Anthropologists on the Front Lines

The Pentagon’s new program to embed anthropologists with combat brigades raises many concerns

Lindsay Beyerstein

A pilot pro­gram to embed anthro­pol­o­gists on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan has sparked major con­tro­ver­sy in the anthro­po­log­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty. The pro­gram, known as the Human Ter­rain Sys­tem (HTS) project, reflects a much larg­er trend in the nation­al secu­ri­ty estab­lish­ment, with the mil­i­tary increas­ing­ly hun­gry for cul­tur­al exper­tise to fight coun­terin­sur­gen­cies and sus­tain long, low-inten­si­ty con­flicts. Anthro­pol­o­gists are strug­gling to come to grips with the ethics of research on the front lines. 

The Human Ter­rain Sys­tem project is a joint under­tak­ing by the For­eign Mil­i­tary Stud­ies Office (FMSO) and U.S. Army Train­ing and Doc­trine com­mand (TRADOC) in Fort Leav­en­worth, Kansas. Head­ed by Col. Steve Fon­dac­aro, HTS assigns five-per­son teams of social sci­en­tists and intel­li­gence spe­cial­ists to for­ward-deployed com­bat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. These Human Ter­rain Teams (HTT) serve as cul­tur­al advi­sors to the brigade com­man­der and his senior staff. HTTs in the field are sup­port­ed by a team of U.S.-based social sci­en­tists. The FMOS serves as a cen­tral clear­ing­house for cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion and main­tains a net­work of sub­ject area experts in the Defense Depart­ment and academia. 

The human ter­rain” is defined as the social, ethno­graph­ic, cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of the peo­ple who live in the region occu­pied by the brigade, a force of 3,000 to 5,000 troops under the com­mand of a colonel. 

The first HTTs shipped out in the fall of 2006. There are cur­rent­ly six teams deployed, one in Afghanistan and five in Iraq. Even­tu­al­ly, HTS hopes to have teams in all 26 com­bat brigades. Sec­re­tary of Defense Robert Gates recent­ly approved $40 mil­lion in addi­tion­al funds for the program.

Pro­po­nents of the pro­gram claim that brigades with HTTs are engag­ing in kinet­ic oper­a­tions” (mil­i­tary force) sig­nif­i­cant­ly less often. Fon­dac­aro says that when com­man­ders are more aware of what’s going on cul­tur­al­ly, they have more oppor­tu­ni­ties for non-vio­lent solu­tions. Just being able to sit down and talk to a coun­cil of trib­al elders in their own lan­guage is invaluable.

When you have a fun­da­men­tal knowl­edge of how tribes work, you can non-kinet­i­cal­ly neu­tral­ize ene­mies using those rela­tion­ships,” Fon­dac­aro says. If the tribes them­selves iden­ti­fy a group that has been oper­at­ing against coali­tion forces kinet­i­cal­ly, we can work with them. The trib­al author­i­ties may decide that these guys are not worth keep­ing around, they’re not help­ing us.”

Fon­dac­aro says he isn’t at lib­er­ty to talk about that data in detail, lest the ene­my learn about suc­cess­ful pro­grams and tar­get them accordingly. 

The HTTs use social sci­ence research meth­ods to glean cul­tur­al under­stand­ing from open source mate­ri­als and human sources. Mar­cus Grif­fin, the first anthro­pol­o­gist to serve on an HTT in Iraq, described his work in an inter­view with the Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion:

My team deals with a vari­ety of projects. Using semi-struc­tured inter­views of Iraqi con­trac­tors and local gov­ern­men­tal offi­cials, we iden­ti­fy key fig­ures in north­west Bagh­dad who can help rebuild essen­tial ser­vices like elec­tric­i­ty, trash removal, and the pro­vi­sion of clean water. We also con­duct research into how pover­ty and bonds of social oblig­a­tion inter­act in Iraqi soci­ety. That infor­ma­tion may help staff offi­cers in my brigade, as well as oth­er com­man­ders, to bet­ter under­stand why cer­tain peo­ple are will­ing to assist insur­gent forces. Reduc­ing aid and com­fort to those intent on desta­bi­liz­ing Iraq will decrease vio­lence and lim­it the num­ber of civil­ian casu­al­ties (and loss of life gen­er­al­ly). Reduc­ing blood­shed is a pri­ma­ry motive for my par­tic­i­pa­tion in HTS.

HTS also acts as a cul­tur­al bro­ker to reduce mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion and help Iraqis and Amer­i­cans work more effec­tive­ly as part­ners. Most of our data is col­lect­ed from inter­views and oral-his­to­ry narratives.

