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The Study of Human Behaviour in Post-9/11 War: Why Psychologists Co-operate with the U.S. Military and Anthropologists Fight Back
An understanding of society is integral to the human enterprise of armed conflict. This is why the United States military has synthesized its war tactics with social science research in post-9/11 operations. The two most relevant examples include (1) psychologists being complicit in designing an “enhanced interrogation” program for war prisoners and (2) the deployment of anthropologists in Iraq and Afghanistan for gathering sociocultural information. This represents a controversial consolidation of academia and the military – but remarkably, while the American Anthropological Association (AAA) strongly criticized the 2010-2014 Human Terrain System (HTS) program through which anthropologists were embedded, the American Psychological Association (APA) quietly collaborated with the CIA and the Department of Defense (DOD) in developing a system of torture. Here, I argue that these two social sciences have divergent relationships with the U.S. military (with psychology being deep-seated and anthropology being contested) due to their histories. In particular, changes in the geopolitical landscape in the 20th century had adverse effects on the relationship between war and anthropology, while allowing the state use of psychology to become legitimized.
Psychologists and the “Enhanced Interrogation” Program
Psychologists are experts in human behaviour and manipulation, hence their involvement since 2001 in developing the CIA and Defense Department’s “enhanced interrogation” program, which is now widely known to have been a system of torture.[i] Methods such as sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, isolation, stress positions, and waterboarding were studied and approved by professional psychologists[ii] and then used against prisoners to attain valuable intelligence in so-called black sites, wherein U.S. laws against these practices were said to be inapplicable.
The lawlessness that characterized these practices translated into further human rights abuses that went far beyond the “harmless” methods of psychological torture. The 2014 report conducted by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) not only found the methods to have been ineffective, but also that the interrogation techniques and living conditions “were brutal and far worse” than the public was led to believe.[iii] The torture of alleged terrorists in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and other sites through extraordinary rendition devastated many innocent lives and the nation’s reputation. In 2015, another report was published that revealed how closely American psychologists were involved in conceiving this program.
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, the Pentagon needed psychologists on board to establish some legitimacy and credibility for the program.[iv] Senior members of the APA played an important role in protecting the Defense Department and CIA from growing dissent on the matter. Academic experts declared that the techniques were designed to inflict psychological, rather than physical, pressure on the prisoners and would do so in a “Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective (SLEE)” manner.[v] Since practices such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation had already been defined as forms of illegal torture under both U.S. and international law[vi], the government had to convince the public that these aggressive techniques were necessary and relatively harmless. Psychologists were hired to add a layer of scientific credibility to these claims.
High-level members of the APA, namely psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were compelled to do such work due reportedly to their desire to help the Defence Department and maximize the growth of the psychological profession – while receiving a lucrative salary of $1000 per day.[vii] Most interestingly, their involvement was justified by the American Psychological Association (APA) – in fact, the APA’s ethics code was used to justify rather than condemn it.
When a concern was raised by the head of the CIA’s Office of Medical Services, psychologist Mel Gravitz was called upon to evaluate the validity of the APA’s participation. Gravitz persuaded the agency that “the psychologist has an obligation to (a) group of individuals, such as the nation,” and that the ethics code “must be flexible [sic] applied to the circumstances at hand.”[viii] The APA Ethics Code obliges psychologists to “respect and protect civil and human rights” and do no harm.[ix] But their intimate and long-enduring relationship with the U.S. government provoked them to once again blur the line between the association’s objectives and those of the state, thus allowing psychologists who were willing weaponize their study of human behaviour to participate in the War on Terror.
Anthropologists and the Human Terrain System (HTS)
The Human Terrain System (HTS) is a concept that emerged in response to the gaps in the U.S. military’s understanding of the local culture in the regions in which they were fighting. The mismanaged operations in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) brought these concerns to the forefront. It had finally become clear that effective armed intervention in a foreign land requires a real understanding of the social and cultural dynamics on the ground.[x] In February 2007, therefore, the U.S. military began developing HTS, which meant deploying anthropologists to conduct research on the “human terrain”. This included information about local leaders, tribes and social groups, political disputes, economic issues, and social problems.[xi] However, there has been significant controversy surrounding the program. It was eventually discontinued in September 2014, but remains a topic of ongoing debate.
It is a well-known fact that sociocultural knowledge is an essential part of U.S. counterinsurgency. As stated in the 2013 in-depth assessment of HTS in Afghanistan:
“The need for a standing program to provide sociocultural knowledge should be well recognized after a decade of difficult military operations… Some Army observers, for example, believe the need for cultural understanding is one of the top five lessons learned from the post-9/11 wars.”
