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Anthropologists Up in Arms Over Pentagon’s “Human Terrain System” to Recruit Graduate Students to Serve in Iraq, Afghanistan

StoryDecember 13, 2007
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A new $40 million Pentagon program called the Human Terrain System has begun enlisting recruits with graduate degrees in anthropology to serve in the military. The move has anthropologists up in arms. They point to the ethical implications of renewing a program like CORDS during the Vietnam War, that assassinated over 26,000 suspected Viet Cong. We speak with David Price, a founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the issue of anthropologists and war. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Well, the Pentagon has a new strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. An experimental $40 million program called the Human Terrain System has begun enlisting recruits of a different kind to win the battle of hearts and minds. They have graduate degrees in anthropology and serve as cultural advisers to the US military.

Some military analysts have hailed the program as the twenty-first century equivalent of a Vietnam-era military project called CORDS, or Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support.

But the move has anthropologists up in arms. They point to the ethical implications of renewing a program like CORDS, that assassinated over 26,000 suspected Viet Cong.

In September, a group of scholars formed the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. Inspired by physicists who opposed the Reagan-era Star Wars program, they drafted a “Pledge of Non-Participation in Counter-Insurgency.”

AMY GOODMAN: By late October, the executive board of the American Anthropological Association issued a preliminary statement calling the Human Terrain System project “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.” The Association’s Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities released its final report in November. It emphasized certain kinds of involvement with the military would violate the Association’s Code of Ethics.

David Price is associate professor of anthropology at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He’s a founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. He was also a member of the Association’s Ad Hoc Commission. He has written extensively on the history and ethics of anthropologists interacting with members of the military and intelligence agencies.

David Price joins us now from Seattle. Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID PRICE: Good morning. Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you lay out what this debate is?

DAVID PRICE: Well, this debate very much cuts to the core of what the appropriate uses of anthropology are, regarding warfare and regarding large ethical issues about what does it mean to have anthropologists embedded with military forces during a time of war. You know, there are large ethical issues about embedding ethnographers with troops. Basically, fundamental research ethics require that research subjects have voluntary meaningful informed consent, that they’re told, you know, what’s going to be done with the research, and that no harm come to those who are studied.

The executive board of the American Anthropological Association weighed these and others issues and made a very strong statement against the Human Terrain program, because it saw it clearly wandering into these very ethical problematic areas and not really showing due concern for the people who are studied.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What specifically is the Human Terrain program? How did it start, and how does it typically operate now in places like Afghanistan and Iraq?

DAVID PRICE: The Human Terrain program is run through BAE, which is a contracting agency. You know, in some ways it’s very similar to Blackwater in the way that it works. What they do is they take ethnographers, they take anthropologists, who may or may not have cultural expertise in the areas where they’re working, and they take these ethnographers, embed them with the troops, they travel with them, and then they try and advise commanders about taking culturally appropriate action.

Now, the claim by Human Terrain is that they can reduce casualties by giving more nuanced information to people in battle situations. But there’s a lot more to it than that, especially in that people in the Pentagon see this as being linked to the CORDS program. CORDS program in Vietnam was used to map human terrain, to identify suspected individuals and groups that the military believed were sympathizers for the Viet Cong, who were, in the Vietnam era, targeted for assassination.

Now, supposedly what’s going on with Human Terrain is that, you know, it’s essentially a manners lesson for people in the battlefield. But the problem is, is that there are armed ethnographers. Not all the ethnographers working for Human Terrain carry weapons, but we do know there are instances where they do. They’re given the option to do so. So they travel with troops and independently in the countryside, gathering culture information that they bring back and give to the command.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So these are not necessarily people who are already in the military? They’re, in essence, contracted to work alongside the military and embedded with them; is that accurate?

DAVID PRICE: That’s correct, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, my understanding is that this is also potentially very lucrative. One of the folks who apparently spoke at the convention, who had been involved — at the anthropologist convention — who had been involved in this, claims she was getting offered a salary of $100,000 with special pay as a result of being in Iraq. It totaled up to $300,000 annually, was the salary?

DAVID PRICE: Yeah. These are certainly the reports that are coming out, well in excess of $100,000. And again, these are people with sort of marginal regional expertise who are being used. So, yeah, starting pay is certainly over $100,000, and by the time you’re done — especially if you’re living abroad for more than a year, you can wind up doing it tax-free — there are reports that people are getting close to $300,000 for their payment for services.

AMY GOODMAN: David Price, I want to follow up on this woman that Juan is talking about, Zenia Helbig, the doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Virginia, who spoke to the AAA. David Glenn wrote a piece about her — also this story was broken in Wired magazine — talking about how she was released from the Human Terrain System program amidst an investigation of her national loyalty shortly before she was to deploy to Iraq.

The investigation stemmed from a quip she made over beers late one night in June. As she recalls, she said, “OK, if we invade Iran, that’s where I draw the line, hop the border and switch sides.” Helbig says her firing, which was first reported in Wired magazine, was a ludicrous overreaction to a casual piece of hyperbole. With the help of at least one senior administrator in the Human Terrain program, she is fighting to expunge her security record and to clear her name.

