14 December 2007

Human Terrain System

I feel a pressing need to weigh in. This is by no means new news to anthropologists, but it is starting to come to light in popular media in a worrisome way.

The United States military has allocated some 40 million dollars to fund what they term, "Human Terrain Systems." Simply put (though it is not a simple thing) the military is using Ph.D level cultural anthropologists to acquire military intelligence at home and abroad in the Iraqi and Afghani fields. This ranges from field research, to translation and to cultural mediation and education. In two recent articles from the New York Times and US News and World Report, this program as been addressed in a way that seems to celebrate is effectiveness. In both these articles they mention, if briefly, the debate that is surrounding this program within University and professional anthropological organizations. However, the program is addressed mostly with regards to its conception, implementation and successes in the field. I feel that the NY Times article does a better job at balancing the two sides, but speaking as an aspiring anthropologist, I can say that for many this program shakes anthropologists and our discipline to the very core.

The benefits of this program are very real and in many cases offer benefits to all parties involved (research for the anthropologists, an alternative to armed force for the military and some cultural understanding for the Iraqis or Afghanis). The problems, unfortunately, are not so easy to see and the benefits will easily overshadow them. Anthropology, for the most part, has come to terms with its history and fundamental association to colonialism. As a result the field walks on a very thin and nebulous ethical boundary. I believe that by applying anthropological techniques to military operations we tread far from an acceptable level of ethical deviance. Regardless of the non-violent success stories told and the military's claims that all information will be public, the ethical use and disclosure of research in the field cannot be assured. The military is using anthropologists to disassemble the enemy so that they might more efficiently establish authority and achieve victory. I am wary of saying that anthropologists are being used, for any well-trained anthropologist will see the dangers of such work, yet they do so anyway. Whatever the case, anthropologists in the combat field are part of a larger cultural domination and overrunning. It is clear that we meant not simply to liberate Iraq from a dictator but to instill US notions of government and lifestyle within Iraqi life. The connections to colonial anthropology which, simply put, meant to understand the savage, not for the sake of the savage or the scholar but for the empire. I personally agree with Professor Gonzales that anthropologists who are involved are naively interpreting the military's goals and unethically applying the discipline to violent armed struggle.

An official American Anthropological Association (AAA) statement takes no definite stance, stating that the situation offers benefits and dangers, and that instead of being absolute in a stance we should instead assure that the most ethical practices triumph and that much much care be taken. However, this seems to come across (in the media, for what its worth) as another example of scholars keeping their discipline sacred and in the ivory tower.

Personally, I think that anthropology has come a long way from its colonial legacy and that modern anthropological thought has absolutely no place in a realm where social science can be subverted, indeed perverted, by military powers. This is a very dangerous line to tread and anthropologists ought not to go there. Here I see that the military is so close to seeing that its run out of options and is not as powerful as it thinks. But manages to find a way to ride to victory on the backs of cultural anthropologists who can provide an easily abused link for resolving conflict; cultural understanding. Perhaps in arrogance I say that anthropology has a lot of power, especially in an increasingly global world. Ought we to associate this power with military force? No.

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