Considering this realization, why was the program so heavily criticized? Strong criticism of HTS has come principally from American anthropologists who are concerned about the integration of anthropology into military tactics. The AAA has claimed that the program violates the Code of Ethics which requires anthropologists to "do no harm to those they study” (on the grounds that the gathered intelligence might be used against them) and that it would be difficult to ensure voluntary informed consent.[xii] Additionally, the AAA perceives it to be impossible to reconcile the multipurpose of HTS, which seems to serve both a research and tactical counterinsurgency function. Furthermore, anthropologists are concerned that this program would put anthropologists in harm’s way, since they would be deployed in war zones without proper identification or could possibly be made into targets.[xiii] But most significantly, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA) criticized HTS for “weaponizing anthropology” and the program has been accused of being a tool for neo-colonialism.[xiv]
Supporters insist that the 31 deployed Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) have made a valuable difference on the ground in terms of civilian casualties, and have kept their soldiers safe while providing a framework for alternative thinking. But the association has engaged in a confrontation rather than a collaboration with the U.S. military and other pro-HTS on this issue.[xv] In 2007, the AAA published an official statement opposing HTS as an "unacceptable application of anthropological expertise"[xvi], and its degree of opposition has been considered disproportionate by some. Supporters of the program wondered why the AAA was not open for negotiation on the matter and did not consider adapting their Ethics Code, as the APA has done, to the exceptional circumstances of war. However, through an understanding of anthropology’s struggle to maintain integrity as an academic discipline following its colonial history, it is made clear why anthropology has developed a deeply contested relationship with the U.S. military.
Origins of the Divergence
Psychology and U.S. National Interests
The close relationship between U.S. national interests and the field of psychology was born out of the state’s increasing need for indirect mind control over the American population upon entering World War I. The United States had begun strengthening its reputation as a democratic country in the early 1900s, a period of time now defined as the Progressive Era in U.S. history. This mainly involved political reform designed to eliminate corruption in government, with a move toward direct democracy, regulation of corporate monopolies, and women’s suffrage. Noam Chomsky characterizes this process of deepening democracy as a “problem” that the state had to confront, because the government was losing its power to directly control the people.[xvii]
Thus, the rising power not only adopted material technologies at the turn of the century, but also the human technologies that would allow the country to be governed as a true liberal democracy. The exercise of indirect political power came in the form of mass persuasion through state propaganda, and such propaganda had to be informed by expert psychological research that intelligently manipulated human reasoning, because “in liberal democratic societies, the exercise of power over citizens becomes legitimate to the extent that it claims a rational basis.”[xviii]
Psychology legitimized state power, but was only able to do so because the social science had itself just recently become legitimized as a serious profession. The last two decades of the 19th century saw a new “scientific” German model of psychology become adopted by American psychologists and created a “revolution in the way psychology was conceptualized in the United States.” The discipline was gaining credibility and becoming professionalized, and the constitution of the APA, which was founded in 1892, stated the purpose of the organization as “the advancement of Psychology as a science.”[xix] Meanwhile, the Progressives were calling for the application of scientific methods for the improvement of society.[xx] Psychologists were keen to become involved in this way, in order to expand the reach and application of their discipline and demonstrate “the attitude of psychology in its desire to serve humanity.”[xxi]
It was revealed throughout the first half of the 20th century that serving humanity meant helping the U.S. war effort and the advertising industry. One famous psychologist in particular received extraordinary praise from the APA in 1949 for such contributions – Edward Bernays, father of modern public relations. Bernays emerged as a prominent figure after his time spent on the Committee of Public Information (CPI), which was established in 1917 with the aim of producing effective propaganda to bolster participation and support for the WWI effort.
