Sep 20, 2013

Misunderstanding, militarized

As a follow-up to my last post, I am reposting this entry  with more on the new Bowman expeditions, by my friend and fellow geographer Joel Wainwright:

"[Jerry] Dobson, a professor of geography at Kansas University [KU], is the lead researcher on one of 14 projects to win grants this year from the Minerva Research Initiative , a U.S. Department of Defense effort to learn more about other parts of the world through social-science research.  He and other researchers will receive about $1.8 million over three years to study indigenous communities throughout Central America, with a possibility to apply for renewal and receive a total of $3 million over five years. […] “There are too many instances where misunderstanding of other areas has cost us,” Dobson said. From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, the United States may have fared better in many of its conflicts over the past half-century with more knowledge about the culture and politics of other parts of the world." - Matt Erickson, LJWorld
Source: Public Political Ecology Lab

Yes, the Bowman expeditions are back, rebooted by a Department of Defense Minerva grant, and soon to arrive in all seven Central American countries. To study which indigenous peoples, exactly? Usually in academia such things are not secret, but this project involves the US military.After reading Erickson’s story I wrote Professor Dobson to ask for a copy of his research proposal. In reply to my request, he sent me a link to one of his peevish essays . I thanked him for the piece and asked for the proposal again; he replied by asking if I had read his essay—which, I gather, he sees as a scathing rebuke of critical scholars like me, hence an answer in itself. That’s the thing about collaborating with the military: it makes you more cloistered and secretive. The fraternal romance of power creeps in. Pretty soon you don’t share basic information about your research with other scholars, even when the work is funded from the public and motivated, ostensibly, by a need to create an “informed public.
In fairness to Professor Dobson, he has reason to be defensive. His work has come under sharp criticism (see Joe Bryan’s essay , e.g., and its links). I recently published a book, Geopiracy: Oaxaca, militant empiricism, and geographic thought , that examines how Dr. Dobson and other geographers from the University of Kansas went to Mexico to map indigenous lands with funds from the US military and, according to the communities they studied, failed to mention the source of their funds and their ties to the US military. I won’t recapitulate the whole story (you can read Jeremy Crampton’s review here ), but it’s worth remembering that the controversy started when indigenous communities in Oaxaca discovered the ties between the Bowman expeditions and the US military. They rebelled, publishing a trio of public denunciations of the project, such as this 2009 letter from the community of San Miguel Tiltepec, Oaxaca:
[The geographers] never informed us that the data they collected in our community would be given to the Foreign Military Study Office (FMSO) of the Army of the United States, nor did they inform us that this institution was one of the sources of financing for the project. Because of this, we consider that our General Assembly was tricked by the researchers, in order to draw out the information the[y] wanted. The community did not request the research[;] it was the researchers who convinced the community to carry it out.  Thus, the research was not carried out due to the community’s need, it was the researchers […] who designed the research method in order to collect the type of information that truly interested them. […] [W]e wish to express to the public […] our complete disagreement with the research carried out in our community, since we were not properly informed of the true goals of the research, the use of the information obtained, and the sources of financing [for the entire statement, see Zoltan Grossman’s website ].
The ‘Oaxaca controversy’ shocked many by revealing US military collaboration with academic geographers. With his NSF/Minerva grant, Professor Dobson is again spearheading the military front within the discipline.  Although to read the coverage of his work in LJWorld, it seems the sole motivation is cultural understanding.
Thanks to the Public Records Office at the University of Kansas, I was able to obtain a copy of the proposal that won Dr. Dobson the $3 million. As a scholarly proposal it is not worth serious discussion. The text is comprised mainly of recycled bits of Bowman Expedition doggerel; superficially it resembles an NSF proposal, but the analytical architecture is just shoddy.  For instance, their research hypothesis is: “certain land tenure and land use practices will mean significant level of cultural resilience, with associated benefits, such as environmental conservation and tourism development…” (p 4). Yet these “certain” practices are never defined and the brief theoretical discussion on land tenure relies mainly on a handful of US military sources.  Their methodology is to vacuum up as much material about indigenous communities as they can obtain and repackage everything into one giant “ArcGIS database of digital maps, data, and statistics” (p 5).
Nevertheless, the proposal contains these useful hints about the project. Their fieldwork is based out of the Department of Anthropology at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (or UNAH ) where they are collaborating with anthropologist Dr. Silva Gonzalez (p 5).  They aim to study all the municipalities in Central America where at least 30% of the population is indigenous as classified by language (p 7). Presumably this means that they will conduct considerable fieldwork in Guatemala – home to the largest percentage of indigenous people in Central American – although, curiously, Honduras is the only country singled out for fieldwork in the proposal.
Less ambiguous are their promises about the project’s usefulness to the US military. The proposal’s one-page ‘abstract’ includes this statement:
Impact on DoD Capabilities and Broader Implications for National Defense: The proposed research addresses recognized deficiencies in U. S. foreign policy, military strategy, and foreign intelligence.  DoD will gain new capabilities to conduct human geographic research, similar to but more advanced than those employed extensively in World Wars I and II.  DoD will benefit directly and abundantly from the openly-reported research and the geographic information disseminated and from a greatly improved pool of regional experts, an improved labor pool, and a better informed public in times of future political debates and conflict [my italics].
Never mind a weak analytical argument; this is the stuff that wins Minerva grants.
