The following post was submitted by Hugh Gusterson, a professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at George Washington University. A specialist on nuclear culture, the political economy of violence, and on ethics and the social sciences, Gusterson is the author of Nuclear Rites (University of California Press, 1996) and People of the Bomb (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
Anthropologist Roberto Gonzalez recently published an article revealing that, a few months ago, the U.S. government quietly closed down the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) program. The program, announced in late 2007, sought to embed anthropologists in armed military teams gathering information on what the military called the “human terrain” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program was condemned for placing anthropologists in situations where they were likely to violate the AAA ethics code by the AAA Executive Board in 2007 and then again in 2009 by a Task Force that investigated the program in depth. Despite HTS salaries larger than those earned by full professors at Harvard, in the end almost no anthropologists signed up to HTS, and the U.S. Army tried to make do with other kinds of social scientists instead. As a recent article in USA Today makes clear, the program was plagued by scandals and mismanagement.
Shortly after the revelation that the Human Terrain System program had been closed down, the New York Times published a front-page story on a 542-page report commissioned by the American Psychological Association. The report found that APA officials had “colluded” with the Pentagon to water down the Association’s ethics code, ensuring that professional psychologists could participate in practices that would otherwise be seen as torture. Noting that a 2005 APA task force was crammed with national security insiders, the report said that “A.P.A. chose its ethics policy based on its goals of helping O.D., managing its P.R., and maximizing the growth of the profession.” Access the full report here.
We can safely assume that this will not be the last time the U.S. military will seek to enlist social scientists in a war effort, so what are the lessons we can learn from this episode that might offer guidance for the next?
Both the AAA and the APA incidents dramatize the tension between the values of academia and the values of the military. The military is a hierarchical, task-oriented organization that sometimes has to cut ethical corners to achieve its goals. Academic organizations, at their best, are quite different: grad students can challenge professors in a way that enlisted men cannot challenge officers; and academics prioritize knowledge, open inquiry, original thought (even when the ideas are controversial) and intellectual difference over uniformity in the interest of getting a task done. This is not to criticize the military but to point out that, when they offer patronage to academics, there will be tension between what they expect and what we are used to. And he who pays the piper calls the tune. When the Pentagon launched its Minerva Initiative (to fund social science research useful for counterinsurgency), they expected their researchers not to use any information from WikiLeaks, although it was all in the public domain at that point, and they threatened to pull the funding of researchers who would not comply. And when the US Army launched HTS, they expected anthropologists to compromise their ethics code to help the military fulfill its mission.
One lesson for social scientists is that, when the military offers lots of resources to enlist us in their projects, we should examine very carefully what we are being asked to do in order to see if it is compatible with our disciplinary values and our ethics code. I was very proud of the way the American Anthropological Association dealt with HTS. The Association appointed two task forces, both well balanced between critics and anthropologists who worked with the military, to examine the issues carefully and deliberately. They concluded at the end of this careful process that anthropologists would be in grave danger of violating our ethics code and endangering human subjects if we worked with HTS, and so strongly recommended that anthropologists steer clear of the program. In the meantime, in the grassroots of the organization, members held their own debates, and many signed a pledge not to participate.
I’m sure the military will be back before too long, trying to enlist anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and psychologists in various projects. I recommend that these social scientists’ professional organizations not be stampeded by cheap patriotism, or the convenience of easy money, but take the time to think through very carefully the implications of what they are being asked to do and that they ensure that critics of military funding are well incorporated into their deliberative processes.
I have some advice for the military too. In the HTS debate, they showed themselves to be exceptionally poor ethnographers. They descended on our professional meetings to check us out, but didn’t seem to be able to hear what we said. They assumed that if they just kept repeating their talking points, we’d give in. They never understood the importance of the ethics code to anthropologists. And they believed some very marginal anthropologists who said it was just a radical fringe opposing them in the discipline, when it was actually the overwhelming majority of the membership of the Association.