How the Human Terrain System challenges tenets of anthropology
By Jenni Zellner
For the past five years, the Human Terrain System has been employing “social scientists” and sending them to Middle Eastern countries in order to obtain information about the countries’ peoples that could be valuable to the military. According to the program’s official website, the HTS program employs these social scientists with the purpose of “improv[ing] the understanding of the local population and apply[ing] this understanding to the Military Decision-Making Process.”
Anthropology, which is essentially what the term “social science” implies in this situation, is built on a foundation of respect for different cultures and is purely for the use of learning and understanding cultural diversity. Using anthropologists to collect information for government purposes violates two basic tenets of anthropology: transparency and peaceful interaction.
However, the HTS program also begs the question—can the rules of professional ethics be bent in times of strife? Is it acceptable to toy with the lines of right and wrong for the greater purpose of protecting one’s country and bringing peace? Although representatives of the HTS program agreed to give more information regarding their program, when presented with these questions, they did not maintain contact.
While some may think these codes can be demoted to guidelines, anthropologist Megan Callaghan, a professor at Bard College, disagrees. “The American Anthropological Association [AAA] … has a Code of Ethics that includes voluntary informed consent and a commitment to do no harm to research participants,” she said. “It’s difficult to see how an anthropologist involved in Human Terrain System could obtain informed consent. How can you be confident that individuals perceive participation as voluntary when you are acting on behalf of the military in the middle of a war? This is probably the most fundamental problem of HTS in terms of disciplinary ethics.”
Voluntary informed consent means that the subjects of an anthropological study have been informed of the study and do not object to their actions or statements being recorded. If anthropologists are instructed to conceal their true purpose, they are in violation of the AAA’s ethical codes and, as a result, are essentially special government agents.
Anthropologists who participate in the HTS program are put through extensive training before entering the field. According to the HTS website, “All HTS deployable personnel train in Leavenworth, Kan. Baseline training for deploying personnel consists of approximately four and a half months of instruction on the subjects, like area-specific orientation training, field research methods and techniques, military staff planning and procedures, and MAP-HT Toolkit use. Training culminates in a capstone exercise intended to simulate how HTTs plan and operate in support of a deployed brigade.”
The HTS website gives a detailed breakdown of the members of each “team,” which includes a mix of military and civilian personnel. Each nine-person team consists of a leader, two social scientists, three research managers and three human terrain analysts who are particularly knowledgeable about the location.
Social scientists may be issued military weapons before entering the country they plan to study. By carrying weapons, even in the name of self-defense, the anthropologists’ promise to uphold peace is as good as broken.*
If anthropologists are violating their own regulations for their field, are they really practicing anthropology? While the HTS website gives an extensive list of the duties of each individual, not a single member seems to be in charge of maintaining peace or respect for the subjects, nor is there any kind of overarching implication that peace is valuable to the HTS teams.
Despite its anthropological violations, it is important to recognize HTS’ positive aspects. To make contact with foreign parties, it is necessary and respectful to be educated in their culture. This is a key point of the HTS program. However, if the HTS program chooses to use the information they gather against Middle Eastern peoples, then any merit the program has is lost. In order for the HTS program to be perceived in positive light, it is important for them to convey how the information they collect is being used and whether or not it is for any unethical purpose. Otherwise, to secretly survey a group of peoples without their consent and at their own expense, and subsequently call it anthropology, is without a doubt unjustified and wrong.
Jenni Zellner is a sophomore English and anthropology major who wears her notebook on her sleeve. E-mail her at email@example.com.
*Editors’ Note: This article has been updated since its original publication in the following ways: The term “social scientist” has replaced “anthropologist” twice, and the paragraph on military-issued weapons has been updated to reflect changes on the HTS website since the piece was published. The HTS program did not respond to the writer’s request for an interview in order to elaborate further on these topics.