Ritualizing Dissent: Critical Voices as Normalized Bureaucratic Processes in Military and Intelligence Agencies

Ritualizing Dissent: Critical Voices as Normalized Bureaucratic Processes in Military and Intelligence Agencies

David Price and Roberto J. González

For two decades we have critically studied various roles played by social scientists working for military and intelligence agencies.  One explanation we have long heard from those working within these agencies is that their critical voices can help prevent bad outcomes that would have occurred without their presence. While we do not deny this as a possibility, a more common outcome is that dissenting voices become a ritualized part of bureaucratic ecosystems. Sometimes dissenting voices become procedural checked boxes indicating that alternative views have been heard. Other times, internal critiques become lightning rods of avoidance for others—broadcasting the message that regardless of how valid these critiques might be, others must avoid making these criticisms or else face institutional ostracism.

A clear example of these controlling processes (Nader 1997) was widely publicized in September 2015. At that time, a front-page New York Times exposé revealed that US military officials in Afghanistan had, over the course of several years, asked American soldiers to ignore rampant cases of pedophilia, in which members of the Afghan national police had sexually abused children. The article recounted a number of harsh disciplinary actions taken against US soldiers and Marines who attempted to stop such abusive practices.

According to another article published just a few days later, Marines were offered little direction on what action they should take should they witness rape or other forms of sexual abuse by local people in other countries. The author of that piece, Shane Harris, reported that The Daily Beast had obtained copies of military training materials in which sexual assault was explicitly described as a “cultural” phenomenon in Afghanistan, implying that such behaviors should be allowed to continue.

In response to these stories, we wrote a short article for the online journal CounterPunch, in which we reflected upon the ways in which the US’s military’s then-popular brand of “culture-centric” counterinsurgency warfare may have facilitated the pedophilic practices of its Afghan allies. We argued that American military officials’ obsession with “cultural awareness” may have allowed them to accept practices in which unwilling children were taken by Afghan police and militia leaders for sexual gratification. We were especially disturbed by the manner in which Montgomery McFate, the architect of the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS)—a controversial program that embedded social scientists with combat brigades on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan  (González 2018) —had trivialized the sexual abuse of Afghan children on a national public radio broadcast. In an interview on the nationally syndicated program The Diane Rehm Show, McFate referred to such practices as “Man-Boy Love Thursday” and lauding HTS personnel for informing brigade commanders about the supposedly intransigent nature of Afghan culture: “If you don’t like it, you can’t stop it. It’s just part of what they are. Don’t try and impose your values on the people you’re working with because you’re not going to change them”.

As we delved more deeply into the topic, we discovered that several years earlier, in 2012, the Washington Post obtained a draft copy of an Army training manual that reportedly offered a list of “taboo conversation topics,” recommending that US soldiers should avoid criticizing pedophilia, advocating for women’s rights, or mentioning homosexuality, among other things.  We tried to obtain a copy of this report but were unable to access one.

In our CounterPunch piece, we mistakenly identified the author of the draft report as US Army Major Jeffrey Bordin, a military psychologist, holding a “Human Terrain Team Leader” certification from the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. In 2011, Bordin had penned a different report,  A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility, which was apparently cited in the Army’s controversial draft training manual. The Army used Bordin’s work as a foundation for preparing the draft handbook, according to Washington Post journalist Dion Nissenbaum, but the Army’s anonymous authors arrived at very different conclusions and recommendations.

We have more recently learned that Bordin never suggested that US soldiers should ignore child sexual abuse. In fact, he observed that US and Canadian soldiers were often infuriated and outraged by such forms of predatory behavior practiced by Afghan national security personnel (p. 45), and that this was a major source of mistrust between American troops and their Afghan counterparts. Bordin argued that the lack of trust was so severe that it was leading to deep resentment, and perhaps might even account for Afghan national police officers attacking NATO troops. We mistakenly assumed that Bordin, like the authors of the Army draft report, were recommending that US troops ignore pedophilia. Apparently, we weren’t the only people to misread Bordin’s position: Paul McLeary made a similar error in an article published in Foreign Policy.

