Anthropologists and the Military’s Human Terrain System

hts.jpgThe U.S. Army is moving forward with a program called the Human Terrain System. This program attaches anthropologists to operational units in Iraq to both learn about and help the military navigate the complex cultural issues they are encountering.

One anthropologist that is a member of the HTS project is Marcus Griffin, on a year long leave from his job teaching anthropology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Marcus has been blogging about his experience working with the army. It’s rare that anthropologists get this kind of insider look at what it’s like to work directly with the military. Surprise! Despite what all your teachers have told you, working with the military is NOT evil….

2 thoughts on “Anthropologists and the Military’s Human Terrain System

  1. Mark, this is another interesting coincidence with the content of the Anthropology Newsletter for Sept (table of contents and some content links here: There is a particularly nuanced examination by Greg Starrett of whether AAA should publish announcements from intelligence and military agencies. He argues, in part, that we anthropologists are all grown-ups, and don’t need to be sheltered by our organization from the Big Bad Whatever. He further points out that depriving military and intelligence agencies of anthropological knowledge is not for the greater good. I tend to agree–think how much worse things would be if we didn’t have anthropologists involved! Laura Nader’s comment is that of the idealist–we should only publish the announcements, or get involved with those agencies as researchers, if we can have complete control over our data and the circumstances of our research (obviously, I am paraphrasing and interpreting here).
    To which I say: when do we ever have complete control? Funding agencies, logistics, everyday life, all of these things serve to constrict the circumstances of our research. We do the best we can, given what we know at the time. If we were to wait for perfect circumstances, we’d never get anything done.

  2. The New York Times had a big article about anthropologists embedded with military units on October 5. The article illustrated well Donna’s rhetorical question “think how much worse things would be if we didn’t have anthropologists involved!” The answer was that military units which do not understand local alliances, conflicts, etc., are more likely to shoot first, and ask questions later. It is not rocket science (o.k. it is not a graduate course in archaeology) to know it is important to pay attention to local alliances, speak languages, watch cultural cues, etc. Anthropologists do this well, and the military apparently does not.

    I appreciate that many anthropologists do not agree with the overall military approach that the United States has taken in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact by and large I agree with them. I believe that the US should have treated the 9/11 attacks as a crime which needed to be resolved rather than a cause for war. In this context, the most effective way to pursue US interests, and legitimize the rule of law, would have been to work with local clan leaders to establish effective control over remote areas, and thereby provide a political alternative to Osama bin Laden and those responsible for 9/11. In fact, I think that anthropologists and others quite clearly told President Bush this before he made his decision to launch the “Global War on Terror.” But President Bush decided not to listen.

    However, pretending that a “boycott” by anthropologists will change or even make better the implementation of President Bush’s war policy is naïve. Indeed, the use of anthropologists in military units may even push the military towards a more effective “law enforcement” approach to their activity in Afghanistan. Anthropologists are well-aware of the importance of establishing the legitimacy that underlies the rule of law in such societies. Anthropologists are also of course aware that attacks perceived as indiscriminate violence are likely to diminish that legitimacy. The more this point is made in the field by anthropologists and others, I think the more likely a more effective policy based on law enforcement is likely to emerge, whether or not Bush changes his mind about listening to anthropologists.

Comments are closed.