The Doctor and the Anthropologist

Which one?

Many social scientists dislike the military and even the study of war. Now a group of anthropologists is taking action to counter counterinsurgency.

The network of “Concerned Anthropologists” has collected signatures to block Congressional funding for the Human Terrain System, the program that recruits social scientists to help understand the human terrain the counterinsurgency forces in Afghanistan and Iraq operate in.

The reasons for the concerned anthropolgists’ opposition are outlined in an open letter to Congress (.pdf). They say the HTS doesn’t work, that it’s dangerous, and a waste of money. But the most significant criticism, we hear from Hugh Gusterson, a member of the American Anthropological Aassociation’s executive board, is that the HTS “threatens the ethical integrity of anthropology.” The letter adds that the Human Terrain System is “unethical” for “other social scientists” as well.

These are strong words. And they rest on a highly questionable assumption:

Like medical doctors, anthropologists are ethically bound to do no harm. Supporting counterinsurgency operations clearly violates this code.

This statement deserves some more detailed consideration. But first: why am I interested in this? Well, I spend a lot of my time with a medical ethicist and doctor — I’m married to one — and with a cultural anthropologist, a former flatmate here in this conflicted land. But, more on the substance, I’m one of these “other” social scientists myself as well as editor of a new book, Understanding Counterinsurgency, with a chapter on “Culture.” *

That comparison to medical doctors is rather revealing.

Anthropologists are not “like medical doctors.” Yes, both see themselves as scientists, as professions that strive for an ever improving understanding of their human subjects. But the differences are stronger than the commonalities.

Anthropologists are conservative — doctors are progressive. Not in a political sense, of course. But the goal of anthropology is observing societies and communities to better understand them, to document their time-honored ways, and perhaps to help conserve them. For medical professionals, understanding and documentation are nothing but instruments to the real goal, and that is change: to heal a patient, or even to make a community resistant to diseases. Doctors want to improve the human predicament, in the service of progress.

Anthropologists act to observe — doctors observe to act. Proper observation of any other culture than your own (and even your own) is work-intensive and requires a broad skill-set. For many anthropologists it is a preeminent problem that by observing reality, even if done professionally, you always affect it. Some writers like to refer to quantum physics to make the point that, yes, that’s also the case in the hard sciences: the line between observation and participation is difficult to draw — but the less interference, the better. For doctors, that is not even a problem; the point of their profession is to affect reality, to be invasive, the more functional and the more efficient the better.

Anthropologists are often relativists — doctors tend to be universalists. A key tenet of many anthropologically trained social scientists is that you can only understand a community by immersing yourself, through participation, by speaking their language, in a literal as well as in a metaphorical sense. The researcher is not supposed to impose his or her judgment on what is right and wrong, good and bad. These values are relative to a given community. But the anthropologists’ horror is the doctor’s routine: affecting the well-being of others through decisions that are based on statistically generalized information and often universal values of human dignity.

And this brings us to the crux of the issue. Occasionally, doctors actually do harm — because they don’t enjoy the anthropologist’s luxury of inaction. What if a doctor tries do to good but fails and thereby causes harm? Say because he or she made a human error? Or because potential benefits have to be weighed against the inevitable risks of any intervention? — In practice often a difficult decision. And the ethical issues get  worse quickly: what if a doctor treats a victim of torture in an ongoing conflict, thereby allowing the tormentors to continue their harmful work on the same victim? — There just are no easy answers. The conclusion seems inevitable: anthropologists tend to ignore power, because they don’t want to act; doctors can’t, because they feel obliged to act.

Two things are unnerving about this letter. First its seeming naiveté. Inaction is not risk free. In this case, it might actually cause more harm. Just face it: there is no ethically clean choice. Both risk and moral complicity cannot be avoided, they can only be managed.

Then there’s the obvious contradiction. Some anthropologists don’t seem to understand counterinsurgency and they don’t seem to understand the military. The mission’s goal is not “occupation” and the army’s task is not to “do harm.” Perhaps their own advice is not too bad after all? Don’t pass out judgments about communities you haven’t immersed yourself in.

You’d think this is obvious? 1,000 “concerned” anthropologists apparently didn’t and signed.

But let’s not judge too quickly here either. Because the real point is a more general one, a point that indeed affects us “other” social scientists, even political scientists, including those who study war. Can we actually understand power? Can we understand decisions? And even politics without immersion and participation? Without being “embedded”? — The anthropologist would say no, of course not. The doctor might say, well, we just have to.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m with the doctor.

* The chapter’s author, Montgomery McFate, has neither read nor discussed this post with me.


