Anthropologists feel tug of rocky wartime union

Their knowledge can be useful to the military, but the marriage makes some uncomfortable

The military is turning to anthropologists for help in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That makes for a rocky marriage, some anthropologists say.

“I’m uncomfortable with anthropologists who are assisting with violent resolutions,” said John Hoopes, a Kansas University anthropology professor.

He’s not alone.

The executive board of the American Anthropology Association recently posted a message on its Web site stating its opposition to the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System project. The project embeds anthropologists and other social scientists in military teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military is learning that anthropologists and other social scientists can help soldiers understand people and their cultures in the communities and regions where they are fighting. That understanding can mean an extra advantage in finding enemy insurgents and in helping to win people away from support of insurgencies.

In addition, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists offers anthropologists the opportunity to sign an online pledge that they won’t work, at least covertly, for the military.

That is seeing the world in black and white, said Felix Moos, a KU anthropology professor who for years has advocated the practice of anthropology by the military. It leads to fewer deaths on both sides, he said.

“Saying that either you participate with the military or you sign a pledge saying you will never work for HTS simply causes many of my younger colleagues to think that if they choose either side they might not get promoted and they won’t be accepted in their department,” Moos said.

Therefore, according to Moos, younger anthropologists may “sit on the fence and say nothing.”

Last week, Moos participated in a two-day military-social science roundtable that discussed the use of anthropology in the military. Anthropologists are working with military personnel who recently served in Afghanistan as part of the Army’s Human Terrain System. They are collaborating on discussions and research papers to pass on lessons learned from those experiences. Those lessons will be distributed throughout the military.

There was nothing “covert” in the roundtable discussions, and Hoopes said he saw nothing wrong with those discussions. But anthropologists have covertly worked with the military on classified research during past wars, he said.

Hoopes noted that in 1919, a recognized anthropologist named Franz Boas wrote a letter to “The Nation” in which he stated his disapproval of covert anthropologists. Boas disclosed that he knew of four men who had carried on anthropological work for the government but had passed themselves off in foreign countries as representing science institutions.

Ironically, in that post-World War I era, Boas was censured by an anthropological organization he founded for endangering anthropologists with his letter, Hoopes said.

Anthropology presents important skills to people involved in intelligence, diplomatic and military work, Hoopes said.

Even the professional anthropology associations generally agree on that, according to their Web sites. But it is a “terrible mistake” for people who do that work to identify themselves with anthropologists, Hoopes said.

“The individual who does that puts anthropologists in peril by identification and association,” he said.

Allan Hanson, also a KU anthropology professor, agreed.

“People need to have knowledge of the people they are dealing with,” he said. “It’s the classified part that bothers me.”