“The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.”—T. S. Eliot
Much has been written about the controversies surrounding Project Camelot (Horowitz 1967; Jacobs 1967; Madian and Oppenheim 1969; McFate 2005; Price 2002; Solovey 2001; Stocking 1991), a “covert” operation initiated by the Department of Defense in the mid-1960s to conduct counterinsurgency research in Latin America, but not much has been analyzed with respect to its scientific failures, epistemological shortcomings, and what consequences this has meant (if any) for a substantial understanding of US imperialism.1 Project Camelot enjoys a folk status, marking a watershed moment in the intellectual history of American anthropology, because of the way it revealed an uncomfortable comingling of defense, development, and US imperialism. Serious inquiries into the ethical uses and production of anthropological knowledge, disparities in power relations (both political and epistemological), the formation of the 1966 Beals Report, anti-Vietnam movements, the Thai Village Study Affair, and the formation of the 1971 American Anthropological Association (AAA) code of ethics preceded Project Camelot, but were also the result of a zeitgeist increasingly fed up with growing alienation, the limits of rational instrumentality, and bureaucracy in the global system (Beals and the Executive Board 1967; Wakin 1992). Although what follows is a historical reexamination, the recent debates surrounding the usage of anthropologists in the US national security state can serve as a “wormhole” for entering an anthropology of empire that aims to detail the realities of power and the politics of knowledge (cf. Gill 2007; Lutz 2006). Culture may not hold the same military-cum-operational value that it once did during the height of Project Camelot.2 Nevertheless, the military and various intelligence agencies continue to actively recruit tools and disciplines (e.g., psychology) in the so-called War on Terror—even after the dismantling of the Human Terrain System (HTS). What is at stake is much more than mythologizing or demythologizing the role of anthropology during the Cold War. Gustavo Lins Ribeiro states importantly that “anthropology can provide certain groups, either powerful or powerless, with knowledge that legitimizes claims over ethnic and cultural diversity as well as over access to natural and social resources” (2007: 152). Anthropological knowledge is undoubtedly political, and not immune to hegemonies, including US empire building. Therefore, what follows is a critique of the intellectual foundations of Project Camelot and other related social science–led undertakings that underpinned US imperialism and global power.
The ethical debates spilling out from Project Camelot also informed anthropological thinking and social theory making in America in very particular ways, which will be assessed shortly. For now, it is important to note that the emergence of the United States as a dominant imperial force and the onset of the Cold War engendered several critiques of US imperialism (Berreman 1968; Gough 1968; Magdoff 1969; Nader 1969; Wolf 1964). The roots of anti-American imperialism, however, date further back in time, even before the twentieth century. Nonetheless, critiques of US imperialism during the Cold War focused on the role of the United States in the world, and gravitated toward various interpretations of the workings of hegemony. Issues such as anthropological voice and the power of representation, new nationalisms, and postcolonialism formed the backbone of the crisis of/in anthropology, which coincided with the greater counterculture movement.3
This article begins by analyzing the research design of Project Camelot, and its equally short-lived, albeit slightly modified successor, Center for the Research of Social Systems (CRESS), in order to explore how and why certain scientific ideas and values were employed to study social change. It will expand on the connection between positivism and functionalism in Project Camelot’s design, and show how this linkage eventually played out in the early epistemology of the national security state. The question of why anthropological critiques of US imperialism were limited must be addressed, because issues of epistemology were themselves ideologies and political models of the new world order. This is not a moral argument or some kind of intergenerational one-upmanship, but rather an argument about how much of the lacuna surrounding the relationship between defense and development continues today, and is a consequence of the limited and misdirected understanding of US imperialism. According to the anthropologist Maximilian Forte (2013), “The critique of HTS was tied to a critique of militarism, which was itself conceptually and theoretically divorced from critiques of imperialism … but without an anthropology of imperialism such an endeavor will get nowhere.”
Planners in the Army Office of Research and Development first conceived project Camelot in 1963 in an effort to counter the communist-backed wars of national liberation. By 1964, the project established an institutional home at American University in Washington, DC, and was funded through the Special Operations Research Organization (SORO).4 Even though Project Camelot planners conceived of their research as spanning the globe, they looked to Latin America first, and chose Rex Hopper, a Latin American expert and sociologist, as its director. Project Camelot was set to be the largest-funded social science and behavioral research project in US history, with a $4 million to $6 million contract over three years. It was aptly nicknamed the “Manhattan Project” of the social sciences. Pr1oject Camelot took on the early code name Spearpoint but was later changed to Camelot in reference to President John F. Kennedy’s youthful idealism and vigor. It was comprised of a range of social scientists including anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists in an effort to discover and document the causes of internal war.
