Posted by: sean | April 21, 2008

Science and war

The Middle East Strategy at Harvard is one of those sites that I continue to read even though (nay, because) it makes me want to smash my head against the computer screen. Some of the pieces on they are interesting and intelligent, but some are really, really stupid. Salzman’s most recent piece falls into the latter category. I haven’t read Salzman’s book, but I had a feeling that I might not like it, since his description of it and Stanley Kurtz’s review smacked a little bit too much of another Kurtz. I hadn’t made up my mind, though, and thought that while Kurtz’s review in the Weekly Standard might be oversimplifying the region a little, the book must be more nuanced. But Salzman’s most recent piece on MESH makes me not want to read his book at all.

He seems to be arguing that since people in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran think that scholars are spies in the first place, it doesn’t do any harm to be one. (Harry Matthews takes this idea to a hilariously genius extreme in his most recent novel.) And besides, those who are against working with the Pentagon are really just a bunch of haters:

It is very common for anthropologists, and foreigners in general, to be regarded as spies, agents, dubious, and perhaps dangerous. So the oft heard plea of researchers—”We can’t ever work for government or people will think all of us all the time are spies and agents”—seems at the very least naive, and, one cannot help thinking, disingenuous.

…For many anthropologists, cooperating with the Pentagon would be cohabiting with the Devil. It would be siding with power, capitalism, whites, men, heterosexuals, and thus with the evil forces in the universe. When it comes to the American military, cultural relativism does not apply.

Personally, I don’t know much about Human Terrain Teams, but I do know that I’d have some very ambivalent feelings about working for the government, particularly if it meant working on Iraq. On the one hand, I can understand the sentiment that as long as the US is going to do whatever it wants, a lot of damage control can come in the form of academic advice and research — damage control that might mean saving lives, both American and Iraqi. On the other hand, I also sympathize with the idea that one wouldn’t want to get sullied by having anything at all to do with the whole enterprise. In any case, it’s a complicated subject for which I’ve got very mixed feelings.

But does Salzman really think that those who might have qualms with working at the Pentagon are self-loathing whites who equate the idea with “cohabiting with the Devil”? I mean come on, while I’m sure there are some idiots on both sides of the argument, there really isn’t any need for straw men, right? It sounds to me like Salzman has an axe to grind with some of his colleagues.

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