Anthropologists at War

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 6 months ago

In Anthropologists in Iraq – and Those in America Who Attack Them, I addressed in summary fashion the issue of the petition before the AAA (American Anthropological Association) for the association to denounce professional anthropologists who participate in the Human Terrain System (HTS), or at least, denounce the HTS program, with those who participate then being forced to “violate” the standards of their professional organization if they choose to participate.

As it turns out, the AAA has indeed denounced the HTS program initiated by the Department of Defense:  ” … the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association concludes (i) that the HTS program creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA 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.”

Ann Marlowe at Weekly Standard has a article also denouncing the HTS program for reasons that seem scattered and inconsistent, so I won’t address her objections since they make little or no sense to me.  Dave Dilegge at the Small Wars Journal Blog has done a good job of explaining why her objections make no sense and need to be reformulated before a meaningful retort can be crafted.  But I would like to take a different approach to this alleged problem by interacting with friend of The Captain’s Journal, Dr. Marcus B. Griffin who is currently performing anthropological research in Iraq and who blogs at From an Anthropological Perspective.

I have exchanged mail with Dr. Griffin and find him to be a researcher of the highest character who performs research with the highest ethical boundaries.  Concerning the AAA position statement, Dr. Griffin responds concerning ethical concern #2:

Obligations to one’s employer, in this case the US Army, is assumed to conflict with being an advocate of the subject population, or if not being an advocate then at least not harming the people being studied. The root of this concern hinges on the purpose of research conducted. If I am studying reciprocity and the cultural construct of obligation and indebtedness, how might this harm the subject population? Of course, if I was studying the social network of Al Qaeda leaders or Jayish Al Mahdi leaders in order to discern kingpins, there would be an ethical problem. But I’m not studying that or anything like it. What is more, no one is asking me to. This ethical concern grows out of an ignorance of military operations and staff specialization.

While I don’t wish to presume upon Dr. Griffin and question his professional obligations, here I take issue with Dr. Griffin’s response to the AAA because I believe that it fundamentally ignores the unstated presuppositions in the AAA statement.  Let’s say it a different way.  I believe in such a thing as Good Wars (1).  The degree to which Operation Iraqi Freedom comports with the requirements for Dr. Darrell Cole of William and Mary to declare it a “good war” is quite irrelevant to our point.  The AAA objects not only to Dr. Griffin’s participation in OIF, but to any anthropological participation in war: “… the Executive Board affirms, that anthropology can legitimately and effectively help guide U.S. policy to serve the humane causes of global peace and social justice.”

And therein lies the crux of the issue.  The nexus of the AAA objection and the constraints they place on their fellows has to do with the conduct of war itself (or counterinsurgency), not how anthropology might be used in said war (or COIN).  In that anthropology pertains to the study of man, his social systems, obligations and expectations, morays, family structures, religious institutions, and public behavior, every man, woman and child engages in the practice of anthropology almost every day.  Professional anthropologists generally do so with more rigor, system, discipline, and research, but they are not the only ones who practice their profession.  Anthropology is like the culinary arts.  Some people grill hot dogs and others grill steak and asparagus and make Bearnaise sauce.  But everyone eats to live (and some live to eat).

From the Lance Corporal to the Lt. Colonel, societal customs and expectations are part of not only the conduct of day to day operations but also the understanding of the enemy and his ways and means.  The debate isn’t really about anthropology and its entry to the battle space.  It’s there anyway, and has been since mankind first engaged in battle.  The AAA presumes to speak for all humankind when they declare anthropology off limits for consideration in the battle space.  Man can no more bifurcate his knowledge of humans and combat tactics and maneuvers when conducting battle than he can his own emotions and feelings.  The AAA has presented an impossible and preposterous obligation to its members and the armed forces (and it is this later implication that they have failed to see).

One example of this stands out to me as one of the most important nuggets of knowledge concerning Arabic armies that I have ever run across.  It was sent to me by an Army Colonel who has befriended me and who is a thinking man of extraordinary proportions (and who will remain unnamed since he is active duty) (2).  It should be studied by every field grade officer in every branch of the armed forces.  De Atkine assesses numerous failures of Arab armies, including the tendency to hoard information, over-centralize control and inhibit and discourage innovation, and then lands on an interesting point that in truth separates the U.S. armed forces from the rest of the world.

The social and professional gap between officers and enlisted men is present in all armies, but in the United States and other Western forces, the non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps bridges it. Indeed, a professional NCO corps has been critical for the American military to work at its best; as the primary trainers in a professional army, NCOs are critical to training programs and to the enlisted men’s sense of unit esprit. Most of the Arab world either has no NCO corps or it is non-functional, severely handicapping the military’s effectiveness. With some exceptions, NCOs are considered in the same low category as enlisted men and so do not serve as a bridge between enlisted men and officers. Officers instruct but the wide social gap between enlisted man and officer tends to make the learning process perfunctory, formalized, and ineffective.

This observation is entirely an anthropological one, and the prescription for amelioration is the same.  If ever the U.S. hopes to create a viable army in Iraq, it will require an understanding of the society and its people to make a viable NCO corps.  This can no more be removed from the task than can small arms with which to fire rounds at the enemy.

And thus I believe that Dr. Griffin’s objection, while heartfelt and professional, misses the point.  Studying al Qaeda and JAM leaders would be an entirely legitimate use of anthropology.  Lance Corporals and Lt. Colonels do it every day, from questioning the population and ensuring their security to concerning themselves with the support of families by the distribution of payment to concerned citizens and community watch programs (3) so that heads of families can support their children.

The AAA’s real objection is that they don’t want their members to have the latitude to make their own moral judgments concerning the application and use of their work.  Doctors, engineers and nurses make moral decisions every day.  The architect who designed the world trade center, and who later committed suicide, felt the weight of the human condition as much as Dr. Griffin in Iraq.  Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are concerned with the taking of human life (and the preserving of it) in the superlative degree, but it is an extension of the same concern for the human condition that they will employ throughout the balance of their lives.  There are tens of thousands of anthropologists at war every day.  Anthropology can no more be divorced from war than it can be from life.

1. Good Wars, First Things, Professor Darrell Cole.

2. Why Arabs Lose Wars, Norvell B. De Atkine.

3. Are we Bribing the Sheikhs?, Herschel Smith

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On November 23, 2007 at 1:06 pm, Dominique R. Poirier said:

    Not a lot to say that directly relates to this interesting post but two little things.

    The blog of Dr. Griffin sounds pretty interesting and I guess I’ll be one among its regular readers.

    Congratulations for the new graphic design of the Captain’s Journal! For a while I wondered what happened when I discovered it for the first time, this morning; and I went as far as to wonder whether someone didn’t hijack your URL.

    Nice Job! Very pleasant to browse. I’m not at all familiar with weblog editing, but until then appearances suggest that bloggers cannot but strictly submit to a draft established by computer developers. You successfully managed to stray a bit from those strict standards some readers could be somewhat weary of.
    Good looking pictures, clean layout, no-nonsensical or fantasy typography. A good frame that suits the excellence of your writing style and the interest of the matter you use to bring upon.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Anthropology,Featured,War & Warfare and was published November 22nd, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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