SORO’s director, Theodore Vallance, thought that Project Camelot could be an “objective, nonnormative study concerned with what is or might be and not with what ought to be” (Solovey 2001: 188; emphasis in original). As such, Project Camelot would retain the autonomy of science, while helping foreign policy makers deal with communist-backed insurgencies and unfriendly revolutions. Argentina and Bolivia were picked initially for conducting comparative historical studies, while Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador were targeted for conducting survey and field studies. Interestingly enough, Chile was not even on the original list of target countries. All this changed when Hugo Nutini, a University of Pittsburgh anthropologist and a Project Camelot consultant, tried to steer the project toward Chile by attempting to generate interest among Chilean scholars.5 During his campaign for Project Camelot, Nutini was less than up front about the project’s sponsorship, saying that the National Science Foundation had funded it. Meanwhile, Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist who was critical of the proposed US military involvement, leaked preliminary information to Chilean scholars about the project and its research design. As soon as word reached the left-wing journalists in Chile, local newspapers decried that US foreign policy was shifting toward shrewder tactics. Subsequently, a special session of the Chilean Senate had “politicians call[ing] it ‘a plan of Yankee espionage’” (Herman 1995: 157). The US Embassy was forced into an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation, and squabbling ensued between the Departments of State and Defense. Furthermore, Ralph Dungan, the US ambassador to Chile at the time, claimed to know nothing about the project. Notwithstanding the fact that Project Camelot’s research design was vague and incoherent, its demise culminated on 8 July 1965, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara canceled it.
Project Camelot’s research design
We can trace the intellectual history of Project Camelot back to the emergent paradigms of the day. According to Nils Gilman, “Like early anthropological theory, modernization theory transposed temporal categories onto geographic categories” (2003: 27). Project Camelot consisted of several parts: (1) a theoretical design focusing on developing a model of a social system, and a model of internal conflict to guide all subsequent work; (2) an examination of 20 historical instances of internal conflict since World War II; (3) a systematic study of socioeconomic conditions in five contemporary societies; (4) a comparative analysis between the conflict case studies and the (theoretical) social systems study; and (5) manual and machine simulation. To begin with, the theoretical design was inspired by Talcott Parsons’s (1937, 1991) social system theory, which was utilized by the planners of Project Camelot and included such “functions” of society as acquiring sufficient resources, setting and implementing goals, maintaining collective/organizational solidarity and coordination, and reproducing the system’s culture and values. One of Project Camelot’s objectives was to test whether such a large-scale and closely integrated project had a higher probability of payoff than a series of small and loosely related investigations. Camelot was not, however, an innocuous science project with potential implications for policy as was marketed to the public. Instead: “CAMELOT’s [sic] basic objective [wa]s to test the feasibility of developing an analytic methodology for analyzing the underlying causes of internal conflict in any given country and to measure the effects of various indigenous governmental actions vis-à-vis the underlying problems” (Horowitz 1967: 67).
Project Camelot released four public documents in 1964 detailing its research design. These materials provide the basis for assessing the science behind Project Camelot. The first document discusses the need for the US military to improve its understanding of social change: “Project CAMELOT [sic] is a study whose objective is to determine the feasibility of developing a general social systems model which would make it possible to predict and influence politically significant aspects of social change in the developing nations of the world” (Horowitz 1967: 47). In addition to assessing the potential causes for internal war, the designers and early participants of Project Camelot designers concerned themselves with identifying the necessary steps a government might take to relieve unwanted tensions. They also promoted the use of the military for assisting nation building, as well as aiding political allies in neighboring countries with their insurgency problems. There was an institutional inertia, or rather a historical rush to reify particular conceptual biases in order to make the claim that Project Camelot was founded on scientific multidisciplinarity and functionalism.
In another document, a more explicit stance toward counterinsurgency emerges. Planners believed that effective counterinsurgency methods worked best in an environment of trust and security, and that the military should take on a proactive stance in snubbing out insurgency in its infancy. Social science was called on to “analyze comprehensively the interrelated processes of social conflict and social control” (Horowitz 1967: 53). The second document, which was an extract from a working paper, expressed the need for identifying, measuring, and forecasting the potential for internal war. In particular, the document states that the project could “obviate the need for insurgency through programs for political, economic, social, and psychological development” (1967: 51). Project Camelot’s mission was to treat insurgency as a breakdown of social order, and thus imagining the nation-state as a social system that could be engineered, rebuilt, and repaired. To reiterate, “Parsons gave special place to his own profession, social science, as an indicator and as a lever of modernity, celebrating its rise as a victory of scientific rationality over ideology” (Engerman 2013: 182).
