Reviewing the AAA’s Report on Anthropology and the Military

About four months ago I promised to produce an essay/notes reviewing and summarizing the 04 November, 2007, release of the report by the AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities, whose term of work began in November of 2005. The report is titled “AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities” and is available at: A number of other blogs in the meantime have also discussed this same report, some noting it in passing, and unfortunately I lack the time to organize links to those posts.

It has been a difficult report to review and analyze since it speaks with muliple voices, what one would expect of a committee report with persons charged with different areas of analysis. Contrary to the incorrect characterizations of the contents of the report, as can be found in select posts on the AAA blog devoted to discussion of Human Terrain Systems  (see:, this report actually tended to be more critical of anthropological engagement in Human Terrain Teams in places such as Iraq than not.

It is the report overall that conveys a sense of equivocation, hoping as it does to negotiate among competing interests and agendas within the association, while not antagonizing those in powerful positions within the American military, intelligence, and security apparatus. The report ranges across a wide field of potential and actual engagements with a whole host of military, intelligence, and security agencies and institutions, including those that are not directly involved in counterinsurgency. That is not to excuse the fact that the report, on the basis of “nuance” and “complexity”, still tends to miss the bigger picture that comes from piecing together disparate activities and looking for patterns that bind these activities not into a monolithic whole, but a practical and working whole.

Let’s look at elements of this report through a series of steps, and then at the end I will identify what I think were the report’s missed opportunities for a more incisive analysis. Quotations from the report are set off in navy blockquotes.

(Below, CoE stands for “Code of Ethics” of the American Anthropological Association; MIS stands for “military, intelligence, and security”; HTS stands for “Human Terrain System”)

The key pages of the report that reveal a continued critique of anthropological involvement in Human Terrain systems are pages 20 and 31-32. I will reproduce those passages in full here, highlighting what I think are the critical elements to note:

Some anthropological engagements with military or intelligence agencies risk bringing harm to the people studied. In military settings where occupations are routinely designated  “liberations,” questions of whether anthropological knowledge is used “for” or “against”  studied populations are complex. In such contexts, programs such as Human Terrain Systems  (HTS) research…are framed by the military as undertaken to “protect” studied populations, but HTS studies also present risks of using cultural research against studied populations. Moreover, anthropologists working in military settings may face problems in achieving meaningful informed and voluntary consent from human subjects. Efforts to gain informed consent in militarized regions are at best problematic, and at worst corrupt. The possibility of informed consent occurring in theatres of war is highly problematic and anthropologists working in such environments risk compromising professional ethical commitments to non-coercive forms of informed consent. In addition, when anthropologists use knowledge gained from previous fieldwork for ends other than those anticipated and disclosed at the time of research, there are risks of betraying negotiated trusts and ethically sanctioned relationships established with researched populations. (20)

Anthropologists working in military and intelligence settings risk miscalculating how their contributions will be selectively used, abused, and ignored by the agencies in which they work. The history of applied anthropology and military research is filled with instances where anthropological research and recommendations is ignored when it is counter to institutional assumptions. As Alexander Leighton’s bitter Second World War experiences in the War Relocation Authority and the Office of War Information led him to skeptically conclude: “the administrator uses social science the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination.” Anthropologists who engage with military and intelligence agencies with little understanding of these historical dynamics may not understand the limited control over what becomes of their work in such settings. (20)

Perils for the Discipline and Colleagues: Because of the established past historical actions of specific intelligence agencies, anthropological engagements with these agencies may carry potential perils for anthropology’s disciplinary reputation. For example, anthropologists’ engagements with the CIA risk tainting anthropology’s reputation, given the CIA’s well documented historical role in assassinations, kidnappings, rigging foreign elections, torture, unethical human experiments, extreme renditions, supporting death squads, anti-democratic campaigns to undermine foreign governments, and supporting foreign coups in support of American business interests. Because these past interactions are well documented, and well known (especially outside of the US) the reputation of American anthropology could suffer by increased nontransparent engagements with these agencies. The recognition of this situation does not imply that anthropologists working for these agencies are engaged in unethical or improper activities; only that knowledge of institutional histories can diminish anthropology’s disciplinary reputation. (20)

