War, Journalism and Professional Ethics


In the fall of 2007, I received an interview request from the New York Times journalist David Rohde, who was writing an article about the U.S. Army’s newly announced Human Terrain project – a program to embed anthropologists in military teams in Iraq and Afghanistan and send them out to “map the human terrain.”1 Rohde had contacted me because I was a founder of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists,2 a group that was circulating a pledge for anthropologists not to participate in counterinsurgency work in the Middle East.  Since Rohde was in Afghanistan, he asked to interview me by email rather than by phone.  This means I have a complete record of our “interview,” which consisted simply of an email message from me to him.  In that message I said nothing about my attitude to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Instead, I stressed the incompatibility of the Human Terrain project with anthropology’s professional ethics code.  Pointing out that “it’s part of the generally accepted code of conduct among journalists that you wouldn’t work both as a journalist and for a U.S. intelligence agency,” I said:

Many anthropologists have similar concerns about anthropologists doing counter-insurgency work…. Anthropologists see it as deeply important to be transparent with those we study…. We rely on trust with human beings we live among in order to generate knowledge.  If they won’t talk to us, we have no knowledge.  If they do talk to us, we owe them a certain discretion in return.  Covert work, work that facilitates the occupation of those we study by a foreign country, and work that facilitates the killing of some in the communities we study is absolutely an abuse of the trust between anthropologists and the communities they study.

Rohde’s article appeared on page 1 of the New York Times on October 5, 2007.  It quoted five supporters of the Human Terrain project and featured two critics. I say “featured” because, in my case, nothing from my email message was quoted.  Instead my name was used as adornment for a quote from elsewhere, presumably because what I had actually said in the “interview” did not fit my allotted frame.  My allotted frame was not to speak in defense of professional ethics, but to be politically correct.  “Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq. ‘While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world,’ the pledge says, ‘at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.’”


The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is not generally an activist institution.  However, shortly after the Pentagon announced its plans to recruit anthropologists for embedding in Human Terrain teams, on October 31, 2007, the AAA Executive Board issued a statement, uncharacteristic in its strong wording, condemning the program.3 This statement took no position on other kinds of anthropological work for the national security state, but declared that the Human Terrain System would put anthropologists it recruited in conflict with the professional ethics code of the anthropological community.  The statement identified three ethical concerns.  The first and most serious derives from the prime directive of anthropological ethics, an analogue to the Hippocratic Oath, stipulating that anthropologists should do no harm to those they study. “HTS anthropologists may have responsibilities to their U.S. military units in war zones that conflict with their obligations to the persons they study or consult, specifically the obligation, stipulated in the AAA Code of Ethics, to do no harm to those they study,” said the statement.  The second concern, grounded in the Nuremberg Code’s insistence that all research be based upon free informed consent, was that “HTS anthropologists work in a war zone under conditions that make it difficult for those they communicate with to give “informed consent.””  The third concern was for the well-being of other anthropologists: “Because HTS identifies anthropology and anthropologists with U.S. military operations, this identification… may create serious difficulties for, including grave risks to the personal safety of, many non-HTS anthropologists.”  The statement concluded: “In light of these points, the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association concludes (i) that the HTS program creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA Code of Ethics and (ii) that its use of anthropologists poses a danger to both other anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study. Thus the Executive Board expresses its disapproval of the HTS program.4

At the same time the Executive Board appointed a Commission to investigate the Human Terrain System and report back.  The Commission’s ten members included one who does cultural training for the marines, one who works at a nuclear weapons laboratory, and an archaeologist for the U.S. Army.  Still, when the commission released its report in the fall of 2009, it concluded unanimously that HTS “can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology,” and recommended “that the AAA emphasize the incompatibility of HTS with disciplinary ethics.”5

The U.S. military’s response to these developments was to intensify its attempt to recruit anthropologists rather than honor their professional association’s ethical objections to the program.   Offering salaries of as much as $300,000 to new PhDs in anthropology, the Human Terrain team bureaucracy and its contractor BAE Systems started to work the internet and to send its officials to anthropology meetings.  I was at one conference on anthropology and the military at the University of Chicago where the Human Terrain official who attended told the other participants that anthropologists and the military had “had a bad first date,” and should “try a second dance.”  To many present the language of a “bad date” seemed bizarrely inapposite to a situation where one party was protesting that it was being violated by the other.

Since its inception the Human Terrain team project has continued to attract coverage, intermittently at least, from the media.  In terms of major articles that appeared after Rohde’s, a LexisNexis search shows two articles in the Washington Post, two articles in USA Today, one article in the Christian Science Monitor, one article in the Boston Globe, one article in Newsweek, one article in Foreign Policy online, and an op-ed and an article in the Arts section of the New York Times.   A systematic reading of this coverage suggests that mainstream journalistic coverage of this issue was almost always instinctively from the soldier’s point of view; that the most consistently biased coverage was in the Washington Post; that David Rohde was not the only journalist to minimize the anthropologists’ ethical qualms with the Human Terrain project; that media coverage of Human Terrain teams became more critical over time; and that the ethical critique of the program was, almost without exception, only made central when the anthropological community did something newsworthy to put it at the center.