Further on, we come to learn that the first stage called for a “three-man-months” survey of the history of each relevant country. This was to be followed by “six-man-months” worth of work to ascertain information necessary to conduct an area study. The following deployment stage called for “approximately six research personnel … in a country for a period of nine months to a year” (Horowitz 1967: 59). The most tangible discussion of research methodology arises in the fourth and final document, which was released on 15 June 1965 as a “Brief Description” of Project Camelot. It assumed “a regularity to human relationships and that predictability rests on a continuance or ordered patterns of interaction.” Taken all together, the research design arising from these documents shows that Project Camelot strove to enable “analytic methods as end-products to be refined by an amalgamation of twenty case studies on internal conflict, five studies of contemporary social systems, and from the result of both manual and machine simulation” (1967: 61).
One can say that the mission of Project Camelot continued in the various projects at CRESS, including the following research publications: Challenge and Response in Internal Conflict (a three-volume report), Cross-national Studies of Civil Violence, Resettlement in Latin America: An Analysis of 35 Cases, and Internal Defense against Insurgency: Six Cases (Jones and Molnar 1966).6 Because anthropologists began withdrawing more from defense work (post-Camelot), nearly all of the CRESS reports lacked any real ethnographic data (Gurr and Ruttenberg 1969). CRESS might have developed some constructive findings, but more than anything it ended up viewing development rather narrowly as an unstable process that needed to be managed and controlled.7 CRESS staffers wanted the military to provide technical expertise in the building of communication networks, linguistic studies, and the mapping and surveying of geographical areas. In the long and short of it, the military was given a tangible role in expediting development.
Hamilton Cravens notes, “Development, too, was a product of Cold War thinking. Fundamental … was the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for the friendship and the alliances of the so-called developing world—the ‘third world’” (2012: 130). In one example, which involved the study of land resettlement in Latin America, CRESS researchers attempted to show the effects of internal settlement and colonization on the acceleration of social, economic, and political development. Working with the notion that land distribution, in addition to geographical, social, and political isolation of rural people, hampered development and modernization, CRESS researchers conducted a comparative analysis looking at 35 settlement cases based on observations, written records, and interviews with colony administrators. In the final report, the researchers lamented that they could not engage in extensive field research but concluded that the quality of soils was directly correlated to the success of the settlement process. They also asserted that settlements with parcels exceeding 20 hectares along with the level of population “homogeneity” were factors linked to development outcomes. Overall, the analysis was a simplistic mix and match of several variables laid out in a matrix. Improvements were measured in two areas, agricultural and socioeconomic, and each received either a plus or a minus score. Additionally, researchers categorized the composition of the community as being either homogeneous or heterogeneous. Other variables represented the climate, soil, the number of roads, the age of the settlement, and institutions (such as the presence of educational, medical, social, and housing supports). In the end, the success or failure of a settlement was completely handed over to the authors’ judgments, which boiled down to statements from former colony administrators and a rough tally of pluses and minuses. What had taken hold above all else was the turn to experimentation, or as Rebecca Lemov would call it, the world as laboratory. For Lemov, and certainly for the designers of Project Camelot, “Experiments in controlled spaces led to a core insight: that the process of observing and measuring reality as it unfolds within an experimental design will itself bring about all kinds of changes” (2005: 9).
In another CRESS study, the Internal Defense against Insurgency conducted a topical and impressionistic analysis of six countries: Malaysia, the Philippines, Cuba, Venezuela, Algeria, and South Vietnam. Following a sketch of population cleavages, historical and situational factors, recruitment, and guerrilla operations, a few concluding remarks were made to account for counterinsurgency tactics. These included: (1) countering terror with terror only helped to weaken popular support for the government, and (2) bringing in external resources to strengthen internal security forces contributed to effective counterinsurgency. Most of the publications amounted to superficial country reports couched in political rhetoric. CRESS hired regional specialists to collect data and expand the government’s memory bank of basic geopolitical intel. When statistics were involved, a distillation of 30 or more variables through a process of step-wise regressions dominated the final analysis.
