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The disciplinary terrain of objections to HTS

30 July, 2008

As I’ve been slowly researching this paper I’m writing on social science and the U.S. military for an Egyptian publication (I think I mentioned it before here on Culture Matters), one of my ‘informants’ brought up a good question: of all the academic disciplines who are represented on Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), why does it seem to be just anthropology that objects to the Human Terrain System (HTS)?

We know that anthropologists are just one of many different disciplines that are being hired to serve on HTTs.  In fact, it seems that anthropologists are a minority, and of anthropologists, it looks like there is a significant contingent of archaeologists involved (though so far I have no precise figures on which disciplines are represented — this is a question I’ve posed to HTS deputy director, James Greer, and when I get a response I’ll post it here). The two HTT members who were recently killed, Nicole Suveges and Michael Bhatia, were PhD students in Political Science.

We all know that there is fierce debate within anthropology about the ethics of the HTS, and the American Anthropological Association has formally expressed disapproval of HTS even as it continues to study it.  But so far I haven’t been able to find anything equivalent in political science or sociology, and as far as I can tell, the Middle East Studies Association hasn’t said anything about HTS, either. (A search of the American Political Science Association website for “human terrain” returned no results, and the American Sociological Association website has only one page that touches on HTS.)

Am I wrong?  Am I just poorly informed about debates in other disciplines? If anyone has any knowledge about how HTS is being discussed in disciplines other than anthropology, or if anyone has a theory about why anthropology is particularly concerned about HTS where other disciplines aren’t, please weigh in here.

–L.L. Wynn

21 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 July, 2008 12:55 pm

    While it’s disappointing that other disciplines aren’t talking about HTS (though like you I might not know if there were), I don’t think it’s that surprising. Anthropologists tend to be acutely aware, even haunted, by the grisly consequences of “practical applications” of anthropology by the state–eugenics and, more recently and relevantly, funding research into colonized populations.

    Other disciplines certainly were involved as well (including political science, obviously) but because of the relative youth of anthropology state-funded work took a central role in the growth, then history, of the discipline. It’s possible to imagine a political-science canon that doesn’t include any products of government support; I’m not sure the same could be said of ethnography, though I’d love to be corrected on this point.

    Anthropologists are forced to acknowledge the centrality of imperialism to their discipline’s history in a way that political scientists and sociologists seem to manage to avoid. When we see an ethical discussion and, ideally, unified front regarding HTS as an obvious necessity, it’s because we can’t imagine what it would be like not to be haunted by that history.

  2. bill permalink
    30 July, 2008 11:50 pm

    look at roles of American psychologists in interrogation for military intelligence during Cold War and now in Global War on Terror, as some call it; read David Price’s two histories of anthro & gov’t in U.S.

  3. David Taylor permalink
    31 July, 2008 8:32 am

    L.L. raises an excellent question, and the partial answer is that disciplines such as political science have a long history of work for/with governments and militaries, and perhaps more experience distinguishing individual responsibilities of individual practitioners of these disciplines from the kind of broad, discipline-wide efforts in anthropology to impose the will of a vocal few on the whole field. Check out the web site of the American Psychological Association, for example, which has an ethics statement that expects individual psychologists to take efforts to avoid situtations that would compromise the legality of their work, and so on — it’s an interesting contrast to the AAA approach, and especially to the efforts of some to get the AAA to condemn the military, HTS, etc etc.

  4. 31 July, 2008 10:04 am

    Thanks Dara, David, those are insightful observations.

  5. Gonzo permalink
    1 August, 2008 12:28 pm

    I would respectfully offer, in addition to what Dara and David mentioned, that in this instance, there is also (1) a degree of misunderstanding about what the HTS program is about and what its objectives are, and (2) excessive politicization of the issue (recurring talk of “illegal war,” “imperialism” and such). Other disciplines seem to be more objective. I also want to say that it may have something to do with the “culture” of the profession, a certain knee-jerk mistrust and over-reaction to anything martial, but I’m on less firm ground here.

