Should anthropologists work alongside soldiers?

SAN FRANCISCO -- The military for years has enlisted anthropologists, depending on their expertise to write up analyses of distant places and cultures.

But debate is growing among those scientists over whether it is appropriate for them to be involved in actually working alongside soldiers in combat or to contribute to the growing field of counterterrorism research.

At the just-concluded American Anthropological Association meeting here, the question of whether anthropologists should take part in military operations took the stage, though not for the first time. In 2007, the AAA's executive board expressed "disapproval" of anthropologists' work in Afghanistan and Iraq, arguing that they helped in "identifying and selecting specific populations as targets of U.S. military operations."

The debate is more than academic. Two social scientists with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System (HTS) were killed in bombings this year in Afghanistan and Iraq.

HTS researchers are essentially the Army's polling force, surveying local sentiments to, among other things, increase the security of the area and facilitate aid and rebuilding efforts and to ensure those efforts are culturally sensitive, according to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, which runs the program.

Anthropology, military go way back

Ties between anthropology and the military are old ones. The science originated as a "tool of colonialism" in the 19th century to understand British Empire subjects, says historian David Kaiser of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, field anthropologists study culture, kinship and networks in societies, "particularly key" factors in the insurgencies, according to the Army's counterinsurgency manual. For example, in these countries it is considered reasonable to put family ties above the needs of society, and nepotism is seen as positive, not negative. That's something young soldiers raised in the USA, with our veneration of the rugged individualist, may not immediately understand.

Is this right or wrong? A necessary tool in the defense of the nation and the world? Or a misuse of science to advance warfare? Arguments are raised on both sides. And the anthropologists, recruited from universities and making from $81,093 to $124,010, plus combat pay, are in the middle of the debate.

"The idea of militarization of anthropology alarms people," says Robert Albro of American University in Washington, D.C. For one thing, anthropologists don't want to be viewed as spies, he says, and military financing could bend the field's purpose away from the study of cultures.

Anthropologist Roberto Gonzalez of San Jose State University posed questions at the meeting for those working with the military:

•What safeguards prevent human terrain data being used to target individuals?

•How do you ensure the information isn't used for war crimes?

•How can embedded anthropologists get informed consent from civilians?

Gonzalez says use of information from human terrain teams to unleash lethal force is at odds with the core values of anthropology. A group Gonzalez helped create called the Network of Concerned Anthropologists submitted a "Pledge of Non-participation in Counterinsurgency" signed by 1,056 anthropologists.

'Working to make the world a better place'

On the other hand, Phillips Stevens of the State University of New York-Buffalo said it became clear to him from the first moment U.S. troops entered Iraq that "the implementation of some cultural advice would have saved lives and dollars."

"All anthropologists are working to make the world a better place," said panelist Brian Selmeski, a professor of anthropology at the Air Force's Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He quoted an infantry officer who told him, "We don't need your help to break things. We need your help so we don't have to break things."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates agrees.

"It is an unfortunate reality that many people believe there is this sharp divide between academia and the military — that each continues to look on the other with a jaundiced eye," he said in May. "Challenges facing the world require a much broader conception and application of national power than just military prowess."

What social scientists bring to the military "is in some cases a deep perspective on the specific area of interest," Montgomery McFate, senior social scientist for the HTS program, says by e-mail.

Anthropologist Kerry Fosher of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University believes that the training in understanding the complexities of culture that anthropologists receive is vital to saving lives during conflicts, and that anthropologists shouldn't be afraid of putting their training to work.

"If we were a little bit less terrified of somebody harming themselves or the world with the knowledge we share," she says, "maybe the world would look a little bit different than it does."

READERS: So, what do you think —should anthropologists work alongside soldiers?