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Anthropologists on the Front Lines (cont’d)

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It’s difficult to predict the potential impact of HTS on the subject population, at least in part because few details about their specific activities have been released. According to Price, this lack of transparency is the single greatest problem with the entire HTS system. His colleagues echoed his concerns.

As long as anthropologists can be upfront with their sources, the public, and their colleagues about who they are and what they’re doing, there’s no problem, Heller says.

The popular stereotype is that anthropologists study isolated cultures, but the reality is that anthropology is increasingly global in scope. The behavior of one anthropologist in Iraq or Afghanistan can have ramifications for fieldwork all over the world. What military anthropologists do can affect the image of anthropologists worldwide. The AAA is concerned that the perception of anthropology as a tool of military power could endanger anthropologist and sources worldwide.

Alan Goodman says that many of their subjects already suspect U.S. anthropologists of being soldiers or spies.

“Obviously, it makes my job more difficult. Individuals feel suspect about talking to you. Rapport between yourself and individuals reflects the belief that you come from U.S., power, U.S. global power,” says Goodman, who does fieldwork in Mexico. Some of his informants have asked him point blank whether he works for the U.S. government or military.

“There’s a sense of ‘What are you really after,’” Goodman says, “You’re asking me questions about my food, but why?”

David Price says it took a long time to reassure his subjects in Egypt that his interest in their irrigation methods was genuine, and not a front for some alternate U.S.-backed agenda.

These concerns are not far-fetched, given the history of anthropology. During the Vietnam war, a program known as CORDS was used to map the social networks of North Vietnamese fighters. This information was subsequently used to carry out targeted assassinations under the auspices of the infamous Project Phoenix. Defense official Jacob Kipp has publicly called HTS the “CORDS of the 21st Century.”

HTS is of special concern to the AAA because anthropologists are embedded with units in war zones. The demands of operating on the front lines may conflict with the accepted ethical safeguards that would be expected of them if they were to perform anthropological research in any other setting. Standards of informed consent may conflict with operational security. The duty to do no harm may not fit with the needs of a military at war with some subset of the general population. Transparency and accountability may have to take a back seat to the demands of warfare. The AAA isn’t asserting that all HTS anthropologists will violate ethical rules, but they are concerned that the risk is high.

For the AAA, the issue is not whether anthropologists should work for the military, but rather the conditions under which all anthropologists should conduct their research.

“That activity, if it’s going to be called anthropology, needs to be done in the way that we understand ethical anthropological research to be done,” says Heller.

Ultimately, it seems that both sides agree on the basic facts, but differ on how to interpret them. Everyone agrees that the HTS program is likely to require its participants to depart from generally accepted anthropological ethics in a number of significant respects. Both sides agree that anthropology has significant potential to make the military more humane and effective. HTS argues that anthropologists need to set aside rigid professional codes in order to do good on the ground. But mindful of the history of their profession, anthropologists are dubious about whether the military can be counted on to use this information strictly for the high-minded goals envisioned by the architects of HTS.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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