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Anthropologists and the Human Terrain System

In March, the C4ISR Journal, a publication of Defense News, ran the cover story U.S. Army’s Human Terrain Experts May Help Defuse Future Conflicts. In the piece, journalist Jim Hodges wrote:

The HTS (Human Terrain System) also ran afoul of anthropological organizations that believed their scholars were becoming spies and that their work was being used to undermine the population rather than help it. The anthropologists also said their first ethic — “do no harm” — was being violated by the work of the HTS teams.

The American Anthropological Association condemned the program in 2007, and in a letter to Congress in 2010 the Network of Concerned Anthropologists questioned HTS’s effectiveness and called it “dangerous and reckless” and a “waste of taxpayers’ money.”

And went on to say:

The controversy has cooled. The HTS will have a recruiter at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco in November.

This misinformation was not taken lightly here at AAA. In working with C4ISR’s editor, we were able to run a two page commentary on sharing the anthropological side of the story. Thanks to members, Hugh Gusterson and Rob Albro, C4ISR readers not only understand that HTS recruiters will not be at AAA’s Annual Meeting this November, but also how HTS contravenes anthropological ethics:

The controversy has died down only insofar as the American Anthropological Association has completed a detailed investigation of HTS, with particular attention to the Human Terrain Teams deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan to collect socio-cultural information for commanders to aid their decision making.

We want to reinforce that the American Anthropological Association stands by its 2009 conclusion that the U.S. Army-led Human Terrain System contravenes anthropological ethics and incites superficial “windshield ethnography” that falls short of professional standards. That conclusion is detailed in the association’s “Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program.”

Sending social scientists to study local populations in the company of armed troops amid active hostilities will not produce scientifically reliable information. Just as important are the long-term consequences of this approach. Embedding anthropologists with combat brigades undermines their independence and duty not to harm populations — requirements that are the linchpins of anthropological ethics. Calling embedded anthropologists “social scientists” does not solve the problem.

Read the entire article and leave your comments on the issue.

One Response

  1. Ethics is the least of the problems of HTS. Aside from being a multimillion dollar white elephant without a shred of evidence that it does what it purports to do, it is poorly managed, wracked by internal strife, and far too expensive to justify the mediocre research results it produces. To its credit, HTS has a core of hard-working, intelligent, dedicated legitimate social scientists, who would do well in any environment. On the other hand, HTS has more than its share of unqualified, untrained oxygen thieves, who manage to elude scrutiny by saying the right things and looking busy. If you want to induce a coma in the latter, just ask them to show you what they’ve actually done to deserve such an obscene salary. Calling them social scientists after a few weeks of God-awful training, doesn’t make them such, any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. The only way HTS can redeem itself, is to allow its training to be supervised and delivered by real Cultural Anthropologists and Sociologists, who have experience in data collection and research methods, instead of an ad hoc mixture of Political Scientists and History majors without a single research project to their credit, and who spent all of their time in air-conditioned comfort on a Forward Operating Base answering phones and collecting overtime. US Brigade Combat Team Commanders would be better served with more linguists and regional or local subject matter experts, trained to work with local populations and collect relevant sociocultural information.

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