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December 03, 2007

The AAA and engagement with the military

Anthropologist, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

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.


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An additional problem: once research is published, you have no control over who has access to it or how it's used. It's impossible to know whether your research will ultimately hurt or benefit anybody.

oh brother, more complete nonsense. "anthropological ethics"? we study phenomena, including people, for utility, not out of some higher calling. and what is wrong with using knowledge of local cultures, particularly if it leads to less violence and a more stable occupation?

what a dumb bunny you are. a hand wringing silly dumb bunny at that.

It sounds like the committee ran up against the taboo of considering ourselves as just another imperial power, which works according to the same basic rules as every other imperial power in history. The goal is not necessarily to kill lots of people; its theft of resources, and political control over a population that would otherwise show us the door. The "welfare of the subject population" is of no concern to our leaders, unless it happens to enhance that control.

Of course, it would've been more shocking if these eminent figures had managed to put forth some faint sign of political courage. And its not nearly as depressing to me at least as the moral cowardice of the A.P.A.

i'm sure they also didn't want to trash one of the few areas where somebody with an anthro degree can find employment that doesn't involve saying "do you want fries with that?" over and over.

in his brilliant "One Bullet Away" Nathaniel Fick describes how it felt talking to his Princeton classmates about his decision to join ROTC and then the Marines. the thing is a presence by the military on the campuses the effect flows both ways. by being in a place like Princeton or other liberal arts college there is little chance of them miltarizing the population. there does exist a strong chance that the military will be liberalized and invigorated by the introduction of free thinking officers.

as far as the ethics go, what truly is the population that is under study here? the native residents, or an army at war?

Once research is published, a researcher has little direct control over what people do with it. That's why it's so important to negotiate protections ahead of time whenever human subjects are involved. HTS is casting aside decades of standard operating procedure when it comes to human subjects research.

If a US university anthropologist wanted to study Iraqi tribes, he or she would have to go through a strict internal review process. The researcher would have to say whom she proposed to study,how and exactly what she was going to use the data for.

Even the media used in fieldwork would have to be approved. Let's say the IRB clears her to transcribe oral histories using semit-structured interviews. If she decides later on in the field that she also wants to shoot video, or take photographs. That change would probably have to go back to IRB for approval.

According to the AAA Code of Ethics, anthropologists have a duty to share their findings with their subject population. Sometimes, that's difficult if the people involved speak a different language, or can't read at all--but overcoming those barriers is part of the anthropologist's responsibility. She can't do that with HTT research.

Informed consent is a cornerstone of all ethical human subjects research, not just in anthropology but in any research on human beings. Subjects must participate freely with a full understanding of the potential risks and benefits.

These HTT anthropologists are agents of an occupying power. They travel with uniformed military personnel, some are armed and in uniform themselves. According to HTS spokespeople, nobody has to talk to an HTS scientist--but what does that really mean in practice?

How can researchers make sure that their subjects are apprised of the costs and benefits of participation when they themselves don't know what those will be? An ethical academic anthropologist gather data with a clear idea of how she intends to use this information--i.e., what identifying details will be published, how anonymity will be safeguarded, who will have access to raw data, etc. HTS anthropologists don't know any of that. Reporters have to go through a similar thought process with regard to our raw data. Some editors require reporters to get the telephone number of everyone they interview. That information would never find its way into print, though.

What does informed consent mean under military occupation? Do you think the HTS anthropologists warn their informants that anything they say might be viewed by the Sec. Def or the CIA? There's nothing to stop that, as it turns out.

But what happens if someone has been trained in anthropology -- not to the point of claiming professional credentials, perhaps -- but enough to try to apply some of its insights to a situation they find themselves in, say, military occupation. I've known people who were reservists who had anthropological backgrounds. They didn't present themselves as anthropologists when they were deployed, but I find it hard to believe they completely shut that part of their brains off. In other words, while HTS is the greatest concern at the moment, it seems to me that ethical discussions need to get started much earlier, at more basic levels, in our classrooms. When we tell students -- and in my university, many of them are in the services -- that the social sciences help them make better sense of their world, shouldn't we be supplementing the "pitch" for our disciplines with a serious consideration of the ethical repercussions of this observation?