  6. 3 August, 2008 12:01 am

    I think both Dara and David have hit on parts of the reasons why Anthropology is much more concerned with operations such as the HTS. One thing that we should keep in mind is that Anthropology has a very “odd” history as a discipline. Consider, by way of example, the vast differences in what the term meant in the 19th century in the UK, the US, Germany and France. On disciplinary ties with governmental/colonial operations, we also have to consider that a lot of this developed inside *cultural* Anthropology (aka ethnology) which, actually, has a very long tradition in the Western world of being tied in, sporadically, with military ventures.

  7. schrag permalink
    5 August, 2008 12:32 am

    This is a superb question, and I look forward to your findings.

    I would suggest that you consider broadening your question to include other interactions between scholars and the military. For example, an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, (Maria Glod, Military’s Social Science Grants Raise Alarm,” Washington Post, 3 August 2008 ) describes disparate reactions to another Pentagon initiative: Project Minerva. The historian quoted likes it; anthropologists seem suspicious.

    I wonder if historians have a warmer relationship with the military across the board. The military employs large numbers of civilian historians, many of whom do superb, critical work. (See, for example, Michael R. Gordon, “Occupation Plan for Iraq Faulted in Army History,” New York Times, 29 June 2008.) Some of these historians are prominent members of various professional organizations, so academic historians are used to rubbing shoulders with them. Do anthropologists occupy similar roles?

    On the other side, a good number of military officers pursue graduate degrees in history. Two of them–Peter R. Mansoor and H. R. McMaster–were close advisors to General Petraeus in the development of current counterinsurgency doctrine and in planning the Iraq surge. But when Petraeus wanted a soldier with a doctorate in anthropology, he turned to an Australian, David Kilcullen. (See Thomas E. Ricks, “Officers With PhDs Advising War Effort,” Washington Post, 5 February 2007.) Do American officers not pursue advanced degrees in anthropology?

    Some of the criticism of the Human Terrain program seems to suggest that anthropologists should never serve the military. Other disciplines might hesitate to make that argument because more members of those disciplines already serve the military, as civilians or uniformed personnel.

    Zachary Schrag
    George Mason University

  8. 5 August, 2008 11:43 am

    Gonzo, Marc, and Zachary, many thanks for weighing in. Gonzo, I tend to agree with you that there’s a deep-seated skepticism about the military coming from anthropologists, but I’m skeptical about your dismissing it as “excessive politicization” of the issue to keep noting that the war itself is illegal or that it’s an example of U.S. imperialism. After all, the war against Iraq *was* a one-sided aggression by a superpower justified on the grounds of false intelligence about WMDs. That has become so well established that many people don’t even bother saying it any more, but it’s highly relevant to bring up in the context of this debate. While some people think it’s immaterial to the decisions we make about productively engaging with the U.S. military and intelligence communities (the argument being that regardless of whether the war is a “good war” or not, people’s lives are at stake and we should try to improve the outcomes for the better rather than standing on the sidelines critiquing), for others the question of the righteousness of the cause is everything in deciding whether and how to get involved.

    Zachary, thanks for making an interesting point about the difference between history and anthropology when it comes to war. I wonder if it’s because of the different scales of subject matter addressed by historians and anthropologists. Do you think it’s because most (but not all!) historians are constructing narratives of large geopolitical events from the perspective of great power — hence more inclined to look at things from a military perspective — while most (but not all!) anthropologists tend to see things from the perspective of local people who are impacted by large geopolitical events — hence skeptical of the larger forces like the military that act on those local people?

    Hmm, maybe I’m simplifying too much. After all, military events are also small scale, local, and soldiers are people too. Maybe the relationship lies more in what Marc and Dara and David Taylor propose: the complex historical relationship btween anthropology and colonialism that anthropologists continue to struggle with.

    And bill, good point about not forgetting psychology. Psychology has been so implicated in recent debates over the use of social science to inform torture that they’re as engaged with these issues as anthropology is.

    BTW Zachary, Kilcullen doesn’t have a degree in anthropology, he has a degree in politics, though that’s sometimes been misreported — perhaps that’s because of the New Yorker article that profiled both McFate and Kilcullen. I think it’s the same in both Australia and the U.S.: there’s not much truck between anthropology and the military.