Anthropologists’ engagements with the military or intelligence communities risk transforming the discipline into a tool of oppression. Given anthropology’s historical roots as a stepchild of colonialism and more recent uses of fieldwork as a front for conducting espionage, the precedence of these risks is well established. Engagement risks the recurrence of such unethical behavior. Moreover, were anthropologists to be perceived as aiding and abetting U.S. military aggression or (even) information collection, that perception might well inhibit other and future anthropologists from establishing relationships of hospitality or trust with study populations or colleagues who are not U.S. nationals. (20-21)

Lastly, with increased media attention devoted to anthropologists’ roles in military and intelligence settings, non-military/intelligence anthropologists may face increased accusations of being agents of military or intelligence organizations. Such accusations may place non-military/non-intelligence anthropologists’ personal safety at risk. (21)

….the likelihood that research subjects are unlikely to be able to differentiate between anthropologists working with military units and these units themselves, particularly if they are dressed in military fatigues and armed. The close working relationship of anthropologist and military personnel, and resulting likelihood of tacit or unintended coercion in the process of data collection, suggest a basic lack of  “voluntary informed consent” on the part of potential research subjects. In this, we presume a definition of voluntary informed consent that does not solely rely on the intent of the researcher, but also rigorously considers possible unintended consequences of the research design or conditions of its execution. That some HTS anthropologists carry weapons or travel with a security convoy raises troubling questions about the voluntary nature of anyone interacting with these anthropologists. (31)

The forward position of an anthropological consultant as part of a five-person team, with an anthropologist providing “cultural data research and analysis” while in the theater of conflict confounds any clear distinction between people who might fall into the category of “research subjects” or “those being studied” and “targeted communities, groups, or individuals.” This state-of-affairs runs a high risk of the breach of anthropological ethics even if it does not technically do so as part of any particular research effort. The lack of a possible distinction between “research subjects” and military “targets” suggests that such research activities cannot abide by the ethical injunction to “do no harm” with adequate confidence, no matter what the best intentions of the anthropologist. (31)

It also is highly probable that the anthropologist will end up with two research communities with competing interests. S/he must manage interactions between the U. S. military presence, HTT itself and the local population (as well as potentially other groups), which requires an understanding of each of the interaction groups. This could lead to an impossible ethical situation where the anthropologist has ethical responsibilities to at least two groups in violent conflict with one another. (31)

Regardless of any efforts made to abide by the Code of Ethics, the status and identity of an anthropologist as a social science researcher is fundamentally unstable in this context, and potentially undermines the legitimate practice of the discipline, since the differences between researcher, tactician, and/or collector of intelligence would presumably be very hard to sharply distinguish in practice, and on the basis of perceptions formed by research subjects, colleagues, and others. We fail to see how it could be otherwise. (32)

we might also need to conclude that this sort of work cannot credibly fall under the sanctioned conduct of what the AAA recognizes as professional anthropology (32)

Speaking of HTS in an appendix, a memo states:

this form of engagement is unlikely to accord with the ethical provisions of the AAA CoE. (27)

Finally, Appendix A clearly outlines problems posed by HTS:

The difficulty of voluntary consent in a war zone;
• The difficultly of informed consent on behalf of the military, including full disclosure of risks and benefits to subjects, when the anthropologist may not know how the information will be used or who will consume it;
• The collection of individual identifiers and other personal information, in a context where targeting is a very real possibility
The explicit and open linkage of ‘anthropology’ to ‘the military,’ and the potential risks that this affiliation might pose to colleagues doing fieldwork (29)

On the whole, however, the Commission did not come out against anthropologists working for military, intelligence, and security agencies, which for me was the most disturbing part of the report.

The Commission stated clearly:

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. (4)

It repeated this statement in a slightly altered form later in the report:

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. (5-6)

The Commission also argued against letting political judgments of “good” or “bad” wars shape decision-making on which anthropological engagements should be sanctioned or censured:

This historical context reminds us that we cannot allow our judgment of what constitutes ethical engagement with MIS on the part of anthropologists and anthropology to be contingent on our approval or condemnation of political policies at a given time. (7)

Once again, the disavowal of a blanket repudiation of anthropological work in MIS is repeated in altered form further on:

We concluded that there is nothing inherently unethical in the decision to apply one’s skills in a security context. Instead, the challenge for all anthropologists is finding ways to work in or with these institutions, seeking ways to study, document, and write openly and honestly to an anthropological audience about them, in a way that honors the discipline’s ethical commitments. (19)

What was especially disturbing was the following statement, offered without elaboration or explanation, both sorely needed since it attempts to collapse work with social movements and work for governments into a single whole, which is especially striking since the report pleads for one to disaggregate military and intelligence engagements into “nuanced” diversity:

