Although at its time touted as a new addition to warfare, the Human Terrain System, or HTS, follows a history of the military’s tenuous relationship with social scientists. The subject of anthropology emerged from its relationship with renaissance imperial conquests, continued well into the 20th century with ethnographic research conducted in support of World War II, and gained temporary notoriety with the controversial Civil Operations Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program in Vietnam. In its brief history, HTS provided a similar function for the modern wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. What’s not commonly talked about on the military side of this function is the significant ethical dilemmas the American Anthropological Association (AAA) dealt with when deciding whether or not to support the program officially.
I had no idea about the inner conflict while I indirectly worked with the remnants of the program in 2012-2014. HTS was in its death throes at the time, but much of the information gathered was still relevant in my role leading up to and including my time in Afghanistan. As an anthropology student before joining the Army, I had even considered working with the program after my military service. In my eyes, I saw a way to gain better intelligence, protect civilian lives, and help others gain a better cultural understanding of the land they were fighting in.
The AAA did not see it that way. They didn’t see it that way so much that they officially denounced the program shortly after its creation. Granted, there was a lot of debate leading up to the decision to oppose the HTS, but the AAA decided in 2007 that the program violated their code of ethics. For me, this was akin to mom and dad fighting. I was proud of my service and supportive of the military, but I was also a budding anthropologist and understood the questionable history of social science and war. I wouldn’t actually learn about this conflict until I finished my service and continued my education, where I unknowingly broached the subject with one of my professors. After a half hour of strong words about the subject, I got the message that anthropologists as a whole were against it and said, or implying, anything to the contrary would spark immediate debate.
I agreed there was an ethical dilemma of studying people that your boss could target as hostile enemy forces. What bothered me was that cultural anthropologists struggle to find work in the field outside of academia. I felt it was too easy for tenured scientists to judge those that would take a well-paying job in a hostile environment for a good cause; the information that the HTS gathered helped to keep troops safer.
This is an ongoing issue. Although the HTS no longer exists, its role is reportedly still filled by other, smaller contracts. This makes sense; given the history, and how effective cultural knowledge can be, I don’t see the ideas from the HTS going away any time soon. Hopefully, the AAA will take more ownership of the issue the next time social scientists are needed in war.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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