In ear­ly Octo­ber, a major New York Times sto­ry pro­pelled the Human Ter­rain Sys­tem, and the work of par­tic­i­pat­ing anthro­pol­o­gists, into the spot­light. The arti­cle gen­er­at­ed so much con­tro­ver­sy that the Exec­u­tive Board of the Amer­i­can Anthro­po­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion (AAA) decid­ed to release a pre­lim­i­nary state­ment on what it described as trou­bling and urgent eth­i­cal issues” raised by the HTS program.

Released on Oct. 31, the state­ment was draft­ed in the con­text of a much more exten­sive effort to ana­lyze and respond to the grow­ing demand for anthro­po­log­i­cal exper­tise in war­fare and intel­li­gence. AAA con­vened the ad hoc com­mis­sion about two years ago, explains Mon­i­ca Heller, a pro­fes­sor of anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to who serves on the AAA Exec­u­tive Board and the ad hoc com­mis­sion on engage­ment. The inquiry got start­ed because the asso­ci­a­tion was receiv­ing increas­ing num­ber of requests for infor­ma­tion from intel­li­gence agen­cies, NGOs, and the mil­i­tary. At one point, the CIA even want­ed to buy help want­ed” ads in AAA pub­li­ca­tions. The lead­er­ship decid­ed that a sys­tem­at­ic inves­ti­ga­tion was called for. 

The Ad Hoc Com­mis­sion on the Engage­ment of Anthro­pol­o­gy with U.S. Secu­ri­ty and Intel­li­gence Com­mu­ni­ties will present its final report on Nov. 29 dur­ing the AAA’s annu­al meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, the U.S. mil­i­tary has trained and equipped for big, con­ven­tion­al wars, in which cul­tur­al aware­ness takes a back seat to sheer mil­i­tary might and logis­ti­cal prowess. How­ev­er, the U.S. military’s most impor­tant mis­sions today, and for the fore­see­able future, are long-term, low-inten­si­ty con­flicts. (Read: Occu­pa­tions that are opposed by gueril­la warfare.) 

Occu­py­ing forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are up against gueril­la fight­ers who are indis­tin­guish­able from the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty. These adver­saries don’t wear uni­forms or fol­low con­ven­tion­al rules of engage­ment. So, U.S. com­man­ders in Iraq and Afghanistan are con­fronting basic ques­tions like: Who are these peo­ple? Who’s in charge around here? Who exact­ly is try­ing to kill us? 

These details are invalu­able to mil­i­tary com­man­ders who seek to quell insur­gen­cies while pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion and sta­bil­i­ty to the non-com­bat­ant pop­u­la­tion. The emerg­ing con­sen­sus is that supe­ri­or mil­i­tary force alone isn’t enough, espe­cial­ly if the insur­gents have the sup­port of the gen­er­al population.

The Coun­terin­sur­gency Field Man­u­al was released in 2006 to great fan­fare. The doc­u­ment, pro­duced under the super­vi­sion of Gen. David Petraeus, stress­es fine-grained cul­tur­al under­stand­ing as a key com­po­nent of the offi­cial coun­terin­sur­gency doc­trine for the Army and the Marine Corps. 

Anthro­pol­o­gists are sud­den­ly a hot com­mod­i­ty. Fon­dac­aro says anthro­pol­o­gy has a spe­cial role to play. Anthro­pol­o­gists study the micro-process­es that are tak­ing place at the low­est view of how the pop­u­la­tion is see­ing you,” he says. That’s best view into the mind and feel­ings and beliefs and under­stand­ings of the population.”

Aca­d­e­m­ic anthro­pol­o­gists agree that their insights into the mechan­ics of day-to-day life have wide prac­ti­cal application.

Anthro­pol­o­gy tends to under­stand every­day and the on the ground. It is con­cerned with the­o­ry – but it’s more about under­stand­ing and ana­lyz­ing the com­mon, the every­day,” says Alan Good­man, the pres­i­dent of the AAA and a pro­fes­sor of anthro­pol­o­gy at Hamp­shire College. 

Pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of mil­i­tary com­man­ders under­stood how use­ful those insights could be. Anthro­pol­o­gy has a long and some­times eth­i­cal­ly ques­tion­able his­to­ry of col­lab­o­rat­ing with the mil­i­tary, explains David Price, an anthro­pol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at St. Martin’s Uni­ver­si­ty, who has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the his­to­ry of anthro­po­log­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion in var­i­ous wars and occu­pa­tions. Anthro­pol­o­gists have been described as the hand­maid­ens of colo­nial­ism” because they have been inti­mate­ly involved in advis­ing empires on how to relate to, and some­times paci­fy occu­pied regions. 