We first learned that Bordin’s report had challenged US practices of ignoring this abuse in November 2019, when Jeffrey Bordin confronted us during the question and answer period or a session on militarization at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, in Vancouver, British Columbia.  He informed us that we had been incorrect in writing that his report had supported the military’s policy of ignoring these abuse of children in Afghanistan, and stated that in fact, his opposition to these policies had brought him nothing but trouble from US military personnel who did not want to create fiction with Afghan allies, by curtailing this abuse.  We were surprised by all this, and given that we had written our piece five years earlier had little to say to him during the session, but did have a collegial conversation with him afterwards. We assured Bordin that we would follow up, and correct any inaccuracies that had appeared in our 2015 article.

During the course of our conversation, Bordin told us that his Crisis of Trust report had not only been unwelcomed and ignored by the US military, but that he came under attack for writing a report at odds with US Department of Defense practices and countering interpretations of counterinsurgency doctrine developed and championed by General David Petraeus.

Bordin had written the report in his capacity as a Red Team Political and Military Behavioral Scientist.  A “Red Team” is a group or individual working within military and intelligence circles assigned the task of evaluating a situation with the explicit charge of finding out what has or will go wrong with a proposed or current course of action. Now that Bordin’s report has been declassified and made available by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, we can see that Bordin was engaging in a significant critique of US operations (Bordin 2011).

The report compiled a significant list of behaviors undertaken by US and allied forces in Afghanistan, and produced a detailed list of 58 recommendations (2011:47-51). To be sure, this report describes these incidents as “child abuse and neglect,” reporting that Canadian forces complained “about rampant sexual abuse of children” and it raised concerns that “U.S. Soldiers witnessing such barbaric acts may likely lead to violent confrontations with the perpetrators” (2011:45). While the report is clearly critical of this practice of “the raping and sodomizing of little boys,” a clear recommendation for ending the program is not included.

Still, Bordin fulfilled his Red Team mission with such critical accuracy that he says he was targeted for this assigned act of truth telling. There were few in the chain of command willing to listen to a critique arguing that US military practices were alienating the population whose loyalty and support were needed.

With a lack of access to the original report, and relying on secondary reports, our initial interpretation that Bordin’s report condoned these practices was wrong. The more we have learned about the military’s reaction to Bordin and his report, the more we have come to that his actions–warning the military that these forms of sexual abuse were wrong, harmful to these victims of abuse, and detrimental to US goals in Afghanistan–were in fact those of a whistleblower. Bordin was eventually derided and punished for providing the military with a report it did not want to receive.  Yet, on a structural level we continue to be puzzled why anyone would continue to work for an organization whose leaders appear so incapable of listening.

While Red Teams on the surface seem to be wise institutional features, once they become mundane, ritual objects  there are reasons to question their utility.  These reports are frequently ignored and the timidity of their recommendations to alter operations already embraced by the institutions raises questions about their value. Bordin’s report and its aftermath appears to clearly illustrate a broader pattern, which leads us to ask: Why, after having one’s recommendations ignored and reputation ridiculed by the agency receiving such a report, would anyone continue to undertake such work?

One lesson we take away from what happened with the Bordin’s report is that while there are great difficulties understanding and critiquing the military externally (look no further than our initial errors in interpreting a report of which we had only partial secondary knowledge ), there are equal or if not greater difficulties critiquing the military from within.[4] When these Red Team critiques become institutionalized fixtures, they become boxes to check and ideas to easily ignore—and if critical of the central mission, as we find in Bordin’s report, they can teach others to keep their distance regardless of the correctness of the analysis. At the same time,  critical analysis of supposedly “independent” social science work conducted within US military and security agencies was published in a special edition of Contemporary Social Science (Price 2018).

Bordin’s report is part of a long history of ignored internal reports within military and intelligence circles. If a culture of secrecy were not so pervasive, these patterns would become all the more obvious, but present levels of secrecy leave us with shadows of recurrent patterns.

González, Roberto J. 2018. Beyond the Human Terrain System: A Brief Critical History (and a Look Ahead), Contemporary Social Science, DOI: 10.1080/21582041.2018.1457171.
González, Roberto J., Hugh Gusterson, and Gustaaf Houtman. 2019. Militarization: A Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Nader, Laura. 1997. Controlling Processes: Tracing the Dynamic Components of Power. Current Anthropology 38(5), 711-735.
Price, David. 2018. Questioning Our Agency inside Agencies: Rethinking the Possibility of Scholars’ Critical Contributions to Security Agencies. Contemporary Social Science, DOI: 10.1080/21582041.2018.1426873.


David Price is professor of anthropology and chair of the College of Arts and Sciences at St. Martin’s University. Roberto J. González is professor and chair of the anthropology department at San José State University.