Le Monde Diplomatique
March 4, 2008
Iraq’s lethal fieldwork
Whoever’s winning, it isn’t the Iraqis
No one doubts that the US military needs help understanding Islamic cultures. But many anthropologists object to their colleagues working with the military, especially in combat situations
By William O Beeman
The Human Terrain Systems (HTS) programme, in operation for several years, was significantly expanded by the United States military last September (1). It has recruited anthropologists to be embedded with US troops at brigade and division level in Iraq and Afghanistan. Administered by BAE (a contracting agency created by British Aerospace and Marconi Electronic Systems), the programme takes anthropologists, some of whom are not experts in the relevant cultures, and charges them with advising commanders to prevent them from misreading local actions and – potentially violent – situations. The idea is to reduce casualties.
The New York Times reported on 5 October 2007 on an anthropologists’ contingent involved in a major operation meant to reduce attacks against US and Afghan troops. The anthropologists identified many widows in the target area and surmised that their young male relatives would be under pressure to support them and would be likely to join the attackers out of economic necessity. A job-training programme for the widows led to a reduction in attacks.
But the programme has caused alarm, as it recalls two programmes from the Vietnam era in which anthropologists were involved. The first was the short-lived Project Camelot in 1965, organised by US army intelligence, in which anthropologists were recruited to assess the cultural causes of war and violence. It was a benign-sounding enterprise. But it used Chile as a test case just as the CIA was interfering in Chile’s internal affairs, having engineered the election of Eduardo Frei as president in 1964 to prevent the election of socialist leader Salvador Allende. The project was soon abandoned.
The second was an organisation known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), formed to coordinate the US civil and military pacification programmes in Vietnam. It operated directly under General William Westmoreland, but was headed by a civilian, Ambassador Robert Komer, who was his deputy. It was used to map human terrain and identify individuals and groups that the military believed were sympathisers of the Vietcong; they were then targeted for assassination. Anthropological research was used.
The anthropological profession has a code of ethics which, like the Hippocratic oath, mandates no harm to people who are studied, and requires their informed consent in participation in research. This is impossible under combat conditions, where there is no opportunity for embedded anthropologists to identify themselves with ordinary people. And the work looks enough like intelligence work to cause people to view anthropologists as spies (even under ordinary conditions) inhibiting their scientific mission. The HTS operation came under immediate scrutiny by the profession.
Last September a group of scholars formed the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, inspired by physicists who had opposed the Reagan-era Star Wars programme, and drafted a pledge of non-participation in counter-insurgency (2). One of the organisers, David Price of St Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, said on 13 December 2007: “All of us are not necessarily opposed to some work with the military, but anything involving counterinsurgency… or anything that violates ethical standards of research, we’re opposed to, and we’re simply asking our colleagues to stand up and be counted with us…”
The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association issued a statement in October 2007 which, while not explicitly prohibiting anthropologists from activities that might be covered under the project, warned its members that its activities are likely to violate the code of ethics.
At the association’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, last November, the controversy took centre stage. In one session, the anthropologists involved with the military tried to convince their colleagues that they were helping to transform military attitudes and increase their cultural sensitivity. Sceptics felt that those cooperating with the military may have been naïve in their understanding of the way their research was being used. The debate culminated in a resolution that would, if ratified by the entire membership, prohibit any activity involving secret research for intelligence agencies.
One of the principal proponents of cooperation is Montgomery McFate, a Yale PhD anthropologist and senior fellow at the US Institute for Peace. In a seminar on 10 May 2007, McFate presented a plan that was influential in establishing the HTS project. She pointed out that the US military spends almost nothing on social science research that would be crucial to the success of operations, and recommended an approach to closing the cultural knowledge gap.
She advocated the establishment of a large research programme leading to a socio-cultural knowledge database, recruitment of young cultural analysts into government service and establishment of a clearing house for cultural knowledge. None of these would be a problem. The problem arises when the expertise is made a weapon for use in combat.