  9. schrag permalink
    7 August, 2008 3:43 am

    I don’t want to suggest that academic historians are, as a group, pro-military. In recent decades, military history has become unfashionable in American universities (see Justin Ewers, “Why Don’t More Colleges Teach Military History?” US News and World Report, 3 April 2008, And in March 2007, members of the American Historical Association voted 3:1 for a resolution stating that “practices inimical to the values of the historical profession” were “inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq.” (

    Compared to most Americans, university historians are long-haired, ivory tower pacifists. But compared to anthropologists, historians are John Wayne. My question for you is whether anthropologists’ suspicion of the military is reinforced by their isolation from the military (and perhaps the state altogether) in other contexts.

    Thank you for the correction on Kilcullen; the Washington Post had this wrong.


  10. Gonzo permalink
    8 August, 2008 12:38 pm


    Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my comment. With much respect, I disagree with some of your response. Because both wars were one-sided and the one in Iraq justified on bad intelligence, does not make them illegal wars. After all, the US was never in violation of any UN resolution or international law or convention when it invaded Afghanistan or Iraq. Particularly the latter, when it was Iraq that was in violation of multiple resolutions and treaties.

    The war in Afghanistan, IMO, was justified. The one in Iraq was stupid and it remains very problematic for a variety of reasons, but not, in my opinion, for legal reasons. I can’t shake the feeling that, should that war be more popular, there would be less resistance to working with the military (again, “politicization”). But who knows? Maybe not. It seems that anthros would still be upset even if there was no war and the only purpose for HTS would be to dig deeper wells in the boondocks of this world.

    Of the two positions you identified, I side with the first. If anthros have skills that can help prevent bloodshed, bring stability to war-torn countries, and hopefully end the wars sooner, then to me that is a righteous cause. But much of the debate around working with the military seems to ignore this and instead equates such work with advancing some darker more insidious geopolitical objective, or god-forbid, helping the US extricate itself out of a mess in Iraq. The horror. This, I think, is a shame.

    But all of this is off-topic to the question you originally posed regarding working with the military. It is a fascinating question and one that I’ve been wondering about for a while now. I really do look forward to your findings.

    Thank you for your blog and for your courteous response to my initial comment.


  11. 8 August, 2008 12:55 pm

    Hi Gonzo,

    Thanks for that — I want to write more but I have to dash. I’ll just quickly post this link that says that Kofi Annan considers the Iraq War an illegal act of aggression:

    I’m sure there are international legal scholars who have considered this topic much more thoughtfully than I have but I don’t have time right now to find some more resources on the debate over the illegality of the war.

    Back to my question about academic disciplines’ different attitudes towards working with the military, I wish I had some findings to report, but I haven’t been able to come up with a really convincing explanation for why anthros are so up in arms about HTS while other disciplines are not. People have offered some really good ideas and suggestions here in their comments but I feel like there’s something missing in my understanding of different disciplinary histories to be able to really answer the question myself. Would love to hear more people’s opinions.


  12. Gonzo permalink
    8 August, 2008 1:51 pm


    Again, thank you for the unnecessary but appreciated response. I looked at the link you provided. Very interesting. You are probably right that legal scholars have debated this issue thoroughly. I think, that if the war was in fact illegal, we would have heard a much bigger stink than has been the case. I’m still leaning towards not illegal for the war in Iraq. But Afghanistan is not marred with questions of illegality, is it? Alas, these questions are very much a different topic.

    Thanks, again, for your blog.


  13. Hugh Gusterson permalink
    14 August, 2008 10:30 pm

    Anthropologists have been especially concerned about participating in the war in Iraq compared to members of other disciplines because of our unique methodology, which imposes unique ethical obligations. Historians on the whole (Zachary is an exception) work with documents. Psychologists interact with human subjects in a transitory, highly stylized way. But anthropologists cultivate warm, ongoing relationships with research subjects when they do research well. The AAA’s statement on HTS said nothing about the legality or justness of the war; it fretted about obligations to human subjects, some of whom might be killed as a result of HTS activities. I would hope that even those who support the war would oppose anthropological participation in HTS for this reason.

