American Anthropologists against Counterinsurgency: Part Two

On 04 December, 2007, I posted the first part of this review of postings collected on the blog dedicated to the statement issued by the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association. The original statement issued by the Executive Board was released on 31 October, 2007.

In this second part, long delayed, I will review and list some of the statements made (in navy blockquotes below) that supported the Executive Board’s statement criticizing the participation of anthropologists in Human Terrain Teams as unethical. As in the first part, these posts serve a dual function, one being to provide a summary for readers who might consult this, and secondly as my continuing personal scrapbook of research on this topic, with my notes laid bare for anyone who wishes to review and comment on them. I should also point out that I ceased reading the blog in question after the third week of December and do not know if the debates have continued, increased in intensity, or whether silence has taken hold. Towards the end of my engagement with that blog I noticed that discussions had been reduced to a debate among two or three individuals, including an anonymous troll, and that most questions and criticisms of the Human Terrain system were either going unanswered, or there were no effective responses, simply restatments of positions and a passive-aggressive strategy of issuing attacks while claiming to be insulted by opposing views.


“Bad Blogging”
Had I not let as much time pass as I have, I would have had a lot more to say. The primary observation I wished to make was that members of the Executive Board, who apparently motivated the creation of an AAA blog for discussion of its collective statement, were notably absent from the blog discussion. In my view, this was an important mistake. They simply let numerous challenges, criticisms, and questions go unanswered, as if there were anything to be gained from their apparent aloofness, and what seemed worse, disinterest in the aftermath of their statement. There really is little point in creating a blog if one is not willing to become engaged with one’s readers. To date I am unaware that the debates on the blog have registered any impact outside of the blog.

Professionalism, Politics, and Public Engagement
Many of those who criticized the Executive Board for being too partisan and of leading the association into political positions that censured opposing views seemed to have a valid point, that again went unanswered. There is a larger question at work here in terms of the institutionalism of current anthropology and its general lack of public engagement. A professional association really is not the ideal vehicle for practicing the politics of anti-imperialism and liberation, and my view is that the desire of some to cling to such an association and pin such hopes on it are doing so precisely because they lack a satisfying level of personal engagement and involvement with organizations and movements outside of academia. In other words, this episode appeared to underscore the divide between the politics of professionalism as such, of a profession in and for itself, and the role of publicly engaged intellectuals who do not have to answer for any apparent lack of “objectivity”.

National Isolationism
The statement by the Executive Board, though provisional, preliminary and intermediate, seemed to betray certain disturbing signs of what I think continues to plague professional anthropology, despite its many theoretical moves concerning globalization, transnationalism, mobility and mutability. The American Anthropological Association really operated according to its name, focusing on American issues and concerns, and sequestering Iraq into the province of American interests. Iraq is an Iraqi problem, an international problem, and an American problem. What has been acutely absent from all of the debates has been any kind of consideration of Iraqi perspectives or the positions of anthropologists outside of the U.S., with whom American anthropologists must and do work. While there were calls to “ethnographically” examine the work of Human Terrain Teams-which is a self-serving tactic, since to do so effectively means joining such teams and thus supporting them-there were no calls by American anthropologists for an ethnographic study of what Iraqis want, which organizations they trust, what they think of HTT, and so forth. It’s as if they did not matter at all.



Some expressed the view that seeing complicity with war could be thought of in much broader and everyday terms, and that in any case anthropological research could be used for purposes of war and domination with or without the consent of anthropologists.

I think that directly or indirectly all aspects of a nation aid and abet any war ongoing if they pay taxes or provide a service of any sort to the government or citizens of that state.. but of course it amounts to a lite stance.

Anyone can read field data or otherwise, so even a “civilian” anthropologist working on “neutral and civilian aims” is compiling information once published that could be used for less than civil purposes.


This was a central line of debate in fact, and those who supported the statement not only had little problem with the idea that politics was involved-as inevitably they must be-but some argued (and I agree strongly) that the statement by the Executive Board was too weak. Another line of argumentation was that it is not a political statement to oppose research conducted in a situation of war, on one side, but rather an ethical problem-and that it is solely and exclusively an ethical problem.

As for not being allowed to weigh in because one is not ‘neutral,’ if you see a crime being committed, in your name, with your tax dollars, the proper professional and personal response is not to participate.

The easiest way out for us is to conform to the structures of power like the military and work with it. The money pushed at us, the structure and organization to make our voice heard, and the force of the state behind us make it so easy to argue that our knowledge will be put to practical use and move beyond the realm of theory. But it is sad if we submit to this rather than challenge it. And it is unfortunate if we don’t learn from those historical instances when we did collaborate with power.

