Academic journal article Social Justice

Obama's War and Anthropology: Ethical Issues and Militarizing Anthropology

Academic journal article Social Justice

Obama's War and Anthropology: Ethical Issues and Militarizing Anthropology

Article excerpt


THE QUESTION OF WHETHER ANTHROPOLOGISTS SHOULD OR SHOULD NOT BRING THEIR expertise and anthropological knowledge to the service of the war in Afghanistan, or any war for that matter, has touched a nerve and raises ethical, political, and ideological questions that are likely to beset the discipline for some time to come. Anthropologists have been debating and discussing this question in public forums for the past several years, but since around 2007, when the military began to actively recruit anthropologists to participate in the Human Terrain System (HTS), the urgency of the question has heightened. The HTS is part of the new war doctrine that places priority on cultural knowledge in the prosecution of counterinsurgency warfare. As part of five-person Human Terrain Teams (HTT), anthropologists and other social scientists, "embedded" in combat units, go out and, through observation and interviewing of villagers, assess the "human terrain" and report the information they have gleaned to military commanders. HTT members face the same dangers as any military personnel would. Three civilian social scientists have died in the line of duty so far. Michael Bhatia, a doctoral candidate in politics and international relations at Oxford University and a published author assigned to Afghanistan HTT AF1, died in May 2008 when the vehicle he was traveling in hit a roadside bomb. Nicole Suveges, a doctoral candidate in political science at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Iraq HTT IZ3, was killed June 24, 2008, while attending a meeting in Sadr City, Iraq. The third was Paula Loyd, a Wellesley college graduate in anthropology who died in January 2009 from burns received after an Afghan villager doused her with gas and set her on fire in November 2008. Immodesty is sometimes punished in this way in Afghanistan. The Taliban took credit for the deaths of Bhatia and Loyd. (1)

In this article, we explore the debate and attempt to untangle or tease out some of the concerns that have been raised and offer additional insights, or at least food for thought, as American anthropologists and other social scientists grapple with this issue. It is probably one of the most significant debates in anthropology of the decade.

Some Questions

As the debate unfolds, multiple issues are becoming apparent. (2) Chief among them is that the move to increase the involvement of anthropologists in America's current wars reverses over 40 years of collective "soul-searching" over the historical role of anthropology, first as the "handmaiden of colonialism" and later in service of two world wars, the Vietnam War, and covert CIA operations around the world. The formal delinking of anthropology from the military occurred during the tumultuous Vietnam War period, when the American Anthropological Association adopted a code of ethics that outlined the basic rules by which anthropological research is to be conducted. Research should be open and transparent, individuals must be able to freely opt out of being researched if they want to, and anthropologists are accountable to their research communities and must assure that no harm comes to them because of the research, directly or indirectly. The Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) reiterated these principles in its report on the problems associated with the current involvement of anthropology with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised the stakes on anthropological ethics. Is all engagement with the military problematic? How are we to judge what roles are or are not appropriate? What roles, if any, should anthropologists play in furthering military objectives, or more broadly, the strategic objectives of the state? Do we treat the state and its agents as a monolithic entity and do we assume that individuals within that structure have no independent agency? …

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