Project Minerva combines anthropology with the military

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September 9, 2008

8:20 PM

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ’65 announces academic research-driven effort

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ’65 announced April 14 the creation of Project Minerva, a plan to engage university anthropology professors in military-funded research.

Many academic anthropologists, including some at the College of William and Mary, oppose working with the military. Along with the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, a group that promotes ethical anthropology ideas, many anthropologists argue that military-backed projects could conflict with ethical concerns.

“As anthropologists, we have an obligation to protect subjects, and by working on behalf of a military organization, we cannot guarantee the security of our subjects and it may put them in jeopardy,” College anthropology professor Brad Weiss said.

The anthropology-military link has become more prominent in recent years, as the armed forces increasingly meet different societies and religions in areas such as the Middle East and China, though not all anthropologists object to the pairing.

This spring, anthropologist Montgomery McFate spoke at the College about working as the senior social science advisor to a similar Army program called the Human Terrain System, which sends experts from social sciences to work with the military in the field.

She said the armed forces are often stationed in foreign nations with little knowledge about their environment and that anthropologists educate the military about particular regions and cultures.

Weiss said he opposes HTS as well as Project Minerva, and the American Anthropological Association feels that HTS violates their adopted ethical code.

“For the Human Terrain System, they’re basically sending anthropologists into Iraq with guns,” he said.
Anthropology professor Grey Gundaker said these sorts of partnerships aren’t unusual.

“Anthropologists are involved in many simulations to help with warfare to make models on how people communicate in different countries,” she said.

Project Minerva and similar initiatives sometimes generate conflict when the government shields any part of its intentions, Gundaker said.

“We should assist when possible about making information available, but the issue is the secrecy of the information,” she said. “It’s unclear how the information that we might contribute can be used, because we never have the final say on how it can be used.”

Project Minerva and HTS are not the first plans that involve academic anthropologists in government research, Gundaker said.

“Anthropologists have previously done work in parts of the world where people can be in danger,” she said. “For example, during the ’50s and the Cold War era, there were many anthropologists working in these types of jobs.”

Gates referenced this previous work when announcing Project Minerva, Gundaker said. Gates said Project Minerva, which seeks to bring together different disciplines, would hopefully lead to new avenues of study. During the Cold War, such collaboration led to fields of study like game theory and Kremlinology.

However, in the 21st century, the military’s focus has moved away from Russia; according to the NCA website,
Gates hopes to gain access to Chinese military and technological developments, provide insight into the workings of dictatorial third-world regimes and research the political and social climate of Islamic countries and the relationship between terrorism and religion.

“With the Minerva initiative, we envision a consortia of universities that will promote research in specific areas,” Gates said in his speech. “These consortia could also be repositories of open-source documentary archives.”

Gusterson said even though he does not support Project Minerva, it is nevertheless important to have anthropologists performing research for the war on terrorism.

“Because we’re living in the post-American world, the more academics there are to think about the relationship between Islam and terror, the better,” he said.

Gusterson said Project Minerva would attract more anthropologists if the Department of Defense did not financially back the research.

“The country would get better research if it was funded by a civilian foundation,” he said. “The fact that the money is military means, based on ideological and political grounds, and on principle, many anthropologists will not take military money.”

Weiss said he did not know of any College anthropology professors involved in Project Minerva, and none of the nine professors reached by The Flat Hat said they were involved. An additional three could not be reached for comment.

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