Should anthropologists help US military in Iraq, Afghanistan wars?
Embedding anthropologists with US military in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is both praised and derided by academics as violating a social scientist's basic pledge: to do no harm.
When the military began an experimental program in 2007 to give soldiers a better understanding of cultural sensitivities in Iraq and Afghanistan, many in the military and the media lauded it as a great step forward in the counterinsurgency effort.Skip to next paragraph
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Called the Human Terrain System (HTS), the program embeds anthropologists and social scientists in the US military to give soldiers vital local context for shaping their operations. But a group of anthropologists quickly attacked the nascent program, saying that partnering social scientists with combat forces caused them to violate the principal rule of anthropology: to do no harm. By working directly with frontline soldiers, some anthropologists worry that the information generated by HTS social scientists can be used to facilitate potentially lethal military operations or otherwise endanger locals.
Today the program enjoys a core of supporters, but it’s done little to address the concerns of anthropologists and, now, rising military complaints that the program has slowed the growth of the military’s ability to train culturally sensitive warriors. At a time when the military’s ability to conduct counterinsurgency is vital to the success of its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, determining the value of a program like HTS is increasingly important.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, US military leaders began placing increased importance on understanding local cultures and viewpoints as a critical component of their mission. The question for it is whether HTS helps or hurts that goal.
Lack of empirical measurement on usefulness
“I wish I could say I’ve seen something that made me feel better [about HTS], but I haven’t,” says Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who has had concerns about the program since its inception.
This spring, US Marine Maj. Ben Connable voiced concerns that the program was hurting the military’s ability to develop what he termed “cultural intelligence training programs” in an article published in the Military Review.
“HTS has sapped the attention or financing from nearly every cultural program in the military and from many within the military intelligence community,” wrote Connable, who argued that although the military lacked cultural intelligence abilities in the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’ve since improved in this regard.
Other critics point to the difficulty of determining the value of HTS due to the lack of empirical evidence about its performance. At the present time, the program does not track statistics about its impact. As a result, David Price, a longtime opponent of the program and co-author of “The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual,” says it’s impossible for anyone to objectively measure its merit.
“I want to see some external results here and they’re not doing it. It’s a boondoggle,” he says.
Anecdotal results support social scientists
But the social scientists out doing the work say the anecdotal results they see day to day are clear enough. Ahead of the US withdrawal from urban areas in Iraq last summer, for example, Kathleen Reedy and the other social scientists on her team spent nearly a week speaking with Iraqis about their attitudes toward and concerns about the withdrawal. While US soldiers had short conversations with locals about these issues, Reedy and her colleagues spent 30 minutes to an hour speaking with each individual.