Knee Jerks, and Just Plain Jerks
Recently on Savage Minds a number of uninformed assertions have been voiced by some commentators, to the effect that both the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA) and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) instantaneously condemned the Human Terrain System (HTS) in the same month that it was publicly announced, allegedly (and wrongly) in October of 2007. This alleged “fact” has been dressed up by others, and unduly dignified, as an example of a rush to judgment, which is then posed as going against basic ethnographic principles and thus an indictment of the critics of HTS. In relatively short order, those who would accommodate the militarization of anthropology–ever since Savage Minds spoke of “Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain” back in December of 2006*–confuse various issues and make some very specious arguments that will now be countered point by point. Particularly problematic are:
- The blurring of the time line of events from the time HTS was first discussed in public, to when the first organized protest against HTS was mounted;
- The idea that the reaction, whether the time line supports it or not, was hasty, uninformed, a rush to judgment;
- The conflation of the NCA and the AAA, ironically by some of those calling for “informed” opinion;
- The idea that one cannot compare HTS to anything before it, even when its authors themselves explicitly make these comparisons and invite people to make historical associations between HTS and its precursors in the 1960s;
- The idea that ethical judgments are a matter of time;
- The inadequate and in many cases non-existent explanations or answers offered by HTS; and,
- The NCA, and even the AAA, are like “rogue” elements, exceptions in the social sciences for complaining about the ethics of military appropriations of their disciplines.
I will argue that not only is it factually incorrect to assert that either or both the AAA and NCA responded and criticized HTS in the same month it was announced, as some have said, but that as far as “knee jerk” reactions go, if this one had been any slower it might have occasioned the onset of rigor mortis. Analyzing events in the appropriate context, we might recall, for contrast, the unjustified rush into two unprovoked wars–against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and against Iraq, neither of which had ever attacked the U.S.–and the knee jerk cheering for war in American public opinion, as well as a wider knee jerk demand that academics do their patriotic duty and “fight terror” (unlike journalists who, by law, are allowed to protect their credibility, integrity and independence).
Of course this assumes we have a common understanding of what “knee jerk” means. How much time has to pass for a response not to be a knee jerk one? A day, a month, a century? One should also remember–and anthropologists in universities cannot be forgiven for “forgetting” this–ethics review committees judge whether a research project is in compliance with ethical guidelines before the research even starts. This is the norm in universities, and the critics of HTS in question here are anthropologists in universities. If such a committee were to question a researcher about something dubious in his or her proposal, one unacceptable answer would be: “I don’t know…let’s say we just wait and see.” Yet this is precisely the answer given by HTS, which has never defended itself in front of an ethics review panel, nor is the nature of the program so complicated that it cannot be readily apprehended. Indeed, it is extraordinarily simplistic, and that is a large part of its ethical problem.
Many thanks to Roberto J. González, Hugh Gusterson, and Greg Feldman for their replies to my questions, prompted by those of a colleague who has been unable to post in follow up comments on Savage Minds. I also used my bibliography, and the site of the NCA.
1. When was the Human Terrain System first launched?
According to Kipp et. al: “Most of the practical work to implement the concept under the title Human terrain System was done by Cpt Don Smith, U.S. Army reserve, of the Foreign Military Studies Office, between July 2005 and August 2006” (see footnote 2).
2. When did critics of HTS first learn of the program?
It would be justified to say that while HTS may have been formally organized by August of 2006, that does not mean that the rest of us were aware of it at that moment. So when, and how, did those who later formed the NCA, learn of HTS?
Hugh Gusterson responded that “the concept underlying HTS had been floating around for a while already: Anna Simons had given an NPR interview back in around 2006 where she talked about ‘ethnographic intelligence,’ for example.” Gusterson first refers to a NPR program that in fact dates back even earlier, to 2002: one can access it here. He suggests that he first heard about HTS proper through Roberto González (below).
For Roberto González, George Packer of The New Yorker gets credit (Knowing the enemy: Can social scientists redefine the “war on terror”? The New Yorker, Dec. 18, 2006). As Roberto González explained: “The George Packer (December 2006) piece was the first news I had about the program, though he referred to it by a different name (“Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain”). I did some research and found that HTS was described in an October 2006 article from Military Review, which you will find here: http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/human-terrain-system.pdf.” That is the same Kipp et. al article cited above.
