A Nuclear Advocacy Dilemma

Advocacy anthropology does not always mean aligning oneself with an underdog.

Nicolas Raymond/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Since the establishment of our discipline, anthropologists have fretted over the question of whether they should deploy their own privileged knowledge to intervene in debates and disputes among their subjects. Should they dispassionately take notes on female genital mutilation, or should they advocate against it? (Walley 1997). Or, when they come across a local mystic who seems to the anthropologist to be a paranoid schizophrenic, should they get him treatment? (Crapanzano 1985).

In the early years of our discipline, anthropologists were—a little like those following the Prime Directive in Star Trek—reluctant to undermine the (often falsely) presumed pristine nature of indigenous belief systems. Over time, anthropologists’ worries shifted from contamination to abuse of power: Was it a neocolonial act for the anthropologist to seek to impose his or her own interpretation of a situation? At the same time, increasing numbers of anthropologists embraced advocacy: establishing alliances with oppressed communities and leveraging the anthropologist’s privileged position on their behalf.

But not all situations neatly fit the advocacy anthropologists’ script where the anthropologist uses his or her own privilege in alliance with the underdogs. Take my own fieldwork at a nuclear weapons laboratory.

Since the establishment of our discipline, anthropologists have fretted over the question of whether they should deploy their own privileged knowledge to intervene in debates and disputes among their subjects.
I did my initial fieldwork at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California 1987–1989. I approached this fieldwork as a graduate student who had until recently worked for an organization, the Nuclear Freeze, committed to ending the nuclear arms race. It was a real challenge for me at first to develop the kind of warm relationships with nuclear weapons scientists that anthropologists conventionally strive to have with their subjects and, somewhere deep down, I felt my real alliance was with the activists who contested the laboratory’s mission.

In 1994–5 I returned to Livermore for a second round of fieldwork. Although only five years had elapsed since my original fieldwork, the world had changed immeasurably. When I left the field, the Berlin Wall was still standing and the US was in an arms race with the Soviet Union. When I returned, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the two Germanys had become one, the nations of Eastern Europe had been set free, and the Soviet Union no longer existed. Moreover, US nuclear weapons scientists had not been allowed to test a nuclear weapon since 1992, and they were beginning to realize that they would probably never be allowed to do so again.

When I returned to the field in 1994, the managers of the two nuclear weapons laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos were worried that their institutions would suffer devastating budget cuts as part of a post-cold war “peace dividend.” The managers of Livermore had an additional worry: there was talk in Washington of closing one of the weapons labs now that the cold war was over, and employees at Livermore, the junior weapons lab, had no doubt which that would be. With nuclear testing gone, they needed a new raison d’etre.

During the cold war nuclear tests were the main product of the weapons laboratories, and it was the production of these fantastically complex technoscientific events that produced organizational integration within the laboratory, knitting together chemists, physicists, engineers, technicians, and secretaries into a community of common endeavor. Nuclear tests were also the means by which junior weapons scientists were apprenticed and evaluated, and they were the key means of producing knowledge about the reliability of nuclear weapons.

Now stripped of nuclear tests, the weapons labs came up with an ingenious replacement, Science-based Stockpile Stewardship, for which they were requesting $4.5 billion a year—more than the average nuclear weapons research and development budget during the cold war. The stockpile stewardship program consisted of an ensemble of supercomputers, multimillion dollar physics machines, and experiments that, collectively, would enable the simulation of nuclear testing. A new facility at Los Alamos would permit X-ray images of the implosion of an atomic bomb in which the plutonium had been replaced with a simulant. At the Nevada Nuclear Test Site scientists would shock small pieces of plutonium with high explosives in order to refine the equations of state at the heart of nuclear weapons expertise. And at the Livermore Laboratory, they would build the most spectacular and expensive of the new facilities: the National Ignition Facility. Slated to cost $1.2 billion (though it ended up costing over $4 billion), the National Ignition Facility is the most powerful laser in the world. It creates temperatures and pressures greater than those in the sun just a few hundred yards from a suburban housing estate so that scientists can better understand the physical processes inside exploding hydrogen bombs.

If helping our students often involves critiquing their work, doesn’t this hold also for the communities we study?  
The stockpile stewardship program was just coming together in 1994 when I returned to the field. I spent much of that year trying to understand what the new facilities would allow weapons scientists to do—as did anti-nuclear activists. Anti-nuclear activists largely relied on official testimony of nuclear weapons officials and publicly released documents from within the laboratories. I was reading the same documents, but was also talking to nuclear weapons scientists themselves about the emergent stockpile stewardship program—an information channel not available to the activists.

As my year of fieldwork progressed, I watched a narrative frame about stockpile stewardship congeal among the activists. According to this frame, the weapons labs only agreed to a nuclear test ban because they no longer needed nuclear tests to develop new nuclear weapons, and stockpile stewardship would enable the US to continue developing new nuclear weapons. According to some activists the National Ignition Facility, which was the size of three football fields, was a prototype for a future pure fusion bomb. The activists supported this interpretation with quotes from official documents that hyped the capabilities of the new facilities for which the labs were requesting billions of dollars of taxpayer money. Much as I sympathized with the activists, I came to believe that their interpretation was largely mistaken.

In my conversations with weapons lab employees I was hearing that lab scientists were deeply unhappy about losing nuclear testing, that most scientists thought it would be impossible, or at least irresponsible, to certify new weapons without testing them, and that some scientists felt their managers were exaggerating the capabilities of stockpile stewardship facilities in order to get them funded. From this perspective, the more activists criticized stockpile stewardship for giving the US a continuing weapons design capability, the more solidity they lent to lab managers’ exaggerations.

My critique of the activists could have remained an academic matter, to be published several years later in refereed journals. However, in early 1995 the Livermore Independent invited me to write on the controversy over the National Ignition Facility and over stockpile stewardship more broadly. I decided I had a responsibility to contribute to the public debate, especially since my conversations with weapons scientists gave me access to views not circulating in the public sphere. I thought that reframing the debate rather than just weighing in for one dug-in position versus another would be a useful contribution. As I should have seen had I been less naïve, however, the activists did not welcome my attempted reframing and some whispered that I was going native out there in Livermore.

When I began my original fieldwork as a graduate student an anthropology professor told me I could say whatever I wanted about the weapons scientists, but I had a responsibility not to undermine the worldview of the much weaker community of activists who were struggling with flimsy resources against massive national security institutions. This advice seemed patronizing to me. Were activists such delicate creatures that I was supposed to spare them the respect that comes with debate and discussion?  If helping our students often involves critiquing their work, doesn’t this hold also for the communities we study?  We like to refer to members of these communities as our “consultants,” but shouldn’t we be consultants to them too, letting them know when we think they are taking a wrong turn?  Thus advocacy in broad solidarity with the cause of subordinate groups may sometimes involve arguing against them (or, given that they are rarely monolithic, some of them) rather than with or for them.  This may be best done discreetly, behind closed doors, but there are times when it must be done in public, especially if – by dint of their unique position – the anthropologist has privileged insight into public controversies.

Recent years have seen the rise of “public anthropology” alongside advocacy anthropology, and sometimes there may be a tension between the two—as was the case in this instance.  But sometimes to advance a cause you have to argue with some of its adherents.

Hugh Gusterson is professor of anthropology and international affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book is Drone (MIT Press, 2016).

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