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The Ethnography of an Air-Strike

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April 12, 2010

The Ethnography of an Air-Strike

Canada’s military academics in the Afghan war and at home

by Cameron Fenton

United States Human Terrain Team members talk with an Afghani village elder during a village assessment. Anthropoligists in Canada and the United States are concerned about the militarization of their field in programs like the HTT. [cc 2.0] Photo: Staff Sgt. Justin Weaver

MONTREAL—In the age of counterinsurgency and the battle for “hearts and minds,” cultural knowledge is valuable currency for the military intelligence business. The desire for cultural intelligence in Afghanistan and Iraq has led Canada and the United States to implement hybrid military-academic programs meant to mimic anthropological research, mapping the “human terrain” of a battlefield.

These programs have led to serious concerns among social scientists in general, and anthropologists in particular, about the possible militarization of their practice, and the erosion of the creditability of their work.

According to Robert Albro of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), there is a fear among academics that the military wants to “plug into” anthropological knowledge without engaging in a dialogue that respects the work, ethics and history of the discipline. Anthropologists in Canada and the United States worry that their discipline could go the way of physics after the creation of the atomic bomb in World War II, weaponizing knowledge at a cost to anthropology as well as the cultures and people it studies.

In late 2008 the Canadian Forces launched a new counterinsurgency initiative in Afghanistan. Entitled the White Situational Awareness Team (WSAT) program—named for military colour codes of red for enemy, blue for friendly and white for civilian. It is similar to the controversial Human Terrain Teams (HTT) deployed by the United States military in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2007. HTTs are the on-the-ground research arm of the United States’ Human Terrain System (HTS) which, according to military sources, is “designed to meet the military’s requirements for socio-cultural knowledge across a spectrum of operations that the US may encounter in today’s world.” Each HTT is made up of five members, three military personnel and two civilians, while each WSAT includes two military intelligence officers and three civilian Department of Foreign Affairs employees.

Critiques of HTS range from calls for its immediate and complete halt, to recognizing an inherent value while denouncing program management. Plagued by scandal, HTS has been caught in a firestorm of internal and external discontent. According to a former employee who spoke confidentially to The Dominion, HTS, in its current form, cannot function as a war-fighting system, and those who should be concerned with its ineffectiveness are more concerned with selling the perception that it works.

Anthropologists in the United States have pushed back. The AAA, founded in 1902 and the largest professional association of anthropologists in North America, published a public statement on HTS in October 2007 calling HTS an “unacceptable application of anthropological expertise.”

The Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA) was founded by eleven academics in 2007 to resist the militarization of anthropology. In 2009, the NCA published The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: Or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society in response to the publication of US Army US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a document the NCA calls “faking scholarship.” They directly counter the military’s declaration of success, writing, “[T]here is no evidence, as some supporters have claimed, that the program saves lives.”

In fact, even as these programs are developed, casualty rates have continued to increase year over year. According to a report from the Integrated Regional Information Networks, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 6,584 civilians were killed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009. In the first ten months of 2009, they estimated that over 2,000 civilians had been added to that total.

“We modelled our approach upon that taken by physicists critical of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative,” said Roberto Gonzalez, founding member of the NCA. “After much discussion, we decided to take collective action and produce a statement of our objections to developing trends in the militarization of anthropology.”

The statement has since garnered 1,000 signatures from anthropologists and other like-minded scholars, including a number of Canadian anthropologists, declaring non-participation in all counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. Although not opposed to “all work with military and civilian policy makers,” the NCA is “staunchly opposed to HTS.”

One of these Canadian signatories is Dr. Maximilian Forte, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, and member of the steering committee for Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.

“I am totally opposed to the use of anthropologists and other social scientists in any situation where combat, counterinsurgency, or even the psychological and cultural manipulation of other societies is concerned,” said Forte. “If academics align themselves with the national security state, they diminish the relevance and credibility of their work, and potentially endanger the reputations and lives of all other academics.”

Anthropologists for Justice and Peace was founded in 2009 with a mandate to work in solidarity with civil society, anti-war activist groups, and Indigenous communities, and “call[s] on anthropologists to radically rethink the nature of their position in local communities, to decolonize ethnography, and to re-conceive the nature of the research process so that ethics are not a minor, procedural consideration.”

