Human Terrain System/Anthropologists in War

Go check out Thomas Rid’s very insightful post over at Kings of War about the continuing controversy over the military’s use of social scientists (a tiny percentage of whom are anthropologists) in conducting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It’s the best thing I’ve seen on the topic and the comments are also well worth reading.  Rid compares anthropology to medicine–both professions share the ethical imperative to “do no harm”–and concludes that anthropologists’ rhetorical use of that imperative doesn’t necessarily have the implications in a war zone that they expect.

If I may be allowed to riff on the topic for a minute, a number of things continue to disturb me about the concern that so many anthropologists have expressed over the Human Terrain System (HTS).

  • Rid cites the network of “Concerned Anthropologists” as arguing that involvement in the Human Terrain System is unethical not only for anthropologists but for other social scientists, as well.  This claim strikes me as overreaching to the point of academic imperialism.  Surely each social science should be entitled to determine its own ethics.
  • The anthropologists want to impose their narrow understanding of their ethical imperative to “do no harm” on the U.S. military.  However, in active operations the military does not have “do no harm” as an option.  Every action–including inaction–leads to some group of people dying.  Make no mistake, if the military ceases using social scientists there will be people who will die as a result, a few of them Americans, the  others not.  They will have real names, real faces, they’ll just be faces that no anthropologist will ever see.
  • I’m concerned that anthropologists have been so good at public relations that lazy journalists writing about the HTS go straight to anthropologists for comment.  This leaves the impression that anthropologists speak for all social scientists.  Judging by the lack of protests by political scientists, economists, geographers, psychologists, and others, they don’t speak for all social scientists.
  • I can’t escape the feeling that the anthropologists’ concern is heavily informed by the unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghan wars.  Would they be similarly reticent to give advice to, say, a small Amazonian ethnic group suffering attacks by the Brazilian Army?  Would they be similarly reticent to give advice to Allied armies fighting the Nazis and liberating concentration camps?  War is a political act, the Prussian tells us.  Do anthropologists require their members to recuse themselves from other political issues?  If not why not?  Other forms of politics can lead to death, suffering, and oppression every bit as real, albeit usually less visually dramatic, as can war.

Anyway, go read Thomas’ piece.