Do professional ethics matter in war? Hugh Gusterson

“The Human Terrain project is fundamentally incompatible with the professional ethics by which we anthropologists live.”

From Hugh Gusterson, “Do professional ethics matter in war?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 04 March 2010:

….In the fall of 2007, the executive board of the American Anthropological Association issued an unusually strongly worded statement condemning the Human Terrain project: “The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association concludes (i) that the [Human Terrain System] program creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the [the association’s] Code of Ethics and (ii) that its use of anthropologists poses a danger to both other anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study. Thus the Executive Board expresses its disapproval of the HTS program [italics in original].” The executive board also appointed a special commission to investigate the project. The 10-member commission, which included two military anthropologists and another who works for Sandia National Laboratories, unanimously concluded in December 2009 that the Human Terrain project was inconsistent with anthropologists’ code of ethics and couldn’t “be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.”

Since then a group called the Network of Concerned Anthropologists has launched a signature campaign petitioning Congress to pull the plug on this rogue exercise in anthropology. (Full disclosure: I am on the network’s steering committee.) So far 720 anthropologists have signed on to this word-of-mouth campaign. They include 6 former presidents of the American Anthropological Association, 37 distinguished professors, 40 department chairs, and 10 journal editors. The signatures, which fill up 20 densely packed pages, are, for this anthropologist, a wonder to behold. One finds there the signatures of crusty emeritus professors, mid-career academics, and job-hungry graduate students. The big names of anthropology at leading Ivy League departments lie side by side with those toiling away in community colleges. The signatures represent an extraordinary outpouring of opinion from anthropologists of all ages, from untenured beginners to the securely tenured alike, that the Human Terrain project is fundamentally incompatible with the professional ethics by which we anthropologists live.

Anthropologists condemn the Human Terrain project because it’s widely perceived as violating our ethics code in three regards. The first concern is that it contravenes what we might think of as the prime directive of anthropological ethics, an analogue to medicine’s Hippocratic Oath, stipulating that anthropologists shouldn’t do harm to those people and communities they study. Asking an anthropologist to gather intelligence that may lead to someone’s death or imprisonment, even if it’s supposedly to save the lives of others, is like asking an army doctor to kill a wounded insurgent, a therapist to turn over an addicted client to the police, or a priest to violate the sanctity of the confessional. Just as doctors are supposed to care for the wounded without asking which side they’re on, so too, anthropologists have a professional obligation toward those they study.

The anthropologists’ second concern, grounded in the Nuremberg Code’s insistence that all research be based upon free and informed consent, is that when Iraqis and Afghans are asked by men with guns if they would like to chat with an anthropologist, they’re not really free to say no.

The third concern is that anthropologists have an obligation not to do research that might endanger other anthropologists. Many anthropologists are concerned that if their discipline becomes perceived as the human relations branch of military occupation, the lives of genuinely civilian anthropologists working as academics or for development projects elsewhere in the Middle East will be endangered.

U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the branch of the U.S. Army in charge of the Human Terrain project, is well aware of the anthropological community’s objections. It would be nice to report that faced with such protests military leaders had found other methods to achieve their goals. But, TRADOC hasn’t engaged the American Anthropological Association about its ethical objections. Instead it has intensified its attempts to recruit anthropologists, using contractors to approach individuals with job offers and is seeking expanded funding for the program and a permanent line for it in the defense budget. When Montgomery McFate, one of the architects of the project, spoke at George Mason University, where I teach, my department chair pointed out to her that the project risked undermining the efficacy and integrity of the entire field of anthropology. Her reply: “Do you think the interest of anthropologists doing research trumps national security?”

Construing the choice as one between anthropology and national security is wrong-headed, since there’s now plenty of evidence that the Human Terrain project isn’t only unethical, but also ineffective. Leaks from within the program suggest that on some teams relations between civilian anthropologists and soldiers are toxic; that the failure to recruit many anthropologists who are trained in Middle Eastern cultures is crippling; that the expensive information technology promised for the project hasn’t materialized, so that information gathered by some teams is inaccessible to others; and that embedded anthropologists are hampered from doing serious work by their own lack of language skills and suggestions that they talk to subjects for no longer than seven minutes to avoid getting shot by snipers. (I recommend this eye-opening account of the training of Human Terrain anthropologists from the point of view of a recruit who eventually resigned on principle.) It’s not just academics that find fault with the program: One civilian advisor to the British military recently told me that although a U.S. Human Terrain team had been offered to them they see the teams as more trouble than they’re worth and are trying to find a polite way to decline.

Some in the military also criticize the program. In an article in Military Review, U.S. Marine Maj. Ben Connable argues that the military would do better relying on the cultural knowledge of their own junior officers than on civilian anthropologists, who usually know more about academic theory than about the reality inside Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s also clear that the Human Terrain project has inflicted a kind of collateral damage on anthropology’s relationship with the military, making it harder for the military to enlist anthropologists for other less controversial work.

