Anthropology, Human Rights, and “Human Terrain” Hugh Gusterson

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Anthropology, Human Rights, and “Human Terrain”

  • Hugh Gusterson

  • Professor, Anthropology

  • George Mason University


  • “The decisive terrain is the human terrain, not the high ground or river crossing.”

      • General David Petraeus
  • “One anthropologist is worth a B2 bomber.”

    • Human Terrain employee

Human Terrain Team Essentials

  • Announced 2007

  • 27 teams in all (April 2009)

    • 21 in Iraq, 6 in Afghanistan
  • 2 social scientists, 3 military personnel

  • Social scientists in uniform, some armed

  • Reachback research centers in US

  • 3 social scientists killed to date

  • DoD seeks expansion of program

Kinder, Gentler Warfare?

  • Increase cross-cultural understanding

  • Discern needs of ordinary Afghans/Iraqis

  • Reduce kinetic force

    • Not tactical intelligence

Network of Concerned Anthropologists

  • Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency

  • We, the undersigned, believe that anthropologists should not engage in research and other activities that contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theaters in the “war on terror.” Furthermore, we believe that anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting the US military in combat, be it through torture, interrogation, or tactical advice.

  • US military and intelligence agencies and military contractors have identified “cultural knowledge,” “ethnographic intelligence,” and “human terrain mapping” as essential to US-led military intervention in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Consequently, these agencies have mounted a drive to recruit professional anthropologists as employees and consultants. While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world, protects US soldiers on the battlefield, or promotes cross-cultural understanding, at base it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties. By so doing, such work breaches relations of openness and trust with the people anthropologists work with around the world and, directly or indirectly, enables the occupation of one country by another. In addition, much of this work is covert. Anthropological support for such an enterprise is at odds with the humane ideals of our discipline as well as professional standards.

  • We are not all necessarily opposed to other forms of anthropological consulting for the state, or for the military, especially when such cooperation contributes to generally accepted humanitarian objectives. A variety of views exist among us, and the ethical issues are complex. Some feel that anthropologists can effectively brief diplomats or work with peacekeeping forces without compromising professional values. However, work that is covert, work that breaches relations of openness and trust with studied populations, and work that enables the occupation of one country by another violates professional standards.

  • Consequently, we pledge not to undertake research or other activities in support of counter-insurgency work in Iraq or in related theaters in the “war on terror,” and we appeal to colleagues everywhere to make the same commitment.


Key finding

  • “When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment… it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology… CEAUSSIC suggests that the AAA emphasise the incompatibility of HTS with disciplinary ethics and practice for job seekers.”

Informed consent (1)

  • “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision.”

      • Nuremberg Code

Informed Consent (2)

  • “to enter a community as a member of the military, a person with the power and the weight of the US army behind her/him, brings about a level of power that the local person cannot act against – since any reaction can get them arrested or killed.”

    • Patricia Omidian

Obligation to Colleagues

  • “Anthropologists should do all they can to preserve opportunities for future fieldworkers to follow them to the field.” (AAA Ethics code).

Obligation to do no harm

  • Lack of clear rules to safeguard and anonymize data

  • Inherent ambiguity of battlefield context

  • Danger data used as tactical intelligence


  • “anthropologists should not fool themselves. Human Terrain teams whether they want to acknowledge it or not, in a generalized and subtle way, do at some point contribute to the collective knowledge of a commander which allows him to target and kill the enemy.”

    • Lt. Col. Gian Gentile

Harm (2)?

  • “All I’m concerned about is pushing our information to as many soldiers as possible. The reality is there are people out there who are looking for bad guys to kill… I’d rather they did not operate in a vacuum.”

    • HTS anthropologist quoted in Dallas Morning News


  • Program overwhelmingly rejected by anthropologists

    • 417 HTS employees; 11 = anthropologists
  • Pentagon’s consequentialist logic countered with professional ethics

    • Iraqis & Afghans as human subjects with rights under Nuremberg Code
  • Media have almost entirely ignored this aspect of story

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