To say that “politics” has no place in the study of human beings, who are always and everywhere engaged in formal and informal politics, is disturbing.

I don’t think it is a political statement to condemn a “war” that has been proved to be based on false information, a “war” that we have lost, and a “war” that has cost and is costing an egregious amount of lives.

The AAA, then, should a express the view of what I assume would be the majority of its members that we acknowledge the political impasse into which we have collectively brought ourselves.

It is amazing that the discipline could be so caught up in its own discourse that we can’t see the situation or speak about it clearly: this is a war; anthropologists are working for a side in the war, to help that side “win”; the principles and practices of the discipline are being used to “psyche out” (or anthro- out) people in their own cultural terms to help the US military win its battles. What isn’t clear is how any responsible person in anthropology could find this acceptable to our discipline.

unless the AAA goes on record in opposition to the use of U.S. military force anywhere in the world, the EB statement is misplaced and unhelpful

While the Iraq war is wrong and unjust for many reasons, so is the historical and ongoing complicity American anthropologists (as Americans and as anthropologists)share in in regards to a range of human rights issues around the world. What does the disapproval of the EB do other than work to improve our public image?

It is important for the AAA to take a stand against the use of anthropologists during war.

There is no need and no benefit to distorting anthropological work in the name of a war which should be terminated as soon as possible.

for the conclusion to be that the AAA expresses its “disapproval” comes as a shock and a profound disappointment

I would encourage adding a statement that specifically condemns any anthropologists who participate in the HTS or similar actions.


Many who supported the statement offered very strong rebuttals to the idea that it is the duty of American anthropologists to serve their military and their government in its aims in the occupation of Iraq. These were some of the most vital statements to be read on the blog, and some of the liveliest, in that they went to the heart not just of the politics of those who support anthropological embedding in HTT, but also the notion that one could be helping Iraqis by doing so. Moreover, the idea here is that anthropologists should exercise independence from the state if they are to be viewed by the broader publics with which they work as a valuable and reliable source of research and analysis, as people who can be trusted when interacting in intimately personal ethnographic settings. Others such anthropological support for the military as little more than the militarization of anthropology, with lethal intentions. Why can’t anthropologists who wish to help Iraqis instead fight to end the war? Why can’t they support a NGO that Iraqis in a given area favour? These questions were mostly ignored by those in favour of anthropological engagement with HTT, with one exception badly botching his side of the discussion by wrongly claiming that NGOs supported the war since they were subject to American military restrictions on their movements, or, that NGOs killed as many people as the American military, all offered without any substantiation (of course).

The military agenda in war is to fight and win the war. The language and worldview of this establishes a logic that then absorbs and subsumes the world in this agenda. People become enemies (terrorists,insurgents, guerrillas), for us or against us. Those advocating the rightness of anthropologists participating in the gathering of military intelligence, are in fact claiming that this subsuming language and logic are THE definition of reality, with our side being the right side, and all other roles, functions or professions being subsidiary to the primary agenda of our troops and our military.

Anthropologists should know better than to allow our profession to be drawn into this subsuming cultural logic. Remember, it is in this world of definition that weapons used to kill people are considered “peacekeepers”; where unarmed children, men and women who die from embargo-imposed starvation, or “shock and awe bombing” are routinely defined as acceptable levels of “collateral damage”; where the very same weapons we possess in the name of security we see as the pretext for military invasion when they are owned by others; where the dead and wounded of war are kept invisible to the very same people who are extolled to “support our troops,” in order to maintain among them/us at least a basic level of complacency if not actual support.

I am reminded of this when I hear suggested that somehow anthropology is now going to serve in a secular form, to turn the logic and agenda of the U.S. military into a more culturally-aware undertaking. Anthropologists shouldn’t fool themselves-this is in fact the militarization of anthropology rather than the humanizing of warfare.

For anthropologists to “engage the military and help [them] to get it right” as Collin Agee has put it, asks anthropologists to assume that the US military should be doing what it is doing in the first place, and that with a little cross-cultural assistance they can do it the “right way.”

Further, this is not even to suggest a “firewall” between anthropology and military intelligence. To paraphrase Milton from The Areopagitica, “a fool will find folly in the best of texts; the wise person will find gold in even the worst of texts.” Anthropologists (nor anyone else who studies and writes publicly) can pretend to have control over what others do with their work. But it is one thing to acknowledge this, and yet another to abandon responsibility for whom we deliberately do our work.

I feel that this debate has been ignoring a fairly blatant point: the US Army is a political outlet catering to “American interests”; anthropology is a political outlet catering to the people with whom we work (or should be working with). It seems that rarely, if ever, will “American interests” intersect with the interests of our fellow human “subjects”. Once the US military shook hands with anthropology, they put us in a sack with the rest of the tools that serve the US military’s desire to fight a more efficient fight and enforce freedom.

“Refining target selection” is not our business. You imply that HTT’s are, in effect, going to go from door to door, painting red across the lintel. The problem is that that process of protecting non-combatants from our military implicitly marks the doors of others. That’s not our game.

It is one thing for anthropological knowledge to be used by the military after we have produced it and in ways we did not expect (this is the fate of all knowledge). It is another thing for us to willingly and knowingly aid the military in an imperial project (whether promoted by a civilian government or not is irrelevant. The civilian government is part and parcel of the military.)

The situation in Iraq is now so dire and deleterious that anthropologists cannot be of any help. In addition to the solid ethical and logistical arguments that support the AAA statement, there is also the pragmatic dimension to be considered. The war there has now passed the tipping point and there are no easy answers. Anyone who thinks there is, is dreaming.

Anthropologists serving as “embeds” with troops may even be risking war crimes prosecution as part of a chain of command in situations that lead to extrajudicial killings, torture, and wilfull killings of civilians.

The HTS program is intended to sub-contract this knowledge to those who are ‘experts’ at culture. Now were this ‘expert opinion’ be intended to either contribute to the (sustainable) welfare of target populations, or provide for (vastly) improved understanding of US personnel towards this, I would be moved to endorse this program. Its intention, however, is not: guidance and information provided by anthropologists is suborned to achieving operational (‘mission’) success.

A primary motivation for me to leave the US government was its systematic inability and unwillingness to enact meaningful change in Iraq, despite possessing the power, mandate and responsibility to do so, and despite the efforts of many men and women who (out of personal integrity and at great risk) sought to do so: it hurt me to watch good people unnecessarily suffer and die, Americans and Iraqis. I shudder at the thought of anthropologists contributing to this.

it is important to confirm anthropologists’ commitment to at least attempting to improve the quality of human life, instead of aiding those who are furthering wanton destruction. It is important to engage the war in Iraq, but openly and critically, but not as someone on the payroll of those who are profiting from the devastating loss of life.

To participate in such egregious endeavors is to aid and be complicit with them. Period.

their instrumental function is more comprehensively described as making lethal force more effective

It is clear that the anthropologist is a subaltern functionary in a larger system for developing operational intelligence for combat units.

In the end, as John Wilcox – Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense – explained, mapping the human terrain, “Enables the entire kill chain for the GWOT” (i.e. Global War on Terror).

I see no reason to think that the military or political establishment will judiciously use the data when activating that ‘kill chain’. It seems very difficult to argue that cooperation with HTS anthropologists does not put people in harm’s way, regardless of those anthropologists good intents.

anthropologists should not have contracts with the US military or be under their control. Once they are under their control, they can be manipulated so as to harm their informants.

I suggest that anthropologists in combat zones might work for an independent agency, such as the UN or some independent NGO.

these projects are the professional engagment of our discipline in the making of war. Even if it is the use of anthropology to make warfare somehow more culturally sensitive (!!!) it is nonetheless a use of the tools of our discipline as tools of war, whether or not participating anthropologists themselves carry actual guns


As in the cases of anthropologists criticizing nationalist rhetoric and the appropriation of anthropology, a number of key statements were made specifically against anthropologists in HTT as performing in the role of mercenaries.

The comment that charges that people against anthropologists colluding with the military have never served in either the military or a police force [or, I would add, the World Bank] implies that only people who have captured or owned slaves have a right to comment on the morality of enslavement.

Their cooperation in US military projects of political and cultural hegemony implicate them in attacks on the autonomy, traditions and persons of populations targeted for pacification and counterinsurgency. It is clear both from practice and from mission statements of the anthropological and military parties concerned that the military view the anthropologists instrumentally, as a weapon of pacification.

an article by a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Sept-Oct 2006 *Military Review.* “Ethnographic intelligence can empower the daily fight against dark networks, and it can help formulate contingency plans that are based on a truly accurate portrayal of the most essential terrain–the human mind.”

Anthropologists who are participating in the so-called “Human Terrain Project” are not international peace-keepers or peacemakers, they are contributing to a side in a war. Whether we agree with that side or not, they are using the tools of anthropology as tools of war. This very point undermines the credibility of our discipline, and makes every anthropologist suspect in her/his respective fieldwork.

These are “anthropologists of fortune.”