U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will tell you they’re fighting for freedom and democracy. Yet just as we can fight terrorists without waterboarding and without downgrading our standards for fair trials (a case that has been made courageously by military interrogators and military lawyers who have refused to compromise their professional codes of honor), so we can press Al Qaeda and the Taliban without forcing anthropologists to eviscerate the ethics code they have built over more than a century. We don’t have to ask anthropologists to choose between their code of conduct and national security. This is like saying, “we had to destroy the village in order to save the village.” We can do better.

Read the complete article here.

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9 thoughts on “Do professional ethics matter in war? Hugh Gusterson

  1. I’m slowly making my way through your archives. You’ve got a really great site here! I think you’ve done a fine job of discussing many of the problems with the Human Terrain System. But I have to say that I’m one of the minority who does not think that anthropologists working with the military is a bad idea. It just seems that the HTS has been horribly, horribly executed.

    When the AAA released their report condemning the HTS on ethical grounds — well, I didn’t understand it. According to the AAA Code of Ethics, “researchers must be open about the purpose(s), potential impacts, and source(s) of support for research projects with… persons studied or providing information, and with relevant parties affected by the research”. And so, these anthropologists are obliged to tell their subjects that they are working for the military. If the subject deems that participation in a project funded by the military in question is inappropriate, or could have harmful repercussions, he or she may refuse to participate. There is no secrecy here, no clandestine operations. Further, if a researcher claims that his or her project is supported by someone other than the military, then clearly the project is supported by someone other than the military! No lies can be told without violating the Code of Ethics. There is no reason, then, that this Human Terrain System should cause all research subjects to think that all anthropologists are working directly for a military body, simply because the subjects should already know who the researcher really is working for. The Code continues: “Research fulfilling these expectations is ethical, regardless of the source of funding or purpose.”

    Critics say that anthropologists working for the military damage the community as a whole; that future research subjects will view all anthropologists as “intelligence gatherers for the American military”. Are they not? Are all anthropologists not intelligence gatherers for not only all militaries, but all people? When a work is published, it is out of the hands of its creator. No control can be exercised over who reads the work, who uses it, or how it is used. And so what difference does it make who the financial backer of the work is? The military may indeed misuse an individual’s work, but, since all published work can be used by anyone for whatever purpose, this only suggests that no research whatsoever should be pursued in countries where the US military has any interest. And that can lead only to cowering in an armchair, afraid to pursue any research out of fear of how it may be used, which I view as far more harmful to Anthropology than the misuse of its works.

  2. If others wish to engage in this discussion, I hope they do so, because I don’t want to dominate the exchange here — especially since a long delayed post I have been working on concerns that very report, and I hope to have it up within the next 10 days or so (very busy time of year).

    Just a couple of points for now. One is whether informed consent can ever really be gained in a battle zone, by one of the parties to a conflict. The second is what happens to the research — previous articles here, and articles by others, have shown that HTS reports are fed into larger databases over which they have no control, and for which the purpose (and the equipment made to draw on the database) is targeting (among other purposes) — which violates our “do no harm” principle. Your last paragraph comes very close to some of the things I have been arguing, so I cannot flat out say, “No! You’re wrong!” and then proceed to make similar points myself.

    Many thanks for the very good questions, I hope others will add their own views as well.

  3. “One is whether informed consent can ever really be gained in a battle zone, by one of the parties to a conflict.”

    Very true. Though informed consent is always a tricky topic. Your second ethical point in the above article (“when Iraqis and Afghans are asked by men with guns if they would like to chat with an anthropologist, they’re not really free to say no.”) is an obvious example of what is not a free choice or what would generally be accepted as informed consent.

    This seems to me to be one of the larger problems that you are attempting to tackle with Zero Anth. For most of our discipline’s history, the researcher has been from the colonial/imperial power and the ones researched hail from the less powerful groups. So there are always external factors in the decision of the subject to partake in the research. There are always incentives to do so (or not to do so) — and, because of the cultural barrier that often exists in our work, there are always issues around what is “informed” consent.

    “The second is what happens to the research…”
    I think that where I differ from some other people is that I, personally, do not think of owning my work after it is published. I’m not down with people taking certain items out of context, or skewing my words to say something different, but I do not think of myself as having any real control over what is or is not done with the work. I’m a Creative Commons type of guy. And so I can’t stand in opposition to ‘my’ work being “fed into larger databases over which they have no control”. That goes back to the point I made in my previous comment: if I was so concerned about how my research was to be used, I could not perform any research, out of fear of hit aiding people whose aims I do not agree with. Once the information is out there — well, the information is out there. Available to anyone.

    Looking forward to your future posts!

