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Anthropology, Human Rights,
and “Human Terrain”
Hugh Gusterson
Professor, Anthropology
George Mason University
[email protected]
• “The decisive terrain is the human terrain,
not the high ground or river crossing.”
• General David Petraeus
• “One anthropologist is worth a B2
– Human Terrain employee
Human Terrain Team Essentials
• Announced 2007
• 27 teams in all (April 2009)
– 21 in Iraq, 6 in Afghanistan
2 social scientists, 3 military personnel
Social scientists in uniform, some armed
Reachback research centers in US
3 social scientists killed to date
DoD seeks expansion of program
Source: Newsweek April 21,2008
Kinder, Gentler Warfare?
• Increase cross-cultural understanding
• Discern needs of ordinary Afghans/Iraqis
• Reduce kinetic force
– Not tactical intelligence
American Anthropological Association Executive Board
Statement on the Human Terrain System Project
October 31, 2007
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.
Network of Concerned Anthropologists
Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency
We, the undersigned, believe that anthropologists should not engage in research and other activities that
contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theaters in the “war on terror.” Furthermore, we
believe that anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting the US military in combat, be it through torture,
interrogation, or tactical advice.
US military and intelligence agencies and military contractors have identified “cultural knowledge,” “ethnographic
intelligence,” and “human terrain mapping” as essential to US-led military intervention in Iraq and other parts of the
Middle East. Consequently, these agencies have mounted a drive to recruit professional anthropologists as
employees and consultants. While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world,
protects US soldiers on the battlefield, or promotes cross-cultural understanding, at base it contributes instead to a
brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties. By so doing, such work breaches relations of
openness and trust with the people anthropologists work with around the world and, directly or indirectly, enables
the occupation of one country by another. In addition, much of this work is covert. Anthropological support for such
an enterprise is at odds with the humane ideals of our discipline as well as professional standards.
We are not all necessarily opposed to other forms of anthropological consulting for the state, or for the military,
especially when such cooperation contributes to generally accepted humanitarian objectives. A variety of views
exist among us, and the ethical issues are complex. Some feel that anthropologists can effectively brief diplomats
or work with peacekeeping forces without compromising professional values. However, work that is covert, work
that breaches relations of openness and trust with studied populations, and work that enables the occupation of
one country by another violates professional standards.
Consequently, we pledge not to undertake research or other activities in support of counter-insurgency work in Iraq
or in related theaters in the “war on terror,” and we appeal to colleagues everywhere to make the same
Key finding
• “When ethnographic investigation is determined
by military missions, not subject to external
review, where data collection occurs in the
context of war, integrated into the goals of
counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive
environment… it can no longer be considered a
legitimate professional exercise of
anthropology… CEAUSSIC suggests that the
AAA emphasise the incompatibility of HTS with
disciplinary ethics and practice for job seekers.”
Informed consent (1)
• “The voluntary consent of the human subject is
absolutely essential. This means that the person
involved should have legal capacity to give
consent; should be so situated as to be able to
exercise free power of choice, without the
intervention of any element of force, fraud,
deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior
form of constraint or coercion; and should have
sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the
elements of the subject matter involved as to
enable him to make an understanding and
enlightened decision.”
• Nuremberg Code
Informed Consent (2)
• “to enter a community as a member of the
military, a person with the power and the
weight of the US army behind her/him,
brings about a level of power that the local
person cannot act against – since any
reaction can get them arrested or killed.”
– Patricia Omidian
Obligation to Colleagues
• “Anthropologists should do all they can to
preserve opportunities for future
fieldworkers to follow them to the field.”
(AAA Ethics code).
Obligation to do no harm
• Lack of clear rules to safeguard and
anonymize data
• Inherent ambiguity of battlefield context
• Danger data used as tactical intelligence
• “anthropologists should not fool
themselves. Human Terrain teams
whether they want to acknowledge it or
not, in a generalized and subtle way, do at
some point contribute to the collective
knowledge of a commander which allows
him to target and kill the enemy.”
– Lt. Col. Gian Gentile
Harm (2)?
• “All I’m concerned about is pushing our
information to as many soldiers as
possible. The reality is there are people
out there who are looking for bad guys to
kill… I’d rather they did not operate in a
– HTS anthropologist quoted in Dallas Morning
• Program overwhelmingly rejected by
– 417 HTS employees; 11 = anthropologists
• Pentagon’s consequentialist logic countered with
professional ethics
– Iraqis & Afghans as human subjects with rights under
Nuremberg Code
• Media have almost entirely ignored this aspect
of story