Operation Phoenix

Mon, 30 Jan 1995 18:41:55 -0600

Among the wonders of what was called the war in Viet Nam, there were
two programs that had their special strangeness in particular to me. The
first was the fact that people - of sorts - could kiss their wives and
kids good bye in the morning in Guam, get into a B-52 or some such dinosaur
fly over Vietnam, bomb the living shit out it, napalm, phosphorus, cluster
bombs, smart bombs that can smell your b.o. in caves, do an unspeakable
amount of destruction, cause unspeakable pain to people they had never
seen or would see and whose pain they would never know, then turn around
fly home, kiss the wive and kids hello, go out and play a round of golf
or have a beer with friends. Not bad for starters.

Then there was the Phoenix program. It was computer-simulated murder. Pretty
neat stuff. The way it works was that a new generation of military trained
computer nurds were commissioned to develop psychological profiles of potential
Viet Cong based upon a data base collected from Viet Cong pows, interviews
with US-friendly Vietnamese. Through these interviews the profile of who
MIGHT be an 'enemy' was developed. I can'
t remember who fit the profile (other than teachers were found in rather
substantial proportions). In the end the computer would spit out a profile
that might say something like 'secondary math teachers of Buddist background
who live in rural areas' or 'middle level officers in Vietnamese army
(allied to the US) who have not been promoted for five years, etc., etci.
In the end there were a whole slew of categories that were developed in this
CIA sponsored program. That was part one; part two doesn't take much
imagination to figure out. Anyone who fit the profile, whether they were
Viet Cong or not was suspect. Again, this is reaching back a bit into the
remote corners of my mind so I can't remember whether it was 20,000 or
60,000 or some other number of people who were assassinated by the UScau
simply because they had the luck of fitting the profile at about the time
the US started losing the war. Whatever it was, the number was sizeable,
the program horrible and executed to the fullest until somehow the story
leaked to the press in the US of A. When it was being carried out, investigations
later revealed, there was never even the slightest attempt to see if those
targeted by their unfortunate profile had a relationship with the 'enemy' or
not. Those initiating the program understood that their would be some
'innocent victims', but their faith in the computer profile was great enough
to make them believe this program would strike a terrible blow to the
Vietnamese Communists. Maybe we can consider it an early version of

I read about it at the time and, if I am not mistaken it is one of the
many revelations brought to light by Daniel Ellsberg. In any case, I
don't remember anthros being involved. Maybe they/we were. Who knows. I
have heard - I admit this is rumor and I would like it either to be
confirmed or denied - that the CIA has one of the best Anthro libraries
in the world and that it was referred to often during the Cold War years.
Certainly credible. Now that the Cold War is over, and with it a certain
shrinkage or drying up of intelligence related funds (am I off base here?
I am frankly just speculating), perhaps the field has the possibility
of reorienting itself to get away from all this spooky stuff. My own
thinking, again, I am the first to admit I can't prove it, is that Anthropology
was fundamentally INFESTED with intelligence related work and the examples
that have been discussed so far on this list are no more than the proverbial
tip of the ice berg. Actually we'll probably never know the full extent of
this trend. What I have deeply appreciated in the discussion as it has
unfolded, Mike Salovesh's remarks being a fine example, is what seems to
be - at least among the list's participants - a moral rejection of that
role for Anthropology. I know, people have stood up as they did in 1970
in the field and expressed their opposition in the tradition of Boas in
his 1919 Nation article. It seems to me that we have in this new, post
Cold War era, a kind of open field, the possibility to recreate, redefine
Cultural Anthropology so that it can, among its other qualities, deal with
contemporary cultural and human problems, both here in the USA and internationally. We have a chance to re-emerge as factors in the national debate over
the country's future in the way that people like Boas and Mead did but that
today seems somewhat remote from what the field is about (in my opinion).
Dirty hands and all, perhaps the field's finest days lie down the road.

Enough. Maybe more than enough.

Rob Prince/Metro State College/Denver