A Major Report of a Minor Exception, or a Minor Report of a Major Problem? The American Anthropological Association’s CEAUSSIC vis-à-vis the Human Terrain System–Part 1

Posted on June 7, 2010 by


When the American Anthropological Association’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) released its “Final Report on the Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program,” in early December of 2009, there was a fair bit of media coverage that zeroed in on one paragraph in particular:

When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment—all characteristic factors of the HTS concept and its application—it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology. (p. 4)

[This paragraph appears in the Executive Summary, which is apparently what some media reports used in the day that passed from the report’s release to their published articles.]

That paragraph was damning, because it declared HTS to be illegitimate, an inappropriate professional application, one that does not follow anything recognized as good anthropology. Some say it was confusing or ambiguous, as some have already commented, because it suggested that HTS work is not even anthropological (and later the CEAUSSIC report in fact finds very few anthropologists in HTS), and therefore should the Commission have bothered to spend two years working toward this report? The phrasing itself is what some saw as problematic: Is it then an unprofessional exercise of anthropology? Is it anthropology, but not a legitimately professional one? Clearly, however, that statement was not meant to be a positive evaluation of HTS.

(For examples of the media attention received by the release of the CEAUSSIC report, see: “Anthropology and the Military,” Inside Higher Ed; “Anthropology Association Condemns Work with U.S. Counterinsurgency,” Huffington Post; “Military’s ‘human terrain’ project criticized by anthropologist group for ethical shortcomings,” Canadian Press; “Anthropologists Slam Using Social Scientists in Mideast Wars,” Science Magazine; “Army anthropology program in Iraq criticized,” USA Today; “Should anthropologists help US military in Iraq, Afghanistan wars?Christian Science Monitor; “Should Anthropologists Go to War?TIME; “Use of social scientists in war criticized,” Boston Globe; “Program to Embed Anthropologists With Military Lacks Ethical Standards, Report Says,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The members of the Commission, also wrote lengthy blog posts, individually, about the issues raised in the then impending report: see the list at the bottom of this page.)

Where the report may be ambiguous, this should not be a surprise to anyone, because—first, ambiguity is the way Americans propagate civility in discourse (a key concern for members of the Commission); second, because the report was written by a committee of people with diverse interests and perspectives; and third, because the Commission did not have all of the answers that it sought. For my part, I have a mixture of both praise/admiration for the report, and concern/criticism. Regardless of anything that appears below, I would still strongly recommend this AAA document as the best freely accessible, self-contained, starting point for all teachers wishing to introduce their students to the HTS scandal in anthropology. This article, in two parts, is intended as a means of filling the gap of commentary by anthropology blogs on the CEAUSSIC report, which remains minimal.

Since I do not intend to either summarize or comment on all 75 pages of the report but rather choose to focus on what is of most interest to me, I will focus in Part 1 on the critics of HTS as handled by the report, the question of sources, and the role played by (new) media. In Part 2, the debate about “intelligence”, and the wider problem of ethics and politics will be discussed. Much of the latter ties into the very purpose of this site, “zero” being the point beyond which an imperial anthropology ceases to exist.

Here I should also mention that this is the last in what has been six months of planned articles on the Human Terrain System (see the series listed at the end of this article in Part 2). This has not been “spontaneous blogging,” something I have given up for quite some time now, and I have another series to resume as this one ends (the zero series). If and when I write again about HTS, it will likely be as a response to some sort of “breaking news” or the breakout of a new debate or controversy.

The Critics

First it is important to note that the Commission included three military anthropologists (Kerry Fosher, Laura McNamara, Laurie Rush) and two members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (David Price and Jean Jackson). Yet, the writers of the report felt the need to apologize for the minority presence of “critics” alone:

“We have debated about the virtues of including the several critics of HTS as part of our report, since we do not wish to be misunderstood. We are not here advocating for one or another of these per se. But we do feel that they form a part of the relevant context for the present report, in fact primarily responsible for the decision to produce the report in the first place. To proceed as if these criticisms do not exist would be to inadequately represent the dialogic framework within which the report itself makes sense.” (p. 43)

Now this is a very strange part of the report, with a section dedicated to “anthropological critics”, as if they were part of a problem that needed to be solved. Imagine that: it was actually debated whether or not to include critics of the program. Without them, what would the report have looked like, and what was the kind of report that was preferred by those who apparently had reservations about including the “critics”?

