Regarding the AAA position toward the FIU-SOUTHCOM alliance

[I wrote the following letter today as follow-up to the motion passed last November, as the AAA executive board and Rapid Response Network prepare to take the matter of the ethical questions raised by the FIU-SOUTHCOM "Strategic Culture" under consideration]

At the business meeting last November (2010) I presented the following motion, which was passed by a large majority of those present:

Motion condemning the FIU-SOUTHCOM "Strategic Culture" alliance

  • Whereas the AAA has condemned the U.S. Military's Human Terrain System; and
  • Whereas the militarization of the academy threatens academic integrity and independence; and
  • Whereas the occupation by the U.S. Military Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) of foreign sovereign nations in Latin America and the Caribbean has resulted in grievous harm to our colleagues and interlocutors in those countries, and has denied them the right to self-determination;

The AAA condemns the Florida International University-SOUTHCOM alliance created to elaborate "strategic culture" reports for Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Please note that this is the motion as I copied it by hand at the meeting; I believe it to be identical to the the version from the meeting minutes, but there may be a word or two that is different.


The reasons for my concern around the FIU-SOUTHCOM "Strategic Culture" alliance are many, but my primary concern is that the project itself represents a threat to the lives, well-being, and self-determination of the human subjects who are the targets of the "Strategic Culture" country studies produced by the alliance for SOUTHCOM.

The FIU-SOUTHCOM "Strategic Culture" alliance represents an evolution of the military's use of the academy as a tool for intelligence gathering and for legitimizing its military projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. It shares much in common with the infamous Project Camelot, the Pentagon-sponsored project based at the now-defunct Special Operations Research Office at American University. Project Camelot employed social scientists in the early 1960s to assess the underlying causes of social rebellion so as to prevent the overthrow of governments friendly to the U.S. through means including, according to the U.S. Army, "equipping and training indigenous forces for an internal security mission, civic action, psychological warfare, or other counterinsurgency action." Such actions, the Army document continued, "[depend] on a thorough understanding of the indigenous social structure." (see: Thy Will Be Done: Gerard Colby with Charlotte Dennett; Chapter 30, footnote 51 - Washington Star 1965, p.1) Project Camelot's first test case was in Chile.

Project Camelot ended in disgrace. It was forced to shut down in 1965 in response to widespread outrage after one of the social scientists invited to participate informed Chilean and U.S. social scientists of the project's explicit counterinsurgency purpose. The primary concerns of most of the project's opponents were:

  1. Allegations that social scientists working for Project Camelot were engaging in clandestine research
  2. The project represented a misuse of social science research to suppress legitimate rebellions and/or revolutionary movements.

The U.S. military learned important lessons from the embarrassments of Project Camelot and, more recently, the Human Terrain System (HTS). Primary among those is that anthropologists widely share the ethical directive that we must not condone or engage in secret research that threatens the lives of our human subjects. As such, the FIU-SOUTHCOM alliance does not involve secret research; indeed, the documents produced are publicly available on its website.

The U.S. military has also learned to take greater care in representing its mission to the public as one of "democracy promotion," rather than as justifiable attacks on the self-determination of peoples who reject authoritarian governments aligned with the United States. Nonetheless, SOUTHCOM remains fundamentally unchanged—its focus continues to be on destabilizing hostile governments (at present, primarily those aligned with ALBA—the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) and fomenting counterinsurgency campaigns against campesino, indigenous, union, and other broad-based movements opposing the policies of states friendly to the United States. This can be seen through the briefest glance at the increasing number of U.S. bases in Latin America despite growing protest movements demanding sovereignty; the deteriorating security situation throughout Latin America which rather than being ameliorated by increased U.S. military training and aid, reflects it; the growing number of 21st century coups carried out against popular democratically-elected governments in Latin America and the Caribbean in which the U.S. military has been involved either directly (as in the case of Haiti) or through training of the usurping soldiers; and the callously imperialist attitudes and military strategies exposed by cables released by Wikileaks.

It could be claimed, as was argued during the debates over HTS, that social scientific research carried out on behalf of the U.S. military will lead to better, more humane policy. Indeed, the FIU-SOUTHCOM alliance mission statement, which defines the program as the FIU-SOUTHCOM Academic Partnership (emphasis my own) states that "The partnership entails FIU providing the highest quality research-based knowledge to further explicative understanding of the political, strategic, and cultural dimensions of state behavior and foreign policy." It further notes, "At the conclusion of each workshop, FIU publishes a findings report, which is presented at SOUTHCOM."

However, a brief analysis of the invited participants and—more importantly—the academic quality of the reports, shows this argument to be deeply flawed. First of all, the participants of the "Strategic Culture" country workshops have included a bare minimum of respected academics and intellectuals. Instead, business leaders, military generals, think tank pundits, national police representatives, and un-credentialed academics have dominated (see, for example, a breakdown of the participants in the Honduras Strategic Culture workshop). Secondly, well-meaning anthropologists, historians, and other social scientist attendees actually qualified to carry out the quality of research claimed by the program have found their analyses excluded in final "Strategic Culture" country reports—the ones used to inform and shape SOUTHCOM policy.

Rather than "highest quality research-based knowledge", the reports produce claims like the following: "in terms of its economy, Argentina is a relatively primitive, peripheral country"; the fact that Bolivia's "indigenous majority has been purposely and systematically excluded" is called an "arguable notion"; Haitian "strategic culture" is said to be heavily influenced by Voodoo; Chilean "character" is said to be the product of "crossbreeding between wild and aboriginal warriors"; and in Colombia, a reported high happiness index is said to be "the product of many years of being constantly exposed to...fear." (for specific page references see and The examples provided here are not aberrations; rather, they faithfully represent the overall character of FIU-SOUTHCOM's final "Strategic Culture" country reports, which create a narrative legitimating U.S. military intervention, training, and aid.

In and of itself, bad science is not an ethical violation; however, I would argue that bad science carried out on purpose and with the specific intent of providing academic legitimization for military strategies of counterinsurgency and destabilization that will result in untold violence toward and death among the people we study is, indeed, a grievous violation of the ethics of social science. The U.S. military has modified its strategy in response to the strong opposition from anthropologists and the people who suffer the effects of militarization; the FIU-SOUTHCOM alliance is not exactly the same as Project Camelot. Nonetheless, our Latin American colleagues have become increasingly outraged at what they see as the academic complicity in U.S. military attacks on democratic processes in their countries as represented by the FIU-SOUTHCOM alliance. See, for example: La antropología (y las ciencias sociales) al servicio de la dominación imperialista by Atilio Borón, La izquierda Mesoamericana surge como nueva alternativa de poder político regional by Dick and Mirian Emanuelsson; and La estrategia del Comando Sur de los EEUU para el Perú by Silvio Rendón. In Argentina, a two-day Ethical Tribunal and Continental Conference is being organized for May 31-June 1, 2011, with the FIU-SOUTHCOM alliance as a primary focus.

Like our colleagues, interlocutors, and human subjects in Latin America, we must stay alert to ill-intended changes in SOUTHCOM strategy and take the lead as anthropologists (after all, the program centers around "Strategic Culture") in forcefully denouncing the misuse of social science in the service of policies that kill people.