Anthropology in the Bunker: Teaching Transcultural War at the US Naval War College



The military’s interest in anthropology follows predictable cycles in the US: anthropology holds interest when the military must fight land wars against adversaries from a different culture. In off-cycles, anthropology reverts back to the special operations community and survives as an academic subject in the world of professional military education (PME). In the US, PME institutions exist as a kind of reservoir for the concept of culture and for the discipline of anthropology. PME institutions keep the concept of culture alive within the military domain by retaining a smattering of anthropology in their curriculum. Under these conditions, a professor teaching anthropology to military personnel must focus on anthropology’s professional relevance, offering insights that might be applied to operational problems. This chapter describes my haphazard journey in developing an anthropology course for senior military personnel. I describe some of epistemological benefits offered by an anthropological approach (e.g., ‘ground up’ perspective, de-naturalization of taken-for-granted cultural norms, and subjective thinking), and my discovery of the limitations of anthropology and military history for theorizing about transcultural war. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the central question that emerged from the course: What happens when two ‘culturally distant’ societies go to war, each having their own norms and ideas regarding the organized deployment of military force?


Military Anthropology Transcultural war Professional military education US Navy 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.US Naval War CollegeNewportUSA

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