Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Social scientists in wartime

(Originally posted by Pat on 1/7/10)

One of the recent issues of Consider (probably the best publication we have on campus, by the way) is on the subject of the duties and responsibilities of social scientists in wartime. I am not sure if it is the most recent issue (several issues always seem to be laying around at the same time), but it definitely caught my interest.
The issue focused upon anthropologists, but I'm most familiar with psychologists. There is an ongoing debate within the psychological community as to the appropriate role of psychologists in wartime, especially in interrogation. The American Psychiatric Association has banned all psychiatric assistance in interrogation, while the American Psychological Association only bans explicit violations of international law; this creates a tension between the two professional organizations. The big APA says yes, the other APA says no.

I agree with the American Psychological Association. Indeed, I think we need more social scientists on the front lines, not fewer. More linguists, more psychologists, more anthropologists---perhaps even more philosophers. At present we send in the people who are best at firing guns; why don't we also send in the people who are best at knowing when not to fire guns?
As one of the Consider authors points out, surely this would not increase the efficiency of destruction---but is that all we should be concerned about? Indeed, can anyone think that is all we should be concerned about? We could produce much more efficient destruction if we unleashed our full arsenal of biochemical and nuclear weapon capabilities. The recently Wikileaked incident of cold-blooded slaughter displayed remarkably efficient destruction. Horrifyingly efficient, in fact. Our boys can kill like no one has ever killed before.
I am more sympathetic to the concerns of the American Psychiatric Association, which are based on fears that psychiatrists would have tremendous power in making death and torture even more terrible than it already is. If you are terrified by Abu Ghraib (of course you are, we all are), remember that these were disaffected, understaffed, incompetent youths. Consider now what a professional psychiatrist could achieve toward the same goals---the drugs, the pain, the manipulation. In the service of such terrible goals a professional could quite literally break minds. Now we are talking about not Abu Ghraib but Josef Mengele.
Yet that is only one side of the issue. The American Psychological Association (it is frustrating that they are both "the APA" and in fact both "the Am Psych Assoc") already forbids psychologists from violating international law, and while this policy is limited by its specificity, ("they didn't specifically forbid forcing people to watch cats burning while they are on amphetamines!") I think it could be easily extended to saying "obey the spirit of international law---if you think it might be torture, don't do it".
Furthermore, there are really compelling reasons to think it is good to have psychologists assisting interrogation--- not least, a good psychologist could probably make torture unnecessary. If you trust in our powers to shape human minds for the worse, why do you not trust in them to shape them for the better? Who is to say that an army of psychotherapists could not convince insurgents to abandon their mad quests and join in the quest for democracy? Who is to say that psychologist-designed propaganda could not be used to change terrorists into pacifists and Islamists into secularists? It sounds difficult; but does anyone think war, let alone social change, is easy? And isn't it worth trying at least? Maybe we could end the war without firing a shot!
Wouldn't it help, in fact, to have a rich team of interdisciplinary social scientists with knowledge of language, economics, social circumstances, cultural values, religious beliefs, and political motivations? Can't we at least try to understand these people before we riddle them with bullets? It seems to me this could only increase the popularity of America abroad, and could hardly make these drawn-out and terrible wars much worse than they already are.

No comments:

Post a Comment