The unease of failed science
Even though Project Camelot was canceled before it could even begin its research on the ground, its demise helped to usher not only a reflexive turn in anthropology but an ethical one as well. Bob Scholte states eloquently, “The main task is to inquire into the epistemological status of anthropological knowledge generally and into the extent to which anthropological praxis generates … ethical principles in particular” (1971: 787).
Project Camelot struck a nerve with anthropologists for several reasons. First of all, anthropologists were concerned that working directly with defense would jeopardize the future of the profession by raising distrust between anthropologists and their informants. Working for (and under) the military was also seen as being antithetical to the anthropological enterprise. The military was regarded with much skepticism and disdain; it was seen as an agent of domination and violent change—things that went against the ideological grain of anthropology. To say that Project Camelot was a watershed moment in the history of American anthropology is not to say that it ushered in any grand or totalizing revisions in anthropological theory, or that its eventual cancellation signaled the end of compromised anthropological analysis. Rather, Project Camelot captured the confluence of many overlapping systems of thought, and articulated concerns with defense, multidisciplinary scientism, and development. The scholar and journalist Christopher Simpson (1994) coined the phrase “science of coercion” to capture the earlier foundational linkages between (mass) communication research and secret US military operations at the dawn of the Cold War. Nevertheless, the greater social science community was addressing concerns, and American anthropology appropriated these concerns in a particular fashion. For example, Kathleen Gough seizes an opportunity in 1968 to ask, “What does an anthropologist do who is dependent on a counterrevolutionary government, in an increasingly revolutionary world” (1968: 18). Even more critical, Scholte asks, “To what degree do some of our anthropological methods reflect the scientific rationalism of a techno-centric society?” (1971: 794).
To recap, Project Camelot failed mainly because of diplomatic transgressions, and the bureaucratic rivalries between the US Departments of State and Defense. During World War II, the nexus between social science research and the government proceeded relatively unnoticed and misunderstood. Project Camelot, however, received much more hype and scrutiny in the public eye. Although it adopted an affinity for investigating systems, Project Camelot approached structural functionalism as a policy and research heuristic. Notwithstanding structural functionalism’s merits, it is useful to recall what Talal Asad once wrote regarding functionalism: “The use of the functionalist framework produced a behavioralist, normative focus in research reports, and by taking inadequate account of actor’s definitions of the situation (which may not coincide) ignored the basic conflicts and power-relationships in society” (1973: 36). Project Camelot fostered a set of dichotomies and partitions, slicing the social world into order and disorder, and conducted its analysis as a process of approximations to that effect. Ironically, this simplistic framing was precisely the very thing that Project Camelot was designed to problematize and transcend. It is no surprise, then, that “politics” dictated the sampling of countries, and even though Project Camelot claimed to observe how things really were on the ground, it was predisposed and determined to filter its findings through the lens of insurgency and prophylaxis. In the end, anthropologists, and even those who thought that they could guide national security and foreign policy objectives, would have inevitably ended up serving the project as mere data collectors. Even in technical aid programs, such as Point IV, the role of anthropologists was geared toward the prediction of cultural resistance than that of guided change (Nash 1975).
A major factor influencing the theories used in Project Camelot was the Cold War. During this period, a cadre of scholars engaged in a “potent mixture of interdisciplinary studies that promised to fuse the humanities and the social sciences and thus generate the necessary depth of understanding and wisdom for policy advice” (Katzenstein 2001: 789). Area studies provided a breeding ground from which the rise of development, and the fight against communism, called scholars into professional and government action. Its field of inquiry stretched around the globe, and for the first time, a large funding stream launched students into a vast array of field sites and projects, including Camelot. In addition to confronting the threat of communism, area studies also served “to extend the relevance of the humanities, including the study of foreign languages, in a rapidly changing world; [and] to link the humanities to the social sciences across a broad range of interdisciplinary endeavors” (Katzenstein 2001: 789). Meanwhile, development studies contributed to shaping foreign policy for the Third World, and “Ford programs during the 1950s and 1960s provided extensive support for action-oriented scholars who focused on such timely subjects as juvenile delinquency, urban poverty, and third world development” (Solovey 2013: 139). Additionally, anthropologists such as Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict, albeit in different ways, “moved from the study of small-scale societies toward the problems posed by big ones, at or about the same time—in the postwar years” (Silverman 2004: 111).