Ulti­mate­ly, the con­tro­ver­sy is about the prop­er role of the pro­fes­sion­al anthro­po­log­i­cal researcher. Many anthro­pol­o­gists believe that the embed sit­u­a­tion is sim­ply too fraught with poten­tial eth­i­cal per­il. The ini­tial state­ment from the AAA exec­u­tive on HTS out­lined five major con­cerns: Anthro­pol­o­gists may not be able to be upfront about who they are and what they’re doing when they’re embed­ded – a key eth­i­cal prin­ci­ple of field research. Vol­un­tary informed con­sent is a pil­lar of all eth­i­cal human sub­jects research, but many ques­tion whether that con­sent can be obtained form an anthro­pol­o­gist embed­ded with occu­py­ing forces. The state­ment also voic­es con­cern that field­work may be used to help com­man­ders tar­get peo­ple. Final­ly, the actions of high-pro­file embed­ded anthro­pol­o­gists may have a neg­a­tive impact on the rep­u­ta­tion of the anthro­po­log­i­cal pro­fes­sion around the world. 

The Ethics Code of the AAA stress­es that anthro­pol­o­gists have a pri­ma­ry eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty to the peo­ple they study. In oth­er words, they are gen­er­al­ly expect­ed to put their sub­jects first, ahead of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery, or the wish­es of their spon­sors or clients. Accord­ing to the Code, Anthro­po­log­i­cal researchers must do every­thing in their pow­er to ensure that their research does not harm the safe­ty, dig­ni­ty, or pri­va­cy of the peo­ple with whom they work, con­duct research, or per­form oth­er pro­fes­sion­al activities.”

Our con­cern is that under con­di­tions of being embed­ded in unit, the risks to the sub­jects are very high, regard­less of what the indi­vid­ual anthro­pol­o­gist wants to do,” says Mon­i­ca Heller. 

Fon­dac­aro stress­es that the HTT mem­bers are nev­er allowed to use force or engage in com­bat. How­ev­er, he agrees that the infor­ma­tion they sup­ply could be used to tar­get insur­gents. HTT teams aren’t sent out with the explic­it task of gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion for tar­get­ed killings, but they are work­ing for a com­bat brigade in a war zone. 

Informed con­sent is a major stum­bling block for anthro­pol­o­gy in a war zone. Anthro­pol­o­gists are required to be upfront with their sources about who they are and what they’re doing. Researchers must explain how the infor­ma­tion will be used, and what the costs and ben­e­fits of par­tic­i­pa­tion might be for the subject. 

The anthro­pol­o­gists on Human Ter­rain Teams trav­el with uni­formed, armed sol­diers. Some­times, the anthro­pol­o­gists them­selves are armed and in uni­form. The Unit­ed States is an occu­py­ing pow­er. Offi­cial­ly, peo­ple are under no oblig­a­tion to speak to the HTT. How­ev­er, the pow­er imbal­ances between the pop­u­la­tion and the occu­py­ing pow­er can­not be ignored. 

That kind of expla­na­tion wouldn’t pass muster in a uni­ver­si­ty set­ting,” says Price, who is a mem­ber of the Net­work of Con­cerned Anthro­pol­o­gists, a grass­roots coali­tion that is urg­ing anthro­pol­o­gists to sign a pledge of non-par­tic­i­pa­tion in counterinsurgency. 

Unlike oth­er pub­licly fund­ed researchers, HTT anthro­pol­o­gists do not have to clear their research meth­ods with any kind of inter­nal review board. They are tasked with col­lect­ing what­ev­er oper­a­tional­ly rel­e­vant cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion the brigade com­man­der needs. It’s not a free-for-all, as the HTT are bound by the same rules that apply to any U.S. con­trac­tor on the bat­tle­field. They oper­ate in what the mil­i­tary calls a non-per­mis­sive envi­ron­ment,” under the super­vi­sion of mil­i­tary com­man­ders. Nev­er­the­less, it’s a far cry from the strict stan­dards that gov­ern human sub­jects research in peacetime. 

HTS is reluc­tant to set spe­cif­ic ground rules for research in advance because the pro­gram is still in an explorato­ry phase. We don’t know what we don’t know,” says Fon­dac­aro, There’s no inter­nal review board because this is all unchart­ed territory.”