The AAA doesn't take a position on what non-anthropologists can do with anthropological training. In general, they're cool with anthropologists teaching anthropology to military and intelligence folks.

The really urgent problem for the discipline is when people go out into the field and present themselves as anthropologists while embedded with, and working for, the military during a war.

The AAA is an academic and professional organization that sets rules for research ethics in its discipline. If you want to call something "anthropological research" the AAA reserves the right to say, "Nope, this wasn't done according to the accepted standards of our discipline."

In response to minstrelboy's question upthread, the HTTs are supposed to study indigenous culture, not military culture. Anthropologists might use some of their cultural insights to figure out how to bring military and indigenous cultures together--but on a day-to-day level, they're out mapping the "human terrain" on the ground--i.e., the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is an outgrowth of the doctrine of network centric warfare. The failure of the U.S. to supply their troops with adequate knowledge of the community or network of social structures in Iraq led to the troops holing up in their fortified positions afraid to risk their lives. Social workers gathering intelligence for the military is SOP for decades. Your points however are well taken. What exactly is done with network social information? An ethical regulation of criminal behavior of anthropologists that lead to war crimes would go a long ways toward curbing the miss use of social research. Let me be clear the Geneva Conventions apply just as much to secret agents in the field betraying the trust of the native community as any other military activity. These are serious questions and I think once again Lindsay is showing leadership as a journalist.

Granted that embedding of anthropologists in field units is the most urgent problem, there are other points of engagement for anthropologists with the military that also present ethical dilemmas. In the report, these are described under the section, "opportunities for engagement," and include teaching about anthropology in non-traditional settings to military and intelligence personnel (there is also an earlier reference on p5 to anthropologists using existing anthropological knowledge in operations that is not based on original research, which I think merits further consideration). True, the report does not issue any blanket prohibition of such engagements, but they do acknowledge the possibility of ethical challenges arising within them (although these are not discussed very much). Since concerns about the teaching of anthropology, and the public understanding of anthropology, fall well within the purview of the AAA, I am suggesting that these merit their own in-depth consideration, and more generally, some fresh reflection upon the how ideas about "the uses of anthropology" get seeded through the efforts of academic anthropologists.

The full text of the report can be found here:

Apologies Lindsay... I reread the post and felt pretty silly when I realized that your point was HTS got lost in the very listing of other engagements that I went and yakked on about in my comments. I took off from the statement at the end of your post, which was made specifically in connection to embeds, about revisiting and revising the code of ethics. I just wanted to add that I felt that some rethinking of ethics might also be in order for other engagements as well, which seemed to me to have been presented somewhat uncontroversially in the report (and maybe at the meeting, I don't know). Sorry about that.

I'm sorry, Clare. I think I misunderstood your earlier point. I definitely agree that teaching anthropology raises important ethical issues as well--especially if the instruction is different in kind from what an anthropologist would share with their colleagues, civilian students, or the general public.

David Price, a member of the ad hoc committee, is one of the strongest voices of caution about anthropological engagement with the military. He argues that secrecy is really the most important ethical issues.

Price has volunteered to consult with/teach members of the national security sector on the condition that he wouldn't tell them anything that he wouldn't/hasn't made public.

Secrecy is a major ethical concern when it comes to anthropology and military/intel. If you're trafficking in secret information, your subjects and colleagues don't get a chance to respond to your work, or learn about the potential risks that you might be exposing them to.

There are huge moral and epistemological risks in trying to do any kind science or social science in secret without ongoing feedback from others in the field. Clients often pay top dollar for proprietary or even secret consulting without realizing that secrecy often undercuts the value of the product instead of enhancing it because the results don't generate the feedback that comes from a larger community of experts vetting and reacting to the work.

