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Monday, May 15, 2017

A Review Of David H. Price's Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State By Heather Major

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In the book Weaponizing Anthropology by David H. Price, his opinion is clear; the Human Terrain System (HTS) is not ethical anthropology (Price, 2011, p.174). Price asserts that social sciences program funded by the US military to “win the hearts and minds” of those in Iraq and Afghanistan to “save lives” and to “humanize” the other is a hoax (Udris Film, 2010). A poignant chapter in Price’s book is chapter ten: “Going Native: Hollywood’s human terrain Avatars” (Price, 2011, p.173).  This chapter compares the movie Avatar with the HTS program and discusses how similar fiction can be to reality, except, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are real bullets and death with no avatar to create that distancing buffer zone (Price, 2011, p.173). Chapter ten in Weaponizing Anthropology also raises issues with cultural habits in American society, rather than only criticizing the program specifically. Price highlights that Americans have been so indoctrinated in the belief that militarism, patriotism and imperialism are good, that they have sided with the anthropologists who have been abusing their power, rather than with the natives as they did while watching the movie Avatar (Price, 2011, p.176). The author even points out that anthropologists have bowed to this militarism, which is proven by the existence of the HTS itself. According to Price, this program is furthering military intelligence regarding the native populations in the Middle East, but the information is being distributed to all levels of the military, not just those who are on a need to know basis (Price, 2011, p.175). So, when those anthropologists, sociologists, linguists and political scientists submit their work, they are submitting information that can be used for several military reasons that they do not get to approve or even know about (Price, 2011, p.175). Thus, the main point of this chapter is that the HTS is not ethical, nor does it follow any of anthropology’s responsibilities. To put Price’s viewpoint into perspective, the ethical responsibilities of anthropologists will be listed below and compared with the incongruous actions of the Human Terrain System.


First, anthropologists are responsible to the people they are studying, the scholarship and science they are studying under, the public that reads and is affected by their work and to the students and trainees that are learning from their work. However, of these duties, the most important ethical responsibilities of an anthropologist lie with their participants because they are the focal point of any study and should be valued and respected as much as they are needed. That is why there are eight major responsibilities towards them. They are as follows: do not harm the participant; keep the best interests of the participant at the forefront of the study; be transparent about one’s work; be open about one’s work and honest as to the use of the work; make sure the subject remains anonymous and receives recognition where it is due; be sure that the participant gives their informed consent and any permissions needed; be sure to weigh all the possible consequences on anyone involved and, finally, make one’s work available to the public. These responsibilities are highly important for anthropological studies to be ethical and there cannot be one that is left out or employed to a lesser extent. However, there are four of these eight duties that are being explicitly ignored or broken by the HTS, which is why Price and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) deems this system unethical.

Table Of Contents © David H. Price

The first, most fundamental, responsibility of an anthropologist to their participant is to do them no harm. This is being violated through the practices of social scientists in the Human Terrain System because they are asking the people of the small villages pointed questions related to military intelligence, such as asking who was being sent to Pakistan to be trained with the Taliban (Udris Film, 2010). This type of question is not about the culture of that village, the customs, their lifestyle or really anything to do with the initial purpose of the HTS, which is to bring understanding of the culture to the American soldiers to facilitate communications and peacekeeping (Udris Film, 2010). Instead, this information is relayed to all levels of the military and the social scientists have no way of knowing how it will be used or if it will be used to harm those under study (Price, 2011, p.175). This is also a direct violation of the participant’s human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as stated in article three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly, 1948, p.8). Those subjects are not receiving the same chances to their right to life because they do not know how this information could lead to the military planning their demise. This is also a concern of the AAA, as they state that the HTS puts anthropologists in a position where they have military obligations that must come first and which often compromise the safety of the participants (American Anthropological Association, 2007, p.1). The AAA also discusses that the anthropologists cannot control the information and how it is used, which means that it can be used to target specific people groups (American Anthropological Association, 2007, p.1).

