Too Close for Comfort?


Anthropologists question new use of their discipline by U.S. military in Iraq

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

Photo:US Military in Iraq
Photo by David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

Critics and supporters of the Iraq War agree that, early on, the coalition effort was hampered by a profound lack of knowledge of Iraqi culture on the part of the U.S. military. Four years after the U.S. invasion, military planners decided to “embed” anthropologists in combat units to help American soldiers in Iraq better understand the place and culture.

Good move?

No, according to Catherine Besteman, Colby professor of anthropology and a founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which has led vehement opposition to the U.S. military’s $40-million Human Terrain System program.

“What they’re asking,” Besteman said, “is for us to be embedded in military units in the front lines of war where they will be gathering information to be used against civilian populations. That’s not ending the war. That’s not using our knowledge in a way that saves lives.”

That is one side in a debate that has spread like wildfire in the anthropology community. It has led the American Anthropological Association to come out strongly against the embedded-anthropologist program and its practice of using uniformed and sometimes armed anthropologists to gather intelligence in a war zone.

The association’s executive board concluded that the Human Terrain System program is likely to lead anthropologists to violate their own code of ethics, which stipulates that anthropologists may not harm the persons they study. The program also may endanger anthropologists and their subjects in other parts of the world by linking them to military objectives.

“Many anthropologists say, ‘We have no problem working with the military, consulting with the military,’” Besteman said. “‘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.’”

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