around the Muslim and particular Arab world demonstrate, never has there been a greater need for independent, academic programs capable of training a new generation of scholars and policy-makers who can participate in the kind of reshaping of American or European policies in which the Obama administration, for one, is presently engaged.

Instead, the humanities and social sciences are are being defunded, with less money each year for graduate training and research. And it is in this context that the recent uproar over the London School of Economics taking millions of dollars from the Gaddafi family needs to be understood.

Before we criticise the LSE for taking money from the Libyan leader and his family, we should understand that British universities have lost funding at a rate that is shocking even in the US.

At the same time, the government pressed LSE to develop ties with Gaddafi and take his money – essentially, it prostituted the school – not just to replace public funding, but as a tool in the larger British effort to win Gaddafi’s friendship, and through it, billions of dollars in contracts.

Yet were senior LSE administrators really naive enough to imagine that Gaddafi family were genuinely interested in opening up the country along a democratic path?

Could someone as brilliant as former LSE Director Anthony Giddens, one of the world’s keenest critics of modernity and globalisation, so easily fall under Gaddafi’s spell that after a couple of visits he opined in the New Statesman that “I get the strong sense it [the reform process] is authentic and there is a lot of motive power behind it. Saif Gaddafi is a driving force behind the rehabilitation and potential modernisation of Libya”?

If Giddens actually believed that Seif, who did his PhD at LSE, was a potential moderniser, should we be reevaluating his celebrated theories of modernisation? If so, what about the theories of academic luminaries like Benjamin Barber, author of Jihad Vs. McWorld, and the Peruvian development economist Hernando de Soto, both board members of Gaddafi’s foundation?

And what does it say that George Soros, no friend of dictators he, advised the LSE to accept the donations. He too believed in the potential for Libya to modernise and, if not quite democratise, at least open its society in unprecedented ways.

Perhaps more important, he understood that in the current funding environment the LSE had little choice but to take the chance it would get burned by Gaddafi, accept his money, and hope that the Libyan fairy tale came true.

The price of a Faustian bargain

Which brings us back to the current situation. At my university funding is so bad for graduate training that colleagues are actually considering whether the only fair thing to do is to stop admitting graduate students. This at what is arguably the world’s greatest public university.

Meanwhile, across the continent in Washington, DC, the HTS program is humming along.

As for the Obama administration, stuck in its own “cultural script”, it has (according to the LA and NY Times) apparently determined that while democracy, in some minimalist form, is good enough for Tunisia and Egypt, in Bahrain and other monarchies, oppressed Arabs will be satisfied with mere “reforms” – a few extra seats in parliament here, some development money there, and a free flowing internet so everyone can Facebook and twitter to their hearts’ content.

I don’t know who is advising Obama, but they sound like they’ve drank the HTS Cool-Aid, even if they haven’t completed the training courses BAE conveniently offers “year round” for prospective recruits.

In the meantime, as the administration takes aim at Libya, it’s worth noting, as Pepe Escobar pointed out in a recent Asia Times column, that whether or not Saif Gaddafi plagiarised his PhD dissertation, his father, Muammar, is indisputably a “fine sociologist” who for decades has manipulated the lack of functioning nation-state identities and systems in the border regions between the Sahara and the African savannas to extend his power across the continent.

In a battle between America’s HTS specialists and Dr. Gaddafi’s African mercenaries, we can only wonder who will prevail.

But it’s clear that if the US and its allies in Europe would spend more money on training people who actually understand the Arab and Muslim world, and listen to their advice of those who aren’t embedded in the corporate-military-foreign affairs complex that has profited for so long from the present system, they might be able to craft a set of policies that would achieve their stated goals of stability and democracy.

Until they do, it seems that HTS and programs like it will continue to be funded, while the great university systems of the West, and the knowledge and progress they have long enabled, fade into memory.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.