HTS also wants to distribute data to a selected network of academics in the United States. I didn't hear anyone talking about the ethics of being a handpicked academic expert/subject area support person. That's a really complicated ethical position to be in as an academic.

I'm sure lots of academics would very much like to know what HTS is doing for all kinds of good reasons--but there's a lot of ethical ambiguity about anthropologists benefiting professionally (and perhaps personally) from the efforts of HTS anthropologists in the field.

If everyone had access to the same information, it wouldn't be such a problem. However, the DOD wants to dole out this information to a handpicked subset of anthropologists who aren't allowed to share this information freely.

Again, I think it comes back to the element of secrecy. If HTS agreed upfront to publish redacted, operationally secure versions of all its research on a regular basis, I'd have a lot less concern about the program. If we have some idea of what information HTS has, it's easier to ascertain whether there's any kind of abuse going on. It's also easier to judge whether the program is even working or not if we have some idea of what kind of information it's gathering.

We study phenomena, including people, for utility, not out of some higher calling.

You, maybe. "We"? Not really. Sometimes yes, sometimes not.

And what is wrong with using knowledge of local cultures, particularly if it leads to less violence and a more stable occupation?

Nothing's wrong with Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy either.

There's absolutely no reason to be sure that anthropological input will make warfare more humane. Psychological input certainly hasn't -- psychologists have participated in the refinement or torture methods in the U.S., France, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia. What came of that was more efficient torture.

"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."

Wow. That would be a frightening argument to consider. Can you imagine someone making that argument for doctors? "Though, in the past, doctors normally considered the needs of their patients first, it's possible that medical ethics need to be revised in order to balance the well-being of their patients with some greater national interest."

From there, one could get to the point where doctors were free to facillitate torture sessions, so as to help the greater national interest.

These are the kinds of moments that can split apart professions. Without professional ethics, it is only a matter of time before a reaction sets in against whatever profession has become unmoored.

I'm not saying I agree, not by a long shot. I'm just saying that someone could make that kind of argument without obviously contradicting themselves at the outset.

The position that's totally untenable is the notion that the AAA code and HTS are mutually compatible as their current forms. That's just flat-out false. I wish the ad hoc commission had articulated the simple, logical inconsistencies that the Executive Board identified in its initial statement: If you're not allowed to harm any of your informants, you're not allowed to help kill the "bad guys" for the sake of the "good guys." If you're study a subject population in the throes of an insurgency, some of the people you're studying will turn out to be insurgents. If you're providing direct operational support for a combat brigade in a war, you're liable to help the commander kill at least some members of your subject population.

About "utility": when LB speaks of "the basic moral principle that you shouldn't use people," I hear Kant's Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: "Act so that you treat humanity... always as an end and never as a means only" (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Berlin Academy p. 429, trans. L.W. Beck.) Much depends on the "only" -- we inevitably use people as means, and that isn't wrong, provided we do not employ them merely as means, but respect their autonomy. If people are just instrumental for getting us what we want, and not fellow human beings whose freedom is to be respected, we will exploit them.

Kant goes on (p.434f) to distinguish "price" and "dignity" in the realm of ends: what is good for getting something else has a price, but what is worthy in its own right has a dignity. If anthropological research treats its subjects as mere means to military success, it disrespects their dignity. Anthropology is a profession, and those in it should know this already -- or they may know the price of everything and the dignity of nothing.

"I've known people who were reservists who had anthropological backgrounds. They didn't present themselves as anthropologists when they were deployed, but I find it hard to believe they completely shut that part of their brains off."

To the extent that the word "profession" refers to something real - perhaps to a body of people who ascribe to a public, formally described set of practices and ethics - then the issue is what this profession is willing to commit itself to. People who are formally trained in a profession, but who no longer belong to the profession, don't come into the conversation at all.

Thank you Lindsay for your continued excellent coverage of this issue. As an anthropologist and AAA member I can only wish that my colleagues shared more of you clear moral vision. The real underlying issue is that imperialism is wrong and war is always harmful and degrading to all involved. Anthropology on the warpath is evil. There just no two ways about it.