20 thoughts on “The Doctor and the Anthropologist

  1. Formerly Grant says:

    In principle I agree that there does not appear to be anything inherently wrong in the system. I do not know of any specific area of their code of ethics (in the U.S at least) that prohibits such aid, though I could understand if they wanted it more limited.
    You can of course make the argument that by overtly aiding one side in a conflict they may be making themselves a part of the violence and that this politicizes work that should not be so. To me the former is somewhat murky and requires more investigation but the latter is worth considering.

  2. Kenneth Payne says:

    Perhaps an anthropologist should look into the cultural norms of the anthropological community….? This issue’s been rumbling for a while now – I recall David Kilcullen in an exchange with Roberto Gonzalez in Anthropology Today a couple of years ago. Here’s a list of some relevant material from the Network of ‘Concerned’ Anthropologists:

    No response yet from the Network of Blithely Indifferent Anthropologists… (probably still sulking that the other crowd has cornered the market in concern)

    Can you understand power and decision making without understanding culture, Thomas? I’d say certainly not, though my preference is for social psychology, not anthropology. To me, that discipline asks the more interesting questions – why people believe what they do, and under what circumstances they change their minds. If, for example, you don’t factor in attitudes and emotions to a study of strategy, there’s no way of telling why one group folds under pressure, and another resists to the bitter end.

    There are lots of problems with the relationship between anthropology and counterinsurgency. But is it unethical to do anthropology in the cause of war, per se? You’d have to be a consistent pacifist to think so.

  3. Paul Robinson says:

    George Lucas has written a book on this subject, as well as an article in ‘Journal of Military Ethics’. You might try those.

    • Disgruntled SW Fan says:

      George Lucas lost all credibility when he directed The Phantom Menace! I’m sure that anything he writes about military ethics will boil down to midichlorian counts…

  4. HTS can “threaten the ethical integrity of anthropology,” even if the analogy to medical ethics is false. (And it is false, for the reasons you give.)

    Perhaps a more apt analogy is to my own profession, which is journalism. If HTS were hiring journalists, I would be concerned as well, for predictable reasons. People talk to journalists because they assume the journalist’s work is for public consumption, and not for the advantage of one side in a war. This is one thing that differentiates us from spies. If Evans-Pritchard (to adduce one well-known example) announced that he intended to use his anthropological research among the Nuer as a recruitment tool for his side in a war — and he used his research in exactly this way — his subjects would have been less forthcoming.

    I know of no cases where suspicion of working with the military has thwarted an anthropologist from doing his work. But that could happen. There are good reasons for anthropologists to want to guard the impartiality of their profession, even if they are not naive about the nature of the military and counterinsurgency.

    • Thomas Rid says:

      Graeme — I considered the journalism analogy as well, not least because the term “embedding” is begging for it. And I think your point about public consumption versus serving only one side is an excellent one. Three quick responses:

      (1) Of course serving only one side can threaten the ethical integrity of anthropologists, although I don’t think that the entire profession of anthropology would be affected in a wholesale fashion. Which brings me to the second point.

      (2) Perhaps the analogy to medical ethics is not wrong after all, just more complicated. Is the entire profession compromised because some doctors serve one side in a conflict, say in MEDEVAC units? No. Would it be better not to serve? But at the same time it is obvious that doctors can do morally highly questionable things in a conflict. Their knowledge can be abused in horrid ways.

      (3) At the end it boils down to a question of responsibility: like doctors, social scientists can contribute something positive (or negative) to a situation that is already bad — even if they might have disagreed with the political decision to invade Afghanistan or Iraq. Demanding inaction for an entire profession does not extricate you from a moral dilemma; it might make it worse.

    • Hunter Keith says:

      I agree in principle with the idea that journalists might do damage to the profession as a whole, should they put themselves in the position of taking pay from the same check-writer that salaries warfighters. And can we agree that pay is the central issue here? If it weren’t, we’d certainly have to debate the professional implications of “embedded” journalism on the same terms that we do the Human Terrain Program. They’re shades of one-another perhaps, but not usefully similar.

      On the other hand there are legions of professional journalists who are very much part and parcel of the armed forces. The most innocuous, perhaps, are the uniformed soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who’s job it is to describe and photograph their wars for publication. The most damaging are plain-clothes contractors like the Lincoln Group, whose “journalism” was exposed for the manufactured propaganda that it was. I don’t know how the Lincoln Group’s exposure affected the forthcoming-ness of would-be sources, but the loss of confidence in specific writers and newspapers themselves was plain for everyone to see.

      I think what’s important about the Human Terrain Teams is that they follow the model of the soldier-journalist. HTT anthropologists are uniformed in the battle-field and unambiguously part of the fighting force. My gut tells me that as long as social scientists keep their employment relationships with the military clearly discernible, then there’s no greater risk to anthropology than there is to history, economics or, for that matter, engineering, construction or truck driving – all professions that the military employs and deploys in the battlefield. What’s needed before we conclude outright that anthropologists do or do not belong in war is a recognition that they are already there, and that they, as a tribe, could use some anthropological looking-into.

