Should Anthropologists Aid The Military?

The Human Terrain Systems(HTS) program was greatly expanded by the United States military over the past few months. It recruits anthropologsts who are embedded with US tropps at the brigade and division level in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. The program has anthropologists, some of whom are not expert in local cultures, to work with the military to prevent them from misreading situations. For example, anthropologists noted there were many widows in a target area and surmised their young male relatives would be under pressure to aid them and would join insurgent groups to avoid having the widows attacked. As a result of that advice the US military initiated job-training progrms for widows.

The program recalls previous attempts such as the famous Project Camelot in 1965 which attempted to assess cultural causes of war and provide advice to the military. Another organization was the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support(CORDS) which coordinated US civil and military pacification efforts in Vietnam. An anthropologist is bound by a code of ethics which mandates no harm to people who are being studied and requires their informed consent for research. This is impossible under war conditions such as exist in Iraq or Afghanistan.

At the annual meeting of the American Anthropoligcal Association last November, these issues were the subject of extensive discussion. Sceptics fear that anthropologists are naive in not understanding how the military will use their research. It is one thing to assist government in furthering economic devlopment, it is another when people are misled into thinking an outside group is interested in learning about their culture only they don’t realize knowledge provided might be used against themselves.