WASHINGTON - The issue of the military's use of anthropology, as embodied by
the use of the Human Terrain System (HTS) in Afghanistan and Iraq, continues to
roil both military and academic waters.
As part of the counterinsurgency efforts being advocated by General David
Petraeus, commanding general of the Multi-National Force Iraq, the Pentagon is
emphasizing a sort of
Clitonesque "I feel your pain" approach to winning hearts and mind.
As a new military study points out:
In sharp contrast to former
secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's heavy-handed approach to
counterinsurgency, which emphasized aggressive military tactics, the
post-Rumsfeld Pentagon has advocated a "gentler" approach, emphasizing cultural
knowledge and ethnographic intelligence as major components of its
counterinsurgency doctrine. This "cultural turn" within DoD highlights efforts
to understand adversary societies and to recruit "practitioners" of culture,
notably anthropologists, to help in the war effort in both Iraq and
The study, "On The Uses of Cultural Knowledge" by
Associate Professor Sheila Jager of Oberlin College, published by the US Army
War College's Strategic Studies Institute, finds that the broad outlines of
what went wrong in Iraq can be traced to a glaring misunderstanding of Iraqi
culture and society by American occupation planners and US military forces.
As part of the new cultural turn the army published a new counterinsurgency
manual, FM 3-24, released on December 15, 2006, and co-authored by Petraeus.
The 282-page manual highlights cultural knowledge and human relationships as
central aspects for waging a successful counterinsurgency
The US Army War College has introduced new lessons on National Cultures in its
Strategic Thinking course and a new series of Regional Studies courses were
introduced into the curriculum.
Although the interest in cultural knowledge may appear to be the latest fad, it
is not new. According to Jager, the successful military occupation of Japan is
a good example of how cultural knowledge informed America’s long-term strategic
objectives in Asia. The US decision to preserve the Japanese imperial system
and shield Emperor Hirohito from being tried as a war criminal allowed the
American occupation to write a new role for the Japanese emperor.
The surprising and rapid transition from Japanese militarism to democracy was
made not through the imposition of American democratic values and norms, but by
a not-so-subtle manipulation of Japanese cultural symbols and meanings,
including a rather blatant manipulation of history.
Aside from the new manual, the other main effort to achieve cultural awareness
is the Human Terrain System, which is being overseen by the Foreign Military
Studies Office, a US Training and Doctrine Command organization that supports
the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth.
HTS is built upon seven components: human terrain teams (HTTs), reach-back
research cells, subject-matter expert-networks, a tool kit, techniques, human
terrain information, and specialized training.
Each HTT will be comprised of five experienced cultural advisors, including a
social scientist who could be an anthropologist, familiar with the area in
which the commander will be operating. These advisors will be in direct support
of a brigade commander. HTTs will be embedded in brigade combat teams,
providing commanders with an organic ability to gather, process, and interpret
relevant cultural data. In addition to maintaining the brigade’s cultural
databases by gathering and updating data, HTTs will also conduct specific
information research and analysis as tasked by the brigade commander.
The development, however, of HTS and its field teams has been a subject of
concern and debate among anthropologists, amid a growing debate over whether
they should accept job advertisements from military and intelligence agencies.
Many of them feel that such work actually or potentially violates their core
principles. These are:
First, do not harm. Do no harm to those with whom one works or whom one
Second, be honest and be transparent. Say what you're doing to all concerned.
That means the people you're working with, the people you're studying, your
colleagues, and the public.
Of course, what exactly the principle of "do no harm" means is unclear. It has
never been clearly defined by anthropologists
On transparency, at least one HTT member, Marcus Griffin has gone about as far
as one can go in that regard, writing a blog
on his experience in Iraq.
In an October 31 statement, the executive board of the American Anthropological
Association sharply criticized the program, saying it had the potential to
place anthropologists "in violation" of their professional code of ethics.
Embedding anthropologists with military units, their statement said, "poses a
danger to both other anthropologists" and their ability to practice their
US News and World Report found that the anthropologists' work has also
resurrected the painful specter of widely reviled Cold War-era campaigns,
drawing comparisons to the Phoenix Program - a still-controversial Vietnam War
operation in which the US government is suspected of using the work of social
scientists to help find and kill insurgents - and Project Camelot, in which
anthropologists, concealing the military origin of their assignment, were sent
to research the potential for internal war in Chile.