In recent years, many, mostly academic anthropologists have been relatively more comfortable in defining ‘engaged’ work in activist terms, that is, in relation to non-governmental actors like NGOs and social movements, rather than working with or for governments, militaries, and official agencies. Increasingly, this distinction cannot be sustained in reality or with integrity, and it increases the general legitimacy of lending expertise in the service of states and international organizations. ( 8 )

Indeed, the Commission goes as far as to proclaim the value of anthropological studies of the military, in a problematic fashion as I explain at the end, stating:

Ultimately, if anthropologists are unwilling to consider engagement with MIS, they may neglect an intellectual responsibility to understand these organizations and an ethical responsibility to speak truth to power and engage policy makers. (23)

This is where there is need to discuss the value of covert research, which is absent from discussion of this form of “studying up”.

The Commission noted that anthropology has been successful in gaining the attention and recognition of a range of institutions in the wider society, and that its work on “culture” has been the source of this attention.

Over the past two decades, anthropologists have made tremendous headway into non-profit, industry, and government settings, applying ethnographic techniques and anthropological frames to projects ranging from rural development to assembly lines for the automotive industry. The ascendance of “culture,” applied anthropology, and interdisciplinary research means that anthropological tools, theories, methods, and frames are themselves pervading new realms. This represents a “window” for anthropology that entails opportunities and perils at a number of levels: the discipline, the institutions engaged, the individual anthropologist, and – most importantly – the people with whom we work and study. (19)

The military, security, and intelligence communities are not alone in increasingly recognizing the value of anthropological expertise. Indeed, the success of applied anthropology and the growth of interdisciplinary research means that our tools, theories, methods, and frames are pervading new realms: government agencies, corporations, computer-based communities, laboratories, the thinking of policymakers, both at home and abroad. Though this presents new ethical challenges for individual practitioners and the discipline, it also represents a “window” of opportunity for anthropology beyond new employment and funding opportunities for individual anthropologists. (22)

If anthropologists left structural-functionalism behind years ago, recent discussions about HTS indicate that others have not. The idea of culture as an historically contingent, power-laden, dynamic and emerging property of human relations, and the theoretical and methodological entanglements that such a view implies, are largely lost on people who equate “culture” with a set of discrete and static elements that can be neatly catalogued, captured, stored, and pulled out to support decision making. (22)

The interesting conclusion one might draw is that, like the concept of “race” that made anthropologists “valuable” to mid-nineteenth century European and American colonizers, “culture” may now be performing a similar function.

The report tended to sideline the debates surrounding HTS, as evidenced by placement of the discussion in the mid to late sections of the report. Given that the starting premise of the Commission is that engagement with MIS cannot be repudiated (from their perspective), their discussion of ethics is cut down to suit. The Commission’s expressed avoidance of the political also displaces the report from the political realities that made the problem of anthropological engagement with MIS a problem to begin with. In other words, they have not answered the problem on its own terms. They have responded to politics with ethics, when there can be no ethical solution to what is, in its origins, a political problem. This fault in their analysis spills over to other sections of the report. “Opportunity” is usually discussed throughout the report as a means of practical support for the workings of institutions of military power. Opportunity is never discussed in terms of social transformation, and this slant itself reveals the politics behind the report. Studying up and supporting are not distinguished in the report. Moreover, the state-centric evaluation of ethical roles for anthropologists–that is, the Commission’s primary concern for the position of American anthropology and of the interests of the American state–is also a political position. What I find difficult to excuse then is the report’s overall lack of a sense of power and politics.

Engagement with MIS is problematic when one re-places the workings of these agencies in the context of U.S. imperialism. In that context, I find that any and all anthropological engagement with the military, intelligence, and security apparatus of a state that tries to exercise violent and coercive global domination is beyond problematic, it is to be rejected. In aiming for a mythical middle road, the most valued real estate of North American public discourse, the report ultimately fails to come to terms with history’s judgment of anthropology as the hand maiden of imperialism. Interestingly, the Commission is very aware of this judgment, and refers to it specifically in the report itself, but makes the critical error of passing it by as if it were a derivative and secondary consideration, rather than what it should have been: the starting premise of the entire report. This report, then, may well have the kinds of damaging consequences that it purportedly seeks to avoid. The road to hell may well be the middle of the road.


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