It’s easy to envi­sion cir­cum­stances in which HTTs might com­pro­mise the anthro­po­log­i­cal injunc­tion to do no harm. While HTTs don’t par­tic­i­pate in com­bat, they do offer direct sup­port to com­bat brigades. The par­tic­i­pat­ing anthro­pol­o­gists also have no con­trol over how their work might be used by the brigade com­man­der. If anthro­pol­o­gists fig­ure out who the local pow­er bro­kers are, com­man­ders can use that infor­ma­tion to make a peace­ful propo­si­tion, or to call in an air strike. Human ter­rain is anal­o­gous to geo­graph­i­cal ter­rain. The same maps can be used to build a bridge or blow one up. 

Tar­get­ing and kinen­tic oper­a­tions are some­thing that must be done, part of the mil­i­tary,” says Fon­dac­aro. He stress­es that the goal of HTT is to move towards less vio­lence, and less harm to inno­cent peo­ple when force is used. 

Accu­rate­ly applied force can reduce the lev­el of IEDs and sui­cide bomb­ings and car bomb­ings. A lot of peo­ple don’t believe that, but there’s plen­ty of evi­dence,” Fon­dac­aro says.

HTT pro­po­nents often crit­i­cize anthro­pol­o­gists for over­sim­pli­fy­ing a com­plex and often messy moral sit­u­a­tion. They say social sci­en­tists are sav­ing lives, reduc­ing vio­lence, and pro­mot­ing the kind of long-term, sta­ble solu­tions that will ulti­mate­ly end the occupation. 

Life is not a smor­gas­board,” Fon­dac­aro says, Their code says, Do no harm.’ I say, Proac­tive­ly par­tic­i­pate to pro­mote good.’ ” 

But even if local peo­ple par­tic­i­pate of their own accord, HTS anthro­pol­o­gists are in no posi­tion to obtain informed con­sent. They them­selves are not ful­ly informed about who might use their data, or for what pur­pose. If you’re report­ing to a com­man­der, you’re in a hier­ar­chy that ensures that you can’t have input,” Heller says. 

Accord­ing to a paper by Jacob Kipp and col­leagues, one of the main goals of HTS is to com­pile a mas­sive, con­tin­u­ous­ly updat­ed data­base of geo-tagged cul­tur­al knowl­edge that can be shared with oth­er parts of the mil­i­tary, unspec­i­fied U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies, and oth­ers. The infor­ma­tion will even­tu­al­ly be hand­ed over to the gov­ern­ments of Iraq and Afghanistan to facil­i­tate eco­nom­ic growth,” accord­ing to the paper, which was pub­lished in the fall of 2006, just before the first HTTs shipped out. 

Fon­dac­aro empha­sizes that the pri­ma­ry con­sumers of HTT infor­ma­tion are the brigade com­man­der and his senior staff, who seek cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion to facil­i­tate their day-to-day oper­a­tions. Their brief­in­gs can influ­ence any­thing from future oper­a­tions to civ­il affairs to logis­tics. He also notes that HTS data­base will have sec­ondary con­sumers in the U.S. gov­ern­ment. He con­firmed that the CIA or oth­er intel­li­gence agen­cies could access the data­base, but he doesn’t envi­sion intel­li­gence agen­cies as major con­sumers of HTT data. 

Any gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tion that has an inter­est [will have access to the data­base],” Fon­dac­aro says. The DOD is the pri­ma­ry focus, but also State, the Trans­porta­tion Com­mand, any of the State Depart­ment orga­ni­za­tions focused on provin­cial recon­struc­tion. There’s all this con­cern about intel­li­gence, but they are just one cus­tomers of many, many customers.”

But David Price says that the infor­ma­tion col­lect­ed by HTS could expose sub­jects to grave dan­ger if it fell into the wrong hands. He notes, for exam­ple, the pos­si­bil­i­ty that some future gov­ern­ment could use the data­base to exact reprisals against its enemies. 

Even if the U.S. mil­i­tary only uses ethno­graph­ic knowl­edge in the ser­vice of peace and mutu­al under­stand­ing, insur­gents may not be so under­stand­ing. Price cau­tions that sim­ply coop­er­at­ing with anthro­pol­o­gists known to be allied with the U.S. mil­i­tary could be a life-threat­en­ing propo­si­tion for some peo­ple. Sol­diers have to weigh the costs and ben­e­fits of engage­ment with the local pop­u­la­tion all the time, but civil­ian researchers are for­bid­den to know­ing­ly endan­ger their subjects. 

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 (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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