OPINION: When anthropologists become counter-insurgents

Pledging to boycott the “war on terror”

The Pentagon is increasingly relying on the deployment of “Human Terrain System” (HTS) teams in Afghanistan and Iraq to gather and disseminate information on cultures living in the theatre of war. Some of these teams are assigned to US brigade or regimental combat units, which include “cultural analysts” and “regional studies analysts.” According to CACI International (one of three companies currently contracting HTS personnel for the Pentagon), “the HTS project is designed to improve the gathering, understanding, operational application, and sharing of local population knowledge” among combat teams. Required experience includes an MA or Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, sociology, or related social science fields, and applicants must obtain a secret security clearance to be eligible for employment.

In this environment it is not surprising that the Science Applications International Corporation-one of the top 10 US defense contractors-has begun describing anthropology as a “counter-insurgency related field” in its job advertisements. Prior to joining HTS teams, some social scientists attend military training camps. Recently, Marcus Griffin, an anthropology professor preparing to deploy to Iraq boasted on his blog that “I cut my hair in a high and tight style and look like a drill sergeant…I shot very well with the M9 and M4 last week at the range… Shooting well is important if you are a soldier regardless of whether or not your job requires you to carry a weapon.” The lines separating researchers, subjects, protectors, protected and target are easily confused in such settings, and the concerns of research ethics are easily set aside for more immediate concerns.

Although proponents of this form of applied anthropology claim that culturally informed counter-insurgency work will save lives and win “hearts and minds,” they have thus far not attempted to provide any evidence of this. Instead, there has been a flurry of non-critical newspaper accounts in publications including the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor that portray these HTS anthropologists as heroically serving their nation without bothering to report on the ethical complications of this work. Missing are discussions of anthropologists’ ethical responsibilities to disclose who they are and what they are doing, to gain informed consent, and to not harm those they study. Portraying counter-insurgency operations as social work is naive and historically inaccurate. [complete article]

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