Get ready for a shock. Anthropology (the best kept discipline secret in American academics) made the front page of today’s New York Times. And, believe it or not in the Ripley tradition, it was not about finding the “missing link” or “Noah’s ark”. In a report filed by David Rohde and entitled “Army Enlists Anthropologists in War Zones,” the focus is on the Pentagon’s newly instituted “Human Terrain Teams,” a kind of social science intellectual swat team approach, in which the military uses experts on the local culture. In a video on the website, an American officer explains that his soldiers no longer routinely break down doors of houses and violate the cultural space of Afghan homes, but let their Afghan counterparts knock first while they wait respectfully outside. While I am not sure it takes an anthropologist to point out what should be obvious through simple experimentation, the basic argument of the article is that the military is being coached to listen and work with the local population rather than play knee-jerk mercenary search and destroy games.

It is hard to argue with the sentiment that talking and negotiating are better ways to accomplish a proposed peace-building mission than assuming everybody in sight is a terrorist or is hiding one. So anthropologists, especially recent graduates who have a hard time finding jobs, should be pleased that supply actually might be influenced by a newfound demand for their services. Take Marcus B. Griffin, for example, an embedded anthropologist in Iraq who has a blog discussing his work. Since he is in a war zone, Dr. Griffin does not press his “freedom of speech,” as he explained in a past post:

In the blogosphere, there are suggestions that I am unwilling to really say what we are doing because I don’t want to be discovered for the rat I must be for working with the US Army. What must be understood in order to be an informed reader of this blog I keep for the benefit of my students back home is that I am in a combat environment. The soldiers I work with are in harm’s way. So readers looking for conspiracy should keep in mind that operations security (OPSEC) is a very real necessity to protect the lives of personnel—Iraqi or American. An operation cannot be discussed because that information might be used by someone to set up an ambush or other activity that causes harm or failure. When the time is right to write about an activity in order to illustrate how we are using anthropology, I will write about it, such as my upcoming post on an aerial survey.

The military interest in ethnography is invariably about gathering “intelligence,” so much so that the acronym “EI” has been coined (and the Pentagon does not mean the Encyclopaedia of Islam). Here is how Lieutenant Colonel Fred Renzi, U.S. Army, puts it:

Clans, tribes, secret societies, the hawala system, religious brotherhoods, all represent indigenous or latent forms of social organization available to our adversaries throughout the non-Western, and increasingly the Western, world. These create networks that are invisible to us unless we are specifically looking for them; they come in forms with which we are not culturally familiar; and they are impossible to ‘see’ or monitor, let alone map, without consistent attention and the right training.”

This is not about knocking on doors, but finding suspects. Is it any wonder there are ripples among the rank and file of anthropologists?

A job is not necessarily a job, especially for social scientists who take the “social” part of their label beyond the mechanical solidarity model that reduces real people to statistics and group membership. Efforts by the Pentagon to enlist trained anthropologists as part of the “War on Terror” necessarily raise an ethical dilemma, one that dredges shades of Project Camelot in the Vietnam War. The traditional honor code of ethnographers, as formulated in the Principles of Professional Responsibility of the American Anthropological Association goes beyond a “do no harm” directive: “Anthropologists must do everything in their power to protect the physical, social, and psychological welfare and to honor the dignity and privacy of those studied.” How can this concern for the welfare of people being studied be reconciled with the rules and precautions that inevitably attach to military and police actions?

Anthropologists are not journalists. Embedded reporters do not offer advice to the military; they just go along in combat gear for the ride. Can an anthropologist, or any kind of social scientist for that matter, follow the discipline’s majority view of a “prime directive” to safeguard the “other” and at the same time work under the rules of engagement as defined by the Pentagon, which understandably puts a premium on protecting American personnel first and carrying out orders from above? Some of my colleagues think not, at least in the current way it s being done. There is a petition being circulated by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which states:

Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency

We, the undersigned, believe that anthropologists should not engage in research and other activities that contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theaters in the “war on terror.” Furthermore, we believe that anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting the US military in combat, be it through torture, interrogation, or tactical advice.

US military and intelligence agencies and military contractors have identified “cultural knowledge,” “ethnographic intelligence,” and “human terrain mapping” as essential to US-led military intervention in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Consequently, these agencies have mounted a drive to recruit professional anthropologists as employees and consultants. While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world, protects US soldiers on the battlefield, or promotes cross-cultural understanding, at base it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties. By so doing, such work breaches relations of openness and trust with the people anthropologists work with around the world and, directly or indirectly, enables the occupation of one country by another. In addition, much of this work is covert. Anthropological support for such an enterprise is at odds with the humane ideals of our discipline as well as professional standards.

We are not all necessarily opposed to other forms of anthropological consulting for the state, or for the military, especially when such cooperation contributes to generally accepted humanitarian objectives. A variety of views exist among us, and the ethical issues are complex. Some feel that anthropologists can effectively brief diplomats or work with peacekeeping forces without compromising professional values. However, work that is covert, work that breaches relations of openness and trust with studied populations, and work that enables the occupation of one country by another violates professional standards.

Consequently, we pledge not to undertake research or other activities in support of counter-insurgency work in Iraq or in related theaters in the “war on terror,” and we appeal to colleagues everywhere to make the same commitment.

Fox News spin aside, does this mean American anthropologists are not patriots? Not at all. Anthropologists have served with distinction in the armed forces and continue to do so, but they do so as citizens who choose to follow the rules of the military code. The issue here is not about serving in the army, or judging those who do, but whether or not anthropologists can conduct research that could be used to the detriment of the people being studied. Those of us who settle in a village and fill in the kinship charts have no ulterior motives, but imagine what such charts could be used for if a military commander decides that terrorism runs in families. I doubt whether the majority of trained anthropologists would consciously collect information (or spin data) that would intentionally harm people being studied. Most of us become very protective and perhaps a bit overly so of informants and the cultures we work in. But there is a reason why some times informants (or even villages) are given pseudonyms. At the very least, the ethics of working with human subjects problematizes the idea of collecting information in a war zone.

My point here is not to take sides on an issue which is anything but simple. Anthropologists, like all other academics, are free agents and can decide for themselves what they consider proper.

There are certain concerns that are worth discussing further:
•Would an anthropologist want to be in a position where there might be a major conflict between his or her own conscience as a researcher and the military chain of command?
•Would it be possible to establish trust and rapport, so essential for ethnographic research, when clothed in fatigues and followed by a military escort?
•How much time would a researcher have in order to collect information and who would actually own the rights to that data?
•How many anthropologists have the required language and dialect skills to work in Afghanistan or Iraq?
•If asked by the military, would an anthropologist go under cover to get information?
•And, for the long term, how long will it be in the future before anyone trusts anthropologists in either “war on terror” theater?

[Note: The NYT Article follows on an earlier discussion in The Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Daniel Martin Varisco