End the war-meaning end American involvement in killing Iraqis. That is the most certain way of ensuring that fewer Iraqis are called by American forces, which is allegedly one of the aims of those supporting anthropological involvement in HTT. It is not up to academics to clean up the gross mess made by those who usually scoff at, scorn, and ignore the opinions of academics.

Saying that embedded anthropologists are some sort of damage control dealing with the reality of war in Iraq is at very best an ad hoc statement-replace “control” with “cessation” and work toward stopping the war as quickly as possible, not facilitating it.

About five years ago, it is probably true that almost all anthropologists would have told you that entering a war against Iraq would be not such a good idea. I suspect that even the one’s now involved in HTS would have steered you in another direction. No one was listening to us then. You blew it. You have a lot nerve coming to us now and asking us to get you out of your mess.


In line with the last two sections, a number of anthropologists reacted against the notion that they lacked patriotism for condemning the work of anthropologists in HTT. There were fundamental issues of importance, where questioning authority, questioning the military, were turned into quasi-treasonous stances by their opponents. This points to larger issues of the emerging visibility of American internal political totalitarianism.

Why should anthropologists be expected to “show their patriotism” and be “real Americans” by going to Iraq to try to clean up the mess that people in the military themselves saw coming, but did nothing to prevent

Instead of badgering anthropologists, it would be better for military people to show some spine, diverge from the command structure and admit that they were used and abused in this illegal war. Speaking out and questioning authority is a really old American tradition. Older than imperial adventurism. That’s the “A” in my AAA.

I’ve understood the “American” in the AAA to be something more like an organizational convention rather than an elitist chest-beating, and I find inscribing it with nationalist rhetoric rather chilling.

Why did the government and the military not listen to anthropologists with speciality in the Middle East before launching this war? Many of us were writing, in the popular press, the alternative media, and in articles like Mahmoud Mamdani’s AA piece, “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (2002 or 03) about the dangers of this war.


A number of postings took the opportunity to unveil some of the political pathologies at work in contemporary American politics, and how anthropological practice was not immune to these tendencies.

Now, I fear there is too much evidence of fascism in my own country’s policies and actions: pre-emptive war, the dereliction of duty on behalf of Congress and the media, the squashing of public debate, and of academic freedom where Middle East issues are concerned. The proper thing to do now, in my estimation as an American citizen and as an anthropologist, is to investigate, discuss, and debate the problems, structural flaws, and misinterpretations of reality that brought us to this point.

Here is where anthropological theories and methods can be of use in understanding the symbol systems, rhetoric, and narratives that shut down debate, narrowed visions and perceived options, and empowered people who have destroyed the ideal of the US as a “nation of laws, not men.”


Anthropology has a large colonial baggage to deal with, more than any other discipline in the social sciences. Engagement with military occupation and the domination of natives seems to be an abrupt and brutal return to a dark past that will almost certainly kill anthropology.

in response to some, like Hawkins, I would point us to anthropology during the colonial period when our discipline followed the logic of Hawkins’ argument and worked with colonial governments. We saw what good that did!

The argument that working with the US military will make the suffering of the Iraqis that much more bearable, or help Iraqi communities, disregards history and anthropology’s experience with colonial regimes back in the day.


One of the key roles of anthropology should be to critique Orientialism and Eurocentrism in all its forms-after all, this has become mainstream in much of anthropology. Racism, casting others as savages, and dehumanizing while demonizing them…this is not how anthropology wants to sell itself, and has not since about 1880. And yet this is precisely the kind of anthropological contribution, the most important kind, that is ignored. Do they really want anthropological involvement in the military during an imperial and racist occupation?

Our business is to find out why those others are so mad. The problem is, you’ve got anthropologists in on the wrong end.

You see, when you define your enemy as criminal, which you do, you deny them a voice. Until we find out what they want, why they’re so angry, and show them that we are willing to let them back into our community, that we have real concern for their wants and needs, and take significant action on it, then your war isn’t going to go away. We need a public forum, a symposium with, not just the heads of these terrorist organizations, but with a lot of peoples and facets represented. Can you imagine how different things would be right now, if we had done and continued doing that? What, is it unthinkable?

And this is the point, your work in a war zone embedded with the military will help to further other the enemy and trivialize the army’s violence. It will make the army look like it is more ethical while it continues to operate as an army.

Of course it is the opposite of cultural relativism– cultural cynicism one might call it–since the object is to appropriate the cultural practices of others to one’s own purposes, notably the purpose of dominating them.

The fact that we are at “war” in the first place I think shows that the Cheney Administration, US policy makers, and the US Military have no great interest in non-American cultures. And the fact that we have no respect for indigenous rights and knowledge here in our own country makes us less fit to go marauding in other countries. Until the US begins to acknowledge and respect the autonomy of other countries and at least give US Servicemen and women the dignity of not being exploited, I fear that anthropologists will only become another pawn.