Therefore, some of those who would become critics of HTS, within anthropology, first learned about HTS as such in December of 2006, and the first news of the program was published in the Military Review, and then in The New Yorker. All of this happened in the fall of 2006.
3. When did the first criticisms of HTS begin to appear?
Roberto González was the first anthropologist to publish in print anything about HTS. He did so in an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on 02 February 2007, titled: “We Must Fight the Militarization of Anthropology” (doc, html). In that article, González writes:
“Last December  even more news appeared regarding the use of social-science expertise by military and intelligence agencies when George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, reported the emergence of anthropological counterinsurgency experts….Meanwhile at the Defense Department, a new office, the Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain, has been created to tap into social-science knowledge. Its director, Steve Fondacaro, is recruiting social scientists to join five-person teams in Iraq and Afghanistan as cultural advisers; pilot teams are scheduled to begin work in the spring. Fondacaro has at least one anthropologist on his staff.”
“Even more news”–HTS was not the first, and not the only example of militarization which anthropologists were criticizing. It was merely the latest example.
Criticisms of HTS, by those who would later play a key role in forming the NCA, were not developed in isolation from the program and its proponents. The first published exchanges between Roberto J. González, on one side, and David Kilcullen and Montgomery McFate, on the other, appeared in print in June of 2007, nearly a year after HTS was launched, more than six months after it was first revealed in publications, and months before the formation of either the NCA or any direct criticism from the Executive Board of the AAA–in no case is there an instantaneous reaction and formal condemnation in the same month that HTS was launched, which some have incorrectly identified as October of 2007. For those early exhanges, see:
David Kilcullen (2007). “Ethics, Politics, and Non-State Warfare: A Response to González.” Anthropology Today vol. 23, no. 3.
McFate, Montgomery (2007). “Building Bridges or Burning Heretics.” Anthropology Today vol. 23, no. 3.
Those exchanges continued throughout that year, with Hugh Gusterson debating David Kilcullen in the pages of Anthropology Today:
4. When was the NCA formed and when did it launch its pledge against anthropological support for counterinsurgency?
As Roberto González explained to me, “the process began in early August 2007. From then until mid-September, we engaged in an intense email exchange around the idea of drafting a pledge. The ad hoc NCA was formed as the result of that process.” Hugh Gusterson offered a precise date for the formation of the NCA: 15 September 2007. Like González, Greg Feldman remembers the process involved in forming the NCA starting in August 2007. As for the pledge, González says, “we began distributing the pledge to colleagues in mid-September 2007.” His explanation is supported by the available facts: the electronic timestamp in the properties of their downloadable pledge indicates that the document was created on 16 September 2007. Also, an article published by David H. Price and Roberto González in CounterPunch, on 28 September 2007, states: “In response to these troubling developments, an ad hoc group of eleven scholars (including the authors of this piece) recently formed the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. Together the group drafted a ‘Pledge of Non-Participation in Counter-Insurgency’-a boycott of anthropological work in counter-insurgency and direct combat support operations.”
This is separate from, and preceded the American Anthropological Association’s Executive Board’s statement condemning HTS.
5. What about the AAA, when did it begin to review and then respond to the implementation of HTS?
This is separate territory now, with a separate timeline, and a wider array of concerns and prior developments. According to the American Anthropological Association, the “Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities” (CEAUSSIC), which included military anthropologists, was created in mid-2006, and not in response to HTS, which was later added to its concerns since it was directly relevant:
Convened in the summer of 2006 in response to member criticism[s] of the publication of an ad for CIA employment on the official AAA job site, the purpose of the Commission is to advise the Executive Board and the Association by providing information and/or recommendations on the following: (1) The varied roles that practitioners and scholars of anthropology currently assume within intelligence and national security entities (2) The state of AAA’s existing guidelines and guidance on the involvement of anthropologists in intelligence/national security-related activities (3) The key ethical, methodological, and practical/political challenges faced by the discipline and the AAA in its current and future engagement in intelligence/national security.
