Initial Reactions to AAA Report on Anthropologists & Counterinsurgency


Following the submission on Wednesday, November 28th, 2007, of the report of the Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with Security and Intelligence Communities, the American Anthropological Association presented a panel discussion and invited commentary from those assembled for its annual meeting.

Thanks, first of all, to which pointed my attention to a number of sources (see the post titled, “Final Report Launched: AAA no longer opposes collaboration with CIA and the military“). As reported on that blog, the report states the following:

There is nothing inherently unethical in the decision to apply one’s skills in these areas. Instead, the challenge for all anthropologists is finding ways to work in or with these institutions, seeking ways to study, document, and write transparently and honestly to an anthropological audience about them, in a way that honors the discipline’s ethical commitments.
We do not recommend non-engagement, but instead emphasize differences in kinds of engagement and accompanying ethical considerations. We advise careful analysis of specific roles, activities, and institutional contexts of engagement in order to ascertain ethical consequences. These ethical considerations begin with the admonition to do no harm to those one studies (or with whom one works, in an applied setting) and to be honest and transparent in communicating what one is doing. is quite correct in noting that this effectively cedes the terrain to a minority of both American public opinion, and some right wing anthropologists, who wish to see the continued occupation and domination of Iraq. The fact that the majority of Iraqis want to see the Americans out of Iraq has been of little or no consequence to those adopting this tendency.


One should remember that polls done by the US State Department itself, as reported in The Washington Post (see: “Most Iraqis Favor Immediate U.S. Pullout, Polls Show: Leaders’ Views Out of Step With Public” from Sept. 27, 2006), among other polls indicated the following, extracted from the article:

A strong majority of Iraqis want U.S.-led military forces to immediately withdraw from the country, saying their swift departure would make Iraq more secure and decrease sectarian violence, according to new polls by the State Department and independent researchers.

In Baghdad, for example, nearly three-quarters of residents polled said they would feel safer if U.S. and other foreign forces left Iraq, with 65 percent of those asked favoring an immediate pullout, according to State Department polling results obtained by The Washington Post.

Another new poll, scheduled to be released on Wednesday by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, found that 71 percent of Iraqis questioned want the Iraqi government to ask foreign forces to depart within a year. By large margins, though, Iraqis believed that the U.S. government would refuse the request, with 77 percent of those polled saying the United States intends keep permanent military bases in the country. (…)

The director of another Iraqi polling firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared being killed, said public opinion surveys he conducted last month showed that 80 percent of Iraqis who were questioned favored an immediate withdrawal. (…)

“The very fact that there is such a low support for American forces has to do with the American failure to do basically anything for Iraqis,” said Mansoor Moaddel, a professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University, who commissioned a poll earlier this year that also found widespread support for a withdrawal. “It’s part of human nature. People respect authority and power. But the U.S. so far has been unable to establish any real authority.”

Interviews with two dozen Baghdad residents in recent weeks suggest one central cause for Iraqi distrust of the Americans: They believe the U.S. government has deliberately thrown the country into chaos.

The most common theory heard on the streets of Baghdad is that the American military is creating a civil war to create an excuse to keep its forces here.

(See also The New York Times, “Poll Says Most Iraqis Want U.S. Out,” September 29, 2006)

There is nothing unusual about the scores of polls that have come to the same conclusion. As early as 2004 such polls began appearing, in mainstream American news media, such as USAToday (“Poll: Iraqis out of patience“, April 30, 2004): “a solid majority support an immediate military pullout even though they fear that could put them in greater danger.”

Some might argue that the US occupation force works with the Iraqi government, not polling firms (a standard Bush-like response). Well that attitude will not help: the majority of legislators in the Iraqi parliament also rejected the continuing American occupation of their country in May of 2007.

It seems that the only ones in the United States who want a continued American presence in Iraq, as a force of domination are: (a) the Bush administration; (b) a minority of Democratic and a shrinking majority of Republic legislators in the US; (c) a minority of American public opinion; and, (d) anthropologists who support the Human Terrain System and its payment of up to $400,000 US per year as a reward for their “altruism” and “patriotism”.