Taken as an ensemble, these articles share an angle of vision.  Many were clearly written with the cooperation of the U.S. military, an at least one journalist was allowed to embed with a Human Terrain team.  Some articles feature color photographs of human terrain team social scientists in the field, earnestly listening to the natives.  Journalists clearly had access to the program since their stories often feature extensive attributed quotes from the human terrain team social scientists and the bureaucratic architects of the program.  And if we ask who is most humanized, whose character is most elaborated, from whose point of view the scene is observed, it is the human terrain team social scientists.  This is most transparently clear in posthumous coverage in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe of Paula Loyd, the Human Terrain anthropologist who was doused in gasoline and set on fire by an Afghan man she was interviewing.  But we also see it in other coverage. Take this example from a Washington Post magazine article on August 30, 2009. “Karl Slaikeu had asked for this assignment. A 64-year-old psychologist and conflict-resolution specialist from Texas, Karl had been nursing an idea that he thought could change the course of the war.”  We are told about Karl’s seminary training and his concern for ordinary Afghans, and that “he began reading everything he could find, looking for ways that ordinary citizens like him could engage and sacrifice. Then he heard about the Human Terrain System.”

Although, in accordance with the journalistic ideology of “balance,” anthropological critics are usually present in these stories, their presence is often marginalized or deformed.  I have found no story in which an anthropological critic of the program is given a persona and a life story.  If they are not swallowed up in a blanket characterization of anthropological critiques of the program, they are quoted and simply identified by their institution and title.  They have a voice but no story.  They are present, but shallowly.  And they usually appear deep into the story, often transiently, bit parts in a story defined by others.  In the 3,617-word article structured around Karl, no critic is quoted at all.

Many of the stories also, like Rohde’s, transmute ethical critique into political correctness.  For example, a 2228-word article by Pamela Constable in the Washington Post quotes six sources supportive of the Human Terrain project and quotes briefly from a Nature editorial saying the program suffers from poor implementation.  Its only acknowledgement of anthropological critiques is this sentence: “Although the Human Terrain System was designed by an anthropologist, it was ardently opposed by groups of social scientists who believe the military should not use scholars as collaborators in combat.”   An op-ed in the New York Times in October 2007 said, “A group calling itself the Network of Concerned Anthropologists has called for a boycott and asked faculty members and students around the country to pledge not to contribute to counterinsurgency efforts. Their logic is clear: America is engaged in a brutal war of occupation; if you don’t support the mission then you shouldn’t support the troops.”

And, in a context where supporters and critics were debating whether Human Terrain anthropologists would end up producing intelligence for military targeting or just do tribal culture studies, the journalists’ thumbnail characterizations of the program often preemptively sealed off this fundamental debate.  “Loyd was working in Afghanistan on a Pentagon project to better understand rural Afghanistan’s communities,” is the way the Washington Post described the Human Terrain project on May 9, 2009.

This is not the end of the story, however.  In his widely admired book on US media coverage of the Vietnam War, The Uncensored War, media critic Daniel Hallin notes that coverage of that war started off as uncritical relaying of Pentagon claims, but became progressively more critical.  Something similar has happened, on a more modest scale, with Human Terrain team coverage, especially after hard-hitting articles in Newsweek and Foreign Policy revealing poor recruitment and training practices within the Human Terrain project (articles that mainstreamed allegations already made for a small audience in articles by the indefatigable independent reporter and blogger John Stanton).  With the exception of the Washington Post, newspapers have increasingly folded into their coverage references to the anthropologists’ ethical concerns.  An excellent article in the Boston Globe by Farah Stockman in February 2009 gave a particularly rich account of the ethical issues in play.

In December 2009, when the American Anthropological Association held a press conference to release its official report on Human Terrain teams, the ethical critique itself finally became the story in articles in the New York Times, USA Today, and Jane’s Defence Weekly.  Instead of inhabiting someone else’s frame, the anthropological critics had at last staged an event that provided the frame.  When I read these words by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times (even if her story was, for some mysterious reason, put in the Arts Section) I felt the media had finally got the story: “A two-year-old Pentagon program that assigns social scientists to work with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan has come under sharp criticism from a panel of anthropologists who argue that the undertaking is dangerous, unethical and unscholarly…. The panel concluded that… collecting data in the context of war, where coercion and offensive tactics are always potentially present, ”can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.’”

Now we just have to hope the Pentagon gets the message too.

Hugh Gusterson is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at George Mason University.


  1. General David Petraeus has been quoted as saying that, in a counterinsurgency campaign, “the decisive terrain is the human terrain, not the high ground or the river crossing.”  The U.S. military’s counterinsurgency campaigns are now based on the premise that, to prevail, the U.S. military must understand the social and cultural organization of the local population, and that the U.S. will only win if it has won the hearts and minds of the population against the insurgents. []
  2. For more on the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, see the group’s website at http://concerned.anthropologists.googlepages.com/ as well as its recently published book, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Volume (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009). []
  3. The statement can be found on AAA’s website available at: http://www.aaanet.org/about/Policies/statements/Human-Terrain-System-Statement.cfm [accessed on March 1, 2010]. []
  4. Italics in original text. []
  5. http://www.aaanet.org/cmtes/commissions/CEAUSSIC/upload/CEAUSSIC_HTS_Final_Report.pdf []


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