The AAA and engagement with the military
Last week, I spent a couple of days at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC. I went for the unveiling of a much-anticipated report on anthropology and the military. I came away feeling like the committee took the easy way out.
The report focused primarily on relatively non-controversial kinds of engagement, such as studying the military, teaching in the military university system, and providing academic input to military leaders on very broad questions like the definition of "culture." In fairness, these relatively straightforward forms of engagement are far more common than exotic HTS-type assignments. Still, what the membership and the media really wanted to talk about were the hard cases like the fledgling Human Terrain System (HTS).
HTS embeds anthropologists and other social scientists on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the short term, Human Terrain Teams provide direct social science support to a brigade commander. However, the ultimate goal of the project is to create a continuously updated map of the "human terrain" that will be available to any government agency that wants to see it, including intelligence agencies.
HTS has no internal ethical review board. Any American university-based academic who wanted to go live with tribes in Iraq and call it anthropological research would have to submit a detailed research proposal for ethics approval. In HTS, there are no controls over what kind of information these social scientists can gather, or how it must be safeguarded to protect the informants.
The Executive Board of the AAA issued a preemptive statement of disapproval prior to the ad hoc committee's report, in large part because a major New York Times article had thrust HTS into the spotlight.
I can't fault the ad hoc committee for not addressing HTS in more detail. They began their investigation with a much broader mandate two years ago when AAA members noticed that the national security sector was stepping up its efforts to woo anthropologists. HTS didn't even exist when the ad hoc committee got started.
Even so, the report still reads like a cop out. It's not as if the really difficult issues are new. Anthropology has had a long and uncomfortable relationship with the military since the inception of the discipline.
The proponents of HTS see themselves as humanistic mavericks who just want to help the military learn more about culture. They hope that increased cultural understanding will make the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan less violent and more effective. The official line is that a Human Terrain Team reduced "kinetic operations" (the application of military force) by 60-70% in one brigade's territory in Afghanistan. It's hard to know what to make of this statistic without a lot more data, which the military isn't at liberty to share. Correlation isn't necessarily causation.
But let's assume that HTS really is helping the US military apply force more effectively, with less collateral damage. It's still not clear that HTS or, any other program that provides direct operational support to a combat brigade in wartime, is compatible with AAA's code of anthropological ethics.
I discuss some of the ethical dilemmas raised by HTS in greater detail here.
The bottom line is that, according to the the Code, anthropologists doing field work are supposed to put the welfare of their subject population first. It comes down to the basic moral principle that you shouldn't use people. As a social science that studies real people's everyday lives, anthropology has walk a fine line between exploration and exploitation.
There's a general consensus that it's not right to ingratiate yourself with a group, learn from them, and turn that knowledge against them. Applying anthropological expertise to help kill some of the members of the population under study is not easy to reconcile with the field anthropologists' responsibility to avoid harm to his or her informants.
Some HTS proponents claim that they don't do targeting--that may be true of their operations so far, but there are no rules to ensure that won't happen in the future.
Now, one might argue that anthropological ethics need to be revised in order to balance the well-being subjects with some greater national interest, or a larger duty to minimize harm to innocents. That's certainly the approach the some HTS spokespeople use.
However, I didn't hear anyone at the AAA arguing that the code of ethics needed to be radically revised to accommodate embeds. The debate was couched in terms of what the code already allows. I agreed with the participants who complained that the report, and the "Empire Speaks Back" panel discussion that followed the unveiling of the report were too focused on the kinds of cooperation that might be allowed, and too hesitant to address what might be out of bounds, and why.