There is an important reason for relating all of these facts, as best we know them: one simply cannot argue that one is conducting ethical research in someone’s else nation when one’s presence is rejected to begin with. The AAA Code of Ethics has an alternative way of conveying the idea, relating to informed consent, in Article A(4):

Anthropological researchers should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied, or otherwise identified as having interests which might be impacted by the research.

There can be no consent to being researched if the majority of one’s “hosts” rejects one’s presence, especially as one embedded in an armed occupation force.

The same Code emphasizes more than once the principle of “do no harm“.


In an extensive article about the recent AAA meetings on these issues, Inside Higher Ed related the following:

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, a panel member who is a professor at Rhode Island College, said that defining “do no harm” isn’t as straightforward as it sounds – even if it is viewed as the “gold standard” of professional ethics. She said that many anthropologists who work for the government talk about “doing less harm” – acknowledging that the military is causing harm to some people in Iraq or elsewhere, but arguing that their work lessens that. Fluehr-Lobban said that the argument could be taken further.

Indeed, as I pointed out in a previous post (and another), and on the first AAA blog devoted to discussion of the Executive Board’s condemnation of anthropological support for counterinsurgency, proponents of embedding anthropologists in military units have already made the most fundamental concession of a critical flaw in their argument that their research is ethical: their research does harm, but it allegedly helps to “alleviate” and reduce it (which is unsubtantiated anyway). In other words, as noted above, killing will still take place, with anthropological support, and indeed the military has publicly admitted that one of the benefits of Human Terrain Teams is that they allow to map the human terrain to “the kill chain“. Some, including a fanatical anonymous spammer of the AAA blog, go very far and actually support the idea of anthropologists directly supporting the killing of insurgents.

But is not killing a violation of human rights? If so, what can be ethical about anthropologists joining a military effort which itself originated from naked aggression against a country that never attacked, and had no means of attacking the United States?

What these anthropologists who support embedding effectively produce is a rationale not just of service to the state, not just of the militarization of anthropology, but of academic support for state terror.

Still wondering about the ethics of this?

Not the embedded anthropologists, who have now departed from the terrain of ethics altogether and instead resort to notions of a “just war,” “the war on terror”, support for one’s country, obligations to “stabilize” Iraq (the destabilizers are interested in stabilization, just as dogs are interested in sleeping with cats), the duty to apply knowledge for better military occupation, etc.


HTS is providing some useful propaganda: American counterinsurgency is getting “smarter” thanks to the benefits of social scientific input. Ironically, social scientists were also responsible for some of the polls mentioned above, with results that were obviously ignored by the US occupation force.

At the same time that domination is getting “smart,” we have seen numerous reports this year where the subordinate and US-dependent Iraqi and Afghan governments both remarkably protested the heavy handed use of American firepower and the unnecessary killing of civilians (some almost random examples: “Afghans protest over US killing of civilians“; “Fresh Anti-US protest over Afghan civilian deaths“; “Iraq protests Sadr City deaths“; “Iraq strike kills 15 civilians“; “US troops kill five Iraqi civilians: military“, and most recently, “US soldiers kill more Iraqi civilians“). Indeed, for the past few months alone, we learn the following from IBC:

The civilian death toll by US fire was 96 in October, with 23 children among them, while in September US forces and contractors killed 108 Iraqi civilians, including 7 children. In August US troops killed 103 civilians, 16 of them children, and in July they killed 196. In fact, during the last five months US forces in Iraq have killed over 600 Iraqi civilians.

HTS-anthropology appears to be part of a propaganda smoke screen, a minor public relations effort that is of lucrative interest to some anthropologists who nobly perform the most colonial of their discipline’s dirty traditions.

The military for its part is so keen to get anthropologists–ANY ANTHROPOLOGIST WILL DO–because of the public relations value of this latest media-oriented scam:

Zenia Helbig was a little surprised when she got a call last March asking her to join a controversial U.S. Army program to embed social scientists into combat units.

