Archaeologists, Conflict, and the NSF

The Facebook and Twitter worlds have spent the past few weeks exploding over comments made by Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith on September 30. The congressmen suggested that spending money on the social sciences via the National Science Foundation was a waste of federal dollars and unjustifiable when we could be using the money for medical research. Others have since written some elaborate blog posts refuting Cantor and Smith’s arguments (I like Rosemary Joyce’s and Sturt Manning’s). This afternoon (October 8), the Society for American Archaeology weighed in with a letter containing counterarguments. Mostly, they’re OK… mostly.

Today’s letter makes three arguments for maintaining funding for archaeology by the NSF. The latter two are basically that 2) archaeology adds greatly to quality-of-life and pride-of-place and 3) knocking out funding for archaeology would make an infinitesimal difference to our budget woes given how hilariously-underfunded (my interpretation) the social sciences are. I have zero to argue with in either of these points. Indeed, archaeology is a significant component of a growing heritage tourism industry in Arkansas, and I am extremely glad that I am able to help, in a very modesty way, in that effort and to help Arkansans learn about their rich, complex, and varied past.

I have a HUGE bone to pick with their first point, however. They write:

The US has spent more than a trillion dollars and thousands of Americans have lost their lives engaging with tribal societies. The military’s new counterinsurgency doctrine stresses the importance of understanding local cultures and histories—exactly the kinds of things that we learn from social science research. Beyond the potential military significance of social science research, our increasingly globalized economy and the delicate nature of diplomacy in an era when non-Western countries are becoming major players in the balance of world power make the social sciences critical to our national interest.

“Tribal societies?” Really?

Unfortunate word choice aside, I want to take issue with substance of the first part of this argument, that archaeology can contribute to the war-making process through the writing of sociocultural knowledge in the vein of the counterinsurgency manual. The modern counterinsurgency manual was written essentially as a response to what turned out to be a waist deep, big muddy quagmire in Iraq (new version on the way). It was supposed to be the academic 2×4 that you throw under the tires to get the truck out (I live in rural Arkansas, so this metaphor is apt). Adding cultural knowledge would make the war work and our warfighters could come home sooner, or so the story went.

The success or failure of that enterprise is open to debate. The Human Terrain Teams saga is, well, of checkered reputation. The much larger and more significant intelligence/sociocultural analysis efforts by DoD and its contractors, which have drawn in many people with advanced degrees in anthropology [full disclosure: this includes me, for a brief period] has come under scrutiny for its lack of control and focus (Priest and Allen 2010). It has not been a careful, systematic development of scientific knowledge.

The glib way that the SAA offers this primary justification suggests that the authors don’t  have a good grasp on the enormity of the world of intelligence research and the disturbingly creative applications to which their research might be put. By leading with military/intelligence applications for archaeological research, the authors offer a justification that immediately opens a number of questions about our ethical responsibilities to descendant communities that have been burning through the American Anthropological Association for the past few years, often resulting in conclusions at variance with what the SAA leads with. As the SAA’s ethics statement really doesn’t define our obligations to descendant communities in wartime. We have yet to have this conversation, though we should. Moreover, the ethics statement (Principal Number 8) does enjoin us from engaging in research for which we are not prepared. By and large, we are not prepared for this research world, and we should not try to wade into it in such a cavalier fashion.

As I was writing this, it occurred to me that the letter makes no mention of a much more important justification than any of those listed. Climate change. Seriously, there is no mention of our biggest global concern, which the long time scales of and material orientation of archaeology is well-poised to make a major contribution to. We, unlike any other discipline, can look at how humans have coped (or not) with climatic shifts through time. This has applicability all over the place, including military ones, if you’re so hot-to-trot to engage with DoD’s research sector. Why not put that out there first, if you want to demonstrate relevance?

I’m not going to say that archaeologists aren’t involved with war-making, either now or in the past. I know we are and have been. I am similarly not saying that we should not be. There is much that archaeology can bring to international relations (military and civilian) in general that has great relevance from the standpoint of simple knowledge and mutual appreciation, and on a budget that wouldn’t get other disciplines to the airport.

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