Embedded Conflicts

U.S. Army quietly shuts down Human Terrain System, which placed anthropologists and other scholars with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan and set off huge debate over scholarly ethics.

July 7, 2015

The Human Terrain System set off intense debates among anthropologists and other social scientists when the U.S. Army in 2005-6 introduced the idea of embedding scholars with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. In theory, the scholars would help the military understand ethnic groups that were mysterious to soldiers, potentially saving the lives of Americans and those who lived in the region. But from the program's start, many anthropologists and others saw the program as a violation of their disciplines' ethical standards.

Protests from anthropologists didn't stop the military program -- or the participation of some scholars. But the Army last week confirmed to journalists that the program had quietly been phased out -- not because of the ethical concerns, but because of the lack of ground forces for which the program was designed. "The HTS program ended on Sept. 30, 2014, as there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater," the Army said in a statement to USA Today.

Even as many social scientist critics praised its end, some also suggested that it was important to consider the lessons learned from the program. The Human Terrain System led the American Anthropological Association to look anew at its code of ethics and prompted many scholars to think about how close they could ever be to the military. And while only a small number of social scientists participated in the program, four were killed.

Ed Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, said he viewed the group's debate and report on the ethics of participating in the Human Terrain System as an important demonstration of scholars studying an issue and coming to a conclusion that could help their colleagues. The process, he said, "convinced a very large majority of our members that it was just not a responsible way for professional anthropologists to conduct themselves."

The early history of anthropology included many examples of scholars using their knowledge to help Western powers in colonial aims, harming the peoples studied by anthropologists. And many anthropologists today charge that some scholars of previous generations -- up through the Vietnam War (which was strongly opposed by many other anthropologists) -- were far too close to the interests of their own governments, ignoring obligations to their research subjects.

It was with this context that many anthropologists pushed for their association to oppose the Human Terrain System. Some others, however, argued that anthropologists might minimize harm in Afghanistan and Iraq by working with the military, or that academic freedom should dictate that the association not take a stand.

The association, in a 2008 report, came out against the Human Terrain System. The discipline's ethics standards, the authors of the report said, require true informed consent by people being studied, and every possible effort by scholars to assure that they would cause no harm to those people. The report said that the idea of embedding scholars with the military was inconsistent with these values.

"When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment -- all characteristic factors of the HTS concept and its application -- it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology," the report said.

Liebow said that some supporters of the program may have had good intentions, but that it became clear that wasn't enough. "You get out there into the combat theater and there's no way in the world that any information in the world you might gather would be possible to gather under conditions of fully informed consent in a noncoercive way," he said. "You are surrounded by armed combatants."

Hugh Gusterson, professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University, said via email that, "one lesson for social scientists is that, when the military offers lots of resources to enlist us in their projects, we should examine very carefully what we are being asked to do in order to see if it is compatible with our disciplinary values and our ethics code."

He said that military goals and academic values are quite different. "The military is a hierarchical, task-oriented organization that sometimes has to cut ethical corners to achieve its goals," he said. "Academic organizations, at their best, are quite different: grad students can challenge professors in a way that enlisted men cannot challenge officers, and academics prioritize knowledge, open inquiry, original thought (even when the ideas are controversial) and intellectual difference over uniformity in the interest of getting a task done. This is not to criticize the military but to point out that, when they offer patronage to academics, there will be tension between what they expect and what we are used to. And he who pays the piper calls the tune."

Roberto Gonzalez, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and one of the leaders among anthropologists opposed to the program, in a recent article also questioned whether anthropologists embedded with the military were actually being used to build support for the war. "It became a propaganda tool for convincing the American public -- especially those with liberal tendencies -- that the U.S.-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were benevolent missions in which smart, fresh-faced young college graduates were playing a role," he wrote. "It appeared to demonstrate how U.S. forces were engaged in a kinder, gentler form of occupation."

Most leaders in anthropology opposed the Human Terrain System, and Inside Higher Ed was unable to reach a defender of the program on Monday. But in a 2009 essay, one participant, Adam L. Silverman, wrote that critics failed to see the good the program was doing for people who lived in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"My job in Iraq was to represent the population, to promote nonlethal planning and operations. When a mission is conceptualized, when course of action recommendations have to be made, when decisive points are identified for the commander, my job is to present what the population wants and expects, how it will react, and at all times promote nonlethal options," wrote Silverman.

He also wrote that the involvement of social scientists helped preserve important areas. "In fact, while out on patrol my teammates and I were able to identify several archaeological sites. We brought this to the attention of brigade and battalion staffs, as well as the cultural heritage officer at the U.S. Embassy and the head of the U.S. Army’s Archaeological Unit. We were able to preserve one site that was slated for development. And through collaboration with archaeologists at Penn State, University of Chicago, Harvard, the Army, and State Department, we created a comprehensive list and maps of all the sites in our operating environment so that the Army would know where construction could and could not take place," he wrote.

Liebow stressed that the work of anthropologists and other social scientists is public and can be read by all -- including the military. Likewise, many anthropologists who are back from studying various regions are free to (and do) help any number of organizations understand regions and their populations. But these scholars do so in a way consistent with the pledges they made to the groups they studied.

"Understanding cultural heritage," he said, is something that anthropologists promote for all audiences. He said he worried that the military may not see the real problems with the Human Terrain System and could use it in the future. Research, he said, "can be embedded in forward planning, but not in the tip of the spear in combat."


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