As Roberto González explained in his article above, October of 2005 was a critical month (and that, if anything, precedes the launch of HTS):
“In October 2005, the anthropological association, the discipline’s largest professional organization, posted a CIA job announcement in several of its journals. The association accepted the advertisement without wide consultation of its members. Many anthropologists were outraged. (By this time, reports about the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program and its secret prison network had appeared.) The CIA’s covert dealings with anthropology-association officials during the cold war had set an ominous precedent, as had the involvement of social scientists in the ill-fated Project Camelot, a 1960s counterinsurgency-research project planned by the Pentagon for use in Latin America. The CIA’s job announcement was eventually retracted, and the anthropology association assembled a special committee to examine the roles played by anthropologists in military and intelligence work.”
Thus, October 2005 was when the AAA was directly faced with current efforts to enlist anthropologists in military and intelligence work. Reactions were gradual; then a committee was formed to look into these matters further. No resolutions or statements were forthcoming until two years later.
The AAA’s Executive Board, separate and apart from the NCA, issued its statement condemning HTS at the end of October of 2007. Two years later, the AAA’s CEAUSSIC released its final report. That is a little more than three years since news of HTS was first published.
Before any discussion of HTS, the AAA was already actively engaged in its annual conferences with resolutions condemning the Iraq war, the use of social scientists in torture, and the CIA’s placement of ads in AAA journals. On 01 September 2006, we see discussion of the latter in “If CIA Calls, Should Anthropology Answer?” published by Inside Higher Ed. Therefore, a structure and momentum for discussion of anthropological support for military and intelligence programs was already underway, before HTS became an issue, and certainly not instantaneously and only in response to HTS.
More on this matter of precedent. The AAA did not just wake up to anthropologists supporting military and intelligence programs some day in 2007. The debates began in the late 1960s, under a different generation of anthropologists (Eric Wolf, Joseph Jorgensen, Marshall Sahlins, and many others), concerning Project Camelot, Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), and the Phoenix Program. Indeed, the AAA’s first statements on ethical research date to 1967, and particularly 1971.
6. Why does precedent matter? Now is now
Precedent matters because those who designed and implemented HTS themselves invited the historical comparisons, explicitly. Jacob Kipp, Lester Grau, Karl Prinslow and Captain Don Smith titled their announcement of HTS as follows: “The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century.” In that article, they not only go as “far” back as Vietnam, and rehabilitating CORDS itself, they go back even further, to the writings of David Galula (concerning the war for Algerian independence), and even further back to British efforts against the Ottoman Empire, in the writings of T.E. Lawrence. If this was meant to be a radical rupture with the past, it made an awful job of it.
As for Montgomery McFate, one of her lead articles, “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of their Curious Relationship,” propaganda for promoting HTS, is itself founded on a primarily historical argument, going back generations and to past wars in which anthropologists contributed. Indeed, she reduces the last three decades to a momentary blip in what was otherwise a glorious imperialist history, what she calls a “warfighting discipline.”
Again, it is not a knee jerk reaction to criticize something on the basis of precedents, when one’s target is a historical argument based on precedents, precedents with which we should all be very familiar by now.
7. The NCA, even the AAA, are all alone in complaining about “militarization” and work for the intelligence community
This is not something that is only rarely heard. In fact, on most blogs supportive of counterinsurgency and “enhanced interrogation”, anthropological critics are painted as loners. One of the latest examples of one arguing that anthropologists are exceptions is Mark Stout: “Judging by the lack of protests by political scientists, economists, geographers, psychologists, and others, they don’t speak for all social scientists.” Stout is particularly peeved by anthropologists who protest on ethical grounds, addressing the involvement of all social scientists. Of course, ethics review committees in universities do speak to all of the social sciences, and here in Canada, the humanities and natural sciences as well (see Tri-Council Policy Statement: Integrity in Research and Scholarship). Meanwhile, our own anthropology association, CASCA, has no ethics statement of its own. The idea that ethics can only be discussed on a micro-particularist, discipline-by-discipline basis, is an exotic one, and one that is largely unjustifiable.
The AAA is by no means alone. As I pointed out again recently, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association, have all condemned members’ involvement in military and intelligence activities in the “war on terror.”
Nor is the NCA alone. There are related academic organizations that have formed apart from professional associations, to pursue opposition to war and the use of social scientists to do harm. One of these is Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), by no measure a small group. There is also Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice, and countless campus-specific anti-war coalitions. Also taking up the peace and social justice theme is the newly formed Anthropologists for Justice and Peace (AJP), to which I belong.
