News Flash: The Army’s Human Terrain Team in the New York Times, Anthropologists still Pissed.

Anyone that has spent time reading my entries in this blog already knows that I am an advocate of anthropologists working in all levels of government, military and intelligence communities. The latest entry into the conversation is from this New York Times piece entitled “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones”.

By all accounts in the press, which I readily acknowledge from personal experience can be a dubious source, the presence of anthropologists has been effective in actually reducing the violence in some areas. In the article the reporter naturally seeks out the opinions of people that are of the opposing view, and that is only due diligence. An issue I have with all the reporting of the controversy is it focuses on anthropologists that only think its evil. I have seen little written that reflects the anthropologists that I have discussed the topic with that don’t have a major concern with it. They might disagree with someone’s interest in working in the military out of their political views, but even then, I have not run across an anthropologist that would turn their back on a colleague that chose to do so. Its just a difference… no more no less.

The quote in the piece that for me underscores that lackluster argument that most anthropologists provide against working with the military is from Roberto J. González, an anthro professor at San Jose State University. He simply dismisses those anthropologists in the program as “naïve and unethical.” Frankly that’s a cheap shot for which he has no evidence that I can ascertain. Has he spoken with the anthropologists in question? How does he know they did not wrestle with their own ethical issues and simply come to a different conclusion than his own? I have minimal experience with the military (not as an anthropologist, in my former profession as an instructional developer), and found the people in the military to be a lot like people I meet in businesses, schools, movie theaters and anthro departments. Human beings with desires, needs, egos, gifts and flaws. Some are boy/girl scouts and some are rotten and most are just people doing a job.

To suggest that an anthropologist that works with the military is naive is saying that they have somehow gotten through life and grad school without ever once picking up a newspaper or being yammered at by the local Marxist hold-out. Dr. Gonzalez, you the and Network of Concerned Anthropologists are not the only social scientists aware that the US government, military and intelligence agencies have all committed abuses in the past and undoubtedly will in the future. But it seems the solution to that would be to encourage people that have the views you hold dear to be a part of those communities where change is much more likely. But as always, criticism is much easier than solutions.

The one issue that I do understand, and I don’t have a ready answer for, is the risk of an anthropologist being accused of covertly working for the government while in the field. I don’t think it’s a good enough reason to simply not to do any government related work. Fieldwork is indeed risky, and I would like to believe that any anthropologist planning on working in a high risk environment has done due diligence in ensuring they have proper contacts, people to vouch for them, etc. But it has to be remembered that the anthropologists that are working in the HTS with the military are not there in a covert capacity. They are there as anthropologists.

6 thoughts on “News Flash: The Army’s Human Terrain Team in the New York Times, Anthropologists still Pissed.

  1. I like ethics codes and I think that professions should develop them as a way to help professionals recognize difficult professional ethical dilemmas. I think that such codes can be legitimately used in hiring decisions, and other situations involving professional reward. After all ethics codes are a bright line in the sand which indicates where questions will be asked.

    But prohibitions on activity, for an example a prohibition on providing the military with anthropological advice, also raise an opposite ethical question. Is it right to deny assistance to an institution, when you have expertise which might make a situation better? A weakness of such codes is that they are often legalistic, and as a result the difficult nature of ethical decisions is obscured. In the worse cases, this has the effect of quashing a difficult discussion which should take place. If anthropologists need an example of how legalism can quash legitimate discussions of ethical standards, they need look no further than their own university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) for human subjects research. Many anthropologists make the good point that such IRBs restrict potentially important anthropological work in the name of preventing another Tuskegee Experiment, without protecting human subjects. I think the same question needs to be asked of attempts to restrict cooperation by anthropologists with the military when the ethically difficult questions about making of war are inherent to the business.

    In the case of anthropologists cooperating with the military, the difficulty is in understanding the range of results cooperation can bring. I can see the use of anthropologists making an unjust military operation more effective, or an unjust operation less destructive. Or anthropological thought can make a just military operation more effective. And this all occurs in the context of different world views clashing over emotional moral questions about the legitimacy of political rule.

    In graduate school, I learned somewhere that anthropology itself was to blame for the excesses in the Vietnam War. As a result, I was told that cultural anthropology in particular was retreating into a “do no evil” policy, which meant no more focus on places where the United States had imperial designs. Graduate school admissions, faculty hiring, etc., in anthropology all tended to reflect this retreat from engagement with the government. And of course this stated policy discouraged cooperation with not only the military, but also the State Department, and USAID. A result is that today we have government bureaucracies who hired political scientists, economists, engineers, and almost anyone but the anthropologists who had special understanding of other cultures and the difficult questions different world views raise. And of course this too raises another difficult ethical question. Is it unethical to exclude anthropology from addressing the very difficult questions others routinely engage in?

  2. Ha, Mark, you beat me to it, I was just coming on to note that David Price, author of “Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War,” was interviewed on the Diane Rehm show ( today, along with Montgomery McFate, senior social science advisor with the Human Terrain System (and a couple of members of the armed forces, Col. John Agoglia, director, U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, and Lt. Col. Edward Villacres, military leader of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division Human Terrain Team).

    Check out the conversation, it’s interesting, and explores many of the different perspectives from and about anthropology in government and the military.

  3. This thread is interesting to me because I have to make a report on ethics to the AAA Long-Range Planning committee next month. Personally I am troubled by the prospect that anthropology would ever be used to worsen or curtail anyone’s life, which seems to me to defeat the very purpose of anthropology, and so I tend to be sympathetic to the (idealistic, but far from naive) Price-Gusterson-Gonzalez position. That said, however, I must fully disclose that McFate was the Maid of Honor at my wedding…
    Anyway, I would be interested to check back on this blog some day and see what other people have to say.

  4. I think it’s great! Anthropologists are going to save so many lives, ours and the opposition’s alike. How many times has somebody made a stupid mistake because they had no idea it was a bad idea and all hell broke loose. Shoot, I had Anthro 101 30 years ago and I coulda told ya it was a flamingly bad idea to give Iraqi kids soccer balls with the Saudi flag on them. The flag contains the name of Allah and now it’s rolling around in the dirt with people’s feet touching the sacred name of Allah. Any first year froshie could have told the government their goodwill gesture would blow up in their face.

    How many more things like that are waiting to happen that an anthroplolgist will stop? “Uh, dude, please don’t step on that prayer mat.” “Whatever you do, don’t touch their little boy on the head” “And for Pete’s sake, don’t point the soles of your boots at their daughters!”

    I have two brothers over there now and one in Afghanistan. I’d really like to give them the chance to come home in one piece.

  5. I have heard many different things about this issue. If anthropologists can help, in some way, Iraq and Afghanistan then “GO Anthropologists.” But if the purpose is to control them, then “Watch out”… remember the code of ethics!

  6. I find it interesting that an anthropology professor of Dr. Gonzalez’ stature is willing to make assessment and assertions without having conducted thorough research in the area, written no papers that have been based on fieldwork in the area and have no real-world evidence to support the press statements that he’s making on behalf of the AAA. It seems to me that he’s coming dangerously close to violating his own association’s code of ethics if he’s not careful. This is what happens when you spend too much time teaching on end. You lose touch with how to actually apply the discipline in the field.

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