Friday, October 26, 2007

Freedom to Make Anything Military

The United States Army is using anthropologists in their Human Terrain System units to further military objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The BBC reported:

Steve Fondacaro, a retired special operations colonel overseeing the HTS, is keen to recruit cultural anthropologists. He said "Cultural anthropologists are focused on understanding how societies make decisions and how attitudes are formed. They give us the best vision to see the problems through the eyes of the target population."

So how many Americans stepped up to help the Army better understand local societies? Not many. The American Anthropological Association called for an end to the Iraq war in 2006. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists has already circulated a pledge of non-participation in the Pentagon's counter-insurgency efforts. This drove the Pentagon to contract out the program to BAe Systems. They contract for the social scientists at $400,000 per civilian member. The cost is driven higher by kidnapping insurance. But what do they do?

The Human Terrain System currently includes six teams embedded in military units at the brigade and division levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each team is composed of at least one social scientist, usually an anthropologist, a language specialist, and retired army personnel or reservists from special operations, intelligence, and civil affairs backgrounds.

"You have social scientists to understand the deep complexity of the problems on the ground in the society and the military personnel who then take that information and help apply it to the military decision-making process," says Col Fondacaro. "Together they bring collective genius to the problems."

Note the military objective is clearly the focus. How will the anthropologists explain to the U.S. military that local people don't want their country occupied by foreign armies, especially when it's the same country that funded insurgents in the 1980's but left them high and dry afterwards (Afghanistan), or the country that sold chemical weapons to a brutal dictator who later used them on his own people (Iraq)? And what might the anthropologists do in the case of the CIA orchestrating the overthrow of a democratically elected leader to benefit British oil interests (Iran)? That act in 1953 ushered in the rule of another oppressive dictator who ruled until the revolution in 1979.

I can see why anthropologists don't want to support any clandestine operations or outright military objectives. They want human societies to survive and thrive. As the first African American female astronaut Dr. Jameson noted "war and civil strife is the largest cause of sickness and death in the general population." People did from preventable illnesses without access to safe drinking water, medicines, and food. Anthropologists likely want to "do no harm" in their work. Serving on a HTS team sounds like a way to violate that ethical commitment.