    As for the legality of the war: the UN Charter, to which the U.S. is a signatory, says that countries can go to war in self-defense or if they are backed by a UN resolution. Neither was the case when the US invaded Iraq. It is clearly, as Kofi Annan says, an illegal war.

  14. 15 August, 2008 2:50 pm

    Great insight, Hugh. I want to use it for my article. Can I quote you?

  15. qualintitative permalink
    30 August, 2008 7:06 am

    I have no idea how to interpret the phrase “our unique methodology.” Not sure how “unique” is modifying “methodology”. Is the methodology unique in general? That would pertain to all methods which are unique from each other in some way, so I doubt that is it. Is the methodology unique because it is our only method? That is not really true so I hesitate to assume that is how the word is being used. Certainly many different methods are used by anthropologists besides participant observation. Is it saying that the method is unique to anthropology? That is not true either, so I don’t know what to think. However, since the comment is answering the question about why anthropologists are concerned about HTT and no other discipline has expressed similar concern, it would have to be one or both of the last two. I think this comment is a good illustration of why anthropologists are reacting differently than other disciplines. It shows a stereotypical view of research done by anthropologists where long-term participant observation is the one and only approach to methods. Other social sciences have training in a variety of techniques for collecting and analyzing data. They may specialize in particular methods, but they have a much broader exposure to a range of methodology and don’t have their disciplinary identities tied to one approach to research. The comments of many anthropologists about HTT that I have read seem to assume a lot about what they are doing and I’m guessing it is based on this stereotypical view of research. I sort of doubt that the HTT is able to cultivate warm ongoing relationships with research subjects. That does not mean they are not doing anthropological research. Anthropologists working in public health (and other areas) have used rapid ethnographic approaches for decades. This research does not rely on long-term fieldwork. My guess is that many anthropologists consider this not “real” anthropology, which makes my point about an approach to methods being tied to disciplinary identity.

  16. 25 September, 2008 3:24 pm

    Hi, sorry I’m late in, but I just found this post. I suspect one of the reasons anthropologists have been so vocal in their opposition is because the military/intelligence have been so vocal in their exploitation of anthropology, which has forced a response.

    There has been internal discussion of archaeology’s role in the HTS/counter-insurgency (although evidently not much, as my own search for it brought me here!), but a lot of intrigue/concern has foundered on the very lack of information to sate it (so another reason so much more had been said about anthropology was because so much had been said, so much was known to be commented upon).

    (I guess also sometimes archaeologists may be invisible, but nonetheless present in references to anthropologists, because of the American construction of archaeology as part of anthropology, rather than a distinct or historical discipline.)

    What are archaeologists’ roles in counter-insurgency? We know they’re studying the historical record of insurgencies, so presumably archaeologists are doing that. We know they’re trying to win wars and maintain occupations, so presumably archaeologists are involved in that, too, identifying historically-strategic sites and strategies.

    Perhaps one worry is that archaeologists have been co-opted, not just unwillingly, but unknowingly (thereby precluding contemplation of that exploitation), when they’ve appealed for cultural heritage protection, or they’ve been approached for information ostensibly for cultural heritage protection, and Babylon has been militarised, Ur has been militarised.

    I know that the archaeologists have good intentions, and I’m sure that even some of the military do, but how are they using the information they’re gathering? Are they misusing it? We don’t know, in an absolute sense, and that makes it difficult to debate the issue.

    We would be debating hypotheticals without any hope of direction or resolution. We could have the debate, but we wouldn’t know what effect the hypothetical use of our knowledge was having; and we wouldn’t know whether they were actually using our knowledge or not.

    Even if we could agree that it was unethical to provide information that would be misused, we couldn’t make them prove a negative (that they’re not misusing our knowledge) as a prerequisite of helping to protect cultural heritage. So, we’re waiting on a revelation.

  17. Christopher King permalink
    21 May, 2009 4:15 am

    I don’t know why I am going to chime in but here goes. I am a social scientist with HTS with a Ph.D. in anthropology. After reading some of this comments and question that come are below.

