Volume 24, Issue 1, Spring 2010
George R. Lucas, Jr.
Ethics and the ‘Human Terrain’
The Role of Academics in the Afghan War
Against the backdrop of the current “ethics controversy” within the American Anthropological Association over the U.S. Army’s “Human Terrain Systems” project, this article evaluates the moral obligations of scholars and academics asked by their governments to contribute their unique expertise toward the waging or ending of wars of which those scholars morally disapprove. Citing the examples of moral dilemmas occasioned by conflicts between duties of scholarship and duties of citizenship from past wars, together with examples like “Doctors without Borders” at present, I argue that it is not automatically, or in principle, morally objectionable for scholars and academics to provide assistance to their governments or militaries, even in what they regard as unjustifiable wars, nor would such
assistance necessarily involve an inherent violation of professional principle (as the AAA Executive leadership has claimed in recent public proclamations). Rather, the permissibility, or in some cases even obligation, to assist one’s government when requested depends critically upon the government’s intention in lodging this request, as well as upon both what the scholar is being asked to do, and whether those specific activities would result in violations of accepted canons of professional practice. I illustrate the resulting decision dilemmas with cases of anthropologists or psychologists asked to assist in humanitarian military interventions or in mitigating or helping to end misguided or mistaken campaigns of counter-terrorism.