Do professional ethics matter in war?

By Hugh Gusterson | March 4, 2010

What happens when the U.S. military decides that an academic discipline’s professional ethics code is a nuisance?

That is the situation in which anthropology now finds itself.

In 2007 the U.S. Army unveiled its Human Terrain System project–a program to embed civilian anthropologists in military teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they would, like the avatars in James Cameron’s current Hollywood blockbuster, engage the “natives” on the military’s behalf. Gen. David Petraeus has said that in counterinsurgency campaigns, “the decisive terrain is the human terrain, not the high ground or the river crossing” and anthropologists have been assigned the job of “mapping the human terrain” on behalf of U.S. military commanders. There are 21 Human Terrain teams in Iraq and 6 in Afghanistan, with more teams slated for deployment to Afghanistan in the near future. There is also talk of sending Human Terrain teams to places such as Yemen in the future.

The Human Terrain project is fundamentally incompatible with the professional ethics by which we anthropologists live.”

While Human Terrain teams may vary in size, a typical team includes two civilian social scientists and three military personnel. The civilian anthropologists often wear military uniforms and some even carry guns. Those who don’t carry their own guns are guarded by soldiers who do. The teams are usually accompanied by translators, since the U.S. military has been unable to recruit many social scientists that are experts on Iraq or Afghanistan and thus speak the local languages. (One civilian social scientist embedded with a team in Baghdad is an expert on Filipino hunter-gatherers and dumpster-diving “freegans” in the United States.)

Once in the field, these anthropologists are involved in activities such as gathering information on genealogical relationships and development projects, finding out why insurgents cluster in particular areas, briefing commanders before tactical operations, and advising on psychological warfare.

In order to recruit them, the U.S. military has offered eye-popping pay. A student from my academic program, who graduated with a masters degree, was offered almost $300,000 a year to sign up. (For comparison, salaries for beginning assistant professors with PhDs are often less than $60,000.) Since BAE Systems was abruptly removed as the project’s contractor last summer, salaries have fallen, but this is still just about the most lucrative job a young anthropologist can get.

To date, three of the Human Terrain team social scientists have been killed. One, Paula Loyd, was interviewing an Afghan peasant when he doused her with cooking fuel and set her on fire. And in January Iraqi insurgents captured (and are still holding) 60-year-old Issa Salomi. A video of Salomi was recently released by his captors.

In the fall of 2007, the executive board of the American Anthropological Association issued an unusually strongly worded statement condemning the Human Terrain project: “The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association concludes (i) that the [Human Terrain System] program creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the [the association’s] Code of Ethics and (ii) that its use of anthropologists poses a danger to both other anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study. Thus the Executive Board expresses its disapproval of the HTS program [italics in original].” The executive board also appointed a special commission to investigate the project. The 10-member commission, which included two military anthropologists and another who works for Sandia National Laboratories, unanimously concluded in December 2009 that the Human Terrain project was inconsistent with anthropologists’ code of ethics and couldn’t “be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.”

Since then a group called the Network of Concerned Anthropologists has launched a signature campaign petitioning Congress to pull the plug on this rogue exercise in anthropology. (Full disclosure: I am on the network’s steering committee.) So far 720 anthropologists have signed on to this word-of-mouth campaign. They include 6 former presidents of the American Anthropological Association, 37 distinguished professors, 40 department chairs, and 10 journal editors. The signatures, which fill up 20 densely packed pages, are, for this anthropologist, a wonder to behold. One finds there the signatures of crusty emeritus professors, mid-career academics, and job-hungry graduate students. The big names of anthropology at leading Ivy League departments lie side by side with those toiling away in community colleges. The signatures represent an extraordinary outpouring of opinion from anthropologists of all ages, from untenured beginners to the securely tenured alike, that the Human Terrain project is fundamentally incompatible with the professional ethics by which we anthropologists live.

Anthropologists condemn the Human Terrain project because it’s widely perceived as violating our ethics code in three regards. The first concern is that it contravenes what we might think of as the prime directive of anthropological ethics, an analogue to medicine’s Hippocratic Oath, stipulating that anthropologists shouldn’t do harm to those people and communities they study. Asking an anthropologist to gather intelligence that may lead to someone’s death or imprisonment, even if it’s supposedly to save the lives of others, is like asking an army doctor to kill a wounded insurgent, a therapist to turn over an addicted client to the police, or a priest to violate the sanctity of the confessional. Just as doctors are supposed to care for the wounded without asking which side they’re on, so too, anthropologists have a professional obligation toward those they study.

The anthropologists’ second concern, grounded in the Nuremberg Code’s insistence that all research be based upon free and informed consent, is that when Iraqis and Afghans are asked by men with guns if they would like to chat with an anthropologist, they’re not really free to say no.

The third concern is that anthropologists have an obligation not to do research that might endanger other anthropologists. Many anthropologists are concerned that if their discipline becomes perceived as the human relations branch of military occupation, the lives of genuinely civilian anthropologists working as academics or for development projects elsewhere in the Middle East will be endangered.

U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the branch of the U.S. Army in charge of the Human Terrain project, is well aware of the anthropological community’s objections. It would be nice to report that faced with such protests military leaders had found other methods to achieve their goals. But, TRADOC hasn’t engaged the American Anthropological Association about its ethical objections. Instead it has intensified its attempts to recruit anthropologists, using contractors to approach individuals with job offers and is seeking expanded funding for the program and a permanent line for it in the defense budget. When Montgomery McFate, one of the architects of the project, spoke at George Mason University, where I teach, my department chair pointed out to her that the project risked undermining the efficacy and integrity of the entire field of anthropology. Her reply: “Do you think the interest of anthropologists doing research trumps national security?”

Construing the choice as one between anthropology and national security is wrong-headed, since there’s now plenty of evidence that the Human Terrain project isn’t only unethical, but also ineffective. Leaks from within the program suggest that on some teams relations between civilian anthropologists and soldiers are toxic; that the failure to recruit many anthropologists who are trained in Middle Eastern cultures is crippling; that the expensive information technology promised for the project hasn’t materialized, so that information gathered by some teams is inaccessible to others; and that embedded anthropologists are hampered from doing serious work by their own lack of language skills and suggestions that they talk to subjects for no longer than seven minutes to avoid getting shot by snipers. (I recommend this eye-opening account of the training of Human Terrain anthropologists from the point of view of a recruit who eventually resigned on principle.) It’s not just academics that find fault with the program: One civilian advisor to the British military recently told me that although a U.S. Human Terrain team had been offered to them they see the teams as more trouble than they’re worth and are trying to find a polite way to decline.

Some in the military also criticize the program. In an article in Military Review, U.S. Marine Maj. Ben Connable argues that the military would do better relying on the cultural knowledge of their own junior officers than on civilian anthropologists, who usually know more about academic theory than about the reality inside Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s also clear that the Human Terrain project has inflicted a kind of collateral damage on anthropology’s relationship with the military, making it harder for the military to enlist anthropologists for other less controversial work.

U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will tell you they’re fighting for freedom and democracy. Yet just as we can fight terrorists without waterboarding and without downgrading our standards for fair trials (a case that has been made courageously by military interrogators and military lawyers who have refused to compromise their professional codes of honor), so we can press Al Qaeda and the Taliban without forcing anthropologists to eviscerate the ethics code they have built over more than a century. We don’t have to ask anthropologists to choose between their code of conduct and national security. This is like saying, “we had to destroy the village in order to save the village.” We can do better.

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