Two books on U.S. Counterinsurgency and Anthropology


American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain by Roberto J. González; Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009, 134 pp.

The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: Notes on Demilitarizing American Society by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists Steering Committee; Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009, 195 pp.

Two recent books from Prickly Paradigm Press examine current U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and consider its implications for society and, more particularly, for the social sciences. Roberto González’s American Counterinsurgency and the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual each offer concise, yet thorough, analyses of specific elements of contemporary military practice. Each book focuses particular attention on the role anthropology and anthropologists have played in the formulation, popularization, and implementation of counterinsurgency theory.


The first of the pair, American Counterinsurgency, provides an overview of the emergence of the Human Terrain Teams, HTTs, which conduct what (broadly speaking) might be considered anthropological research into the people, societies, and cultures found in the U.S. military’s areas of operation. The information they collect and the insights they produce are then used to form counterinsurgency strategies tailored to the local context.

González writes: "HTS [the Human Terrain System] represents a subversion of social science because it puts at risk Afghans and Iraqis who share information about their lives with embedded social scientists. Brigade commanders to which HTT members are assigned can use data to create culturally specific propaganda campaigns, co-opt local leaders, or target suspected enemies for abduction or assassination."

González places the human terrain concept at the intersection of several historical narratives. He traces the term human terrain back to a House Un-American Activities Committee report on the Black Panther Party. He compares the HTT approach to that of the CIA’s notorious Phoenix Program, which used broad data collection to target what was euphemistically called Viet Cong "infrastructure," resulting in approximately 25,000 assassinations. González then details the current collaborations between anthropologists and the military and relates them to the discipline’s historical complicity in colonialism, especially in Mesopotamia and Nigeria.

The second book, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual is not, despite the logical implication of its title, a pro-insurgency handbook, but a collection of essays thematically centered on responses to FM 3-24, the U.S. Army’s "Counterinsurgency Field Manual."


The contributors attack the military guide from every angle. Catherine Lutz critiques the culture of militarism that makes public and academic acceptance of counterinsurgency theory possible. Hugh Gusterson describes the military’s co-optation of academic research, and the corrosive effects it has had on related disciplines. David Price attacks the quality and integrity of the manual’s scholarship, accusing the authors of outright plagiarism. Greg Feldman argues that the radical new counterinsurgency approach is really just the old, reactionary colonial system with a new label. Roberto González offers a shorter, tighter, more powerful version of the argument from his book. Catherine Besteman weighs the implications of the counterinsurgency doctrine for Africa. Andrew Bickford considers the similarities and, especially, the differences between anthropology and spying. Kanhong Lin relates the pressures and dilemmas facing new anthropologists as they enter an increasingly militarized discipline. And David Vine offers some "Proposals for a Humanpolitik," which only represent a modest liberal menu:

  • withdrawal from Iraq
  • a "police-based counterterrorist strategy" in Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • reductions in military spending
  • multilateralism and adherence to international law
  • developmental aid and poverty reduction
  • research toward clean and renewable energy
  • abolition of nuclear weapons, and a commitment to human rights

The book includes a two-page "Pledge of Nonparticipation in Counterinsurgency," which can be signed and mailed in to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

The book offers a refreshing anecdote to the media’s cheerleading for General Petraeus and his clique of warrior scholars. The essays present new insights into the theory, practice, history, and the propaganda-value of counterinsurgency.

Both books have the marks of a critique that remains under construction. The passion of the arguments, the vague conclusions, and the weak proposals all point to this fact. That’s not to dismiss the contribution the authors make to the study of counterinsurgency—in fact, quite the opposite. If the arguments seem a bit raw and unformed, it’s because they represent an ongoing discussion rather than a final conclusion. These two books, responses to and interventions in conditions that are themselves evolving, show us something of the process by which ideas unfold and knowledge develops.

Yet the greatest ambivalence concerns the nature of the critique itself: is the problem under consideration that anthropologists are participating in counterinsurgency or is the problem counterinsurgency itself? And, if the latter, do the authors object to the counterinsurgency strategy or to the wars in which it is being employed? Is it these wars in particular (as unjustified wars of aggression), or war and militarism per se? The question becomes: is this an ethical critique or a political critique? Does it concern only the narrow professional responsibilities of anthropologists or does it concern the relationship between the university and the military, the role of these institutions in our society, and the uses to which they are put?

The authors move between these questions without definitely seizing on one or the other, often as though they do not see the difference. I suspect the reason is that the motives behind the arguments of American Counterinsurgency and The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual are fundamentally political, but the audience they seek to influence is defined professionally. The result is political criticism couched in terms of professional ethics. Quite a lot, unfortunately, gets lost in the translation.

The political arguments are actually the stronger. One need not refer to the norms of one’s profession to find reasons to object to wars of aggression, the subjugation of foreign peoples, and the militarization of our culture. On the other hand, it’s not at all clear that the professional ethics the authors cite are sufficient for the job at hand. It is true that the American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics demands that, "Anthropological researchers must ensure that they do not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people…who might reasonably be thought to be affected by their research."

But surely, as experts in culture, the contributors understand the difference between the stated principles of an institution and the actual norms governing its behavior. (Much of The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual is devoted to teasing apart just these differences with regard to the military.) If the principles of the Code of Ethics really were inherent to the project of anthropology in such a way that violation of the norms would represent a fundamental betrayal of the anthological project (similar to, for example, faking your evidence), then the history of anthropology, and its ties to colonialism, would have been very different. Instead, we must remember that the ethics statement is itself the product of political processes and subject to political pressures. (It was conceived during, and in response to, the Vietnam War.) In other words, the professional ethics rely on the politics and one cannot expect a statement of principles to do the political work of demilitarizing the discipline.

The bigger question, though, is whether the emphasis on professional ethics may not itself be part of the problem. While the military anthropologists in the Human Terrain Teams may be behaving unethically, it doesn’t seem fair to say that they are behaving unprofessionally. It may, in fact, be their consummate professionalism that allows them to put aside their personal feelings about the military or their doubts about its mission in the Middle East. In a military context, isn’t this exactly what "professionalism" means? It is the sense of professionalism, after all, that compels us to subordinate our own judgment to the standards of the institutions of which we are a part. Professionalism substitutes the ends inherent in "the work" for the ends of the people who do the work. Professionalism, in short, is just alienation in nicer clothes.

The relevant standards for debating military policy and people’s participation in or resistance to it are not those of anthropology, but of humanity. Certainly, social scientists ought not use their professional skills to help immiserate or oppress other human beings. (It is a separate matter as to whether their work aids or harms the interests of the particular people they happen to study.) This requirement, however, is not a question of professional ethics, it is just a question of ethics. In particular, it is a question of justice. And people are liable to disagree about what justice means, and how it is best served, which leads us back to politics.


Kristian Williams is the author of American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (South End Press, 2006).