She was glad to hear from retired Colonel Steve Fondacaro, the chief of the Human Terrain Team program. But Helbig, then a University of Virginia graduate student, thought she was underqualified to join the project. The job description had called for a Ph.D. with Arabic language skills; Helbig was still working on her doctorate. And while she spoke five languages — and read a sixth — Arabic wasn’t one of them. “Within five minutes, though, he offered me a position,” she recalls. “I was confused.” (…)

Meanwhile, the challenge of attracting social scientists continues. “Don’t get hung up on all the talk about anthropologists and Ph.D.s,” one recruitment e-mail says. “The key is we need smart people who get the Middle East to whatever extent such a thing is possible.”

From: “Army Social Scientists Calm Afghanistan, Make Enemies at Home,” by Noah Shachtman, Wired, November 29, 2007.

5 thoughts on “Initial Reactions to AAA Report on Anthropologists & Counterinsurgency

  1. Why does academic study of people overseas mean that the information can’t be used by anyone who has an interest, including the US military in a war against terrorists?

  2. Of course the information can be used, and probably will be should the need arise. What the AAA is currently debating is not about preventing the US military from using anthropological knowledge (i.e., that which exists in print, taught in courses, on the Internet, etc.) or what one might call the passive transfer of knowledge, but rather the active involvement of anthropologists in military units, or a direct transfer of knowledge with potentially lethal consequences.

    I like your question. It’s not surprising that some officials and community leaders in different parts of the “decolonized” world, labeled paranoid and xenophobic in the past, looked upon foreign anthropologists with great suspicion. The depth and intimate nature of the questions asked by anthropologists could suggest to some a covert attempt to unveil and lay bare all of the inner workings of another society, knowledge that could be of strategic value to certain powers who may be interested in finding ways of sowing dissent within a target nation, for example.

    This is a much bigger problem that is being raised: should detailed ethnographies ever be published in a world of brutal geopolitical conflict? I would like to know what you think.

    Thanks for posting.

    PS: I love your name.

  3. I guess i feel like academic inquiry can be put to any use and academics do not have a distinctly academic duty not to share, cooperate, or otherwise disperse their data to governments or anyone else. The whole academic ideal is disinterested. There is no reason anthropology, geography, physics, chemistry or any human or physical science has an ethical code that disallows such use or cooperation, other than in the idiosyncratic and distinctly non-scientific value scheme of any of its participants. I would not begrudge an anthropologist for sitting out one of these operations; but it is an abuse of the concept of academic ethics for professional bodies to make controversial and debatable political preference statements and give them the veneer of ethical standards for the entire enterprise.

  4. For the most part I would agree with much of what you wrote in your last comment. It is not surprising to me that the ethics of research with human populations, especially when that research is conducted in contexts of extreme political violence, unequal power relations, and foreign domination (by a country to which the given anthropologists belong), should so quickly merge ethical and political discussions. I do not see how this can be avoided, or why it should be avoided. The ethics of research involving human populations inevitably stem from some broader moral and political constructs that precede and shape ethics, and that ethical codes carry certain political implications.

    In a discipline whose ethical codes have stressed the need for doing no harm, for not damaging the discipline in the eyes of the wider public (lest future generations should face obstacles to doing research), for obtaining informed consent, for negotiating entry, for establishing a productive and mutually beneficial rapport, then clearly participating in a war of domination immediately stands out as a “problem”. How one could then speak of this problem without sounding somehow “political” is not clear, but in any case also not a matter of concern to me personally since I maintain no innocence about being political.

    For me, the paramount issue is that Iraqi perspectives are being treated as null and void. It’s not their country apparently, and they have no rights. How one can jump into that situation, indeed, even reinforcing it, and claim there are no ethical considerations to address is quite beyond me.

    It’s true that many other associations have no such ethical codes. In some cases, they have none whatsoever. In that case, a broader public that feels harmed by the work of a discipline could impose its own de facto “code” on that discipline in reaction (banishment, perhaps even violence). The AAA is trying to demonstrate that it has a conscience and that it can correct itself.

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