The NCA and AAA both identify ethics as a major issue within HTS, citing an absence of any code of ethics for both researchers and the use of knowledge collected. The Human Terrain program attempts to approximate anthropological fieldwork methods where we develop intimate and constructive relationships with research subjects, Robert Albro told The Dominion, but does so operating in a state of ethical exception.

“Leadership [of HTS] has at different times and ways stated it doesn’t need to follow United States ethics,” said Albro.

The NCA has a similar position, writing that “the HTS program violates scientific and federal research standards mandating informed consent by research subjects.” Both are referring to the Common Rule, an ethical regulation which enshrines the protection of human subjects in scientific and medical research.

The AAA code of ethics promotes responsibility by anthropologists in the field, specifically toward the subjects of their research. At the heart of this code, Albro cites a “do no harm” ideology. This creates a problem if research is feeding military intelligence and facilitating the kill chain. Additionally, anthropological ethics state that research should be shared openly, especially with the fieldwork subjects. In the HTS, research immediately becomes classified, creating what Albro calls an issue with “social scientists working in secrecy.”

HTS adopts the language of anthropology and trains recruits in the basics of fieldwork,
yet only six PhD anthropologists, of over four hundred employees, are serving in the program. According to Zenia Helbidg—a former HTS recruit, who was fired for pointing out some of the program’s shortfalls to superior officers—HTS is “hiring anyone with a degree which they can sell as social sciences.”

There is concern that deploying the army approximation of anthropologists, clad in fatigues with a gun in hand, gives the image of bringing the full force of the military to bear in a fieldwork situation and fundamentally skews power dynamics between researchers and the communities they study.

“One [blowback] is to recast anthropologists as servants of empire, and as the eyes and ears of the national security state,” Canadian anthropologist Maximilian Forte told The Dominion. “Many anthropologists already, in the best of times, have been suspected of being intelligence agents. These developments will only solidify that perception, and could potentially put the lives of anthropologists abroad at risk.”

The most public example of this was on November 5, 2008, when Paula Loyd, a member of HTT AF4, was doused in a flammable liquid and set on fire while interviewing residents of the village of Chehel Gazi, 80 kilometers west of Kandahar city. She later died in a United States medical facility.

A United States military statement described the incident noting that one of Loyd's HTT co-workers shot and killed her assailant, sparking questions about why a United States civilian is carrying a weapon while deployed as part of an active military counterinsurgency operation. Lloyd’s team was embedded with Task Force 2-2, a United States unit deployed under the command and purview of the Canadian Forces Task Force Kandahar. The Canadian Forces made no public comment on the incident.

The situation in Canada is exasperated by the fact that any social scientist deployed with the Canadian military is a federal employee first, and an academic second.

“Their [WSATs'] job seems to be no different from that of HTS, except that for now the civilians they use are government employees, not academics,” Forte told The Dominion. “They have breached a barrier however: the idea that social and cultural knowledge can be useful for counterinsurgency, at least that door has now been opened in Canada”

Inquiries to the Canadian Forces were not returned by press time.

Academics, and their research, become part of the military intelligence machine in a system where, according the Canadian Forces COIN manual, “[R]egardless of what agencies are used to undertake activities, much of the assessment in support of operations will come from military intelligence staff.”

This places academia in a position which, according to Dr. Forte, mistakes “service to the state as service to the people—a mistake that is a hallmark of classic fascism.”

To date, the debate about military influence in anthropology and other social sciences remain chiefly in Unites States, but that could be changing. A well attended panel entitled “The Use of Culture and Anthropology in Counter-insurgency and Peacekeeping Operations” at the Canadian Anthropological Society’s 2009 conference, along with the foundation of groups like Anthropologists for Justice and Peace, are evidence of growing momentum against the military’s attempts to drape a green beret on the ivory tower.

Human intelligence programs represent a dangerous step towards “cultivating a dependency on the national security state, and on military funding, to build prestige, prominence and power,” according to Dr. Forte. “This will diminish the space of independent, critical intellectual endeavours, and ultimately create momentum against academia as a safe space in which to produce knowledge that challenges dominant assumptions.”

Cameron Fenton is an intern at The Dominion and an anthropology student at Concordia University in Montreal.

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Most American anthropologists

Most American anthropologists understand the obvious ethical problems in working for HTS. The real risk lies in the likelihood that anthropologists will be seduced by arguments to support soft-power projects tied to occupation and counterinsurgency - especially when these projects are increasingly being presented as "helping" the occupied.

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