Issues & News

AAA Opposes U.S. Military's Human Terrain System Project

A special initiative launched by the US Military, known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) project, sparked lively debates in the media and the anthropology community at large in fall 2007. The HTS program, which was launched in February 2007, embeds anthropologists and other social scientists in military teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are currently five human terrain teams in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and the $41 million project is set to operate 26 teams in those countries during the next year. The HTS project has been covered in the BBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other major media outlets.

The ethics of anthropologists working with US military, intelligence, and security organizations has been the subject of debates in the anthropology community in recent months and historically. To facilitate an open and informed discussion on the HTS project, and the broader ethical issues surrounding anthropologists who work as consultants, fieldworkers, or as faculty at military or intelligence colleges, the AAA has issued a report and statement, launched a dedicated blog, and hosted a number of public forums on this subject.

In November 2005, nearly a year before the first Human Terrain Team was deployed, a special commission of the AAA was created to investigate ethical and procedural concerns that arise through engagement with US security and intelligence communities. The Commission researched this subject for over a year, and issued a final report to the AAA Executive Board during the Association’s 106th Annual Meeting in Washington DC. The report neither endorses nor opposes engagement, but outlines the ethical perils and opportunities of such work, and encourages a continued public dialogue on this subject.

On October 31, 2007, The American Anthropological Association’s Executive Board issued a statement on the US Military’s Human Terrain System (HTS) project. The statement outlines the ways that the HTS project violates the AAA Code of Ethics, a code which mandates that anthropologists do no harm to their research subjects. A blog was launched that same date to encourage membership feedback on the Executive Board statement. The blog has received over 150 comments on this topic.

Several sessions and meetings at the AAA’s 2007 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC also addressed issues related to anthropology and the military. Related events included an open forum to discuss the Commission report led by the Committee on the Engagement of Anthropology with US Security and Intelligence Agencies, and the following sessions and panels: The Empire Speaks Back: US Military and Intelligence Organization's Perspectives on Engagement with Anthropology; Against the Weaponization of Anthropology: Critical Perspectives on the Military, War, and US Foreign Policy; and Anthropologists and War: Non-Participation in Counterinsurgency. Members also voted during the Association's annual business meeting in Washington DC to reinstate language on secrecy from the AAA's 1971 Code of Ethics. The resolution will be submitted to the AAA Executive Board as advisory as per AAA bylaws.

For more information on HTS and related issues, see the links below: