Rochelle Davis’ “Culture as a Weapon” (MER 255) presents the wrong question, answered incorrectly. In her piece the US military appears both incapable of teaching service members to interact with civilians and unworthy of making such attempts. Davis concludes that military efforts at understanding culture to aid military decisions represent a “gentler face of violent imperial policies that envision invasions and occupations as justified, sustainable and ethical.” The US Army’s approach is not that simple.
In calling attention to the ubiquitous “smart card” for Iraq, Davis argues that the military embraced an outdated concept of culture. Having received the card as a soldier, I am aware of its errors. But smart cards and factoid-filled cultural awareness briefs akin to travel guides no more “weaponize” culture than guidebooks weaponize tourism. My fellow soldiers understood smart cards’ data not as static cultural facts but as guidelines. The military’s engagement with anthropology represents a step away from overwhelming force. It has reduced deaths on both sides in Iraq, though the successes are often classified. While the military has certainly misappropriated social science on occasion, the academy merely stands on the sidelines ready to criticize. Focusing on the Army’s failures poses the wrong research questions. We miss the opportunity to help make this new arm of applied social science more professional in ethics and practice.
I am a cultural anthropologist and an Army veteran, and I oppose imperialism. Washington sends service members overseas in our name. We need a more constructive critique of how soldiers represent anthropology than accusations of anachronistic social science. I worked with no soldier who saw culture as a “weapon.” Rather, we viewed it as an important consideration.