Curiouser and Curiouser: Montgomery McFate's Strange Interpretation of the Relationship between Anthropology and Counterinsurgency



In 2005, in an article in Military Review titled “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of their Curious Relationship,” Dr. Montgomery McFate launched a serious academic assault on the anthropological tradition of noninvolvement in mission-related military and counterinsurgency research. Dr. McFate was then instrumental in the establishment of the Human Terrain System in 2006, which has “embedded” social scientists with front-line army units in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has caused great concern among anthropologists and renewed interest in the professional ethics of the discipline. This article critically reviews McFate's accounting of the relationship between anthropology and counterinsurgency and argues that it is her particular reading of history of that relationship that is curious and strange. Viewed in its proper historical context, and illustrated with the example of the politics and ethics of my research on community support for the Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army in Northern Ireland, the antipathetic relationship that had evolved was perfectly appropriate, ethical, and in no sense “curious” or “strange.” This article critiques McFate's article as a fundamentally flawed revisionist history intended to legitimate and facilitate the active involvement of anthropologists with the US military in the “war on terrorism” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.