Phillips Stevens Jr., associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo, will be addressing the pros and cons of the role of anthropology in the military at 7 p.m. tonight in Textor 103. Stevens will talk about the controversy concerning the Human Terrain System — a group of anthropologists working with military personnel. Supporters of HTS believe it will gain cultural knowledge, while opponents claim HTS to be a violation of anthropology’s code of ethics. In 2008, Stevens organized a panel at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. David Turkon, associate professor of anthropology at Ithaca College, invited Stevens to speak to the college community about the role of anthropology in the military.
Contributing Writer Mary Kavanaugh spoke to Stevens about HTS, the code of ethics for anthropologists and the importance of applied anthropology.
Mary Kavanaugh: Could you describe what HTS is and what its primary goals are?
Phillips Stevens Jr.: A Human Terrain team is a special group of military people and social scientists — including anthropologists, but also political scientists, communications experts and sociologists — who embed themselves with a frontline contingent of soldiers and try to advise those soldiers who are charged with winning hearts and minds. Presumably, the Human Terrain System has studied the culture where they are working. Theoretically, having people well-educated in the local culture and the local languages is a great idea. Unfortunately, the idea was conceived far too late. It was not implemented in Afghanistan until 2007, six years after 9/11, and far later for Iraq because it was dangerous.
MK: What will be the focus of your lecture?
PS: I have always argued that anthropology should be applied. Anthropology is uniquely equipped to address and resolve real human problems. I will look at actual events that happened in Iraq and how they are illustrative of ignorance of traditional culture —
ignorance that we could have addressed and changed had we been given the opportunity. Suppose [former President George W. Bush] invited anthropology in and said, “We want to bring democracy to the tyrannical dictatorship that is Iraq.” My talk will address what anthropologists might have done if given the chance. I will further state, although there is no way to prove this — that anthropological advice could have saved many lives, many dollars and the reputation of the U.S.
MK: Why do some anthropologists oppose HTS or find it to be unethical?
PS: The social scientists are carrying weapons — not all, but many. The opposing argument is they are bound to be in situations where their advice is going to be used by the troops to more efficiently kill people, more efficiently kill soldiers and avoid killing civilians. It directly contradicts some very fundamental ethics that were established about 40 years ago by the American Anthropological Association. The critics are certain that anthropologists on the frontline cannot avoid violating the ethics of their profession. They are afraid the anthropologists will be a pawn of the military.
MK: Will the issue of anthropologists in the military be a big issue at the annual meeting for the AAA in December?
PS: This has been controversial within the association for the past three years. The executive board of the American Anthropological Association, in closed session, voted unanimously against the idea of Human Terrain teams when the idea was first formulated. The major players have brought both the pros and cons of the issue to hugely attended American Anthropological panels.