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SOAS delivers specialised training to the British Military

By Daniel Selwyn, Decolonising Our Minds

SOAS has received up to £400,000 from the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) since the end of 2016, a student-led investigation can reveal. 

Using Freedom of Information requests, the investigation found that the University has delivered Regional Study Weeks (RSWs) on Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa to the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit (DCSU). RSWs are organised for scholars to explain the historical, cultural, economic, political, and geographical contexts of these regions, including in-depth case studies and sessions explicitly dedicated to the ‘implications for UK military missions.’ 

“SOAS is rebranding itself as a leader in post-colonial and decolonial knowledge production”

In a recruitment video, the DCSU defines its purpose ‘to understand what’s going on in people’s minds, society’s mind, the cultural mind wherever we operate,’ as a means to ‘demonstrate [the British Army’s] intent.’ ‘Information Manoeuvre’ is a rule under which the DCSU functions in the Force Troops Command Handbook, describing the purpose of the first Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Brigade. This is used as a tool ‘to attack the enemy’s cohesion and willingness to fight, rather than simply destroying their capability.’

The benefits of cultural advice for military operations is clear. At best, knowledge of local cultural institutions is useful for crafting more inclusive forms of imperial governance that can incorporate local elites. This further ensures that ‘hearts and minds’ are won in the process of achieving strategic objectives. At worst, this is used to either destroy or ‘neutralise’ potential sites of resistance with insider information. SOAS’s official response to criticism was that it is ‘right and important [that] critical non-Eurocentric perspectives [are] brought to bear on bodies which are engaged with these regions.’ The University also argued that it is entitled to raise finances by ‘exploiting its expertise in Asian and African affairs.’ SOAS is described by the MoD as its ‘centre of excellence for cultural capability.’

One might ask why this collaboration is problematic, and there are several important factors to bear in mind about the MoD, and the wider context of the British military.  

According to The Guardian, the UK is the world’s second largest exporter of arms, over £14bn a year. The British armed forces possess over 20 military bases around the world, from Brunei to Belize, Kenya to Oman. The armed forces website discloses at least 43,390 troops in over 40 countries deployed across the globe, including “covert wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The DCSU is active in at least 22 countries, from Chile to Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Formed in 2010, the DCSU emerged out of criticisms of the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Its equivalent unit in the US, the Human Terrain System (HTS), employed anthropologists to work with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American Anthropological Association widely condemned this program for violating the ethical imperative: ‘do no harm to those they study.’ As part of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, Professor David Price argued that, far from being a ‘neutral humanitarian project’, the HTS’ goal is a ‘gentler form of domination.’ The programme ended in 2014 after sustained public resistance. 

At a time where SOAS and other institutions are declaring climate emergencies, the environment is a critical aspect of this collaboration. Wars, nuclear testing and contamination, and the relentless extraction of resources for military equipment and operations are all industries of immense ecological destruction. The US military, alone, is the single largest polluter globally. The total emissions are higher than the figure of more than 140 countries combined. These cases highlight the MoD’s central role in protecting and advancing the inherent violence of British imperialism to humans and the climate. 

Given Britain’s historical invasions and occupations of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, it is difficult to overlook the military’s role in maintaining neo-colonial relations. These affiliations are highly advantageous to British geopolitical and commercial interests over local populations. As a self-proclaimed progressive institution, SOAS is rebranding itself as a leader in post-colonial and decolonial knowledge production. Or, in departing Director Valerie Amos’ words, ‘championing the issues and concerns [of the] post-imperial Global South.’ The ‘Decolonising Our Minds’ campaign affirms that SOAS cannot do this while facilitating and profiting from the military domination, and ecological destruction of British imperialism.

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