The fragmented nature of the American population and the isolationist sentiments that pervaded throughout the country had to be transformed in order to recruit the massive number of workers and soldiers needed to fight a total war of unprecedented scale.[xxii] For this purpose, Four Minute Men spread positive messaging across the country (in short four-minute segments, believed to be the average human attention span at the time) about why America was fighting. They were advised to deliver a “propagation of faith” rather than “hymns of hate”, and the spread of such positive messaging proved to be highly effective in shaping the public mood and producing enthusiasm for the fight for democracy in Europe.[xxiii] In his 1925 book, Propaganda, Bernays emphasized the applicability of lessons learned from WWI, namely, that it was possible to "regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies."[xxiv]
This lesson led to an intensification and expansion of psychological tactics in WWII. In particular, it led to the development of propaganda designed not only to boost morale in the U.S., but also to undermine morale of enemies abroad. Upon the call to arms in 1939, the CPI was replaced by the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) which conducted far-reaching domestic propaganda campaigns.[xxv] But the OWI also had an overseas Psychological Warfare Branch (PWB), which aimed to manipulate enemy combatants in Operation Torch of 1942 through “leaflet warfare”.[xxvi] Its success led to the branch’s synthesis in 1944 with the British Political Warfare Executive (PWE) to form the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (PWD/SHAEF), which operated against German troops in Normandy using the same tactics. Prominent American Psychologist Jerome Bruner was one member of this division in France who studied German radio broadcasts and social attitudes for intelligence.[xxvii] This intelligence informed the development of leaflet propaganda, which were pamphlets filled with fear-inducing messages that were dropped onto battlefields from above, hoping to cause either surrender or defection of enemy soldiers. Psychology was in the process of becoming truly weaponized.
The Cold War made the weapon of psychology become more dangerous and increasingly questionable. The CIA began gathering psychological research illegally under Project MKUltra for the purpose of controlling the minds of communist war prisoners. The goal was to weaken captives in Vietnam and South America in order to compel confessions.[xxviii] Now, rather than free opponents being openly manipulated, captive enemies were to be pressured behind closed doors.
The CIA was initially interested in the esoteric use of drugs such as LSD as a way of undermining the prisoners’ cognitive capacity and somehow eliciting valuable information. But after the publication in 1954 of a sensory deprivation study conducted by Dr. Donald Hebb of McGill University, which was funded by the Canadian Defense Research Board (CDRB), it was revealed that “without physical pain, without drugs, the personality can be badly deformed simply by modifying the perceptual environment.”[xxix] The concept of sensory deprivation was then adopted by the CIA as the foundation for their torture techniques. Hebb’s study was furthered by psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron under the direction of the CIA, and according to another CIA psychologist, Dr. John Gittinger,
“By 1962 and 1963, the general idea we were able to come up with is that brainwashing was largely a process of isolating a human being, keeping him out of contact, putting him under long stress in relationship to interviewing and interrogation... without having to resort to any esoteric means."[xxx]
Psychology therefore helped to develop methods of interrogation that were “scientifically sound” – but ultimately proved in the Cold War to be ineffective.[xxxi] Yet, due to an apparently strong attachment to the torture method that goes beyond reason, the same disproven research under MKUltra has been used to justify torture techniques in the post-9/11 era.[xxxii]
Given historical context, the involvement of American psychologists in the CIA’s torture program from 2001-2007 is less surprising. Indeed, such a collaboration was foreordained. The foundation had already been lay for an enduring bond between psychology and U.S. national interests – based on the APA’s continual desire for the growth and application of their science and the state’s need for mind control – that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.
Anthropology, Colonialism and War
Anthropology is typically understood as “the study of humanity.” However, in the late 1960s, it became clear to anthropologists that their social science had historically comprised of studying “the other.”[xxxiii] The profession emerged out of 16th century Western colonialism – described in 1966 by father of modern anthropology Claude Lévi Strauss as “a historical process which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other” and confessed that “anthropology is daughter to this era of violence."[xxxiv]
True, the study of anthropology grew out of the Western desire for self-understanding upon the discovery of new, different and “primitive” people.[xxxv] The belief that non-white societies were racially inferior was pervasive, and although most anthropologists at the time were reportedly against colonialism, they paradoxically functioned as part of the system. Knowledge of the native society was acquired by “scientific and objective” observation from a perspective that was not only looking in from the outside, but also looking down from above. Anthropologists were white and privileged, and the cultural and social information they obtained was often passed onto authorities in the European colonies, including the United States, and used as a tool for control and manipulation against the native people.[xxxvi] Anthropology thus became an invasive social science that involved exploiting sociocultural knowledge for the purposes of oppressing the society being studied.
In the U.S. during the 1800s, cultural anthropology centered on the study of Native American societies. Such work was commissioned by the government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of American Ethnology. Prominent anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, for example, made significant contributions in his comparative analysis of indigenous kinship patterns and developed a theory of social evolution that involved three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The Iroquois and Seneca tribes that he studied presumably fell under the lowest category (“savagery”), according to his own definition, since they were hunter-gathers who used basic tools like fire, bows, and pottery. Like the vast majority of anthropologists at the time, Morgan studied their culture but did not advocate for the protection of it, and instead believed in the two methods of “rescuing the Indian from his impending destiny” – education and Christianity.[xxxvii] Such a framework for thinking did not see a reversal until the 1960s.
