Work With The U.S. Military? Not If You’re An Anthropologist

The good news is that the American Anthropological Association (AAA), which wound up its annual meeting last week in San Francisco, did not go the whole hog and endorse the idea that it’s unethical for an anthropologist to consult for the U.S. military—even though that is exactly what many of the AAA’s 11,000 members, mostly anthropology professors and graduate students at U.S. universities, wanted the organization to do. The bad news is that is the AAA came pretty close to such a declaration, letting stand proposed changes to its code of ethics (to be voted on by the full membership via e-mail in December) that would partially reinstate a Vietnam War-era ban on research conducted according to the protocols of military secrecy. Furthermore, the rhetoric at the 2008 meeting, during which one superheated anthropologist characterized the war in Iraq as “people being butchered,” confirmed conservatives’ worst suspicions about academics’ empathy with terrorists and hostility toward anyone wearing a U.S. uniform.
The nub of the tension is the Human Terrain System, a four-year-old, $130 million program that embeds anthropologists and other social scientists in U.S. military units in Iraq and Afghanistan so that the scholars can use their expertise in field research to gather information about tribal and cultural norms that might prevent American soldiers from making tactical errors (such as interrogating someone during the Ramadan fast) that could alienate a local populace and also help them persuade that same populace that siding with the Americans instead of, say, the Taliban, would be in their best interests. During 2006 and 2007 the Human Terrain Teams, led by Montgomery McFate, a Yale-trained anthropologist, and focusing on efforts to understand and work with cultures radically different from those of the West, garnered generally favorable press coverage even from such reliably antiwar publications as the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Since anything that helps America win a war, especially the Iraq war, is anathema at the left end of the academic spectrum, it was only a matter of time before anthropologists not on the Human Terrain payroll would mobilize to try to ostracize those among their colleagues who were. Soon enough the left-of-center Network of Concerned Anthropologists began agitating for the AAA to drive scholars who worked for the U.S. military beyond the pale of academic respectability. A recent petition drafted by Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University in Virginia, and ten other scholars stated the following:

“We, the undersigned, believe that anthropologists should not engage in research and other activities that contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theaters in the ‘war on terror.’ Furthermore, we believe that anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting the US military in combat, be it through torture, interrogation, or tactical advice.
“US military and intelligence agencies and military contractors have identified ‘cultural knowledge,’ ‘ethnographic intelligence,’ and ‘human terrain mapping’ as essential to US-led military intervention in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Consequently, these agencies have mounted a drive to recruit professional anthropologists as employees and consultants. While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world, protects US soldiers on the battlefield, or promotes cross-cultural understanding, at base it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.”

The scare quotes with which Gusterson bracketed the war on terror—as though terrorism and its suicide bombers were figments of the paranoid right-wing imagination—and his characterization of the rout of Al Qaeda as “a brutal war of occupation” echoed the feelings of many members of the AAA, which had already, in 2006, denounced the war in Iraq for having resulted in the deaths, the AAA asserted, of “655,000” people, mostly civilians (the actual body count, including civilians, is closer to 90,000 as of late 2008). At the AAA’s November 2007 annual meeting in Washington, numerous anthropologists called for the expulsion of members who worked for the military as “ruining anthropology” (one professor’s words). Another professor, Catherine Lutz of Brown University (a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists), declared that she felt “a sense of nausea” at the idea that any anthropologist could help America win a war. Shortly before that meeting, the AAA had issued a statement expressing its “disapproval” of the Human Terrain Systems program. The organization stated: “In the context of a war that is widely recognized as a denial of human rights and based on faulty intelligence and undemocratic principles, the Executive Board sees the HTS project as a problematic application of anthropological expertise, most specifically on ethical grounds.” The word “problematic” wasn’t good enough for many of the assembled anthropologists. Lutz, for example, denounced the AAA statement for taking a “utilitarian” approach toward military consulting instead of condemning it wholesale. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, in sponsoring Gusterson’s petition (which has so far garnered more than 1,000 signatures), states that it would be all right for anthropologists to study the U.S. armed forces as long as they accentuated the negative (in Gusterson’s view): “techniques used by the US military to recruit 18-year olds for employment and social valorization” and “the degree of homelessness, war injuries, employment, social support, and resilience among enlisted veterans of this and previous wars.” In other words, if your point is that the U.S. armed forces exploit young adults and veterans, the Network will welcome your research with open arms.
The Human Terrain System has garnered criticism for ineffectiveness even among pro-war conservatives (Ann Marlowe wrote a merciless critique last year for the Weekly Standard of the program’s failure to chart the kinship networks that are essential to understanding tribal societies). And some of the concerns the AAA has raised in its new ethics proposal seem legitimate, such as solicitude for research subjects’ informed consent—although it also makes sense to argue that that anthropologists who consult for the military aren’t acting as research scholars intent on publishing their work, but, rather, as interviewers who know how to ask the right questions. Full disclosure ought to solve that ethical problem. As for reviving a requirement that anthropologists make the results of their research available to the general public, it should be remembered that this mandate, enacted in 1971 at the height of academic opposition to the Vietnam War, was rescinded only ten years ago, in 1998, at the behest of anthropologists working in private industry where research is typically deemed proprietary. Given the shortage of university teaching jobs these days, telling young scholars that they are effectively barred from working for private companies will amount to telling them that they are forbidden to work for a living.
Unfortunately, few members of the American Anthropological Association are likely to pay any attention to either the practical concerns of their members or to the idea that an effective U.S. military protects their right to practice their own profession in freedom. The AAA is notorious for endorsing nearly every trendy-left political position that has appeared on the academic horizon. The causes behind which the AAA has thrown its weight over the years (few of which have had anything to do with the practice of anthropology) have included opposition to nuclear weapons and the protection of nonhuman primates.
In 2004 the AAA endorsed same-sex marriage: “The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.” That conclusion would surely have raised the eyebrows of the pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, a onetime AAA president and a prolific writer on matrimonial practices, for no human society on Earth until our own in the early twenty-first century has ever entertained the notion that two members of the same sex could marry each other. But the endorsement is symptomatic of the state of an organization that is willing to jettison basic principles of common sense and observation, as well the idea that its members can serve their country and humanize warfare in a program such as the Human Terrain System, in order to swallow hook, line, and sinker trendy pronunciamentos about the wickedness the United States and its insistence on maintaining a robust military.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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