On November 4, after a year and a half of deliberation, a special ad hoc
commission of the American Anthropological Association released a 62-page
report that analyzes the potential ethical pitfalls that confront
anthropologists who work with military, intelligence, and national-security
The report did not oppose anthropologists working for various military or other
national security agencies. In fact, HTS was not part of the study's basic
mandate. But they did identify the following issues as red flags:
The difficulty of voluntary consent in a war zone;
The difficultly of informed consent on behalf of the military, including full
disclosure of risks and benefits to subjects, when the anthropologist may not
know how the information will be used or who will consume it;
The collection of individual identifiers and other personal information, in a
context where targeting is a very real possibility;
The explicit and open linkage of "anthropology" to "the military", and the
potential risks that this affiliation might pose to colleagues doing fieldwork.
The report noted that very few anthropologists are currently actively gathering
data in the field on behalf of military and intelligence priorities. Those
involved in the Human Terrain System represent an extremely small minority and
do not conduct covert or clandestine work and are open with local communities
about their affiliation. But this does not, at the same time, mean that their
work does not raise ethical concerns about the status of professional
anthropologists in their many capacities.
On the issue of voluntary consent, the commission found that research subjects
are unlikely to be able to differentiate between anthropologists working with
military units and these units themselves, particularly if they are dressed in
military fatigues and armed. The close working relationship of anthropologist
and military personnel, and resulting likelihood of tacit or unintended
coercion in the process of data collection, suggest a basic lack of "voluntary
informed consent" on the part of potential research subjects. That some HTS
anthropologists carry weapons or travel with a security convoy raises troubling
questions about the voluntary nature of anyone interacting with these
Supporters of HTS were not helped when it was reported that Human Terrain
research gathers data that help inform what Assistant Undersecretary of Defense
John Wilcox recently described as the military's "need to map human terrain
across the kill chain".
On November 30, members of the American Anthropological Association voted to
ban certain kinds of secrecy in ethnographic work. In a motion passed by a
nonbinding voice vote during the organization's annual business meeting,
members decreed that "no reports should be provided to sponsors [of research]
that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to
the population studied".
But because the motion was not presented to the membership at least 30 days in
advance of the meeting, it will be referred to the association's executive
board. The board, in turn, is likely to put the question to the association's
membership via a mail ballot next year.
Leaders of the Human Terrain System have said that the data collected by the
program's social scientists should generally be kept open and unclassified. But
in a recent interview the program’s deputy director, James K Greer, said, "When
a brigade plans and executes its operations, that planning and execution is,
from an operational-security standpoint, classified. And so your ability to
talk about it, or write an article about it, is restricted in certain ways."
Aside from ethical concerns there have also been problems with the
implementation of HTS. Noah Schachtman, who runs Wired Magazine’s Danger Room
blog, recently wrote on the subject. He reported that the army has set aside
$41 million for Human Terrain Teams: 150 social scientists, software techs and
experts on local culture will split up and be embedded with 26 different
military units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next year, 22 of which will be
nine-person teams. The first six HTTs are already on the ground.
HTTs will eventually do more than just advise. Soon each team will get a
server, a half-dozen laptops, a satellite dish, and software for social-network
analysis - to diagram how all of the important players in an area are
But Schachtman notes many questions remain about how it'll actually operate.
Will the social scientists carry guns or wear uniforms? Will they be conducting
fieldwork or just doing research at their desks? How will these people be
trained? What kind of credentials do they need? And it is still unclear whether
commanders listen to what they have to say.
In an interview on National Public Radio, Schachtman said: "Originally, the
idea was to have civilian and military teams where the civilians had at least
PhDs and really knew Arabic or knew Iraqi culture well. But they've been having
trouble recruiting enough people and so they'd have to drop their standards,
and so now they are people with Masters in let's say religious studies or even
political science, that don't necessarily have expertise in Iraq or Afghanistan
per se going over there.
The army had to delay the deployment of HTS teams bound for Iraq, in part
because it had trouble finding willing PhD-level anthropologists.
And some troops "in country" complain that the teams are simply hitting the
ground too late in the war, offering basic advice that falls short of a
revelation for soldiers on their second and third tours.
According to articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been
closely following this issue, the HTS has been nearly paralyzed by
organizational problems. Recruitment shortfalls have reportedly left all of the
human-terrain teams in Iraq seriously understaffed
The participants' training has been haphazard and often pointless, she adds,
with too little attention given to the culture and history of Iraq and
One example is that of graduate student Zenia Helbig who was fired from the
program in August after four months of training. A doctoral student in
religious studies at the University of Virginia, Helbig was released from the
program amid an investigation of her national loyalty, shortly before she was
to deploy to Iraq. The investigation stemmed from a quip that she made over
beers late one night in June. As she recalls, she said, "Okay, if we invade
Iran, that's where I draw the line, hop the border, and switch sides."
Helbig says that her firing was an extreme overreaction to conversational
banter. She is fighting to expunge her security record and to clear her name.
David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security