Prior to that development, American anthropologists entered the 20th century armed with vast knowledge, theories and scientific methods. Their credibility and sociocultural expertise were called upon unofficially to help provide intelligence in WWI – particularly in the field of espionage. This led to strong criticism in 1918 from legendary anthropologist Franz Boas, who claimed that these anthropologists had “prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.”[xxxviii] The AAA unashamedly protected the rights of anthropologists to engage in such activities and censured Boas for being subversive (despite his standing as a preeminent scholar who helped found the association in 1902).[xxxix] Undeniably, Boas was ahead of his time. He was deeply concerned with maintaining a relationship of trust and respect between himself and those he studied, while the association had yet to develop their ethics code that now falls along these lines.
Unfortunately for thinkers like Boas, the end of WWI did not mark the end of anthropological warfare. In fact, it was during World War II that anthropological research truly became integrated into U.S. military efforts in an official and systematized way. The high stakes of WWII along with its massive scale required an intensification of efforts in all spheres, including the gathering of intelligence, and anthropologists were much obliged to help with the campaign. In 1941, the AAA passed a resolution in support of the war effort, stating: "Be it resolved that the American Anthropological Association places itself and its resources and the specialized skills of its members at the disposal of the country for the successful prosecution of the war."[xl] A sense of national unity and desire to fight for freedom and democracy were strong motivators.[xli]
However, the war eventually took on a darker tone that contradicted the initial heroism of U.S. involvement, especially upon the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,[xlii] which killed at least 129,000 people (most of whom were civilians).[xliii] This event provoked a heated debate within U.S. politics and brought the ethical issues of war to the forefront of the anthropological discourse.
The post-WWII era saw the beginning of self-reflection among anthropologists: in particular, the wave of decolonization in the 1960s forced anthropology to decolonize itself.[xliv] During this time, the AAA began discussing the morality of anthropological warfare and its connection with colonialism in a critical way – and consequently, the participation of anthropologists in the Cold War was comparatively low. Their involvement mostly took place under Project Camelot in 1964, which was a U.S. study designed to prevent communist insurgent movements by predicting and influencing social developments abroad. The project immediately received criticism in South America for being “imperialistic” and was officially cancelled in 1965.[xlv]
There was a clear shift happening in anthropology. Both internal and external pressure caused a desire for reform and rehabilitation of the profession’s moral dignity. The AAA established a Committee on Ethics in 1969 and adopted their Ethics Code in 1971. They also began supporting works that critically explored the colonial legacy of anthropology: books such as “Reinventing Anthropology” (Hymes, 1969) and “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter” (Asad, 1973) were published. Boas’ earlier theory from 1877, which understood civilization as not something absolute, but relative, finally began to take hold.
With historical context, it is clear that “the greater the controversy of the conflict, then the greater tension that exists in the relationship between professional anthropology and the military.”[xlvi] And the War on Terror in the 21st century is undoubtedly controversial. The legitimacy of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has been subject to debate ever since 9/11, and seems to bear an uncomfortable amount of resemblance to the colonial legacy that anthropology tries to escape. There is an enduring struggle to divorce the social science from its past reputation and instead emphasize a dedication to conducting research under professional and well-controlled circumstances: only in cases where consent is given and the gathered information cannot be used against the subject. Understandably, the AAA opposed the HTS program precisely due to this historically heavy moral commitment.
In this essay, the American Psychological Association (APA)’s submissive attitude toward the U.S. military’s employment of their research in developing the “enhanced interrogation” program is juxtaposed with the American Anthropological Association (AAA)’s antagonism towards the same level of collaboration in the context of the Human Terrain System (HTS) – with the divergence being explained by the historical context in which the respective social sciences developed. This discussion also serves as a catalyst for a larger debate concerning the ambivalent relationship between academia and warfare. It is the social sciences in particular that easily lend themselves to practical applicability in war, and as HTS expert Christopher Sims writes: “Where conflict has most explicitly impacted and is impacted by society, the call to the social sciences becomes loudest.” The connection between society and war is intimate and enduring, and therefore the call will likely not cease, requiring us to unravel and come to terms with the complexities involved in order to move forward into an era where the social sciences may come to lawfully serve society in a positive and open way even in the context of war. History is embedded in the present, however, and therefore the military use of psychology and anthropology will forever remain bound to the past.
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American Anthropological Association. "Executive Board Statement on the Human Terrain System Project" October 21, 2007.