    • I says:

      Let’s extend the doctor/journalist analogy a little bit. Military doctors are obliged to treat anyone who comes through the operating room doors–it could be an American soldier, a civilian, or even a wounded enemy. If a doctor let a treatable wounded enemy die it would be a horrid thing, and against basic medical ethics. Likewise a journalist “treats” his subjects with at least an attempt at what Graeme calls impartiality, and should ideally be able to embed himself behind the lines of either side of a war. Reporting that favors one side is a horrid thing called propaganda, albeit less ethically horrifying than the doctor equivalent–it’s more aesthetically ugly than it is ethically.

      The role of HTTs is to collect information on topics that the military otherwise ignores. We can bracket this off as something wonderful and a “contribution of something positive” since it’s “social science,” but really there are no ethical red lines in place like there are in the medical or journalistic professions. There is no “impartiality” with regard to the treatment given–it’s a one-way street, and an HTT that attempted to treat its host brigade, say, in the same way as the local population would be sent home and called traitors.

      I think the key is not to call HTTs anthropologists. A few reasons for that: almost no HTTs are trained anthropologists (a few are, but they are a tiny minority since HTS desperately hires anyone with a Ph.D. on any topic); the things they write do not resemble anthropological research products in any way; and the purpose of it all is not to enhance knowledge in the abstract way that academics know and love. Also, if Montgomery hadn’t called it “social science” in the first place, this debate would never have taken place, but then it also would have been a much harder sell to the generals.

      The AAA has come to this themselves in their last report, where they admit that HTS has almost nothing to do with anthropology anyway, but if it did, they would abhor it. I’m paraphrasing.

    • “Military journalists” and Lincoln Group operatives are simply not journalists, and are not acknowledged to be journalists by other journalists or by their readers. They are military p.r. agents — an honorable calling, perhaps, but not journalism.

      And this leads us to the comment of “I.” HTS’s anthropologists are simply no longer anthropologists, if they ever were. One can imagine the Concerned Anthropologists taking a quasi-takfiri view of anthropologists who work for HTS, and arguing that they have removed themselves from anthropology, for good or ill. In most ways I think this would be a better tack for the Concerned Anthropologists to take.

  5. “For doctors, that is not even a problem; the point of their profession is to affect reality, to be invasive, the more functional and the more efficient the better.”

    Beautifully put. I’m going to have to share that with my colleagues.

  6. Laleh says:

    I am with Graeme on this one. I might agree that the anthropologist is not like the medical doctor, but on the other hand, the anthropologist *does* have access to the kind of knowledge that can so easily be weaponised (and it is. Robert Pelton’s newest article tells us that the HTS teams’ knowledge-gathering which is ostensibly supposed to be only used for providing services to the population and for making them more amenable to “us” is indeed used to knock down doors and arrest [and kill] people).

    As for the charge of ‘naivete’, that is just a cliche. If as a social scientist I don’t want to be involved in making imperialism (or neo-colonialism, or plain old military aggression) any more efficient than it already is, I am not naive.

  7. Andreas Behnke says:

    Interesting post on a subject that is all too often discussed in rather over-simplified terms. However, it seems that you miss a crucial point: Doesn’t the involvement of anthropologists within COIN undermine the very commitments you outline, and that supposedly sets them apart from doctors?

    As part of COIN and HTS, anthropologists are supposed to be progressive, to make a difference, to ‘heal a society’ and to (or contribute to) make it resilient against social and political ‘diseases’ such as fundamentalism and terrorism.

    And thus, they observe to act, or to make effective action possible, on the part of the military or other institutions. Hence they are supposed to affect reality and support intervention in those societies.

    And therefore, they cannot afford to be ‘relativist’ anymore, as they serve the national interest as defined by the US military. Sure, they try to understand local culture, but certainly with a particular perspective that assumes a certain universality – ‘our’ model can be applied ‘over there’.

    So I think you actually, if inadvertently, provided a rather powerful critique of the uses and abuses of anthropology in COIN.

  8. Daniel says:

    Maybe there is a reason why RTS hasn’t been rolled into miitary intel and just been done with.

    Perhaps it has something to do with the comments mentioned above about people being a bit more guarded if they thought they were under observation by people who would then be using that information to do damage to them later on.

    Otherwise I see no reason for the functions of HTS to not be part of the larger information apparatus.

    The question of social scientists losing the objectivity/impartiality seems moot given how the much harder sciences are already in the pay of the Military industrial complex. Any science (social or otherwise) in such a context is bound to be less objective, focused research always is.

