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Postscript to Sept. 11 -- What Would Margaret Mead Say?

During the 100th anniversary of Margaret Mead's death, Americans would do well to consult the anthropologist's prescient observations of U.S. culture during wartime.
 
 
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Few Americans today realize that anthropologist Margaret Mead, the most famous social scientist of the 20th century, was also one of the most profound commentators on war and America's response to violence. It is appropriate to ask what she would say about the attacks of Sept. 11 and the Bush administration's war on terrorism if she were alive today.

Mead would have deep insights into why we are fighting in the first place, and suggest that we become aware that our cultural tendencies can work both for and against us. She would urge Americans to start planning for a post-war era in which we envision co-existence with our opponents even as the conflict continues.

In this 100th anniversary of Mead's birth, academic celebrations are taking place across the country. But most academics have forgotten that Mead was an active advisor to the U.S. government during World War II, and during the early days of the Cold War under the aegis of the Office of Naval Research. With her friend and mentor Ruth Benedict, she founded a research project, Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures.

The project was designed to investigate the modern cultures of U.S. allies and enemies, including Germany, Britain, Russia, France and Japan. And the United States itself was explored. Mead's study of American culture, "And Keep Your Powder Dry," has just been reprinted in a new edition. It is as fresh as the day it was first published in 1942, and as sobering for Americans trying to make sense of the sudden violence in their lives.

In World War II, Mead warned that, "If we let our generals and our statesmen involve us in international threats and reprisals which fail to bring out the strengths in our character -- we may lose. To win we must take accurate inventory of our American character."

Part of that inventory was to understand both why and how we fight. Americans, according to Mead, see aggression as a response rather than a primary behavior. However, our aggression must be in proportion to the strength of our opponent. The "fear that a boy will be a coward contains in it the fear that he will also be a bully." This is an accurate account of the inception of conflicts we have engaged in since World War II, including those of Sept. 11. When struck, we do not want to be thought of as cowards, so we strike back.

However, American fear of being thought a bully also accounts for the public outcry when we seem to have exceeded our mandate for aggression, as in the post-Gulf War bombing of Iraq. Balancing these tendencies against reality is an imperative for effective response in the future.

Mead also pointed out that as a nation, we have a strong drive for achievement and tend to see organized conflict as a finite task to be completed. Once finished, we walk away from it, and move on to the next task. This is an excellent trait in that it emphasizes completion of a job, a dispassionate view of it, and a tendency not to hold long grudges. However, it also keeps us from seeing the interconnections between conflict events, and blinds us to the need both for follow-up and prophylactic planning. This is a fairly accurate account of our conduct in helping counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. We neither predicted it nor planned for the post-conflict period, and we are paying a price for our tendencies.

Mead's most important warning for Americans was against the national disposition for isolationism, which she saw as an outgrowth of American individualism. Mead believed fervently that humans must cherish the cultural diversity of the world, because in this diversity lay the hope for human survival. She didn't mince words. In 1965 she wrote: "The people of the United States are still hoping to build the future of the United States as if the country was as separate from the rest of the world as this continent was before the first voyage of Columbus. Yet we are in the world as we have never been before ... we have not yet really taken our place as a nation among nations, recognizing that each is essential to the safety of all."

The need to work toward a world without war in which all humans have a stake was paramount in Mead's philosophy. "Those who still cling to the old, simple definition of patriotism have not yet recognized that since Hiroshima there cannot be winners and losers in a war, but only losers. And they are vocal out of desperation about a world they do not understand."

Mead's challenge to Americans to cherish the cultures of the world was also a challenge to cherish our own, but to have the courage to change when our cultural tendencies become dysfunctional. Facing this task may be more formidable than any foreign military operation we could ever devise.

William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University and is secretary of the Institute for Intercultural Studies, the research foundation created by Margaret Mead before her death.