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Anthropologists in Iraq: new article in New York Times

5 October, 2007

Our Master of Applied Anthropology alumnus Jesse Dart just forwarded a link to a new NYT article on the Human Terrain Team, “an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists … to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq” that “has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

 See the article here.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. gregdowney permalink
    8 October, 2007 2:47 pm

    I’ve been meaning to blog on this, too, for some time. The Human Terrain project came to my attention a while back when some anthropologist from one of the Carolina universities took time off from his regular job teaching to get involved. He started to go online about it, describing his training and the like (including lifting weights and stuff).

    The descriptions he wrote (which I’ll have to find and link to) and this article sound like very different things to me. When the project was first described, my reaction was, ‘How on earth is this anthropology?!’ The descriptions of what the ‘anthropologists’ involved were doing sounded about like ’embedded journalism,’ that is, it would have been much easier for an anthropologist situated in a combat unit to write about his or her fellow soldiers than about any community with which they might interact. From the description, it just sounded like an impossible situation to engage in any serious consideration of the community, and the goals of the project seemed so clearly martial that it was hard to take the whole thing too seriously. It was not even obvious whether or not the anthropologist spoke any local language.

    The NYTimes article describes something more interesting. Although my more cynical colleagues will likely disagree with me, I feel like I need to judge these efforts on outcome, execution, and planning, rather than just on principle. And some of the projects that the Human Terrain team in Afghanistan engages in seem to me to be genuinely positive, community-sensitive forms of capacity and infrastructure building. With American desire for dominance in the country less obvious than in Iraq (where the petroleum supplies make the state buidling project much more dubious), it seems to me that there is some space for anthropology to be applied in ways that are not entirely in the service of an occupying military force (and please note, I write this as a US citizen).

    In Iraq, however, I suspect that any sort of applied anthropology in service of US military projects might be irremediably undermined by the overaching agenda for the country. I can’t bring myself to just say, ‘Anthropologists working with the military are unavoidably corrupted and tools of oppression.’ I feel like any judgment needs to consider the projects on many levels: in principle, in planning, in preparation, in practice, and in long-term effects. In the case of Afghanistan, there may be ample room for positive engagement, but the whole set-up of Iraq, from the ‘Green Zone,’ to the sectarian violence to the widespread public disapproval of occupation to the shifting and opaque rationale for being there in the first place, I find it much less likely that someone could walk the ethical tightrope involved.

  2. Mariana permalink
    9 October, 2007 3:19 am

    Hi over there from Mexico city. Here in Mexico at CIESAS (a public center to study social anthropology) a group of students have been discussing about the ethic and scientific role of anthropologists and social scientists in political conflicts relating to the note of the anthropologists in the new york time. I think that social science is not neutral, that one make choices wether to support a ideological regime or to work or colaborate with different organizations or groups that are against the domination of governments or to work with the people inmerse in wars. There is a permanent tension between analyzing a phenomenon and take action in it. Regards. Hermegisto

  3. 9 October, 2007 10:39 am

    A parallel discussion is going on on the AAS mailing list AASNet.
    Brian Fegan reports that the Sydney Morning Herald has also picked up this story.  While Rod Hagen has noted that:

    The US Army’s Combined Arms Center journal "Military Review" has beenpromulgating the increased use of anthropologists in Iraq for some time.Montgomery McFate’s piece in early 2005 set the scene. see current edition contains "Anthropology 101 for Soldiers" – see

    Recently a network of concerned anthropologists has been founded which encourages anthropologists to pledge "not to undertake research or other activities in support of counter-insurgency work in Iraq or in related theaters in the “war on terror,” and we appeal to colleagues everywhere to make the same commitment".  I note that what Greg is talking about as legitimate anthropological roles in these theatres doesn’t include counter-insurgency work.

    It’s often been noted that the debates going on now are very close to those during previous wars.  I think it’s a really crucial issue because it raises the whole problematic of anthropology’s alleged historical role as a tool of various kinds of colonialism.  There has been so much internal and external critiquing of anthropology’s association with former colonial regimes and up until recently I would’ve thought that we’d moved beyond this issue.  Certainly critiques of anthropology from Cultural Studies etc these days have seemed a bit anachronistic to me, as though they were arguing with the discipline of several decades ago.   

    But now the exact same problematic has re-emerged and I would argue that we should take a careful look at the lessons learnt from previous eras before we decide what are the "rules of engagement" for anthropologists in theatres of neo-colonial domination.  In particular, I would be concerned about involvement in new "civilising missions" which are ostensibly, and probably genuinely, intended to benefit local populations.  This would require an analysis of the broader implications of colonial power and domination beyond the pros and cons of individual projects.

  4. 9 October, 2007 11:25 am

    This particular debate is not new either: There’s been reporting on the Human Terrain Group, including in the New Yorker, at least a year ago, with two Australians (Montgomery McFate and David Kilcullen) featured as central personalities. Currently, there is a debate on Anthrodesign about this, with some rejecting collaboration altogether, others expressing concern about the soundness of the research and its uses, and yet others saying that it is better to have a culturally informed army than a bunch of thugs.

    My own opinion is that if ethnographic knowledge has a chance of reducing the death toll, and preventing such political decisions as non-intervention in genocides (Bosnia, Rwanda) or now the division of Iraq, being made on the basis of spurious pseudohistorical arguments, then yes, ethnographers should work for the army. On the other hand, I share the concern that the recommendations of ethnographers that are aimed at such outcomes might be thrown away and their reports mined simply for empirical intelligence.

  5. 9 October, 2007 11:46 am

    There has also been a recent article in Counterpunch on the same issue.

    The article is written by one of the founders of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists and explains the rationale for setting it up.

  6. 10 October, 2007 3:30 pm

    The conversation on Anthrodesign is continuing, and Mary Walker posted a link to an article on “purists vs pragmatists” in social science in the Stanford Social Inquiry Review:

    http://www.ssirevie _purity_and_ pragmatism/

    According to Walker, “the point of the article was that people who work for social change tend to fall into two camps — the ‘work for change from the inside’ folks (the pragmatists/ compromisers) and the ‘work for change from the outside’ folks (the purists/non- compromisers) . …

    Outcomes: the pragmatists did in fact have a much bigger impact. But, they could only do so, thanks to the purists who defined the extreme edge and kept pushing the envelope.”

  7. Third Tone Devil permalink
    12 October, 2007 11:53 am

    The NYT of 10 October published a letter from the president of the AAA, which states: “The question of whether and how anthropologists should engage in military and intelligence work is currently being addressed by a commission of the American Anthropological Association.” The commission will table its report at the A.A.A. meeting in Washington in November.

  8. 12 October, 2007 3:38 pm

    This reminds me of a heated exchange in the New York Review of Books about an article Eric Wolf and Joseph Jorgensen wrote called “Anthropology on the Warpath”. The exchange was very much tied up with the AAA and its ethics committee at the time. Interesting to note that they’re still trying to work out their position on anthropology and counter-insurgency.

    It’s an interesting read given the debate going on today, and it was surprising to me how relevant the issues are to the present. I also began reading the article assuming that it had to do with the current insurgency in southern Thailand.

    The original article can be found here:

    The discussion continues here:

  9. 12 October, 2007 9:30 pm

    Purse lip square jaw has a nice set of links on this topic here:

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