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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Escorted Ethnography: Ethics, the Human Terrain System and American Anthropology in Conflict


Despite claims that the U.S. military’s new Human Terrain System can ‘save lives’ by using social scientists to construct ethnographic maps of Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby enabling “non-lethal alternatives” to combat missions, the American Anthropological Association has officially condemned the program as an “unacceptable application of anthropological expertise”. Though seemingly based on an insincere investigation of the program’s merits, AAA’s ruling has nevertheless encouraged a broad consensus that the Human Terrain System violates anthropologists’ primary ethical obligation to protect their informants from harm. Through analysis of available documents, literature, and interviews with Human Terrain System members, however, it becomes clear that there is more evidence to support the opposite claim: the Human Terrain System certainly does more to protect the interests of Iraqi and Afghan informants than the AAA’s condemnation-without-alternatives does. The author argues that the AAA’s official stance thus takes a major step away from “the side of humanity” to a politically conventional but morally anemic position. Are American anthropologists willing to put their lives and reputations on the line and ethnographies under military escort to possibly “save lives” in Iraq and Afghanistan, or will they put the opportunity on the shelf and wait for the hostilities to cease before they conduct ‘safer’ ethnographies of the survivors? What does it mean for the discipline when neither option seems to be, as David Price (2008) put it, “divorced from conquest”?

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