“The AAA’s Ad Hoc Commission on Anthropology’s Engagement with the Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) continues its work. Our main activities at present include: 1. the writing of a report to the AAA on the widely and hotly debated Human Terrain System of the U.S. Army (by the fall), 2. The editing of a casebook illustrating the diversity of kinds of practicing anthropology, including associated ethical questions, with a primary emphasis upon the security sector broadly conceived, 3. And providing support for the AAA’s ongoing ethics process. In an effort to keep our work transparent and part of the public and disciplinary discussion of all of the above, CEAUSSIC is also going to be contributing a monthly entry to the AAA’s blog. Each entry, by different CEAUSSIC members, will address topics that have arisen or that we have been thinking about, which we will continue to discuss via the blog, a discussion in which we hope you will also participate.”
Anthropological Engagements with Military and Intelligence Agencies: Ethics, Politics, and ongoing Discourse
September 9, 2009
David Price, Saint Martin’s University, Lacey, Washington, member CEAUSSIC
Over the past three years the AAA’s Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) has created what strikes me as an unusual and useful space for dialogue between different positions in debates over anthropological engagements with military, security and intelligence agencies. The commission’s composition intentionally included critics of anthropological engagements with military and intelligence agencies, anthropologists working in military and security sectors, members with ongoing interest in professional ethics, members working on human rights issues and members of the Executive Board. The commission’s discussions have been critical, open, sometimes heated, challenging, honest and ongoing, even though we have sometimes found ourselves disagreeing on fundamental points.
As a group we made progress in figuring out how to talk about these issues without simply backing into corners and shutting down, and I credit former AAA President Alan Goodman with having the foresight and commitment to devote Association resources to try and proactively deal with these issues, while President Setha Low and Chairs Jim Peacock and Rob Albro have worked to keep the conversation progressing.
When we first began our discussions, one of the ways we focused our dialogues was to talk about the different ethical relationships arising when anthropologists conduct research for the military and when they do research on or of the military. While we sometimes did not share the same analysis of the ethical issues raised by particular cases, we did come to a generally shared agreement that the most significant ethical issues raised by anthropologist/military engagements are those that raise the possibility that traditional anthropological commitments to obtain voluntary informed consent, to not engage in research that could harm those studied, to not generate reports that studied populations cannot access, or to fully disclose to those studied what would be done with the data collected by anthropologists. In this way, the commission sought to examine practices of military/intelligence anthropology using the same ethical standards we would use to study other anthropological engagements.
One of the most productive outcomes of the commission has been ongoing dialogues examining the how the AAA code of ethics interfaces with particular activities undertaken by anthropologists working in military and intelligence settings. Such focus on the activities of anthropologists working on specific projects helped illuminate the different ethical issues raised by an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research on a branch of the US military for this same branch of the military, and a military anthropologist studying a foreign culture for the US military, and thus helped clarify the ethical difference in various specific anthropological engagements with the military.
For the Commission to even start such discussions, we had to artificially separate “political” issues from “ethical” issues, and then set aside the larger political issues of how anthropological engagements with military/intelligence/national security sectors relate to larger issues of US foreign policy, neo-colonial military campaigns, the Global War on Terror and a growing military reliance on anthropologically informed counterinsurgency. I suppose that such ongoing political discourse would have overwhelmed discussions to the point where we might have imploded and it would have been unlikely for us to get to the point of making the sort of ethical distinctions we made (and it’s not that I and others did not raise these points along the way); but addressed or not, these political issues remain at the forefront of many AAA members’ concerns over these issues. While the commission’s discussions were productive and worthwhile, the convenience of a categorical separation of “the ethical” from “the political” has left large issues unaddressed, and like most unaddressed issues I suppose that in the future these will surface in all sorts of predictable and unpredictable ways.