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Carey, Alex and Andrew Lohrey. Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty (University of Illinois Press, 1997).
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Cocks, Catherine, et al. The A to Z of the Progressive Era (Scarecrow Press, 2009).
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Harrison, Faye V. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation (American Anthropological Association, 1991).
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[i] David Hoffman. Report to the Special Committee of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association: Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture. (Report, Chicago: Sydney Austin LLP, 2015).
[iii] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014)
[iv] James Risen, "Outside Psychologists Shielded U.S. Torture Program, Report Finds." New York Times, July 10, 2015.
[v] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
[vi] Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 109th Congress, Second Session. Vol. 152 (Report. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 2006).
[vii] James Risen. "Outside Psychologists Shielded U.S. Torture Program, Report Finds."
[ix] The American Psychological Association, Ethical Principles of Psychologists are Code of Conduct (1992).
[x] Montgomery McFate and Andrea Jackson. "An Organizational Solution for DOD’s Cultural Knowledge Needs." Military Review, (2005), 18-21.
[xi] Montgomery McFate and Janice H. Laurence. Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2015).
[xii] American Anthropological Association. "Executive Board Statement on the Human Terrain System Project." October 21, 2007.
[xiv] David H Price. Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (AK Press, 2011).
[xv] Christopher J. Sims, The Human Terrain System: Operationally Relevant Social Science Research in Iraq and Afghanistan (U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, 2015), 80.
[xvi] American Anthropological Association. “Executive Board Statement.”
[xvii] Noam Chomsky, "What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream" (Lecture, Z Media Institute, USA, June 1997).
[xviii] Adrian C. Brock, “Psychology and Liberal Democracy” in Internationalizing the History of Psychology (New York University Press. 2006), 153.
[xix] C. James Goodwin, “United States” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Psychology: Global Perspectives (Oxford Library of Psychology, 2012).
[xx] Michael P. Federici, "Progressivism." First Principles: ISI Web Journal (2011).
[xxi] Edward Wheeler Scripture, “Preface” in Thinking, Feeling, Doing (Flood and Vincent, 1895), iii.
[xxii] Robin Mansell, The Oxford Handbook of Information and Communication Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2007), 479.
[xxiii] David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (OUP USA, 2004), 61.
[xxiv] Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1925).
[xxv] Nicholas John Cull, et al., Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present (ABC-CLIO, 2003).
[xxvi] National World War II Museum New Orleans, “Featured Artifacts: Operation Torch Propaganda Leaflet”, http://www.nationalww2museum.org/see-hear/collections/artifacts/operation-torch
[xxvii] Herbert Sidney Langford et al., Psychological Monographs: General and Applied (American Psychological Association, 1948), 3.
[xxviii] Stephen Foster, The Project Mkultra Compendium: The Cia's Program of Research in Behavioral Modification (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009).
[xxix]Michael Otterman, “Codifying Cruelty” in American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond. (Melbourne University Publishing, 2007), 42.
[xxx] Ibid., 52.
[xxxi] Jennifer Harbury, Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture (Beacon Press, 2005), 117.
[xxxii] Juan Camilo Velasquez, “MK-ULTRAViolence” The McGill Daily, September 6 2012.
[xxxiii] Lewis, “Anthropology and Colonialism”, 581.
[xxxiv] Lévi Strauss, “Anthropology: Its Achievements and Future,” Current Anthropology (1966).
[xxxv] Lewis, 582.
[xxxvii] Lewis Henry Morgan, “League of the Hode 'nosaunee, or Iroquois” (1851).
[xxxviii] Franz Boas, “Scientists as Spies” The Nation (1919).
[xxxix] David H. Price, “Anthropologists as Spies” in Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power (University of Texas Press, 2004), 63.
[xl] Adam Briggle and Carl Mitcham, Ethics and Science: An Introduction. (Cambridge University Press, 2012). 84.
[xli] David Price, “Lessons from Second World War Anthropology: Peripheral, Persuasive and Ignored Contributions.” Anthropology Today (2002), 13.
[xlii] Sims, The Human Terrain System, 59.
[xliii] John J. Chodes, The Myth of America's Military Power (Branden Press, 1972), 210.
[xliv] Faye V. Harrison. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation (American Anthropological Association, 1991), 1.
[xlv] Ron Theodore Robin, The Making of the Cold War Enemy: Culture and Politics in the Military-Intellectual Complex. (Princeton University Press, 2009), 207.
[xlvi] Sims, The Human Terrain System, 83.