Too Close for Comfort?


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Proponents of the program have a different take.

“Many anthropologists say, ‘We have no problem working with the military, consulting with the military. We have no problem teaching the military, we have no problem having soldiers in our classes. We have no problem presenting cultural orientation briefings for soldiers who are about to embark to foreign areas. Let us do that. We would be happy to do that. That’s different than gathering information covertly about people that’s going to be used to dominate them. That we cannot do.’”

Professor of Anthropology Catherine Besteman

They say use of the five-member anthropologist teams is essential to understanding the motivation of insurgents and noncombatants alike. “The current insurgencies in the Middle East are manifestations of the unmet expectations and desires of large segments of the populations,” wrote Jacob Kipp, Ph.D., and retired U.S. Army officers Lester Grau and Karl Prinslow, in the journal Military Review. “Such conclusions logically demand that past experience guide our understanding of how best to meet, in a manner that supports our own military objectives, the expectations and desires of the people at the heart of such struggles.”

Some embedded anthropologists are more plain spoken. Marcus Griffin, an anthropologist from Christopher Newport University in Virginia, has written in his Web log about trash and sewage problems in Iraq and about a near miss with a firefight.

“This past Saturday, I was helping a platoon improve its means of collecting census data,” Griffin wrote recently. “In particular I was interested in improving our understanding of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). We need to know to what extent they are food insecure and how families are coping with the burden of taking on six or more family members. There are tens of thousands of families moving about the city and that presents challenges to ensuring their security and well-being. IDPs are quite vulnerable.”

As are American soldiers, some say.

The issue has prompted lively discussion in Besteman’s classes and in those of her Colby colleagues, Professor Mary Beth Mills and Assistant Professor Maple Razsa. “The students were just enthralled by this question,” Besteman said. “They were trying to work through their understanding of the ethics involved and where they stood on this question.”

Eitan Green ’09 called a teach-in on the subject, organized by anthropology professors in November, “one of the most educational extracurricular activities I have engaged in at Colby.”

Green said he has serious concerns regarding the military program, and he pointed to anthropologists’ ethical obligation to not threaten the safety of their subjects. Anthropologists working in the Human Terrain System program have no assurance that the information they gather will not be used to control and kill the people studied, he said. He also questioned whether information gathered by uniformed and even armed anthropologists in a war zone has validity.

“Any interaction between HTS people and local populations would be so politically and socially laden that reliable information would be impossible to gather,” Green wrote in an e-mail.

Another anthropology major, Sujit Shrestha ’08, said he sides with critics of the program. But in an indication of how far-reaching the discussion can be, Shrestha, who is from Nepal, warned of Western academic disciplines, including anthropological associations in the United States and United Kingdom, imposing their standards on the rest of the world. “What is anthropology and what isn’t?” he wondered. “And who decides?”

“I would defend anthropology,” he said, “but not without understanding its weaknesses.”

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