In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology and Militarism

  • Introduction
  • Video and Radio Resources
  • Historical Military Interactions
  • Warfare
  • Anthropology of the Military
  • Anthropology for the Military
  • Anthropologists’ Encounters with Intelligence Agencies
  • Critiques of Militarism
  • Counterinsurgency
  • Warzones
  • Intelligence
  • Human Terrain Systems
  • Ethics and the Militarization of Anthropology
  • The Militarization of the Universities
  • Communities Impacted by the Military

Anthropology Anthropology and Militarism
David Price
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0094


Anthropology has a long and ambivalent relationship with military organizations. Whether it was anthropology’s development in the shadow of colonialism, settler colonialism, the expansion of empires, a range of military conquests, or the soft influx of military-linked funding for area studies or language acquisition, anthropology developed in situations involving military forces in ways that have not always been considered by the discipline. As citizens, anthropologists periodically serve in militaries of their nations, and these militaries have recurrently attempted to draw on anthropological knowledge or practice for use in military conquest or to gather regional knowledge that has intelligence uses. In an episode made famous by Franz Boas’ post–World War I condemnation of archaeologist-spies, anthropologists used archaeological fieldwork as a pretense for spying for the Office of Naval Intelligence. The Second World War elevated the status of anthropology in military and intelligence circles, and the war raised awareness that anthropology could be applied to the war effort. During the 1960s, revelations of Project Camelot and America’s wars in Southeast Asia pushed many younger anthropologists to oppose military and intelligence agencies’ uses of anthropological information for warfare and counterinsurgency operations. In the United States, the controversy generated by anthropological contributions to operations during the late Vietnam War led the American Anthropological Association in 1971 to adopt its first Code of Ethics, the Principles of Professional Responsibility. Soon, analyses linking the historical development of the discipline to colonialism extended these critiques from the present wars to the roots of the discipline itself. Anthropological engagements with the military raise ethical and political questions about the roles and responsibilities of anthropologists. The ethical issues involve questions of whether the use of anthropological data or methodologies violates basic anthropological ethical principles of obtaining voluntary informed consent, causing harm, or not issuing secret reports that studied populations cannot access.

Video and Radio Resources

The list here is a brief selection of film and television documentaries and radio programs addressing topics relating to anthropology and militarism. Some documentaries, like Public Broadcasting System 2009 and Der Derian, et al. 2010, describe past and present uses of anthropology for warfare; other radio or television segments cover the controversies and debates arising from anthropologists using anthropology for counterinsurgency operations. Some segments, such as Democracy Now 2007 and Rehm 2007, describe anthropological critiques of and arguments for the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System (HTS) program. Other Democracy Now segments, including Democracy Now 2007 and Democracy Now 2009, chronicle the displacement of the Chagos to make way for an American military base. Rose 2007, an in-depth interview with anthropologist Montgomery McFate and Sarah Seawall, highlights military plans to use anthropological knowledge for counterinsurgency operations.

  • Democracy Now. 2007. Anthropologists up in arms over Pentagon’s “Human Terrain System” to recruit graduate students to serve in Iraq, Afghanistan. Democracy Now, 13 December.

    Describes the ethical problems raised by anthropologists contributing to the HTS program and discusses the American Anthropological Association’s condemnation of the program for its violation of basic ethical principles. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ efforts to organize anthropologists in opposition to HTS is described.

  • Democracy Now. 2009. British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan on “The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa.” Democracy Now, 6 August.

    Anthropologist Jeremy Keenan analyzes nearly universal opposition to US plans to establish a permanent AFRICOM presence in Africa and details how US representations of a kidnapping incident in the Central Sahara are used to justify the AFRICOM presence.

  • Der Derian, James, David Udris, and Michael Udris, dirs. 2010. Human terrain: War becomes academic. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films.

    The first half of the film interviews anthropologists, political pundits, military personnel, and the creators of the HTS program in an effort to capture both sides of the debate over the efficacy and ethical propriety of the program. The second half of the film focuses on the death of social scientist Michael Bhatia. See the Human Terrain website.

  • Public Broadcasting System. 2009. The airmen and the headhunters. Secrets of the Dead Series. Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting System.

    In 1944, British anthropologist Tom Harrisson parachuted into the jungles of Borneo with a sizable arms cache and drew on his anthropological training as he undertook the training of Dayak tribesmen, preparing them to attack Japanese forces occupying coastal regions.

  • Rehm, Diane. 2007. Anthropologists and war. The Diane Rehm Show, 10 October.

    Col. John Agoglia, Lt. Col. Edward Villacres, anthropologists Montgomery McFate and David Price, New York Times reporter David Rohde, and host Susan Page discuss the HTS program as well as broader efforts to integrate anthropological knowledge in the military.

  • Rose, Charlie. 2007. A discussion about counterinsurgency: With Sarah Sewall and Montgomery McFate. The Charlie Rose Show, 24 December.

    Charlie Rose interviews Sarah Sewall and Montgomery McFate about academic contributions to the new US counterinsurgency doctrine. McFate and Sewall describe the philosophy and implementation of American counterinsurgency operations.

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