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.
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As a result, they were able to paint a picture of the situation that allowed the soldiers they were with to address concerns and avoid some major missteps.Skip to next paragraph
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The project also took a hit this year when a technical change of the status of HTS researchers – from contractors to government employees – also reduced salaries by up to 50 percent. After the change, which the military says was designed to protect HTS researchers after the new Iraqi security agreement went into effect, 32 percent of deployed social scientists quit.
The anthropologist oath – to do no harm – was put to the test in November 2008 after one member of a human terrain team in Afghanistan pleaded guilty to manslaughter for shooting a man. The Afghan had thrown gasoline on his HTS team member Paula Lloyd and set her on fire. Ms. Lloyd died from her injuries.
But although these incidents and the continuous stream of criticism from academics has dogged the program since its inception, they have also been useful in developing applied research training techniques for those working with the military, says Montgomery McFate, senior social scientist for HTS. But she adds that many critics fail to understand the nature of the work.
Many soldiers call program useful
“Many of the concerns raised by academic anthropologists reflected a lack of knowledge about the role and mission of US armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lack of understanding about the population of Iraq and Afghanistan and the conditions under which they live, and a set of preconceived ideas about the mission or goals of HTS fed by anxieties about the military’s historic use of anthropological knowledge during prior conflicts, including the British colonial period,” Dr. McFate wrote The Christian Science Monitor in an e-mail.
Within the military there are a number of soldiers who say the program has become an indispensable resource. US Army Capt. Joey Williams has focused much of his attention on understanding counterinsurgency operations. He often escorted Human Terrain Teams (HTT) in Iraq’s Diyala Province to help them conduct surveys of the locals, and says he learned a lot from working with them.
“The difference between HTT and us is that the HTT is very highly trained in counterinsurgency cultural studies,” he says. “HTT is more focused on the big picture, like, ‘How do we analyze this culture and this society so that we can apply these fundamentals of counterinsurgency to this area?’ ”
Social scientist Reedy, who has worked closely with Williams, says that soldiers often tell her that they appreciate the ability of HTS to put what would otherwise been seen as isolated incidents together to find patterns that can then explain a situation on a broader scale.
Despite the continuing questions surrounding the program, she says, she trusts that her work is ethically sound and sees it as her way of helping both Iraqis and Americans.
“The reality is [the war] happened and you can either sit by and do nothing or you can try to do something to help a little bit at least,” she says. “But other people are of the opinion, and fair enough, that to be involved is to kind of be a part of the problem.”
How the war in Iraq has shaped a new US military mind-set: Read more here.