One must ask why functionalist theories were so fundamental to the overall research design of Project Camelot. Part of the answer lies in the fact that Project Camelot operators needed quantifiable data, and a functionalist account of social structures served to produce such key variables and morphologies. This is not to say that functionalists are imperialists. The story is more complicated. Project Camelot was set up to link case studies with surveys and manual/computational simulations.8 Writing almost 10 years before the existence of Camelot, John Bennett and Kurt Wolff (1955) claimed that structural functionalism was a kind of rapprochement, bringing together sociologists and anthropologists.9 Project Camelot endorsed functionalism in part because it allowed for a multidisciplinary research team. The Department of Defense latched onto functionalist and systems theory without any major theoretical qualms.10 Even though Project Camelot never got off the ground, CRESS members carried out subsequent research, collected/analyzed social data, and began making sociological comparisons formulated in terms of dysnomia and insurgency. US foreign policy makers wanted to know what to do with the former colonies, while academics sought to adopt these independent nations into their sciences by creating the “Third World” as a new discursive category. Knowledge functioned in part as a process of reconfiguring this “new world” and its emergent citizens.
Functionalist theories were attractive to the planners working on Project Camelot because they were seen as prescriptions for dealing with the threat of social disorder, dissent, and insurgency. Functionalist theories had several other factors going for them as well. The link between functionalism and the need for maintaining stability during political turmoil made sense to policy makers. Also, analogies borrowed from natural science, and the sociological adoption of the concept of equilibrium (Russett 1966), gave anthropology the pretense of a hard science. The holistic and comprehensive style of analysis involved in Project Camelot’s version of comparative sociology suited the imperialistic-minded administrator’s desire to control society by placing it under systematic study. Because Project Camelot was in need of relatively timely answers to guide action, it took to nomothetic approaches more readily.
What occurred then was a functionalist moment, an agenda shared by development and defense. Project Camelot treated social order as an achievable objective, designing its research around the forces that made society fall apart. On the one hand, development concentrated on the factors that kept society together, amid turbulent political processes. To elucidate, Edward Shils in the introduction to a book edited by Clifford Geertz regarding the Chicago Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations declared:
The central concern of the study is with the formation of coherent societies and polities. Its concern with particular institutions, beliefs, and practices concentrates on their significance for this process. In other words, the study of new states is a macrosociological study: it is a study of societies, and when it studies parts of these societies, it studies their contribution to the functioning of the society as a whole.(Geertz 1963: 20)
What kept defense and development suspended from each other, and in a blind dialectic for lack of a better term, was the incommensurability between the parts of society and their “wholes.” Reconciling the local and the global, the parts and the whole, became problematic. The further defense and development practitioners traveled down this path, the more difficult it was to theorize at the level of generalities in outlining regular patterns of social action. Instead of seeing through the unique phenomenon to the general, case studies grew more isolated and fragmentary, culminating in an antithetical stance toward universal claims. The dialectic between the general and the unique fell apart. Questions no longer centered on whether the general could explain the unique. The upshot to this was (and still is) the problem that conceiving of society as a historical and apolitical social fact is a generative ideological straw man.
Reactions to Project Camelot
Reactions to Project Camelot varied across the board, including critiques from sociologists (Dahrendorf 1968; Simpson 1998; Tarasov 1984). A series of ethical and epistemological debates took hold in America among anthropologists, as many drew conviction from Franz Boas’s early chastising of anthropologists as spies during World War I (Beals 1969; Berreman 1968; Gonzalez 2004; Gough 1968). Additionally, the US Department of State began exerting even more red tape, and increased its control over research projects abroad. Academic and government policy researchers found it harder in the immediate years after Project Camelot to collaborate explicitly in research forums, especially when the Department of Defense was involved. Nevertheless, social science research throughout the rest of the Cold War found new opportunities under the banner of development and area studies. In fact, defense funding for social science research did not decline as a result of Project Camelot. Research conducted by the military on topics such as counterinsurgency continued, particularly with the beginning of CRESS, which superseded SORO at American University in 1966 one year after the demise of Project Camelot. On the same day that McNamara canceled the project, the Subcommittee on International Organizations and Movements of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs convened. Testimonies by US Army and SORO planners revealed “that they saw Camelot as a logical continuation of behavioral experts’ role in World War II, Korea, and a wide spectrum of Cold War agencies. … Obviously, they had absorbed the mainstream social-scientific view that militaries were the leading edge of the modernization process” (Herman 1995: 158).
