“Alleviating Harm”: Which Side are Anthropologists Supporting?

When I ask, which side are anthropologists supporting, I am specifically referring to those anthropologists who support involvement with Human Terrain Teams in Iraq, for example, and who condemn the statement by the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association for its opposition.

I posted another comment on the blog discussion for this issue, with reference to post #75, which harshly attacks the Executive Board and others who support it. The following is the post:

The comment before the one above, by an anonymous poster, speaks of hypocrisy. I would ask that poster to pause for a moment and reflect on his/her own words, which contain a very important admission.

The notion that has been spread, not just in that post but across a variety of communications on this topic, is that by participating in Human Terrain Teams anthropologists can help to “alleviate harm.” More than once the poster above speaks of reducing the miltary’s potential for killing the wrong people. The clear admission here is that the source of “harm” is the US military occupying force itself.

And I agree.

I would say that the proponents of HTS have not only failed to advance a single argument based on sound ethical conduct in research, they have also reinforced views that the US military occupation is itself at the center of the problem of human rights abuse. Such proponents in fact seem to be suggesting that, without good anthropological guidance, the US military consists of a mass of trigger-happy, quasi-genocidal rogue killers. It is an interesting idea, especially since it seems to validate exactly what insurgents and many other Iraqis have been saying all along.

If these proponents truly and honestly–although truth and honesty appear to be beyond them–wished to alleviate harm, then given the terms of their own description of the situation they would be embedding themselves with the insurgents. After all, the insurgents would agree that they too are trying to “alleviate harm”.

If you can stand back from this and still say that arguments in favor of embedding are not dishonest, immoral, unethical, and ethnocentric, then you truly are a “special person”.

I will support the idea that the AAA Executive Board’s statement is, at the very least, right on target, and perhaps a little too diplomatic. Those of us outside of the United States are looking at you to see how you will judge and question yourselves and where you will stand as an anthropological association at the center of this lurid controversy.

PS: The worm turns–I would expect that arguments in favour of embedding anthropologists will now take a more distinctive turn, given that proponents of involvement in HTS have inadvertently conceded a major point to those who oppose the war as a whole. We should now expect the HTS supporters to emphasize one or both alternative arguments: (a) that anthropologists are actually in Afghanistan and Iraq not to further the war effort, but to assist locals, to help provide services by identifying those that are needed, in other words, taking the “humanitarian assistance” argument as if anthropologists were needed to replace international aid agencies; and/or, (b) that anthropologists are acting as intermediaries in bridging cultures, creating a dialogue, and enabling a peaceful transition to relations between the West and Islam. Either way, they will be forced to reduce even mention of any actual war, lest they compromise their own argument. (Update: while some of this was borne out, the additional argument made was that it was a good and necessary thing for anthropologists to help in targeting “terrorists”, but without an anthropological questioning of such a taken for granted, and heavily loaded buzz word, which under a different light could just as easily apply to U.S. occupation forces.)

Non-functional alternatives: While some could say “all wars are nasty,” they will not be helping their cause by suggesting that therefore anthropologists must get involved, because the one does not follow from the other. As for the argument, already made by some on the AAA blog, that HTS provides a valuable job opportunity for the poor and sad graduates of the discipline who lack academic jobs…the argument is simply obscene. They are now forced to confront the question of why it is necessary for them to work for blood money, instead of, for example, stacking shelves in a supermarket. The notion that HTS provides the only employment option is simple nonsense.

Watch as the worm turns.

2 thoughts on ““Alleviating Harm”: Which Side are Anthropologists Supporting?

  1. The correlation between surgery and death is not sufficient basis for an effective argument that surgeons are murderers.

    The same logic applies to engagement in politics by force.

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