Some of the more extremist and factually baseless commentary has been that the NCA is merely a “vocal minority,” or that only a “vocal minority” within the broader AAA is against HTS and other forms of support for war. That line of argument first came from HTS directors themselves, primarily Montgomery McFate, and has subsequently been echoed by followers. It is up to them to demonstrate what they assert to be a fact. Let them organize Anthropologists for Injustice and War; let them circulate petitions; let them pass resolutions at the AAA. Nobody is stopping them. They have not; instead, they retreat behind rhetoric used by Jerry Falwell in the 1980s, suggesting there is some “silent, moral majority” somewhere out there that really is all for their project.
In fact, when it comes to published research in anthropology on subjects of immediate relevance to war, counterinsurgency, and imperialism–the overwhelming majority of the work produced is not of a kind that would be inclined toward HTS. Indeed, such work is virtually nonexistent. For a great example, see this list of published texts and the Google book archive produced by AJP.
In a broader context, especially in Canada, groups such as AJP fit well within the majority of the public that is against the war in Afghanistan, and the extension of Canada’s participation beyond 2011 (see here and here for only the latest examples). We are against war, and we are against anthropology being used as a tool for war, in a war that the majority of citizens have rejected. So who are the loners?
8. Some advice on how to address critics and answer questions
Over a year ago, David H. Price published a list of 10 questions to HTS–they have gone unanswered. Indeed, rather than answering the imagined, morally inferior “vocal minority,” what a HTS director like Montgomery McFate did was to launch on a political and personal public relations campaign. So here is some advice on how not to recruit anthropologists. As Margaret Mead would say: “Really do try to pay attention.”
First, do not advance a non sequitur in place of a logical argument when dealing with an educated audience. To say, wrongly, that anthropologists are sheltered and sealed within an “Ivory Tower,” and to then add that the way for them to become relevant and get out of that tower is to join the army, is to offer one statement that does not follow from the other. The first argument for supporting HTS and similar efforts, advanced by McFate, is an illogical argument (look under “Current State of the Discipline“).
Second, if you want to recruit anthropologists, then it’s probably not a good idea to begin by insulting them. Making fun of their writing (this is when HTS conveniently shuns post-modernism), and telling them to become again like colonial masters, is the kind of approach that reaped the rewards it has: none.
Third, after insulting anthropologists, and telling them what to do (join your project under your command), at least have the sense not to flounce and parade around in the media as if you–nobody anyone heard about before 2005–were suddenly anthropology’s prima donna, the iconic celebrity figure, appropriately photographed by the media trying on different hats, drinking wine, and talking about your life history (not to mention publishing a salacious blog). We really don’t care about your ex-boyfriends or the clothing you wore as a teen.
Fourth, when anthropologists massively avoid your program (only six anthropology Ph.D’s ever having joined HTS), do not take the line that anthropologists are worthless idiots…because these are the very people you first wanted in the program.
Fifth, when your program falls into shambles, and even your closest supporters drift away, do not blame anthropologists for your failure. Don’t say it was the organized opposition that led to almost no one joining HTS from anthropology. Why? Because you already said we are a useless minority, and now suddenly you grant us great power over you.
Sixth, you probably should not be hiring the likes of Laurie Adler to do your public propaganda.
Seventh, and last for now, when your critics ask you questions, and ask for information (because you said their responses were knee jerk ones, not based on any knowledge and understanding–in other words, we are back to being idiots again), don’t suddenly go silent. When some of the richest data has come from disillusioned insiders, sending emails to every member of the NCA, to me, and many more to John Stanton, don’t gripe about it in a private military anthropology list. That does not count as a response, let alone a factual refutation.
It seems, in the final analysis, that the complaint about “knee jerk” reactions comes, ironically, as itself a knee jerk reaction by conservatives, spoken over and over again like a broken record. The first HTS debate opened up on Savage Minds in December of 2006. Here we are, nearly four years later, and what is still being said? “Knee jerk reaction.”
* As far as I can tell, the very first HTS-related piece, written by an anthropologist, was Dustin Wax’s commentary on an article by Montgomery McFate cited above, published on Savage Minds: Anthropologists and Counter-Insurgents, which dates to 19 May 2005. On the very same date, Lorenz Khazaleh at antropologi.info published a piece on the same article by McFate. Talk about being on the ball.