Can you talk a little more about what you know of Ms. Helbig’s case?

DAVID PRICE: Yeah. I know basically the facts that you stated there. I was on a panel with her in a session organized by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists at the anthropology meetings, and her critique was very interesting. Her critique of Human Terrain is not my own. Part of it is. She had serious complaints, from the inside, about basically the intellectual incompetence of the people who are involved in the program. The ethnographers really don’t have linguistic or cultural competence for the regions that they’re working in. And so, her critique was that it’s being run very poorly.

But this is where I differ with her. She believed that if, you know, better anthropologists or people with higher degrees of competence were involved, then the program would be a good one. I disagree with that entirely, because that would not resolve the ethical issues, you know, as well as the moral issues of being involved in a very corrupt war being fought in Iraq today.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how this debate is being played out in the Anthropological Association and what this oath is all about.

DAVID PRICE: Well, the oath is very simple. You know, it’s a pledge that’s modeled after actions taken by physicists during the Reagan era, during Star Wars, where physicists said that they just wanted to be clear, individuals wanted to be clear, they did not want their research and they were not willing to be involved in the Star Wars program. Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist who studies nuclear weapons production, came up with the idea of modeling a very similar pledge. So, you know, a small group of us, eleven of us, got together and hammered out some language — it’s very simple — saying that we’re not — you know, all of us are not even necessarily opposed to some work with the military, but anything involving counterinsurgency, such as this, or anything that violates ethical standards of research, we’re opposed to, and we’re simply asking our colleagues to stand up and be counted with us, saying that they’re not willing to use anthropology to these ends.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, David Price, doesn’t this make the situation more difficult, considering that anthropology in general, especially Western anthropologists in third-world countries are highly suspect as it is, in terms of being seen as an arm of cultural imperialism or neocolonialism, in investigating what is going on in many of these countries? Doesn’t this make it even more difficult for folks in your discipline to be able to conduct the work that they do?

DAVID PRICE: Yeah, Human Terrain certainly casts a large shadow of suspicion on the entire discipline of anthropology. But, you know, I’m very proud that the American Anthropological Association’s executive board took very proactive action and has done what they can to outline what the problems are with this and, you know, to clarify for the world that this is inappropriate action for anthropologists to undertake.

AMY GOODMAN: David Price, you’ve written a book about the history of anthropologists, coming up, coming out, Weaponizing Anthropology: American Anthropology in the Second World War

. Can you talk about the historical use of anthropologists?

DAVID PRICE: Yeah. There’s a largely unexplored history of anthropologists being involved in military action. You know, in fact, you can look at it going back to the Indian wars and, you know, early anthropology in the nineteenth century, where anthropological knowledge was used or, in many cases, anthropologists protected the knowledge in ways that the military could not access it.

My book on the Second World War uses the Freedom of Information Act, a lot of archival research, oral history and such, to try and piece together how broad was the anthropological contribution to the war. You know, well over half of American anthropologists were involved in some sort of contribution to the war, working for agencies like the Office of War Information. Many worked for the OSS, the intellectual or the institutional predecessor to the CIA — you know, and many other uses.

Some of this, in my view, was not really ethically problematic. It involved sort of library work and such. But even during World War II, there were ethically troubling things that happened. Probably the most egregious example those involves anthropologists at the OSS who were consulted and agreed to work on efforts to try and identify biological weapons that would — to be used against the Japanese, under the belief that the Japanese were somehow a different race and they might be able to find and exploit a biological difference, you know, in Japanese physiology.

You know, there are many other cases. There were also anthropologists at the Office of War Information who spent the last year of the war basically beating their head against the wall, trying to convince the White House and Pentagon that the Japanese were ready to surrender and were culturally capable of surrendering. And they did very good work. They did very good work on this, but, you know, the Pentagon marched on and the administration marched on and didn’t really listen to them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in Vietnam, what was the role of some anthropologists there?

DAVID PRICE: Vietnam, you know, the American Anthropological Association really blew up in a large uproar, when it was disclosed that there were ethnographers that were providing information for use in counterinsurgency, basically modeling what was known about village life in Thailand and also the highlands of Vietnam, that was used by Special Forces. So that really created rifts in the association that are still there today. And, you know, Human Terrain is really resurrecting some of these issues today.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, David Price, can you compare what’s going on in the American Anthropological Association to what’s going on in the American Psychological Association, this group of 150,000 psychologists, largest in the world, that is really being ripped apart inside by whether psychologists should be participating in these interrogations, like take place at Guantanamo?

DAVID PRICE: You know, fortunately, as far as we know, we don’t have the interrogation issues, in terms of anthropologists being present for something as horrendous as that. But there are still many of the same dynamics. I see the leadership of the American Anthropological Association as acting much more conscientiously, if not progressively, in dealing with these issues. But many of the same dynamics are there in play, and there are real battles going on with people, you know, on both sides being very passionate, worrying about the soul of their discipline.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, David Price, associate professor of anthropology at St. Martin’s University in Washington, speaking to us from Seattle. His forthcoming book is called Weaponizing Anthropology: American Anthropology and the Second World War.

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