Table Of Contents © David H. Price

This idea of transmitting this sensitive information to all levels of the military, both to those in the field and to those in the United States (Price, 2011, p.175), breaks a second responsibility of those studying in the field; the duty to receive informed consent and proper permissions to ask specific questions and use the data. The AAA discloses that they see the war zone as a situation that does not allow for proper informed consent because of the stress and pressure (American Anthropological Association, 2007, p.1). This is very evident in the documentary Human Terrain when Michael Bhatia (an anthropologist) is relaying to the participants, through a translator, that the information will be given to the general of that mission (Udris Film, 2010). This scene provides a glimpse at the informal nature of the encounter, the fact that the war has naturally made the participants a little defensive, and the very non-comprehensive explanation of how and why the information is being used. This goes to show that, without informed consent, those under study may have their information used against them without properly understanding the implications of providing data. This is because there is no time to calmly explain all those implications in a war zone. This alludes to the difference between the film Avatar and the HTS that Price (2011) points out; the HTS anthropologists do not have big blue life forms to hide behind to pretend they fit into the culture and mean well, but rather they hide behind military uniforms (p.174). This makes them seem more dangerous and unwelcoming, which brings more tension to the environment making it harder to discuss the implications of their study.  This can also become a violation of the informants’ right to privacy, as stated in article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly, 1948, p.26). If the informants are not properly notified of the implications, as a war zone often leads to, then they do not know how they can be affected. They may not even want to be interviewed either, but they consent because of the intimidation of the military. Then their privacy is breached as well as that trust relationship, which will not help the army with negotiations in the long run.


Back Cover © David H. Price

Not to mention, later in the documentary, an ex-interrogator of the US army named Michael Ritz expressed that they were frequently asked to “give up the subject” so that the person under interrogation was no longer humanized to be more capable of fighting a war (Udris Film, 2010). This is how the US soldiers are trained and this is the type of environment that the HTS is fighting alongside, one where there is no room to value the other. This brings to light the next violated responsibility, which is the duty to put the concern for the subject before anything else. In the military, there is no room to help the people on the other side because this would create rogues (Price, 2011, p.176). Unfortunately, as Price (2011) suggests, helping others is where anthropologists do best, but as a part of the HTS they are forced to follow military commands first and foremost (p.176). Unfortunately, the military commands are more in favour of gaining resources in this region (especially oil) rather than helping the Iraqi (Udris Film, 2010). This same ethical dilemma was portrayed in the film Avatar, but the main character was able to retaliate against the army and fight alongside the avatar people because the film was Hollywoodized (Price, 2011, p.173). In reality, the best interests of the people are often pushed aside for military or governmental desires for oil by sending troops over to maintain the ‘good’ relationship with their largest oil suppliers, rather than actually resolve the conflict.


The last violated responsibility that is very prominent in this program is the duty to make the work accessible. This goes hand and hand with the previously mentioned responsibility because the people that have been interviewed could read the report and ask for corrections to false information. Instead, that interest of the participant is overlooked because only the military has been reviewing the information and using it how they please (Price, 2011, p.174). This is similar to Nancy Sheper-Hughes’ work, where the people of An Clochán were discredited and humiliated largely because she did not bother to report her initial work to them to be reviewed (Sheper-Hughes, 2000, p.119). Thus, she was able to use the information as she pleased to become famous of their secrets and flaws (Sheper-Hughes, 2000, p.119).  This program is meant to help American army troops to operate in conjunction with locals to end up with more cooperation and less deaths on both sides, as Montgomery McFate a senior social scientist with the program stated in the Human Terrain documentary (Udris Film, 2010). However, if the information is only being reviewed within the military (Price, 2011, p.174), whose motives are not totally pure as discussed above (i.e. oil), then who’s to say that this project is really being used to benefit both sides? The peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan could just as easily be left more devastated than before if this program keeps following the nature of Nancy Sheper-Hughe’s exploitative work in Ireland.

David H. Price is a Professor of anthropology
at St. Martin's University in Lacey, Washington.
Picture © David H. Price
In conclusion, David H. Price states that the Human Terrain System is a violation of anthropological responsibilities (Price, 2011, p.174). The AAA sees the HTS “as an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise” (American Anthropological Association, 2007, p.2). Michael Bhatia (an HTS anthropologist himself) states that the HTS is the “Manhattan project for the social sciences” (Udris Film, 2010). Overall, the Human Terrain System may mean well in trying to reduce the number of KIAs and cultural slurs between soldiers, but Iraq and Afghanistan could end up no better than the warped ending of Avatar or An Clochán. The American army gloating over the native peoples decimated homeland because of the unethical anthropological studies providing the Americans with enough ammunition to render them lifeless.

About Heather Major


Heather Major studied at Champlain College Lennoxville located in Quebec, Canada. A Review Of David H. Price's Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State was written as part of her final take home examination for a course titled Weaponizing Anthropology: Perspectives on Human Rights in the Department of Humanities.

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1 comment:

  1. I am glad someone reputable wrote a book about this. It's what "conspiracy theorists" have been saying for decades...

    ReplyDelete