Culturally sensitive war? The Human Terrain System and the seduction of ethics

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Since around 2005, efforts have been made within the US military to highlight the significance of culture or the 'human terrain' for counterinsurgency operations. The US Army responded to the asserted 'cultural knowledge gap' by establishing an experimental programme called the Human Terrain System (HTS), which involves deploying social scientists alongside combat forces. While HTS was received favourably in the US mainstream media, it has been fiercely criticized by anthropologists in particular, who argue not least that participation in the programme would constitute a violation of their professional ethics, which require them to protect their research subjects. This article explores the anthropologists' critique and its limitations, arguing that it fails to tackle the problem of ethics deployed as a supposedly extra-political standard that can serve to (de)legitimize political projects. In particular, it is unable to dislodge the fantasy of protection at the heart of the argument for HTS. © The Author(s) 2012.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-190
Number of pages15
JournalSecurity Dialogue
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012


  • anthropology
  • cultural knowledge
  • ethics
  • human terrain
  • research ethics
  • war


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