To get a sense of how the commission approached the ethical rather than political issues, compare our memo [see Appendix x, pp 29-34] to the AAA Executive Board outlining our ethical (not political) concerns on the Human Terrain Program with the AAA Executive Board’s memo on HTS–which raised both ethical and political concerns with a broader focus that included such political concerns as: “In the context of a war that is widely recognized as a denial of human rights and based on faulty intelligence and undemocratic principles, the Executive Board sees the HTS project as a problematic application of anthropological expertise, most specifically on ethical grounds.” I suppose some might argue that the Commission’s strict attention only to the ethical issues raised by HTS might have provided some different type of credibility (from the Executive Board’s additional political critique) with members of the military if anyone was paying attention to such distinctions—but having done a dozen press interviews in the aftermath of the uproar that followed, I don’t think anyone was: all people seemed to hear was a political response.
Political issues have always bubbled to the surface of American anthropology; whether it was James Mooney’s decision to study native peoples in ways that honored them and their cultural complexities (instead of reporting on their culture in ways that primarily made them vulnerable to military counterinsurgency campaigns), Boas and his students’ political advocacy for policies recognizing racial equality, Laura Thompson‘s World War II warning that anthropologists needed to come to grips with what the war was doing to their discipline or it risked turning anthropologists into “technicians for hire to the highest bidder,” or how the efforts by intelligence operatives to access anthropologists’ Thai village studies during the Vietnam War led Delmos Jones to call for anthropologists to cease publishing their results. The political issues have always been there, but just as warfare has historically pushed the American anthropologists to develop and revise professional ethics codes, warfare brings political issues to the fore.
There is no political neutrality. Instead there is only silence or engagement on these issues—and silence most usually means acquiescence to national policies, which is itself a very political position. The AAA has a long history of adopting numerous political positions (most obviously on issues relating to race, gender, definitions of marriage, academic freedom etc.), yet there remains a reticence to address the political meaning of using anthropology in military contexts that include the occupation and conquest of the peoples we work with and study—it is as if some believe that addressing these issues would somehow undermine the scientific (or humanistic) nature of our work—yet the measures of our work are generally measured by criteria such as reliability, validity, rigor of method etc., criteria that need not be undermined by directly addressing the political project that seeks anthropologists, our data and methods.
In our CEAUSSIC discussions, some members of the commission have chided me for being what they sometimes referred to as my structural determinist tendencies because my view of recurrent historical interactions of anthropologists with military/intelligence agencies is one in which even well meaning individuals are generally unable to impact the larger structures and the missions of agencies in which they work (truth is my sense of deterministic doom goes deeper than that: I am much more of an infrastructural determinist, finding the contingencies of an overwhelming military industrial economy birthing powerful structures that take on Weberian forces greater than individual wills). It is certainly true that my reading of the history of anthropological engagements with military and intelligence agencies does find recurrent themes wherein anthropologists have little or no say in how the knowledge they produce is used. I do grow increasingly concerned that anthropologists working in these environments may not adequately appreciate how little control they have over the work they produce or how limiting the input they can have in transforming not only the structures of military and intelligence workplaces, but of the neo-colonial policies that the United States government and military are committed to enforcing regardless of these individuals’ best intentions. I worry that the sort of sunny Pollyanna optimism of Homer Barnett’s inexplicable against-all-odds fictive “innovator” may be rushing into a world governed by the rusted iron determinism of Leslie White—and they aren’t rushing in alone, we’re all going along for the ride.
CEAUSSIC has been a very useful and significant means for the Association to begin untangling some of the issues raised by anthropological engagements with the military, but it seems only a first step. Given the Obama Administration’s talk of increased reliance on counterinsurgency’s soft power in Afghanistan, the political and ethical issues raised by anthropologists manipulating other cultures in ways aligned with US foreign policy are likely to rise to the surface. My hope is that the AAA remains attentive not only to the ethical issues raised by these developments, but that the Association begins to more proactively address the political issues raised by the prospects of an increasing militarization of anthropology.
Filed under: Commentary