    What constituents “doing anthropology”? I will only speak of my eight months of experience in Iraq as a social scientists for the HTS program, but in my experience, and from other social scientists have told me, long-term ethnography does not exist. We have exchanges with locals but repeated interaction (more than once and more than 30 minutes) is extremely rare.

    I introduce myself as a social scientist and tell them exactly why I would like to talk with them. I do not take names nor even want to as it is unimportant to the mission of providing population perceptions. Individual opinion is irrelevant as notes are collapsed into lump population opinion. If they indicate they do not want to talk or if it looks like they are uncomfortable them we walk away. There are plenty of locals who want their voice heard and in my opinion they appreciate our openness.

    So can anyone tell me the difference between doing ‘anthropology’ and applying a method of qualitative assessment? Anthropology has not held the copyright on qualitative research for many decades now. If what we do is not anthropology then really all we have is a bunch of individuals who happen to be anthropologists protesting military actions. It will not have deleterious effects to anthropology as a discipline or individual research. I see HTS social scientists as doing qualitative assessments and not anthropology. Maybe my definition of cultural anthropology is to strict.

    Also, good point about the archaeologist someone posted. It is also in my experience that whole discipline of anthropology is not at odds with HTS. Cultural anthropologists are more sensitive to it but they do not speak to biological anthropologist, archaeologists, and others. Granted, the AAA is the umbrella organization for American anthropology but I find it amusing that cultural anthropologists think they speak for the discipline-at-large. Maybe one day I may even join AAA- highly unlikely. Unless of course finally decide to attend a AAA conference and become forced to join just register to attend which I believe is the case. Correct if I am wrong on this.

  18. 21 May, 2009 9:17 am

    Hey Christopher, I think — I could be wrong — that if you go to an AAA annual meeting, you don’t have to join to attend, just register. (Either way it costs a ton of money!) But if you do ever go (this year I think it’s in Philadelphia), be sure to let me know so we can meet for drinks — I owe you (at least) one.

  19. Christopher King permalink
    21 May, 2009 1:27 pm

    I plan on attending in Philadelphia. Might as well attend one and I am sure their will be military anthropology and HTS papers to hear. I wish I had not missed the deadline to submit.

  20. RJB permalink
    21 May, 2009 11:46 pm

    I find this debate very interesting and stimulated by a good initial question. I am a psychologist and considered applying for an HTS role but was unable to due to my nationality (a Brit living in the US), and to my feelings that without specific cultural experience that I would not be helpful. As a psychologist I am also bound by a strict code fo ethical conduct for the treatment of my subject matter (people), this is not unique to anthropology. I also use methods in my own work that fall somewhere in between the long term participant observation and the 2 hour psychology experiment in the lab. I do field work. I do field work with the military looking at ways to improve the design of technologies to help them do their work. My methodology falls very clearly into the same realms of the methdos used for HTS (as I understand them from my readings). I have ethical responsibilities to the confidentiality/impact on my subject matter, however I also have my own ethical/moral compass with respect to the output of my work. Am I helping the military to kill people more effectively, or to do a better job of not killing people (friends and enemies). I choose to frame it as the latter and have never had a personal problem justifying it. One of the major arguments by AAA against HTS was the use to which the information was being gathered. At one point people believed that the information collected by HTS would be used to identify targets etc. The military replied by saying that this was not the primary purpose of the HTS. In some ways, how the information is used by the HTS is out of their hands and probably could be used for targeting or other “lethal” purposes. But that is not the primary role of the HTS nor something that I believe HTS volunteers signed up for. At one level, the ethical/moral question is an individual one that will guide individuals in how they conduct themselves while working for the HTS. I am confident that the majority of individuals are quite capable of making the right call themselves and don’t need AAA to tell them how to behave. As professionals we all signed up to our various ethical codes of conduct. I support the HTS motivations and goals. I am suspicious of the AAA’s motives and rationale for their attack. I also wonder whether anthropology also has a number of scientists who have their own social agendas (as there are psychologists) who have been the instigators of this position, with a majority recognizing the valuable input that the professional social scientists can make towards productive solutions to our (often man-made) problems. If we do solid, principled work, we can use social science for the good. I have to believe that that was what motivated the HTS. Call me naive…


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