Obviously those with such reservations relented, because the “critics” were included, and the apparent non-critics remained. I say “apparent non-critics” because the report itself classifies and boxes in certain others within this category of “critic,” so we must assume then that anything outside of that box is a “non-critic” or a “supporter.” This is not my fault, and I obviously will not take blame for their language. What seems clearer as we read on is that those military anthropologists who were represented, as well as perhaps a few more non-critics, either made a deliberate political decision, or came to an assessment with a political effect: to jettison the unpopular and unethical HTS program, while retaining other military-anthropology engagements, such as the ones in which they work.

We see this tactical concern expressed in three ways in the report. First, the Commission acknowledges that when it comes to HTS and the AAA, “there is little vocal support for the program within the AAA” (p. 44). So the Commission knew what it was up against: “anthropologists emerged as the most visible and vocal critics of the program” (p. 44). Then comes the stated desire of the military anthropologists to begin to establish some distance between themselves and the political and professional liability that HTS has become: “If anthropologists do actively work in or for different parts of the security sector in the U.S, including the military, increasingly those anthropologists who work in such settings have sought to differentiate between HTS and other forms of engagement both with their military and disciplinary colleagues” (p. 44).

Then comes the “junk shot,” serving (perhaps intentionally) as a means of plugging the leak of critiques that could threaten to become a major underwater toxic plume, one that would forever contaminate the shores where the military ocean meets the anthropological island, and ruin certain livelihoods thus drastically reducing projected revenue forecasts:

Even the most vocal anthropological critics of HTS ‘are not categorically opposed to work and engagement with the military’.” (p. 53)

That statement appears nestled within a larger one concerned that the HTS debate may have distorted and narrowed consideration of the many other ways that anthropology and the military could be engaged (except that “could” in the report sometimes sounds like “should”).

The problem with that quoted statement is that it is just not true. It is far too much of a sweeping assertion, one perhaps made out of personal anxiety and growing political panic. In addition, the report misleadingly attributes the statement to David Vine, one of the “anthropological critics,” who instead wrote: “Most opponents of the Human Terrain program, myself included, are not categorically opposed to work and engagement with the military.” He clearly says most are not opposed, as he believes, which means that some may be…but the report changes this to “even the most vocal critics” which turns the statement into a total and absolute one that prohibits any consideration of even a margin of difference.

I myself am not “categorically” opposed to anthropologists engaging with the military—for example, I fully support the right of Costa Rican anthropologists to find positive ways of engaging Costa Rica’s standing army. Alright, I understand, the American report writers are focusing on the U.S. where, after all, the military remains the single largest employer in their country, and the single largest purchaser of goods and services on the entire planet. They clearly worry that they live in a context where they cannot give the finger to the military, and get away with it.

But this then poses some very serious questions about a report that is ultimately quite problematic: why should we even bother to waste any serious amount of time on considering why, how, when, and in what ways we could work with the military? Is the military to be an important priority for us, in a world rife with poverty, human trafficking, and shocking inequalities rendered even more extreme? Or should we focus, if we do at all, on how militarism creates or aggravates social injustice, growing oppression and diminishing democracy, and economic disparity? Why should we think of ways of accommodating ourselves to the needs of the dominant institutions? And if among elements in the U.S. military, and some military anthropologists, there is a growing unease with HTS, is that supposed to reassure us? What other plans do they have for applying anthropology toward the maintenance of U.S. geopolitical dominance? As it turns out, many, and that is part of what we have been covering on this site. This report narrowly focused on problems with HTS alone, following one that generally, but cautiously, supported anthropological engagements with the military (CEAUSSIC, 2007):

“We do not oppose anthropologists engaging with the military, intelligence, defense, or other national security institutions or organizations; nor do we endorse positions that rule such engagements out a priori. Neither, however, do we advocate that anthropologists actively seek employment or funding from national security programs. We see circumstances in which engagement can be preferable to detachment or opposition, but we recognize that certain kinds of engagement would violate the AAA Code of Ethics and thus must be called to the community’s collective attention, critiqued, and repudiated. At the same time, we encourage openness and civil discourse on the issue of engagement, with respect and attention paid to different points of view as part of our collective professional commitment to disciplinary learning.” (pp. 5-6).

To be fair, it is a decidedly liberal statement, one that tries to absorb contradictions without reconciling them. They do not oppose, and they do not advocate—yet, miraculously, they still manage to write something, something that leaves the door open to military engagement.

