April 8, 2008

Ethics Under Fire: Military, Anthropologists Team Up

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Unlike the secret weapons of WWII that helped the U.S. bring an end to fighting in Japan, the newest addition to military units in Iraq and Afghanistan are a bit less radioactive. But the debate surrounding this hot issue is proving to be just as explosive.
Since the development of a new program that teams anthropologists with U.S. soldiers for military operations in the war-torn regions of the Middle East, a heated conflict within the scientific community has emerged. Battling over considerations of ethics, anthropologists are now fighting over the future of their discipline in the war zone.
The new program, called the Human Terrain System, enlists anthropologists from around the country to assist in the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the new insights on local cultures and communities that these professional societal researchers can offer, the U.S. military hopes to break the cultural barriers that have made rebuilding so difficult.
However, according to opponents of the initiative, anthropology has no place on the front lines as a military tool.
“What these people are doing looks nothing like what our code of ethics requires,” said Hugh Gusterson, professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University.
Along with Gusterson, many anthropologists, like Prof. Emeritus Terence Turner, anthropology, have called on others in their field to denounce the HTS program and the use of anthropology for gathering intelligence.
According to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, an organization co-founded by Gusterson, anthropologists engaged in this kind of work are violating several important ethical standards relating to secrecy, informed consent and guarantees of “do no harm.”
Comparing it to the Vietnam-era Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program, opponents charge that HTS will endanger the subjects being studied in these war zones. Like with CORDS, which coordinated military and civilian efforts to identify potential threats in Vietnamese communities, information provided by studies in Iraq and Afghanistan may be used to harm research participants suspected as fighters, say critics like David Price, professor of anthropology at St. Martin’s University.
Other concerns focus on the issue of engaging research subjects. Guidelines established by the American Anthropological Association clearly state that studies can only include those people who understand and freely participate in the research. But under these conditions, this kind of conduct is highly unlikely.
It’s hard to imagine that a scientist dressed in military uniform and holding a gun could be considered anything but a threat, said Gusterson, describing the way many anthropologists conduct this research. This doesn’t look anything like voluntary informed consent, he said.
As the country’s largest professional association in this field, AAA has strictly advised against this kind of conduct by its members. In October of last year, after the military announced plans to expand the HTS, the Association released a warning to the anthropological community.
“The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association concludes … that the HTS program creates conditions that are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA Code of Ethics,” the said statement.
Beyond this firm stance on HTS, the AAA is discussing revisions to the Code that would prohibit members to do work that requires secrecy in their research — a growing trend that Price said undermines the integrity of the field.
But according to Damon Dozier, director of public affairs at the AAA, whether or not members of the Association even follow the Code is entirely up to them. Because it is not a licensing body, the AAA has no way to enforce this, simply suggest it.
“It’s basically an educational code,” said Price, who is a member of the Association’s ethics committee. “It establishes the ideal behavior that people are supposed to engage in.”
At the heart of this debate has emerged a conflict between practicing and academic anthropologists, alienating some members of the AAA who oppose the Board’s position. In contrast to the official AAA stance on anthropologists in the conflict zone, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology has been reluctant to oppose the HTS program and the issue of secret research.
Arguing in favor of lenient policies on proprietary research conducted for corporations, practicing anthropologists opened the door for the kind of military research that is now raising concerns for many, said Price.
Intending to discourage anthological involvement in work like that of CORDS during the Vietnam War, the AAA once advised against secretive research as a key element in its Code of Conduct. However, during the 90s the Association had a change of heart, removing this restriction to allow for corporate research by its members. But unintentionally, this decision has also opened a door for military engagement with the community and a repeat of Vietnam dilemmas.
Price said, “I think there are problems that keep arising because of the removal of this language … personally I’m in favor of some resolution that addresses this issue.”