Open Letter to Richard Shweder

November 11, 2007

Dear Professor Shweder,

The op-ed page of the New York Times is one of the loudest megaphones in American intellectual life. Those who are privileged to use it have an obligation to do so with care. Your recent op-ed (“A True Culture War“) contained serious omissions and mischaracterizations in its depiction of both the Pentagon’s use of anthropologists in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ campaign against those uses. These omissions and mischaracterizations will distort public debate about the use of social science in the war on terror and will mislead anthropologists sincerely trying to make up their minds about these issues.

[Previous posts on Shweder’s letter appear here, and here.]

In characterizing the role of embedded anthropologists in Iraq and Afghanistan, your op-ed says “they use their degrees in cultural anthropology to play the part of Emily Post.” You speak of “an army of cultural relativists,” saying “it turns out that the anthropologists are not really doing anthropology at all, but are basically hired as military tour guides to help counterinsurgency forces accomplish various nonlethal missions.” You give as examples telling military personnel when not to cross their legs and how to organize parties.

We are mystified how anyone who has followed the controversy about the Human Terrain teams could come up with such a distorted characterization of anthropologists’ role in them. We presume you would not have written on this subject for The New York Times without doing some basic research on what anthropologists are doing in their work for the military as well as looking at the website of the group you mention in some jest who are critiquing that work. There you would have found the article “The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the twenty-first century,” written by some of the originators of the Human Terrain Team concept.

Its authors note that, far more and far less than “etiquette lessons,” as you put it, are being sought from anthropologists. The Human Terrain Teams are to provide military commanders “a culturally oriented counterpart to tactical intelligence systems.” The teams integrate anthropologists with security clearances with tactical intelligence officers and aim to “fill the cultural knowledge void by gathering ethnographic, economic, and cultural data pertaining to the battlefield” (p.12). The article explicitly likens the Human Terrain Teams to the CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) program from the Vietnam War. This should send a chill down the spine of anyone from your generation, since it is well known that the CORDS teams were linked, under Project Phoenix, to the targeted assassination of thousands of Vietnamese. Anthropological research was used in Vietnam to help select victims for assassination, and we fear that this misuse of anthropological research may be repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite whatever humanitarian intentions the anthropologists and other cultural experts may have for participating. Further evidence of both kinetic and non-kinetic Pentagon goals for the anthropological knowledge sought can be found in a number of places, including one high-ranking Pentagon briefing posted on the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ website; this briefing says of Human Terrain Mapping that it “enables the entire kill chain.”

Our “pledge of non-participation in counter-insurgency” gives three reasons why anthropologists should not participate in the Pentagon programs in Iraq and Afghanistan: (1) anthropologists will become complicit with unjust and brutal wars of occupation; (2) anthropologists engaged in counter-insurgency teams will be unable to honor our profession’s core ethical obligation to do no harm to those we study; (3) military counter-insurgency anthropology is at odds with the openness (with research subjects and professional colleagues) expected of anthropologists. Of these three rationales, your article only mentions the first, completely ignoring the other two. You thus give the impression that our campaign is one of politically correct anthropologists seeking to prevent colleagues from lending support to a war we oppose. However, anyone who reads the pledge will see that we are vitally concerned with the prospect that embedded anthropology is fundamentally incompatible with the professional ethics of anthropology because of its high potential to cause harm, including death, to members of indigenous populations. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of these particular wars, we believe that the actions undertaken by embedded anthropologists working for the Pentagon are at odds with the core obligations of anthropologists toward those about whom they collect data.

Omissions can be as damaging as outright misrepresentations. By omitting any mention of this vitally important issue, your article has given readers of the New York Times (including anthropologists who read the New York Times) a skewed picture of the concerns that animate the pledge campaign. The Pentagon has already trotted out a well-funded public relations campaign in the US media (e.g. claiming, with no evidence that anthropologists’ Human Terrain work has lowered casualties); your work contributes to Pentagon efforts insofar as it mocks their anthropological critics and throws in some support for imperial approaches to Iraq’s future for good measure.

Finally, we were also dismayed by your deeply flawed description of our pledge as a “loyalty oath.” In the years of high McCarthyism, loyalty oaths were required of employees by many state governments, and those who refused to take such oaths could lose their jobs.

In our campaign no-one is required to take the pledge, those who choose to take it are declaring their (partial) disloyalty to the government with all that entails, and they are showing courage in publicly identifying themselves despite the array of right-wing pressure groups currently waging campaigns of intimidation against academics who dare to raise questions about the war on terror in any way. If this is a loyalty oath, then the civil rights sit-ins at lunch counters in the 1960s were apartheid, and the anti-nuclear petitions of the 1980s were police tactics. Your characterization of your colleagues as writing or signing a loyalty oath is an error surprising in an academic of your distinguished reputation. We invite you to reconsider, now that you have more facts, and help us educate people about the dangers and ethical morass entailed by a militarized anthropology.


Hugh Gusterson, George Mason University
Catherine Lutz, Brown University