Lethal Field Work: Anthropologists Cry Foul Over Colleagues' Aid to Iraq Occupation

The Human Terrain Systems (HTS) program, in operation for several years, was significantly expanded by the United States military last September. It has recruited anthropologists to be embedded with U.S. troops at brigade and division level in Iraq and Afghanistan. Administered by BAE (a contracting agency created by British Aerospace and Marconi Electronic Systems), the program takes anthropologists, some of whom are not experts in the relevant cultures, and charges them with advising commanders to prevent them from misreading local actions and -- potentially violent -- situations. The idea is to reduce casualties.

The New York Times reported on 5 October 2007 on an anthropologists' contingent involved in a major operation meant to reduce attacks against U.S. and Afghan troops. The anthropologists identified many widows in the target area and surmised that their young male relatives would be under pressure to support them and would be likely to join the attackers out of economic necessity. A job-training program for the widows led to a reduction in attacks.

But the program has caused alarm, as it recalls two programs from the Vietnam era in which anthropologists were involved. The first was the short-lived Project Camelot in 1965, organized by U.S. army intelligence, in which anthropologists were recruited to assess the cultural causes of war and violence. It was a benign-sounding enterprise. But it used Chile as a test case just as the CIA was interfering in Chile's internal affairs, having engineered the election of Eduardo Frei as president in 1964 to prevent the election of socialist leader Salvador Allende. The project was soon abandoned.

The second was an organization known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), formed to coordinate the U.S. civil and military pacification programs in Vietnam. It operated directly under General William Westmoreland, but was headed by a civilian, Ambassador Robert Komer, who was his deputy. It was used to map human terrain and identify individuals and groups that the military believed were sympathizers of the Vietcong; they were then targeted for assassination. Anthropological research was used.

The anthropological profession has a code of ethics which, like the Hippocratic oath, mandates no harm to people who are studied, and requires their informed consent in participation in research. This is impossible under combat conditions, where there is no opportunity for embedded anthropologists to identify themselves with ordinary people. And the work looks enough like intelligence work to cause people to view anthropologists as spies (even under ordinary conditions), inhibiting their scientific mission. The HTS operation came under immediate scrutiny by the profession.

Last September a group of scholars formed the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, inspired by physicists who had opposed the Reagan-era Star Wars program, and drafted a pledge of non-participation in counter-insurgency. One of the organizers, David Price of St Martin's University in Lacey, Washington, said on 13 December 2007: "All of us are not necessarily opposed to some work with the military, but anything involving counterinsurgency ... or anything that violates ethical standards of research, we're opposed to, and we're simply asking our colleagues to stand up and be counted with us ... "

The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association issued a statement in October 2007 which, while not explicitly prohibiting anthropologists from activities that might be covered under the project, warned its members that its activities are likely to violate the code of ethics.

At the association's annual meeting in Washington, DC, last November, the controversy took center stage. In one session, the anthropologists involved with the military tried to convince their colleagues that they were helping to transform military attitudes and increase their cultural sensitivity. Skeptics felt that those cooperating with the military may have been naïve in their understanding of the way their research was being used. The debate culminated in a resolution that would, if ratified by the entire membership, prohibit any activity involving secret research for intelligence agencies.

One of the principal proponents of cooperation is Montgomery McFate, a Yale PhD anthropologist and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. In a seminar on 10 May 2007, McFate presented a plan that was influential in establishing the HTS project. She pointed out that the U.S. military spends almost nothing on social science research that would be crucial to the success of operations, and recommended an approach to closing the cultural knowledge gap.

She advocated the establishment of a large research program leading to a socio-cultural knowledge database, recruitment of young cultural analysts into government service and establishment of a clearing house for cultural knowledge. None of these would be a problem. The problem arises when the expertise is made a weapon for use in combat.


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