The Minerva program emerged out of the DoD circa 2007, i.e. the same era as the Bowman expeditions. Through Minerva the DoD seeks to derive ideas and data about potential targets from US-based social scientists. To do so, the Pentagon has teamed up with NSF (which engages the scholars and handles the money). The funding isn’t enormous – a few million dollars per grant – but these are times when money is scarce and even research proposals rated as ‘excellent’ are not necessarily funded by NSF. Ironically, the competitiveness of normal NSF (scientific) funding increases the prestige value of the Minerva (military) grants. And the NSF helps some Minerva applicants assuage their fears that they are not actually conducting military research. But make no mistake; it is the DoD’s money and they shape the agenda.  They will also certainly get the ArcGIS database being built by the Kansas geographers.
Geographers have not been at the forefront of the Minerva program; Dr. Dobson’s was, I believe, the only geography proposal funded in this year’s batch. Among geographers there is practically nothing written on Minerva, but perhaps Dobson’s grant will change that (the Social Science Research Council has posted a useful overview on Minerva with some good essays, such as this one by Priya Satia at Stanford). To grasp something of the psychology of those geographers working with the US military today, we are best served by studying the recent pair of extraordinary papers published by Trevor Barnes on Walter Christaller’s work for the Nazi regime (including this one, coauthored with Claudio Minca, in Annals of the AAG 103(3). And in times of Bowman redux, we should reread the late Neil Smith’s outstanding biography of Isaiah Bowman, American Empire :
[C]iting the ‘growing influence of geography among military men,’ [Bowman] even urged the War Department [today’s Department of Defense] to send some officers to the AGS [sponsor of today’s Bowman expeditions] to advance their studies in ‘the field of geography as applied to military operations’.  He hedged about whether Latin American governments should be informed. What became of these plans tendering geography for the purpose of government spying is not clear.  There have always been social scientists who have collaborated with government intelligence organizations, and from the time of the Roman geographer Strabo to the current CIA [headed by Petraeus], geography as a scholarly pursuit has traditionally operated as a handmaiden to the state.  But the great majority of scholars have traditionally frowned on collusion with military intelligence operations, and scholarly associations often carry explicit prohibitions against spying. […] What is remarkable about Bowman’s injudicious peddling of geography and the services of the AGS is the lack of any sense that his eager cooperation with Military Intelligence, the government’s premier spy agency of this period, in any way compromises his scientific integrity or endangers scientists (pp. 89-90).
The Bowman Expeditions represent only one side-project for the US state/military and a small one at that. Thanks to Edward Snowden, the NSA’s spying has been exposed and we’ve learned how hundreds of thousands of people in the US have been subject to government surveillance . The situation is much worse when we consider US state surveillance of the rest of the world.  The task of systematically collecting geospatial data and conducting routine surveillance around the world for the US state/military falls to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA ), an organization that has not received the scrutiny given to the NSA. (On the NSA revelations and the NGA, see Jeremy Crampton’s excellent essay at the Society and Space website.) No less worrying are the myriad military programs to improve how the US armed forces – particularly the Army – ‘uses’ human geography as a weapon. As I have discussed elsewhere , these are geographical projects of much greater significance than the Bowman expeditions and led by people who are more dangerous than Professor Dobson.
We are witnessing an unprecedented attempt by one state to collect data – much of it geocoded – from multiple sources (data mining, satellites, outright spying, and much more), reaching into the most intimate spaces of our lives and saturating our very means of communication. The US government has constructed an unparalleled platform for geospatial data collection and analyses, capable of mapping people’s movements and communications across the entire planet. All of this has potential military ‘applications’, meaning the potential to harm people, including US citizens (since we can have little faith that these tools cannot be used on civilians through police, FBI, or other agencies). The capacity of the US state/military to locate, follow, track, and kill people is without precedent and without equal, and that is the point.  Given the extraordinary record of violence carried out by the US government over the past century – from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan – one would have to have an almost religious faith in the infallibility of US leadership and the rightness of their ideology not to look at the government’s military/intelligence capacities and feel enraged at the injustices already committed—and the many more to come.
What are we to do? One way to answer this question, as Professor Dobson reminds us, is to ask how we can “reduce international misunderstandings.”  His approach is to militarize those misunderstandings by providing maps and data to the Pentagon. There is another way, one elaborated beautifully by Edward Said in a 1991 interview. Allow me to quote at length:
There’s only one way to anchor oneself [as an intellectual], and that is by affiliation with a cause, a political movement. There has to be identification not with the secretary of state or the leading philosopher of the time but with matters involving justice, principle, truth, conviction. Those don’t occur in a laboratory or a library.  For the American intellectual, that means, at bottom, that the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world, now based upon profit and power, has to be altered to one of coexistence among human communities that can make and remake their own histories and environments together. … [Unfortunately, even] inside the university, the prevalence of norms based upon domination and coercion is so strong because the idea of authority is so strong, whether it’s derived from the nation-state, from religion, from the ethnos, from tradition.… Part of intellectual work is understanding how authority is formed.  Authority is not God-given. It’s secular. And if you can understand that, then your work is conducted in such a way as to be able to provide alternatives to the authoritative and coercive norms that dominate so much of our intellectual life, our national and political life, and our international life above all.
If we are going to criticize the formation of authority and provide alternatives to the norms that dominate intellectual life, we have no choice: we must confront the US military.
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