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September 25, 2006

The American Office of War Information

U.S. Foreign Service Institute scholar, Tony Corn argues for a specific "distanciation" of U.S. military culture(s) and a new(ish) approach to understanding our adversaries in the Long War.

"Amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics." In the five years since the 9/11 events, the old military adage has undergone a "transformation" of its own: Amateurs, to be sure, continue to talk about strategy, but real professionals increasingly talk about — anthropology.

Yes, anthropology. This howler should come with a monitor spray warning. At least, for anyone familiar with today's anthropology departments. I have no doubt that upon a time anthropology could have offered valuable insights into an number of aspects of the current dilemma. Details, say, of Pashtun hospitality customs might come in handy. The American Office of War Information* made use of anthropologists to gain insight into our adversaries in the last great fight against fascism. Ruth Benedict's work to produce her magisterial "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" is only one example:

This book is an instance of Anthropology at a Distance. Study of a culture through its literature, through newspaper clippings, through films and recordings, etc., was necessary when anthropologists aided the United States and its allies in World War II. Unable to visit Nazi Germany or Japan under Hirohito, anthropologists made use of the cultural materials produced studied at a distance. They were attempting to understand the cultural patterns that might be driving their aggression, and hoped to find possible weaknesses, or means of persuasion that had been missed.

Benedict's war work included a major study, largely completed in 1944, aimed at understanding Japanese culture; for the Allies were in combat with Japanese armed forces in the Pacific Theatre of the second World War.

Americans found themselves unable to comprehend matters in Japanese culture. For instance, Americans considered it quite natural for American POWs' to want their families to know they were alive, and to keep quiet when asked for information about troop movements, etc. While Japanese POWs, apparently, gave information freely and did not try to contact their families. Why was that? Why, too, did Asian peoples neither treat the Japanese as their liberators from Western colonialism, nor accept their own supposedly obviously just place in a hierarchy that had Japanese at the top?

Inevitably, Benedict's work is now much derided by academics. The sneer is ostensibly directed at the idea of an "anthropology at a distance" yet the opprobrium has no apparent difficulty leaping sixty years' distance in time. No, Benedict's real thought-crime is to have made herself useful to the democratic powers. Even a fight to the death against Japanese imperialism is insufficient to raise the ire of many in what now passes itself off as the left. Certainly not in comparison to the supposedly martyred cities of the Japanese imperial war-machine. Having crippled itself with a paradoxical mishmash of political bias and the Prime Directive - and having in any event long since abandoned science for a half-baked version of literary criticism - I am baffled at the imaginary anthropology Tony Corn writes about. I cannot expect much help from that quarter.

Fortunately, Corn takes up most of his argument having a go at the contemporary utility of Clauswitz studies to bother with underpinning his introductory rhetorical conceit. I post a link not so much for his peculiarly optimistic appraisal of anthropology as for his attempted take down of the great military thinker.

On a related note is Frank Capra's "Why We Fight"; at least one inspiration for the Free World may come as a surprise. I blame cultural distance more than Capra. After all, the liberation of France sounded like a good idea at the time too.

*Not to be confused with the Office of Scientific Information which made use of bionic anthropologists and possibly Wonder Woman.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at September 25, 2006 06:47 AM


An excellent cross reference might be John Kenneth Galbraith's (and other's) work after WWII for the US Navy doing an audit on actual effects of the war on the German economy which revealed a great many faults in cultural assumptions upon which the war effort was focused. One was the idea of a "Nazi war machine". Factories ran apparently 9-5 even until late in the war and women were not hired for the factory floor due to Nazi ideals on the family in society.

[I read it quite a long time ago so I can provide no further information and, as with all my comments, caution you that I may have made all of this up due to the passage of time and the need I have to make a coherent story out of all the bits and pieces of my life.]

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 25, 2006 11:09 AM

I am certain I have come across something similar. It seems bizarre the Nazis had no ethical qualms about using slave labour but could not stand the thought of women in factories. Though I think we face something comparable in the moral derangement of our current adversaries.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 25, 2006 11:14 AM

And thereby they shall be led to their deaths.

Posted by: Alan McLeod [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 25, 2006 11:32 AM

I read notes taken from interviews with various captured Nazis following WWII. The Allies were particularly concerned to assess the effects of strategic bombing on Nazi war production. Whatever current opinion on the subject both Albert Speer and Herman Goering were of the opinion it had cost them the war. Both men might be said to have been looking for excuses - and Speer of currying favour to save his hide - but nobody would be in a better position to appraise the damage than the ministers in charge of war production and the air force respectively.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 25, 2006 11:39 AM

Ol' Hermann might be overlooking the fact that the Luftwaffe mortally wounded itself on his orders, during the Adlerangriff (a.k.a. the Battle of Britain). The Luftwaffe could not hope to compete with the RAF's radar-guided interceptors and highly coordinated Dowding air defense network. They had numbers, but their tactics and equipment were no match for the Brits. Göring the idiot also halted attacks on British radar stations, judging them to be a waste of effort.

It's a lot easier to perform strategic bombing or close air support when you have air dominance, naturally, and the Reichsmarschall had moments where he decreased the effectiveness of his force and played directly into Allied strategy.

Posted by: Chris Taylor [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 25, 2006 12:40 PM