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When Anthropologists Become Counter-Insurgents

by ROBERTO J. GONZÁLEZ And DAVID H. PRICE

When anthropologists work overseas, they typically arrive with an array of equipment including notebooks, trowels, tape recorders, and cameras. But in the new context of the Bush Administration’s “war on terror,” a growing number of anthropologists are arriving in foreign countries wearing camouflage, body armor, and guns.

As General Petraeus and his staff push to enact new strategies in Iraq, the value of culture is taking on a greater role in military and intelligence circles, as new military doctrines increasingly rely on the means, methods and knowledge of anthropology to provide the basis of counterinsurgency practices. The Department of Defense, intelligence agencies, and military contractors are aggressively recruiting anthropologists for work related to counter-insurgency operations. These institutions seek to incorporate cultural knowledge and ethnographic intelligence in direct support of US-led interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The Pentagon is increasingly relying on the deployment of “Human Terrain System” (HTS) teams in Afghanistan and Iraq to gather and disseminate information on cultures living in the theatre of war. Some of these teams are assigned to US brigade or regimental combat units, which include “cultural analysts” and “regional studies analysts.” According to CACI International (one of three companies currently contracting HTS personnel for the Pentagon), “the HTS project is designed to improve the gathering, understanding, operational application, and sharing of local population knowledge” among combat teams. Required experience includes an MA or Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, sociology, or related social science fields, and applicants must obtain a secret security clearance to be eligible for employment.

In this environment it is not surprising that the Science Applications International Corporation-one of the top 10 US defense contractors-has begun describing anthropology as a “counter-insurgency related field” in its job advertisements. Prior to joining HTS teams, some social scientists attend military training camps. Recently, Marcus Griffin, an anthropology professor preparing to deploy to Iraq boasted on his blog that “I cut my hair in a high and tight style and look like a drill sergeant…I shot very well with the M9 and M4 last week at the range… Shooting well is important if you are a soldier regardless of whether or not your job requires you to carry a weapon.” The lines separating researchers, subjects, protectors, protected and target are easily confused in such settings, and the concerns of research ethics are easily set aside for more immediate concerns.

Although proponents of this form of applied anthropology claim that culturally informed counter-insurgency work will save lives and win “hearts and minds,” they have thus far not attempted to provide any evidence of this. Instead, there has been a flurry of non-critical newspaper accounts in publications including the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor that portray these HTS anthropologists as heroically serving their nation without bothering to report on the ethical complications of this work. Missing are discussions of anthropologists’ ethical responsibilities to disclose who they are and what they are doing, to gain informed consent, and to not harm those they study. Portraying counter-insurgency operations as social work is naive and historically inaccurate.

In fact, David Kipp of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas describes HTS teams as a “CORDS for the 21st Century”-a reference to the Pentagon’s Vietnam-era Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support project. The most infamous product of the CORDS counter-insurgency effort was the Phoenix Program, in which CIA agents collected intelligence information used to “neutralize” (read assassinate) suspected Viet Cong members. Between 1968 and 1972, more than 26,000 suspected Viet Cong were killed as a result, including many civilians.

Kipp’s comparison of HTS and CORDS begs a series of ethical questions which have gone unanswered. If anthropologists on HTS teams interview Afghans or Iraqis about the intimate details of their lives, what is to prevent combat teams from using the same data to one day “neutralize” suspected insurgents? What would impede the transfer of data collected by social scientists to commanders planning offensive military campaigns? Where is the line that separates the professional anthropologist from the counter-insurgency technician? Although the answers to these questions are not clear, the history of anthropology should give us pause. During World War II and the Cold War, US military and intelligence agencies tended to use anthropologists’ work to help accomplish immediate goals, and discarded all other information that was counter to their beliefs or institutional models.

Other wars brought anthropology to the battlefield, but with mixed results, and lingering questions remain about the ethics and the efficacy of these interactions–even in wars with much broader support than the current misadventure in Iraq. These engagements have always raised deep ethical questions within the discipline. Even during the Second World War, a number of anthropologists were troubled by the use of specific cultural anthropological knowledge for warfare, and as Laura Thompson in 1944 worried, what would become of anthropology if its practitioners became nothing more than “technicians for hire to the highest bidder?” After the war, CIA operatives like Edward Lansdale tapped ethnographic knowledge for campaigns in the Philippines and Vietnam; and when disclosures about the use of anthropological data in the Vietnam War were made public, the resulting clash within the American Anthropological Association created rifts that remain evident to this day.

The fundamental problem with social scientists’ involvement in counter-insurgency campaigns is the characteristic lack of transparency. Assisting counter-insurgency operations stands to violate relationships of trust and openness with the people with whom anthropologists work. If those doing counter-insurgency or combat support are bound by “operations security” or other forms of non-disclosure, they are not free to share the results of their work with local people who participated in the research. Such work threatens the well being and integrity of all fieldbased anthropological research. Anthropologists serving the short-term interests of military and intelligence agencies and contractors by carrying out counter-insurgency and combat support work end up harming the entire discipline in the long run. When they participate in secret military operations that taint the reputation of all anthropologists, they are engaging in scorched earth fieldwork, for they make it impossible for future researchers to establish the trust necessary for establishing rapport with research participants.

In response to these troubling developments, an ad hoc group of eleven scholars (including the authors of this piece) recently formed the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. Together the group drafted a “Pledge of Non-Participation in Counter-Insurgency”-a boycott of anthropological work in counter-insurgency and direct combat support operations. Its opening words unequivocally reject such cooperation: “We, the undersigned, believe that anthropologists should not engage in research and other activities that contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or 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.” The statement clearly stands against participation in counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and the “war on terror” as well as “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.”

The inspiration for the boycott comes from the more than 7,000 physicists who pledged to not participate in the ill-fated Strategic Defense Initiative (more commonly known as the “Star Wars” program) proposed by Ronald Reagan. Given the fact that the Pentagon was offering multi-million dollar grants to university-based scientists for SDI research at the time, the boycott (initiated in 1985 by David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund) was remarkably ambitious-and successful. It demonstrated that when scientists speak with a collective voice, they can dramatically influence the course of history.

At the height of the Cold War, C. Wright Mills cautioned social scientists about the perils of succumbing to “the bureaucratic ethos. Its use has been mainly in and for non-democratic areas of society–a military establishment, a corporation.” He was concerned about the rapid transformation of scientists into mere technicians, lacking any sense of social responsibility for their actions. As those prosecuting the “war on terror” attempt to draw social scientists into their ill-conceived operations, we should reaffirm our democratic values, our professional autonomy, and our social responsibility by refusing to participate.

Those interested in learning more about the Pledge or signing on can write us at concerned.anthropologists@gmail.com or visit our web site at http://concerned.anthropologists.googlepages.com/home.

Roberto J. González is author of Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca (University of Texas Press, 2001) and editor of Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace and American Power (University of Texas Press, 2004). He can be reached at roberto_gonzalez@netzero.net

David Price is author of Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Duke, 2004). His next book, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Abuse of American Anthropology in the Second World War, is due March 2008. He can be reached at: dprice@stmartin.edu

 

Roberto J. González (roberto.gonzalez@sjsu.edu) is Professor of Anthropology at San Jose State University. He is author of Militarizing Culture: Essays on the Warfare State (Left Coast Press, 2010) and Zapotec Science (University of Texas Press, 2001). David Price (dprice@stmartin.edu) is Professor of Anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. He is the author of Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, The Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology (Duke University Press, 2016) and Weaponizing Anthropology (CounterPunch Books, 2011).

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