The roots of social science as social control, however, run deeper and venture further back into American history (Wolf 1982). Project Camelot was not the first time that anthropologists and other social scientists collaborated with the US military. David Price (2008) gives a good historical account of anthropologists and their World War II efforts. While Margaret Mead helped reshape American dietary habits, Benedict and Gene Weltfish fought racism within the US Army by distributing informational pamphlets. The Office of War Information also hired such notable anthropologists as Clyde Kluckhohn, Benedict, and Alexander Leighton to figure out the Japanese “character,” and to discover what cultural personality traits made it harder for them to surrender. The politics-patronage-social science nexus was rooted in a past well before Project Camelot (Solovey 2001: 173).
Ellen Herman’s (1995) account of American psychology serves as another useful reference point for understanding how Project Camelot became a “logical continuation” of prior World War II practices. With the conclusion of World War II, professionals who had previously worked in psychological warfare research, and had subsequently returned to the universities, maintained their old networks and strengthened psychology’s institutionalization within the growing military-industrial-academic complex. Defense planners became interested in both the hardware and software aspects of waging wars. If World War II was a battle of hearts and minds, the Cold War was an intensified psychological battle. Research retained some of its leaning toward national character-style studies, but reached more aggressively into areas such as social upheaval, cohesion, political culture, and the phases of revolution. The historian Peter Mandler describes how Mead’s vision for a cultural relativistic universal humanity failed in the face of Cold War politics. Mead turned to development work for a second chance, focusing on technical aid and change. Mandler goes on to say that Mead “understood better how hard it was to make technical change culturally neutral. Most of the manual was devoted to specific suggestions for minimizing the cultural disruptions of technical change—for example, how to introduce improvements in nutrition and sanitation without violating local taboos about the body” (2009: 165–166).
The limits of a critique
Although Project Camelot never became operationalized on the ground, the intention of the project inscribes and summons the workings of imperialism back into a critical space where development and defense take shape side by side. Anthropologists could have investigated CRESS and other similar studies to analyze how social concepts were used and perpetuated by the United States in the name of progress, development, and (inter)national security. Project Camelot’s planners were interested in producing data to show US policy makers that Latin American countries were at risk and unstable, and hence needed US military support. Project Camelot’s designers helped to normalize an interlocking set of assumptions regarding social stability and disorder. US military intervention in Latin America during the initial planning stages of Project Camelot utilized neocolonial rhetoric to mask its imperialistic intentions by calling on the need to lend advisory, technical, and planning expertise in order to help nations develop and modernize. On the ground, the US military would have been the “spearpoint” of Project Camelot, forcing social change via rural and political reform. The unquestioning of these social theories and models during the Cold War after Project Camelot (and the phobia of the past) made it easier for defense and development institutions to begin working in the same social space. This was not a seamless or unified collaboration, but rather defense and development professionals began to circle the wagons in an intricate game of cultural and political involution. After Project Camelot, even a few applied anthropologists who were once working for the Department of Defense found new employment in the development industry. By the beginning of the 1970s, development took a more central stage, and colonialism faded into the backdrop as a mere legacy of racialism and hierarchy. Perhaps Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler were right in asserting that “‘tradition’ and ‘modernization’ were the key words of postwar scholarship and of the rulers of post-colonial states; the production and investments in those categories went largely unexamined” (1997: 15).
Meanwhile, theorists like Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein were arguing that the world system was historical, and that centers and peripheries were coproduced and linked in interdependent ways. Social scientists were also turning their attention toward civil rights and political discrimination. Despite this inward turn, the exploding expansion of militarism and the military-industrial complex were social phenomena and field sites not easily accessible to most anthropologists. The idea of Pentagonism as a new form of social and political structure was just coming into critical focus. Juan Bosch (1968) postulated the idea that Pentagonism not only produced a colony of military bases overseas, but generated forms of control and power that also infiltrated the US political system in ways detrimental to American society. The dialectic between domestic politics and international relations conditioned by the rise of militarism was not sufficiently addressed by anthropologists during this period. On the other hand, Soviet anthropology was also hard to come by for obvious reasons (Gough 1990). Moreover, it should be noted that since the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, scholars such as Catherine Lutz have been calling for a more nuanced ethnography of empire, drawing from an earlier diagnosis of Pentagonism. For Lutz, “It is also important to see the range of places that might be considered parts of the U.S. empire in relation not just to the center but to each other. … Pentagon planners have regional basing strategies that focus on the interconnectivities” (2006: 597).
