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Commentary: ‘Do No Harm’

The controversy over the U.S. Army’s employment of anthropologists in its Human Terrain System seemed to have cooled, yet anthropologists Robert Albro and Hugh Gusterson say their profession still has ethical objections.

Apr. 25, 2012 - 09:48AM   |  
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C4ISR Journal reports that Human Terrain System will be recruiting at this year’s meeting of the American Anthropological Association [“Early Engagement,” March].

The controversy has died down only insofar as the American Anthropological Association has completed a detailed investigation of HTS, with particular attention to the Human Terrain Teams deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan to collect socio-cultural information for commanders to aid their decision making.

We want to reinforce that the American Anthropological Association stands by its 2009 conclusion that the U.S. Army-led Human Terrain System contravenes anthropological ethics and incites superficial “windshield ethnography” that falls short of professional standards. That conclusion is detailed in the association’s “Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program.”

Sending social scientists to study local populations in the company of armed troops amid active hostilities will not produce scientifically reliable information. Just as important are the long-term consequences of this approach. Embedding anthropologists with combat brigades undermines their independence and duty not to harm populations — requirements that are the linchpins of anthropological ethics. Calling embedded anthropologists “social scientists” does not solve the problem.

We are also concerned about the military’s reported plans to make its HTS teams permanent, and to use them for so-called “phase zero” activities abroad after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Present concerns are based upon the issues identified in our 2009 report.

The association’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities concluded unanimously that “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.”

It is important that readers of C4ISR Journal understand that this statement was written not by some hippie fringe of the profession but by a group that included anthropologists who work for the military in non-HTS capacities. For example, one was a staff archeologist for the Army, and another continues to provide cultural training for the Marine Corps.

As for the claim that there will be an HTS recruiter at the anthropologists’ annual meeting, the meeting career center has not yet opened its application process. Maybe an HTS recruiter will roam the halls of the convention hotel, trying to strike up conversations with stray graduate students; however, given the AAA’s strongly worded condemnations of HTS, it is unlikely that HTS will be allowed a recruitment booth at the meeting.

HTS public relations has always sought to portray opposition to the program as the noisy hand-waving of a marginal few political radicals in anthropology, but this is also misleading. Shortly after the HTS program was publicly announced in 2007, the AAA Executive Board issued a statement concluding that the program “creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA Code of Ethics” and that the work poses a physical danger to “anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study.”

In 2010, a letter urging Congress to pull the financial plug on HTS was signed by six of nine living ex-presidents of the AAA, 37 distinguished chairs of anthropology, and 40 anthropology department chairs (including the chairs of the flagship departments at Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Chicago).


Military readers may find anthropologists’ preoccupation with ethics quaint when there is a war to be won, but the pressure war creates to cut ethical corners is one of the reasons anthropologists are so troubled by HTS. In the end, all professions have ethical commitments they will not compromise, even in war. Doctors insist on their obligation to save lives, even to the point of treating wounded enemy combatants; military chaplains do not engage in killing the enemy; and contract engineers refuse to sign off on military equipment if they believe it is unsafe for the troops who will use it.

Similarly, anthropologists cannot compromise commitments to do no harm and to work in partnership with those they study. It is, after all, the essence of the anthropological method that we are only able to understand other peoples’ way of life insofar as we earn their trust. With that trust comes a moral obligation to our subjects that is at the core of our practice.

Anthropologists have engaged in many kinds of work in support of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include cultural sensitivity training for deploying troops, teaching at military academies, studying the needs of troops with post traumatic stress disorder and consulting on the organizational culture of national security agencies. HTS is different because it threatens the integrity of that core relationship between anthropologists and their subjects.

Over the years, the HTS program has made little effort to become more transparent and to engage in good faith with the concerns of the social scientists it would like to recruit. The lack of institutional transparency that has characterized the program’s ups and downs has made it hard for anthropologists and other social scientists to have confidence in the program as an ethically legitimate expression of professional social scientific practice. The American Anthropological Association continues to have the same concerns about the program that it has already publicly detailed.

Human Terrain Teams collect sensitive socio-cultural data that can put local populations in harm’s way. The recently released draft ethics code for the AAA says in the first sentence of the first principle: “avoidance of harm is a primary ethical obligation shared by all anthropologists.”

As described in detail in the commission report, social scientists working in HTTs cannot ensure that their work will “do no harm.” While the HTS program has been at pains to emphasize that the purpose of HTTs is to help commanders find nonkinetic solutions to challenges they might encounter, the commission’s research found that individual team members have on several occasions publicly stated that their allegiances lie with the unit with which they are embedded and that, if in possession of actionable information about “bad guys,” they would share it.

The draft update to the association’s ethics notes that “researchers have an ethical responsibility to ensure that collected data and materials will not be used for ends other than those specified at the time the data were collected.”

Yet, the commission also found that terrain team members did not maintain control over the collection and storage of the data they collected. HTS, as a program, cannot guarantee that this data could not be used by others for other purposes, potentially including lethal targeting.


We are also concerned that HTT researchers cannot ensure free cooperation of local populations, working as they do at the “tip of the spear.” The commission paid close attention to the research methods of HTTs, as reported by former and active HTT members as well as field commanders who hosted teams. Commanders with whom we spoke appeared more realistic about the possibilities for HTTs than the HTS program itself. Several were blunt in their view that it is impossible for HTTs to do their work in ways apart from their association by ordinary non-combatants with the military occupation, or as one ex-commander put it, the full “coercive force of the U.S. government.”

While in the field, some HTT members reportedly opted to or were required by local commanders to wear uniforms and protective gear, and some reported carrying a weapon. Given the circumstances of working in a conflict zone, HTT members have only brief opportunities to interact with non-combatants, always in the company of armed soldiers. There is no way HTT members can effectively divest themselves of the power they enjoy as part of a military occupation force. As one former U.S. commander observed, as a result, HTT interviews are inherently coercive and more like “push-polling.” Instead of helping to establish otherwise neutral baseline cultural facts about relevant populations, HTTs are ethically and practically compromised by their association with the military occupation itself.

From the outset, there existed a tremendous lack of clarity about whether HTS was or was not an intelligence activity. The program was reportedly regularly briefed as such an activity. Multiple participants in the program have gone on record stating that it is. HTS has also acknowledged receiving intelligence funding. HTS is a data-gathering program, and its products are shared across the intelligence community using secure military online networks and alongside data collected by intelligence professionals.

As reported in the C4ISR Journal article, the program is actively collaborating with the Army’s G-2 Intelligence, and its director describes HTS not as an intelligence program but instead as an “intelligence support” program. This is not a professionally meaningful distinction for anthropologists.

At the same time, since it appears that HTS seeks to “rebrand” itself for the post-Iraq and Afghanistan era, we would like to see more active discussion of what the U.S. military intends for HTS-type assets during peacetime.

What would it mean to decouple the work of human terrain teams from the counterinsurgency doctrine that originally birthed the program? Does HTS represent a trend of the increased militarization of humanitarian interventions? What sort of partnerships would HTS maintain with other academic and para-academic centers? Or in cooperation with the militaries of other nations? Would this new policy translate into military-style research interventions in the world beyond the Middle East?

Anthropologist Robert Albro chaired the American Anthropological Association’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities. Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson is a member of the association’s executive board.

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