    Also while no previous COIN experience can be used verbatim as a plan for winning over a population, previous experience has shown that it doesnt take a bunch of social scientists to make an effective COIN campaign. What is required is a unity of objective and the willingness to use less not more military means (excuse my over simplified explanation), it doesnt guarantee victory but at least it reduces the degree to which you are driving the populace over to the enemy. Give or take the larger strategic factors Malaya was successful for such reasons, Vietnam and Algeria were not as military concerns overrode the need for real COIN.

    I think the Marine COIN slides from a previous post (last week I think) show a greater understanding of the whole deal than any in depth study of a particular culture is going to provide or elaborate on. I say this as a social scientist who is extremely interested in war in all forms and who has studied previous COIN campaigns and the winning formula in most campaigns is always similar and vice versa the loosing (adjustments for local factors notwithstanding).

    Also often overlooked is the Rhodesian experience where the military campaign was extremely successful but could not overcome the incompetence of the COIN/Political campaigns.

    Also McFate (TM) brand RTS needs to be viewed with a bit more skepticism by the OP given the track run its had in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

    At the core of things like RTS and the recent drive to make a more scientific study of COIN is the serious failure of COIN in recent years but that failure hasnt come because of a lack of knowing what to do or past experiences to draw on but the failure of the overriding political and military concerns which have placed the greater weight on outright military methods than anything else. “Winning” COIN or using RTS to “win” doesn’t work as the perception of “win” is far more military than civil and hence the failure.

  9. JeffL says:

    “Inaction is not risk free. In this case, it might actually cause more harm. Just face it: there is no ethically clean choice. Both risk and moral complicity cannot be avoided, they can only be managed.”

    Amen. Nor is the application of many of the sciences and arts to the conduct of war…. Probably a stretch, but consider the moral dilemma of Chemists circa 1914-1918.

  10. I says:

    Rereading your post, I also noted this line: “anthropologists tend to ignore power.” I’m quoting without the context, of course, but if you honestly think that, it looks like you understand anthropology as poorly as anthropologists understand the military–but I don’t believe you really think that, it’s clearly for the sake of your analogy. My anthropological study is pretty self-directed and pretty much limited to reading the ethnographies of Pashtuns and other Afghans, but the research on these things is *all* about power.

  11. Thomas Rid says:

    Excommunication, or professional takfir, is no easy way out. Anthropologists and journalists have degrees and they have skillsets; if they use them, they also represent their profession, even if we don’t like it.

    Instead we might have to face a much harder truth: there are situations where “objectivity” — in the journalistic and in the scientific sense — ceases to exist. And here I’m paraphrasing my anthropologist flatmate who likes to remain unnamed. He’s lived here for one-and-a-half decades, speaks both superb Arabic and superb Hebrew, and has been personally involved in both worlds. And last week I’ve seen it myself: I talked politics over dinner with conservative-leaning Israeli friends in Rehavia one day and then with Palestinian acquaintances in Ramallah then next: there was no middle ground. None. Describing reality becomes a political statement. You cannot not take sides. Impossible. How can you remain a neutral scientist or journalist in that situation?

    And yes, I overstated my point about power.

    • I says:

      “You cannot not take sides.”

      And yet this is exactly what military doctors are asked to do, and have to do if they want to continue to be considered doctors under the Hippocratic oath. Some doctor treated Abdulmutallab’s groin injury.

      My point, though, is that HTS does not use the anthropological skill-set, anyway. If they did, then there would be a debate about whether they should or not.

  12. T J Linzy says:

    Well questioned Dr Rid.
    Sometimes flipping an argument can reveal its inanity.
    What if the military gathered 100 names that petitioned Congress to cut off all funding to univeristy anthropology departments, because some of their findings (not to mention opinions) conflict with the military’s ethical requirement to protect the nation?
    When asked to give up the HTS anthropologists, the military could be tempted to quote another Greek man who lived before Hippocrates: “Molon Lobe,” but that would be too easy. Let’s be more inclusive than that and quote a Spartan woman’s reply when asked how Spartan women managed to rule their men when other women could not: “We are the only women who raise men.”
    Free thinkers, or dare I suggest it… scientists, should consider this when considering what it takes to raise free thinkers or scientists.
    As you mention, these issues are hard and the anthropologists in question seem to have selected the easiest solution they could bend to support their argument, hoping that quoting the Hippocratic oath would lend some easy credence to their beliefs. It lacks depth and most importantly, cogency. There is often no simple solution, but it seems to me to be especially questionable to stop a program that seeks to understand both the people we wish to help and those we seek to defeat just because some anthropologists want to preserve their theoretical ethics in a very messy world.

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