  4. Thanks very much.

    Well, I gave others a chance (lol) — actually, just a brief comment from me for now. Where I differ with even those who are firmly against HTS, is precisely on these sorts of issues, that there is plenty we do, without any formal contract with the military, to deepen imperial power.

    Your point about Creative Commons…that can be problematic. For example, in the case of my university and its ethics clearance panels — one must promise to destroy data after a certain time, and to safeguard it in the meantime (preferably under lock and key), to avoid betraying confidentiality, causing unexpected harm, etc. There is no sense that taking our data and making it all available to anyone is either ethical, or acceptable to a lot of the people who host us for our research. So “we” can be open source in our spirit, but the decision should not be made by us alone.

    “I could not perform any research, out of fear of it aiding people whose aims I do not agree with” (taken out of the context in which you wrote this, as you argue that such fear will paralyze us, not that we should let it do so) — and you made a similar point before, which I alluded to in passing last time as being one of the topics I like to raise. But I raise it in a different manner. I have actually sworn myself to do no more ethnographic work among powerless and peripheral communities, and even if I did, there would be no records made (no notes, no documents, no recordings, no sketches, no interviews, and no conversations that I start). My focus is instead on what is deliberately meant to be publicly available (and thus my data gathering is not necessary, and my “fieldwork” becomes a kind of social bookmarking instead, part of what I call “open source ethnography”), and current and future research (whether it can be classed as ethnographic or not), will focus on counter-surveillance against the powerful. Or, to put it differently, in terms of “traditional” anthropology, my anthropology will be “useless”…of “zero” value to those who have fed upon it historically. For some this makes me an “extremist,” and perhaps I really am extreme enough that I do not even care about the label, which is to say that if “you” wish to call me an extremist, that’s alright, whatever.

    I have been asked: “What if a community invites you to research it?” In my view that is a very remote possibility to begin with. How many instances of this do we know of? Secondly, I would rather collaborate with members of that community in developing their own research skills and methods, suited to their history and culture, rather than take the lead myself.

  5. Hi Max and Pig Monkey,

    These are exactly the type of ethical concerns I think we should be looking at, rather than the more general, “bloody flag”, tenor of most discussions. As Max knows, I do not reject working with the military, although I do have concerns.

    I wanted to toss out a couple of observations that are, IMO, worth bringing up.

    First, on the issue of data and publications, I think it is useful to distinguish between what we have control over and at what point we loose that control. For example, our fieldnotes, assuming that we have taken them, are under our control IFF we choose to exercise that control.

    * If one were to work for the military in the field, then some of that control is given up. In and of itself, that is not so different from what happens when one works for private industry, government departments or advocacy groups.

    * Indeed, there are legal strictures in place in both Canada and the US that may require us to hand over our fieldnotes. So to make an a priori assumption that we only loose control over them when engaged with the military is a false assumption.

    * In some (limited) situations, we can be forced by our professional associations or universities to produce our fieldnotes, for example to counter accusations that we have “made up” our data.

    * As a general rule of thumb, anything published should be assumed to be used by others in manners that we may well not approve of. This implies, to my mind at least, that publications are an intervention point for ethical considerations.

    Second, on the issue of informed consent. This is an extremely problematic situation as everyone who has done fieldwork should realize. There is an inherent assumption in much of the debate that “we” (Anthropologists) hold “power over” our informants; a convenient illusion that supports all too many weak egos that need a constant stream of “Oh, you are so wonderful” reinforcement.

    * In some cases, mainly historical stemming from the colonial era, yes, we certainly had a lot of influence if not direct power. The same should certainly not be assumed at present, and to make such an assumption is the height of arrogance on our part.

    * In the case of HTT operations, I have heard of some instances where the team members were viewed as a communications channel to local commanders that by-passed the “official” channels and, as such, were deemed to be incredibly useful by local groups and individuals whether or not they either understood the context of the research or, even, cared about it.

    * There is, to my mind, a critical misunderstanding among many of the Anthropologists who refuse to have anything to do with the military on so-called ethical grounds. That misunderstanding is rooted in the question of who is actually being studied: the “locals” or the “military”. If you actually look at what the HTS is supposed to be doing (and please note that I said “supposed”), you can see that their focus is actually on the US military, not only the local populations.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts before having enough coffee.

  6. “In some cases, mainly historical stemming from the colonial era, yes, we certainly had a lot of influence if not direct power. The same should certainly not be assumed at present, and to make such an assumption is the height of arrogance on our part.”

    The point I was aiming at is not that we have “power over” those whom we research, but that power relationships still exist, mostly in the form of socio-economics. If I as an American were to go to Afghanistan to perform research with some Hazara village, who I am and where I come from will probably factor in to their decision as to whether they work with me or not. For better or worse, I am not just an anthropologist, but a representative of and a channel to a still powerful nation. If I as a middle-class, university educated, white guy go to inner-city Detroit to perform research with youth gang members, those same factors will color how they choose to deal with me.

