Anthropologists Slam Using Social Scientists in Mideast Wars

Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has deployed teams of anthropologists and other social scientists in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal is to make better military decisions based on an improved cultural understanding of those countries. DOD officials claim the initiative—known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) program—is working, and has already helped defuse conflict in many areas. But in a report released today at its annual meeting in Philadelphia, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) says what HTS teams do in the field should not be confused with anthropology. They say anthropologists should not participate in this work, regardless of whether it helps the military.

"Human terrain teams in the field cannot in any reasonable sense of the word be carrying out anthropological field work," Robert Albro, chair of the panel that produced the report, said at a press conference this morning. Unlike what anthropologists typically do, the report notes, HTS units help to gather intelligence that, in all likelihood, is then used to kill people or cause harm. The program "blurs so many ethical lines," Albro says.

This is not the first time that the discipline has criticized the HTS program, which involves some 400 people, including at least 6 Ph.D. anthropologists. In the fall of 2007, shortly after the program was launched, AAA's executive board called it "an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise." Today's report, based on interviews with both DOD officials and those in the program, reinforces that position. "Anthropologists cannot properly function within human terrain teams," says Jim Peacock, one of the authors.