Marines Tap Social Sciences In Afghan War Effort As part of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the military is using cultural and human behavior research gathered by a Pentagon-run program called Human Terrain System. Some anthropologists argue that it is unethical for scholars in their discipline to provide information for military goals.
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Marines Tap Social Sciences In Afghan War Effort

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Marines Tap Social Sciences In Afghan War Effort

Marines Tap Social Sciences In Afghan War Effort

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NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.


COREY FLINTOFF: When the Marine commander suggested a meeting with elders at 10 o'clock on a Friday morning, Post gives him a polite reminder.

M: Colonel, the prayer time is on Friday.

FLINTOFF: The colonel's plan would interfere with prayer time for the Muslim farmers. Post is part of a Department of Defense Human Terrain team. She's been interviewing local farm families, trying to get a sense of the people and their relationships to one another.

M: And already you start to get a picture of how things work. There's splits, there's division, there is, you know, reasons, there's tracks almost, like the wrong side of the tracks, right side of the tracks you could see.

FLINTOFF: Gusterson, a professor at George Mason University, says that social scientists working for the military violate a key precept of their discipline - namely, that anthropologists should do no harm to those they study.

INSKEEP: One possibility is that just by being seen talking to people in an American military uniform, people could be opening themselves up to reprisals.

FLINTOFF: Gusterson says another problem is that local people questioned by the Human Terrain teams can't give their voluntary informed consent to take part in the interview.

INSKEEP: If you show up in an American military uniform, surrounded by people with machine guns, asking if people would like to have a chat with you, it makes it very difficult for them to give truly free consent.

FLINTOFF: Steve Fondacaro, a retired Army officer, is the project manager for the Human Terrain System. He has little patience with such complaints.

M: The first thing is, is that the villager knows that he doesn't have to speak to anybody. None of the villagers are coerced by the U.S. military in any way to do anything, unless they're shooting at us.

FLINTOFF: Fondacaro says his researchers are trained to let interviewees know that they're not required to answer questions. But in a larger sense, he says, the critics of the program are setting standards that are impossible to meet in a war zone.

M: The problems being described by our critics here is being one of absolutely impossible. You can't possibly do no harm, and you can't possibly gain informed consent. So, I can only surmise from that, that I guess our course of action, then, is to give up.

FLINTOFF: Back in Marjah, Kristin Post says she thought she might face ethical questions while doing her job, but that she hasn't found that to be the case.

M: But what I see and what I would think anybody would judge to be true, is that we're using social science research methods to save Afghan lives and military lives. And I can't see anything unethical about that.

FLINTOFF: Corey Flintoff, NPR News.



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