I don't know if there's been any mention of this before, but anthropologists themselves have a very good reason to be wary of this--even without the strange ethical implications and the use of persons as subjects.

Simply put, once the rest of the world hears of this, every anthropologist going to certain foreign countries to study populations is going to be considered a possible US spy or military operative. Anthropologists can do nothing without the trust of the people they study. They are already a stranger out of the blue who wants to show up and ask people questions. "Why? What for? What are you going to do with the information? Are you here to spy on us?" At the very least this makes anthropologists' research harder to do and at worst it puts them in physical danger.

Thanks, Ron. I'm glad I was able to give some information back to my "subject population"--I really enjoyed my "fieldwork" at AAA. :)

Ms. Anon, you raise a very important point. I address the concerns about the safety of all anthropologists in my In These Times piece on HTS.

As a journalist, I really empathize with the predicament of anthropologists in war zones. When yahoos like W. Thomas Smith, Jr. call themselves journalists and run around the Middle East toting weapons and telling tall tales of criminal capers, it endangers every other reporter in the region and tarnishes the reputation of the whole profession. (Smith is also a fraud, but that's a separate issue.)

The US military has deliberately blurred the line between soldiers and reporters. It encourages its own embeds to play soldier and parade around with the military and it wages war on indigenous civilian journalists who express pro-insurgent views. It proudly and publicly locks up journalists like Bilal Hussein who are suspected of reporting on the insurgents for American media outlets!

Journalists all over the world are paying the price for this high profile association with the military. There's no longer an understanding that reporters are neutral observers. Robert Fisk has a great rant about gun-toting reporters in his compendium of reporting on the Middle East, "The Great War for Civilization."

One of the reasons I'm so interested in the Human Terrain issue is because I hope that anthropologists won't let their profession get dragged down the same road as the media.

Here's a good piece by David Price (mentioned in one of Lindsay's comments above)on HTS:

David Price is currently the conscience of a field which has always struggled to overcome the corruptions of its origins in colonialism. But not just HTS poses ethical dilemmas of imperialism; while at AAA I noticed that the infamous Summer Institute of Linguistics/Wycliffe Bible Translators had set up a booth. Last January, at the corresponding conference of linguists, a panel debated the scientific justification of missionary work -- see P. Epps, "Linguistics and missionaries, an Amazonian perspective". The usual defense by formal liberals is that yes, converting the heathen is yucky but no one has ever proved these guys are CIA-funded meanwhile "we" (enlightened liberals) can really make good use of all that tainted field data. The SIL outrageously even sells itself as protecting "endangered languages" -- while further subjugating and brainwashing the indigenous people in Texan right-wing pentecostalism, it goes without saying! If the experience of linguistics is analogous, I suppose that any ethnography collected under occupation would be about as reliable as the disinformational "journalism" of corporate media em-beds. At best, more junk publications!

My area of expertise is the relationship between HIPAA and research, and there's an interesting little quirk in the law that allows for studies that look EXACTLY like research protocols to take place without an IRB waiver to use or disclose protected health information. Studies that are for quality control or outcomes in a facility that are not intended to be published for generalizable knowledge are not research, and therefore not subject to the IRB. Those sorts of studies are subject to HIPAA under the parameters of health care operations, so the health care information is still protected by the law, but the IRB is out of it. For example, an small staph infection epidemic breaks out in a particular wing of a hosptial, and the infection control staff is called upon to determine the source of the outbreak. The staff's investigation looks exactly like an epidemological study because it is an epidemological study. The purpose of the study, though, isn't to add to the body of knowledge about staph infections and outbreaks. It's to contain this particular outbreak.

The second, though, that someone wants to publish these internal findings, IRB review is required.

I'm not an anthropoligist or a social scientist, but it seems to me that this proposal is also one that takes on some characteristics of research for non-research purposes. I suspect, also, that there are some shortcuts taken in research methodology that would not be taken if the protocols, data and findings were ultimately to be subject to review by IRBs or peers.

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