Friday, May 2, 2008

Human Terrain Teams: Mobilized Social Science

Human terrain teams (HTTs) have garnered intense criticism at home from American academic anthropologists. These critiques have been aimed at this program because it requires that one member of the five on these teams must have an MA or PhD in cultural anthropology. Those who oppose HTTs point to potential ethical issues in the short and long term. Sadly, the massive amounts of negative attention HTTs have received from academic anthropologists citing ethical issues has not resulted in the provision of any practical solutions to these problems. This is extremely disheartening and seems to reveal that there is a lack of motivation and commitment within the discipline when it comes to engagement in action with the potential to yield positive change. This deficiency in constructive criticism, coupled with the absence of productive activity gives one cause to wonder whether or not a shift in the discipline has occurred that has led to the return of the glorification of the armchair anthropologist.

One major source of critique is the Network of Concerned Anthropologists(NCA), a self described "independent ad hoc network of anthropologists seeking to promote an ethical anthropology." On their website, they ask for anthropologists to sign a pledge of non-participation in counterinsurgency operations on the basis of ethical issues. Two of the founding members, David Price and Roberto Gonzalez have written letters concerning HTTs that have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. These letters strongly suggest that HTTs are part of a clandestine intelligence gathering program specifically geared towards identifying potential insurgents for later removal by an implied paramilitary branch, similar to the Phoenix Program that existed in Vietnam during the late 60s and 70s. They also indicated that data collected would be used not only to murder people but to further destabilize local communities and to manipulate people into doing the bidding of the US military. The American Anthropological Association(AAA) is also a major source of criticism, albeit not one plagued by fears of conspiracy and boogey monsters under the bed. This organization has instead engaged in scrutiny of the more plausible aspects of the situation and focused on ethical issues ranging from conflicts of interest, informed consent and potential coercion.

The criticisms put forth by the network of Concerned Anthropologists and its members, imaginative as they are, fail to really deal with the isue of improving the lives of Iraqi and Afghani locals and American nationals throughout the remainder of U.S. military operations in said countries. These criticisms focus much more on the less than stellar historical relationship between the Department of Defense and the discipline. These comments also serve only to relay the anxiety and fear experienced by some over the potential for anthropological expertise to be exploited to carry out military objectives harmful to former research participants and the field itself. These criticisms fail to deal with the actual issues raised by the existence of HTTs and the quality of life of individuals in countries with occupying forces of disparate/divergent cultures. In the case of the AAA, though they do provide salient criticisms, they do not address nor do they advance conceivable solutions to the deficiencies that exist in terms of the Human Terrain System(HTS) as an organization that conducts ethnographic research to improve military operations as well as quality of life.

Col. William Darley, the editor of the Military Review states "You have all kinds of people in the universities complaining that we've got into a situation we don't understand in Iraq and that we're buffoons for not making any efforts to understand the culture. On the other hand, when we do try to do it, critics say, 'You can't do that,' or 'What you are doing is somehow immoral.'" Both Col. Darley's remarks and the formation of HTTs indicate that the military is receptive to hearing new, alternative strategies regarding Iraq. As experts in the realm of culture, is it not one's duty to make a contribution where possible?

The fundamental question undergirding all of this is: how do we mobilize social scientists to carry out the task of instilling cultural sensitivity in military personnel to aid in the improvement of quality of life, mutual understanding and respect and the reduction of violence while maintaining a code of ethics? Our code of ethics exists to help and protect people. We merely need to find the best ways to do this in our particular context. This is an extremely difficult question that is compounded by the urgency with which cultural information is needed to create new tactical strategies for the reduction of loss in terms of civilian and combatant lives. The military, for one is at least making an attempt to answer it.

Capt. Matthew Tompkins, a HTT leader in Iraq proposes that the military ask scholars "'To what extent are you valuing your discipline over real lives that you could be making a difference in?'" Fearful of being associated with the U.S. Armed Forces and the Nation's global power politics, American anthropologists are rejecting the possibility of a future where the social sciences and the Department of Defense may reconcile to pursue their, at times, varying goals. In doing this, they are dooming these endeavors to the wretched fate of tea time chats and dissolution. A biting critique coupled with an absence of practical solutions is a form of most exquisite abortion, perfected. The social sciences would do well to learn the lesson that the US military appears to be learning right now: carrots, not sticks, will probably do the trick.

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