    But I think we agree. These ethical issues over how published data is used and what is or is not informed consent is not unique to working with the military.

  7. Just one note Marc, on something that I see as an especially problematic assumption:

    “In some cases, mainly historical stemming from the colonial era, yes, we certainly had a lot of influence if not direct power. The same should certainly not be assumed at present, and to make such an assumption is the height of arrogance on our part.”

    And why should the same not be assumed at present? Because colonialism is “ancient history”? And why should it not be assumed in a situation where Afghans are under the occupation of armed foreigners with their own plans for their country…i.e., colonialism? We might quibble over the use of terms, whether colonialism, neo-colonialism, or imperialism. But after a few decades of armed conflict with invading superpowers, I would think it pretty wise and reasonable to make these assumptions. There have been enough researchers and foreign aid workers getting killed in Afghanistan to make the case, quite strongly I would have thought, that to say the least the assumptions I am defending are not that far-fetched.

    There are a whole bunch of First Nations and American Indian reservations right here in North America that would also line up to reject your point here. The fact remains that we have ultimate and absolute power over what we take away from these communities, and what we say in their absence and to whom (our comments reinforce this point). It’s not so much about the power dynamics of the actual ethnographic encounter itself. However, it can be that too, and I say that as a white foreigner who did his research in the Caribbean — rest assured, there was absolutely nothing antiquated about the power dynamics arising from colonialism. I would not personalize this and reduce it to an ego issue, we are dealing with forces that go far beyond the level of ego, to social structure, history, and geopolitics.

  8. Hi Max,

    “And why should the same not be assumed at present? Because colonialism is “ancient history”?”

    Actually, I was referring to a disciplinary inclination. Personally, I wouldn’t call the current setup “colonialism”, the Latin (& Greek) term “imperium” is a much better descriptor. What I was really getting at is that a lot of the groups we study actually have more power than we do and, perhaps more importantly, they have equal access to globally available media. That I why I was saying that the assumption is both dangerous and arrogant.

    Please note that I am not saying that there will not be power imbalances. That, however, is, IMHO, a condition of life, so I try not to get tied up in knots over it. I also find it interesting that you take the case of researchers and aid workers getting killed in Afghanistan as supporting your point. Personally, I would say that it rather supports mine as a pretty clear example of differential power.

    “The fact remains that we have ultimate and absolute power over what we take away from these communities, and what we say in their absence and to whom (our comments reinforce this point).”

    We certainly have power over what we take away and what we say about the experience, but it is by no means either “ultimate” or “absolute”. For one thing, many of the groups we work with have access to the ‘net and can present their own representations in opposition to ours. For another thing, we are hemmed in by our own socio-cultural restrictions (e.g. legal and ethical frameworks, departmental sub-culture, publishing houses, etc. ad nauseum).

    Asserting that we have such “ultimate and absolute” power over representations is, I believe, the very Colonialist attitude that you rail against so much. That attitude is also one of the reasons why I believe large parts of the discipline have become totally irrelevant: who wants to listen to a bunch of people with delusions of grandeur?

    Max, I’m sure you have sat down with people and listened to them and thought to yourself “this person is acting like an idiot!”; not because they disagreed with you on particulars, but because you thought they were being willfully blind to something that was obvious. I would suggest to you that the belief that we hold power solely by virtue of representational ability is a similar blind spot. We have influence, to varying degrees, but that influence is tempered by too many factors to be anything near absolute .

    ps. I had clicked for notification of follow-up comments since I knew you would respond ( ;-) ), but none came.

  9. No, I just took my time in responding :-)

    Asserting that we have such “ultimate and absolute” power over representations is, I believe, the very Colonialist attitude that you rail against so much.

    It’s not the assertion that is colonialist. When I say “we” that includes anthropologists plus the creators of the various “legal and ethical frameworks, departmental sub-culture, publishing houses” that you mention. We, within the framework of Western, professional, institutions. You agree that we have power over what we take away, but then say that the groups we study have access to the Web and can make their own representations — that does not invalidate the point however. We still have power over what we take away. Why such groups would consider hosting us, when they can make their own representations is another matter — perhaps one of power differentials.

    I like your use of my example of researchers and aid workers getting killed. Well done. I don’t think that foreign workers, even armed ones, have that much more power than an armed resistance. I was speaking more of informed consent, but in any case, I like your point.

    Yes, I agree that some of us may study very powerful groups — I would not use that as a basis for generalizing about power differentials in ethnographic encounters however. As for groups that have “equal access” to global media, I presume you mean the Web…because I doubt you or I have equal access to mainstream media that, say, a Conrad Black might have had. When it comes to the Web, HTS researchers are dealing mostly with illiterate villagers.

    I also like your point about terminology. Agreed, it was sloppy.

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