One might say that since European colonialism lasted longer, anthropologists were certain to plumb through more historical and sociocultural data, grinding various postcolonialisms through the theoretical gristmill. It can also be argued that US anthropology preferred looking at exogenous processes; thus, it was natural for American anthropologists to gaze safely at (European) decolonization processes. This outlook was no doubt shaped by the fact that during the Cold War many nation-states had to define themselves against an East-West divide. Instead of some internal logic and/or diabolical plan, US imperialism foiled itself against the communist “other.” US anthropology reduced aspects of British anthropological theory by pitting notions of cultural relativism against British functionalism. According to Peter Forster, “American cultural anthropology was more anti-colonialist in its interests, and in the 1930–50 period American anthropologists have been to some degree spokesmen for the indigenous inhabitants of colonized societies. Ideas of cultural relativism could compete with colonial ideology” (1973: 35). The critique of British anthropologists and their connection to colonialism played well into the counterhegemonic trends of the time (Banaji 1970). Postcolonial and cultural studies churned out writings on topics such as ethnohistory, power, governmentality, “cultural critique,” mimicry, hybridity, resistance, and so forth. Associating colonialism with structural functionalism made it easier for American anthropology to divert attention away from studying ossifying social relations, thereby wedging a distance between American (cultural) and British (social) anthropology. American anthropology focused on culture via symbolic and interpretive techniques, thus ceding the study of US imperialism and the international state system to such disciplines as international relations (Gusterson 2007). The contention here is not that the focus on European- and British-style colonialism was wrong. The problem lies in the relative absence of a critical and anthropological engagement with the emergent forms of US imperialism, one co-joined by markets, guns, and the ever-evolving discourse of democracy and freedom.
The limitations of an anthropological critique of US imperialism shortly after Project Camelot also contributed to the conceptual lacuna surrounding the relationship between defense and development. Even a critique led by an anthropology of development has not adequately addressed the macro- and micropolitical relationships between development and defense. Edward Said calls attention to the fact that “modern Western anthropology … deals with the almost insuperable contradiction between a political actuality based on force, and a scientific and humane desire to understand the Other hermeneutically and sympathetically in modes not influenced by force” (1993: 56). There have been several critiques of development as a discourse and an instrument of governmentality (Escobar 1995; Ferguson 1990; Long and Arce 2000). To borrow a phrase from William Newman (2004), defense and development practices are “Promethean ambitions”; they are bold interventions imposed on countries violently in the name of progress and social change. Furthermore, the concept of culture in American anthropology at the time was an ideological distraction undergoing revision (Wolf 1964). The poststructuralist shift championed new forms of agency, and cast culture as a set of codes and behaviors that could be broken. Instead of dwelling on the jural notion of British social structures, “Americans, by contrast, were concerned with developing others to share in the joys of modernization and modernity … This required understanding the cultural values of others: what made them what they were” (Hobart 1996: 1). Culture was therefore something to be celebrated and quarantined, and something to transcend. Development played a subtle and ironic role in this “liberation.” An involution occurred and development begat more violence, paving the way for an increase in US military intervention to stem off the rising tide of conflict, resistance, and civil wars. In one way, US imperialism is a story about the intertwining of defense and development. It is a story about not just markets and a cohesion of economic and strategic interests, but an engendering of new social actors such as development experts and institutions (Magdoff 2003).
Project Camelot occurred during a time when the concerns of foreign policy makers and social scientists overlapped in considerable ways. Both camps were interested in the transition from traditional societies to modern nation-states, and how to shape and manage social transformation. During the period of decolonization, social scientists and political thinkers began treating the newly formed nations as a real-world problem, and an academic subject fruitful for social science research and theory making. At the same time, area studies blossomed in conjunction with the Cold War (Bilgin and Morton 2002; Hounshell 2001; Simpson 1998; Szanton 2004), and development began to take shape as a “new world order,” promising to deliver modernization and progress to Frantz Fanon’s 1961 Wretched of the Earth. Traditions were at once being reinvented by nationalist elites and confronted by processes of modernization. Anthropological theories and concepts engaged with real-world political concerns surrounding the can-do modernization era immediately following the end of World War II. More often than not, these theories helped to reproduce the power structures of Western hegemony in its categorization and treatment of societies as (un)stable, (un)developed, and (un)modern, and ultimately as entities that could be studied, understood, and controlled.
Project Camelot personnel adopted a theoretical interest in functionalism and social systems. Even though the project was curtailed before it operated on the ground, the enduring emphasis on interdisciplinary and comparatives studies, and the need for identifying the causes of insurgency, continued in studies like CRESS. These military-led studies treated the notion of society as a system susceptible to volatility and entropy, and thus in need of development (in all its modernist trappings) and security. In the Age of System, Hunter Heyck argues that “modernization theory was a development theory, a theory of the development of an organism according to an ingrained plan. It was a process that led through necessary stages of growth, from the childhood of traditional societies to the … masterful, integrated adulthood of full industrial maturity” (2015: 149). The link between defense concerns and the rise of development practices and discourses helped to accentuate US imperialism’s teleological commitments. And to this day, is it no wonder that many anthropologists have yet to fully study and critically expose the “relationship between military concerns and the origins of development” (Escobar 1995: 34)?