An additional problem is posed by the word “engagement”—what do they mean by it? It turns out that they mean every and any kind of relationship…but even here the thinking is confused, because they actually include “studying up” and doing ethnographies of military power. But then how is that different from a position of “detachment or opposition”? One can well do an ethnography that is detached from the priorities and preferences of the military for its self-representation, and one that speaks in opposition to militarization and militarism. If that is “engagement,” I for one am all for it, for others (because a blog such as this will ensure that I personally never gain access). I am all for it…but CEAUSSIC has identified “detachment or opposition” as outside of “engagement.” Nonetheless, one gets the sense that by engagement, they generally do not mean oppositional engagement.

The Sources

One of the important strengths of the CEAUSSIC report is that it draws on a wide variety of sources. The authors indicate ten types of sources they consulted: 1) mainline primarily print journalism; 2) reportage in military and related media sources; 3) discussions in military academic journals; 4) active blogging on HTS, both pro and con (e.g. Savage Minds, Culture Matters, Open Anthropology [the previous name of this site], Small Wars Journal, etc.); 5) investigative or alternative journalism and indymedia sources; 6) the official public face of the program itself; 7) occasional publicly circulated statements by HTS managers, including formal statements to congress, responses to different critics, and other interventions; 8) other forms of published research on HTS (e. g. Roberto González’s short book American Counterinsurgency); 9) anonymous sources on HTS; and, 10) their own research of the program, which included compiling public information, formal requests for information from HTS, and several dozen interviews with HTS program managers, present and former HTT members, and HTS military clients (p. 11).

CEAUSSIC outlines the lengths it went to in order to interview a wide variety of people with direct experience in HTS, and other military personnel. However, as the report authors themselves note, “we know of no one examining HTS who has also included the point of view of its ostensible ‘subjects,’ civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan. This last is an important omission” (p. 13).

The Role of (New) Media

The role of the media, in connection with HTS, and of new media is of course one of the enduring interests in the items posted on this site, and the primary activity of John Stanton as an independent journalist spanning both old and new media. CEAUSSIC recognized the importance of the media in shaping public perceptions and debates about HTS:

“Since the story first broke in 2007, HTS has received major attention from the mainline media. Media attention has reached such an extent that the program itself now maintains an “In the News” link, listing favorable coverage in the print media, on blogs, in the broadcast media, and through speeches by military policy makers. Particularly early on, military media and journals, such as the Military Review, served as sources of information about the HTS concept, often providing more details than has the program itself. HTS has been a program of note in speeches by Secretary of Defense Gates and the face of the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine, General David Petraeus. HTS has also been a subject of several hearings of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. In fact HTS is has sought to carefully control its public relations. Initially, a condition of our own inquiry about the program was that it first be vetted by the HTS public relations point person, at the time a specialist in strategic communications formerly of the Lincoln Group.” (p. 10)

David Price, a CEAUSSIC member, also commented on the fact that,

“the program’s existence remains firmly publicly boosted by a seemingly endless series of uncritical mainstream news and features stories that frame the program as America’s last best hope to win the hearts and minds of the occupied peoples of Iraq and increasingly Afghanistan.” (p. 11)

CEAUSSIC agreed that there was evidence to support Price’s argument, noting that HTS had been written up approvingly in articles in New York Times, the Economist, US News and World Report, and others, while also featured in a positive light on CNN, the BBC, NPR, the Charlie Rose show, and other broadcast media (pp. 11-12). One of the stories to which CEAUSSIC referred was this one, on ABC’s Good Morning America from October 2009:

CEAUSSIC also highlights the work of anthropology blogs, specifically naming Savage Minds, Culture Matters, and this one, noting “all have maintained ongoing discussions of the program, including hundreds of posts about HTS. These posts combine journalism, with critique, and sometimes, original research on the contours of the program itself,” some of which is cited by CEAUSSIC, including from this blog (p. 12). However, CEAUSSIC also noted that “military blogs such as the online Small Wars Journal…tend to be less critical, and more focused upon the viability of the concept, the organization and promise of the program, and whether it has or has not been a successful tool in the implementation of COIN” (p. 12).

Recently, a review of public anthropology, published in the American Anthropologist, also featured Zero Anthropology for its continual commentary on U.S. foreign policy and military uses of anthropology. To some extent, one could argue that militarization was the proving ground for anthropology blogs’ development of a public impact, and an impact on the discipline.

…CONTINUE TO PART 2…

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