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Anthropology Association Formally Disapproves of Military Program

November 07, 2007

The executive board of the American Anthropological Association has released a statement that “expresses its disapproval” of a year-old U.S. Army program known as the Human Terrain System, which sends anthropologists and other social scientists to advise military units in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The statement asks whether anthropologists affiliated with the military can uphold a commitment not to harm the people they study. Because anthropologists in the program “provide information and counsel to U.S. military field commanders,” the statement says, there is a danger that the data they provide “could be used to make decisions about identifying and selecting specific populations as targets of U.S. military operations either in the short or long term.”

The statement also expresses worry that the program will cast suspicion on anthropologists around the world, forcing them to struggle to persuade people that they aren’t working for American military or intelligence agencies.

In the coming weeks, a special committee of the association is expected to release a report on anthropologists’ engagement with national-security agencies. (That report will cover topics that range far beyond the Human Terrain System.) On Wednesday the association unveiled a new blog for the discussion of such issues.

The Human Terrain System was inspired in part by Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist who serves as a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Ms. McFate has argued that the U.S. military must turn to social scientists in order to understand adversaries who are “non-Western in orientation, transnational in scope, non-hierarchical in structure, and clandestine in approach.” She and other supporters of the program insist that it will help to minimize the loss of life in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A fuller description of the program can be found in a 2006 article in Military Review. The New York Times and The Boston Globe have also explored the program in recent weeks.

Critics of the program have been circulating a pledge of nonparticipation with the Human Terrain System and related projects. The debate has spilled onto the public-radio airwaves, and it is likely to dominate the annual meeting of the anthropological association, which begins on November 28. —David Glenn