This takes us back, then, to our opening epigraph. It is one thing to treat Project Camelot as a watershed moment, and another to recall just what we can make out of our past. Yet this periodization of events, of historical modes (of thought), is itself forever revealing and concealing. Is this a political question? For Alain Badiou (Badiou and Žižek 2009), the problem is philosophical first and foremost. That is, politics must dislocate itself from the usual historicism of the dialectic. It may be impossible to rescue politics from time, and as Alberto Toscano suggests, the problem is “of the linkage between history and politics, and of the capacity for the latter to achieve real autonomy as a truth procedure” (2008: 24). Stated another way, can there be an Archimedean point from which to capture both the political creation of particular times and the forms of society and history? An alternative political philosophy of time is Nathan Widder’s usage of Deleuzian repetition and difference for erecting an understanding of (political) time as structure, rather than a series of changes. Can this ontology of time get us beyond the usual default statement that the past reinvents itself in the present as evidence of the creative power of time? The new and emergent then “marks a becoming that does not necessarily ‘move anywhere,’ one for which the terms of representation are never sufficient … characterized by eternal return, not some radical break and creation ex nihilo” (2010: 72). This is not to leave the reader deflated, but “defense” and “development” as composite (and discursive) categories dislocates processes and sets of relations in (and because of) various time-images and conceptualizations. Project Camelot occurred when the (re)production of history was linked to a colonization of science and a historical totalization of the nation-state when “old societies” were supposed to give way to modern, stable states. This legacy continues to haunt us today, but with our models enmeshed even more in new technologies of coercion.
I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their time and most useful comments.
A common misconception is that Project Camelot was covert or classified. An anonymous reader explained to me that it was only thought so because Hugo Nutini was not candid about the source of Department of Defense funding when talking to the Chileans.
For the most updated assessment and usage of culture as a tool and “weapon,” see the most recent update of the counterinsurgency manual: Department of the Army, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, May 2014.
Some may pick up that a “mirror” revolutionary moment was going on at the same time in the 1960s. Thomas Frank writes that the changes “constituted a radical break or rupture with existing American mores, that they were just as transgressive and menacing and as revolutionary as countercultural participants believed them to be” (1997: 6). R. M. Holmes (1971) reiterates that the countercultural movement was against the capitalist order and traditional Western values. Ironically, the “radical break” was really a revolution in US business and corporate culture. It was an ersatz of a dialectic of liberation; what was really going on was consumerism and spectacle in Guy Debord’s sense of the term.
SORO was founded in 1956 as a nonprofit campus-based research organization servicing the Department of Defense’s research interests. Its task was to support the Department of the Army’s missions in providing critical research in areas such as counterinsurgency, unconventional warfare, and psychological operations. RAND was the Air Force counterpart to SORO, and was regarded as more prestigious and scientific at the time.
One can also find a similar thread running through Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) and the many cross-cultural studies that relied heavily on quantitive anaylyses and outputs (Banks and Textor 1963).
In one notable statement issued at the end of a report on Mexico, Harold Davis suggested of the campaign by General Pershing on the Carranza government that “the experience is further relevant to the present in that it illustrates the difficulties peculiar to involvement in any conflict within a nation undergoing a profound social and political revolution. The weakness of the central government of such a nation—beset by conflicting demands of various groups, shifting alliances in the power structure, personal rivalries, unreliability of individual army commanders, and explosive nationalism—renders any involvement of an external power in a situation of internal conflict a difficult task at best” (Condit and Cooper 1968: 148).
In a way, Project Camelot also benefited from the expansion of survey methodologies taking hold in the greater social sciences.
Quoting more fully, the structural functional approach “is flexible within an ‘interdisciplinary’ analysis which centers around such key concepts as ‘status,’ ‘role,’ ‘goal,’ and ‘value.’ Structural-functional studies tend to be portrayals of structural systems in which behavior is explored in respect to its meaning or ‘function.’ These studies contribute to an ever more comprehensive and detailed map of characteristic of human phenomenon and their interrelations” (Bennett and Wolff 1955: 339).
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