Captured Documents: Military Historians and Terrorism Scholars vs. Anthropologists?

Professor Hugh Gusterson of George Mason University has an article entitled “Project Minerva and the Militarization of Anthropology” in the latest issue of Radical Teacher.  This is Prof. Gusterson’s latest objection to Defense Department funding of social science research.  The article has some good points and some rather weak ones, such as the implicit admission late in the article that the title is untrue despite the Government’s (alleged) intentions.  However, I want to focus on one factual error that Gusterson perpetuates relating to captured documents.

Gusterson rightly notes that among the research topics under the Minerva initiative is an “Iraqi Perspectives Project” involving study of captured Iraqi documents.  He goes on to say that these are 5 million Iraqi records looted by the U.S. military and provided to Kanan Makiya’s Iraq Memory Foundation which then stashed them at the Hoover Institution.  The Iraq Memory Foundation does have a substantial collection of documents (primarily from the Iraqi Ba’ath Party) and they are at Hoover.  He says that, because these are illegal booty, they should be returned forthwith to Iraq. 

However, Gusterson is quite wrong when he says that these are the documents referred to under the rubric of the “Iraqi Perspectives Project” (IPP).  In fact, the documents used in the IPP are a completely different set of documents (and other media) numbering in the millions captured by U.S. forces in the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  They come primarily from Saddam’s immediate apparatus, the Iraqi military, and the Iraqi security services. 

How do I know?  I worked with these records off and on from 2003 to 2009 and I’ve never seen any of these Ba’ath records that Prof. Gusterson is so concerned about.  Nor, to my knowledge have any of my former colleagues.  Using the other collection of Iraqi records, the one Gusterson seems unaware of, I co-authored (a very small part of) The Iraqi Perspectives Report and also co-authored (in a more serious way) a forthcoming peer-reviewed article assessing Saddam’s perceptions during Desert Storm.  My former colleagues have written several other works (such as this, this, and this) using these records.  More such works are in preparation. 

Whatever the facts are related to the records held at Hoover they are quite different from the facts related to these records that we have used.  Given this, there is no reason to think that the moral or legal issues associated with the two collections should be the same.

It is worth noting that just about every country that has ever fought a war holds or has held captured records from its opponents.  In fact, there is specific provision for this in international law.  Furthermore, such records are among the most valuable sources for many military and diplomatic historians.  Since the Civil War the United States has typically made such captured records available to scholars after the war in question was over.  It is doing the same again, through something called the Conflict Records Research Center.  (See also here.)  Ironically, the one case in which there was serious foot-dragging in opening up captured records was the Philippines War, a highly controversial war even at the time given its imperialist overtones and the fact of torture by American forces.  The U.S. Government should be ashamed of the fact that it suppressed those records for literally about a half-century.  I am proud that the Government is trying not to make the same mistake again.

It is also worth noting that the U.S. Government similarly holds substantial records seized from Al Qaida and its various affiliates and that these, too, will help populate the Conflict Records Research Center.  I used these records in writing with Jessica Huckabey and John Schindler The Terrorist Perspectives Project  as well as this and yet another forthcoming article in a peer-reviewed journal.  In fact, working with these materials was my primary endeavor from 2005-2009.  The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has also used these records, which they refer to as the Harmony documents, and have used them to make major contributions to our understanding of the terrorists we face.

I don’t in any way begrudge Prof. Gusterson the right to defend his profession.  It would be helpful, however, if he would get his facts straight and if he would at least recognize that other scholarly professions, acting entirely ethically and honorably, might see things differently and might not want to be denied the raw materials necessary for their work.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My thanks to Mr. Stout for drawing attention to my article on the Minerva Initiative. Although my comments about the Iraqi documents captured by U.S. military forces constitute a very small part of the article, I welcome this opportunity to clarify my argument. Mr. Stout is quite right that the Ba’ath Party documents funneled by Kanan Makiya’s Iraq Memory Foundation to the Hoover Institute are distinct from the much larger collection of maybe 100 million Iraqi documents taken by the U.S. military early in its occupation of Iraq. My article (although it already exceeded the journal’s space limitations) would doubtless have benefited from a more elaborate description of the different kinds of documents seized and the different destinations they have found.

    However, I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Stout that the DoD’s custody of these documents is permissible under international law and that researchers funded by Project Minerva to work in those archives will therefore have clean hands. Mr. Stout says “just about every country that has ever fought a war holds or has held captured records from its opponents. In fact, there is specific provision for this in international law.” One wonders if he read the article to which his blog refers readers since that very document makes transparently clear why it is illegal for the U.S. to retain the Iraqi documents DoD seized – documents that constitute the administrative memory of the Iraqi state. The article Mr. Stout cites says “combatants may seize records for use by occupation government. When a territory is occupied, the occupying power needs the records of the former government to enable the new government to function… It is reasonable to assume that such records as needed for governance are to be seized for use, not removal.”

    Leaving aside the question of whether the U.S. occupation of Iraq was itself legal under international law, there are thus two reasons why the DoD’s removal of this massive archival treasure trove from Iraq contravene international law: (1) Instead of keeping the captured documents in Iraq for use in assuring administrative continuity (as permitted by international law), the U.S. removed them from the country as a kind of war booty for analysts in the U.S.. (2) Although the U.S. occupation has, in a formal legal sense at least, ended, taking with it any legal case for the U.S. to retain custody of these documents, the U.S. is not only keeping the documents but making plans (through Project Minerva) to institutionalize their use in the U.S..

    Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraqi National Archives, has written an article making clear that he sees no legal distinction between the Iraqi documents at the Hoover Institute and those seized by the DoD. His article specifically condemns Project Minerva for inciting scholars to work with the documents Mr. Stout has been working with. His article can be found at

    Hugh Gusterson

  2. […] Captured Documents, Historians, Anthropologists, etc. (Part II) I received a reply from Prof. Hugh Gusterson to my recent posting on the dispute over whether documents captured …. […]

  3. […] Captured Documents, Historians, Anthropologists, etc. (Part III) My rejoinder to Hugh Gusterson’s comment on my 15 January piece “Captured Documents: Military Historians and Terrorism Scholars vs. Anthropologists?” […]

  4. I have copied Prof. Gusterson’s comment in its entirety into a separate blog posting. My rejoinder to him is also now a separate posting.

    Mark Stout

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