War, social networks and ethical minefields

Wired has an article in its latest edition that discusses why understanding human networks are becoming key to the US Military’s mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the article seems to do little more than uncritically echo military enthusiasm for this new approach while telling us little about the actual science behind the techniques.

But the most interesting story is not the strategy itself, which is hardly new, but how it is causing a rift among anthropologists to the point where conference speakers have been heckled and left in tears for their participation.

The debate centres on the US Military’s Human Terrain System, a project that aims to understand the culture, society and social networks in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a view to using this information to further military objectives.

In contrast, the NYT managed to do a brief but considerably more balanced article and video segment on the project last May, noting that the crux of the matter is that the project has employed numerous anthropologists, as anthropology now plays a key role in US military strategy.

Concerns centre over whether co-operating with the military violates the strict codes of ethics that compels anthropologists to ‘do no harm’ to the cultures they are studying, and to ask for informed consent from the people that are observing to make them fully aware of the purpose of the research.

Critics believe that aiding a military occupation is unethical, as it will inevitably lead to deaths prompted by the intelligence they provide, and requires a level of secrecy – violating both of the ‘do no harm’ and ‘informed consent’ principles.

This has caused an angry rift with accusations of ‘mercenary anthropology’ and, in an interesting parallel to the ethical dilemmas faced by the American Psychological Association, the American Anthropological Association has been forced to issue a report and statement on the issue; disapproving of the project while refusing to ban its members from participating.

Last Thursday, at a panel session on the issue at the American Anthropological Association conference, Zenia Helbig, an ex-Human Terrain System researcher, cried when she was heckled by the audience.

Wired describes the scene as ‘ugly’ and quotes Helbig as implying the hecklers were being driven by conspiracy theories, while Inside Higher Education gives a more nuanced account, suggesting audience reactions were mixed.

The overarching issue is that the military has cottoned-on to the fact that its in-house ‘psyops’ services are inadequate for the complexity of new forms of warfare, and are seeking the collaboration of academic disciplines which have been founded on principles of non-coercion.

The debate essentially centres around whether these principles should be universally applied to all people, or whether they are trumped by loyalty to the national interests of a researcher’s country.

Link to NYT article ‘Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones’.
Link to abstract of Human Terrain System paper.
Link to Inside Higher Ed article on panel discussion.

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