As mentioned previously, one of the steady streams of argumentation throughout the blog is that this debate between proponents and opponents of HTT is not fundamentally about politics, but about ethics. Personally I thought that some false dividing lines were being drawn between politics and ethics here, but let’s turn to the illustrative statements below:

Occupation is unethical and wrong. We should condemn any effort to turn our role into one of making the occupation more bearable.

it’s precisely in times of war that we need to pay very close attention to ethics, not loosen them or fall back on the old cliché that anything goes when it comes to “supporting the troops.”

We should be operating more on the principles and philosophy of, say, the Red Cross in its clear neutrality, or of journalists who like us depend on a reputation of trust and confidentiality; imagine what it would do to “journalistic integrity” if there were a program in the military that recruited journalists to gather ‘intelligence’ to help a side win its battles! You don’t have to be a journalist who is opposed to war, or to a particular war, in order to advocate and defend journalistic integrity. Any journalist should recognize the severe implications for such integrity should she/he apply her/his professional skills to spying for a side in a war.

Somehow, warfare that our country entered into under the banner of “war on terrorism” is supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of precisely those civilians whose lives and country have been ransacked by our war on terrorism. In my opinion, there is no way that the goals of HTS can be achieved without compromising the ethics to which we, as anthropologists subscribe.

I fully support the AAA statement. GWOT as pursued by the US military clearly uses methods that are broadly unethical and specifically in violation of international norms of justice and human rights. Pre-emptive attack in only an obvious example of many such violations.

I’d like to expand the existing debate on ethics and move beyond it. The question, for me, is not whether HTS violates the anthropological code of ethics. I believe that it does. But so do many other anthropological engagements the AAA does not oppose. And this where politics enters the game.

Hence, the decision to condemn this, but not other violations, is a political decision.

it is appropriate for the EB to urge anthropologists not to work for them because, “objectively,” such work is incompatible with our collective ethics code

The war in Iraq was launched in violation of UN Charter Chapter 7. The conduct of the war violates the Geneva Conventions and the Convention on the Prevention of Torture. The US is a signatory to both of these international conventions. The conduct of the war and the overall GWOT (Global War on Terror) has also involved violations of the US constitution.

that ethnographic fieldwork is and must be an ethical engagement, above all because we are always guests, usually uninvited by the people in the places where we study

I think there’s no escaping the fact that anthropological complicity with a military operation (no doubt problematic in the best of cases) is much more troubling when that operation is an imperial war of occupation, initiated through an unprovoked invasion and carried out using methods that include the systematic use of illegal detention and torture.

I would like a stronger statement, but I salute the EB for coming out with a fairly clearly worded statement that, whatever its faults, states that anthropologists cannot serve in HTS programs and comply with the Association’s code of ethics.

their core point is that anthropologists should not conduct research that puts the people whom they study in harm’s way. This is hardly controversial.

HTS is wrong in the actually existing historical circumstances that HTS exists.

The army is debasing our profession and our professional ethics in the most fundamental way possible.


I must agree that a number of the statements in supporting of anthropological embedding came across as very roughly hewn diatribes, wrapped in sanctimonious nationalism, and saturated with a sense of entitlement to Iraq itself. The level of discourse from opponents of the Executive Board was often appallingly jejune and in some instances betrayed the likelihood that anonymous interventions were authored by non-anthropologists with some ugly, merciless, and callous military axes to grind. A number of the statements below seemed to find these and other problems with the comments posted by those opposing the statement.

I hear from those who seek to justify this anthro-military practice everything from “you are jeopardizing my employability,” to “I know some very ethical anthropologists in the military,” to “we’re helping our troops be more successful with less killing,” to “you haven’t been there so how can you ask such a question,” to “you must be a wild-eyed, anti-American pacifist to ask such questions,” now to “call in the lawyers.”

Call me naive, but I suppose I would have expected a more intellectually, scholarly, academically, professionally sound response.

It also makes me wonder, if this is the state of academic discussion among anthro-professionals, around such a crucial question, what kinds of intellectual and academic skills (of critical thinking or otherwise) are we nuturing among our students in the name of anthropology?

Why the silence from Montgomery McFate now? She has been bragging about Human Terrain for months and now she does not even step forward to defend her program from this criticism.

According to her, anthropologists either help the military or choose to stay “pure,” self-absorbed in the Ivory Tower, and irrelevant. Thus, the only way to be relevant is to support the state. Her view is supported by many who stereotype anthropologists as stubborn peaceniks out of touch with reality.

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