BBC Documentary on Militarily Embedded Social Scientists

BBC Radio 4 has an interesting documentary on Human Terrain System, the military program which embeds social scientists (so far around 50) with the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s entitled “Anthropology at War”, although other discciplines have also been brought into the program, including Religious Studies. There’s postive input from Marcus Griffin, who chose to give up his academic position for a military career (his website is being redesigned, but his old blog can be seen here), and from Montgomery McFate, who is the program’s Senior Social Scientist. They argue that social scientists can provide the army with crucial cultural knowledge that can save lives, and McFate assures us that social scientists provide information only, rather than intelligence – there is a “red line” against anthropologists advising on potential targets for attack.

Unsurprisingly, though, there are also a number of critics: we hear from Roberto Gonzalez of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists and from Hugh Gusterson, both of whom see particpation as a compromise of academic values, in particular the free informed consent of informants. There are also concerns that social scientists are being brought in without area expertise; Michael Gilsenan complains that:

One of the problems in all this is the notion that you can parachute in to a society in which you are in this very peculiar situation of massive invasion and death, population displacements and so on, and just have a tool-kit, which is called “the anthropology tool-kit”, with military commanders over your shoulder saying “what we really need to know is this or that.” It is an illlusion to think that you can take your tool-kit into these or any other circumstances without a knowledge of language, history, and culture and so on…And what that’s associated with is the idea that Iraqis have something called “a culture”, and it’s a very puzzling “culture”, and its why they behave so oddly and differently from us, and that if an anthropologist can only come along and say “ah, but they have honour”, or “ah, but they are tribal”, then the next thing you know people are giving talks here about the “secret” of the Arab world. So you then get these bizarre accounts which feed into in field manuals and interrogation technique ideas that Arab men are peculiarly vulnerable to sexual humiliation. So what it does is produce some essential notion of something called “the Arab culture”, thus re-enforcing every racial and cultural stereotype we have and making it yet more difficult to talk about history, economy, society, and the politics of what we do.

Also interviewed is Zenia Tompkins (formerly Zenia Helbig), a Religious Studies graduate who was trained for the program but rejected as a security risk at the last moment for joking about “joining the other side” in an argument with a soldier who favoured a bombing campaign against Iran. Helbig claims that the real reason was that she had criticised the army’s contractor for recruitment to HTS, none other than BAE Systems:

The first comment they made to me on my first day of training, a BAE representative looked me up and down and said, “well, what’s a degree in Islamic Studies have to do with Iraq? I was told I’m getting anthropologists”.

(Tompkins’ husband was also involved in HTS, and his critical blog can be seen here)

So far three “Human Terrain” recruits have been killed in action. One of these was Nicole Suveges, and the documentary includes a word from her PhD supervisor, Mark Blyth. Blyth was opposed to the Iraq war and is sceptical of HTS, but he respected her personal integrity:

This was her way of becoming involved in such a way that she thought she could make a difference in what was an awful situation and make it slightly less awful. This is what she wanted to do, and I don’t think that I occupy a higher moral plane than her, and if she was comfortable with the choices she made, if she believed what she was doing was saving lives, if she believed in what she took her life there to be, then who am I to critique it?

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  1. […] I previously blogged on ethical controversy around anthropology here. […]

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