The following was written as a response to a question raised during an ongoing email debate on anthropologists working for the military. It might seem a bit of a tangent, but the the question of archaeologists working for the US Army in Iraq is something I’d like to bring up because I think its a relevant comparison.

The question raised was:
“Archaeologists and physical anthropologists were recruited– through posts from our own department–to aid in the post-invasion examination of human rights abuses and mass graves in pre-invasion Iraq. I don’t recall there being a lot of outrage in the department or the field in general at the time. Should we dismiss their work as “mercenary anthropology,” too?”

I think this is an important point to follow through. The reasons for or against objecting to working with mass grave excavations as opposed to becoming ’embedded anthropologists’ rest on three highly significant questions: 1) who/what is the subject of anthropology, 2) who do we imagine anthropology is being done for when we do it, and 3) what is anthropology’s responsibility to the world outside of academic?

I’m going to give a bit of background to the case of archaeologists working in contemporary homicide or genocide investigations and describe some of the ethical questions that have been discussed within the sub-field sometimes called ‘forensic archaeology/anthropology’, as they bear on the army ethnographer case. My main point perhaps is to make the argument that the motivations for doing such work stem from a very different idea of professional responsibility, and that the moral and practical implications of such work are quite different. But also perhaps just to point to the degree to which professionally-reflexive debates about the moral and social responsibilities inherent in academic work (and this type of work in particular) have been carried out within archaeology for some time now, and may be of use in this latest discussion.

In writing this, I am drawing on research I did back in 2002 with British practising archaeologists who work with human remains, as part of a study of archaeological ethics/conceptualisations of death and the body/the objectification and personification of human remains. Some of those archaeologists worked with the recently dead – either for the police investigating murder cases, or in war crimes investigations frequently uncovering mass graves. Not surprisingly, though, working in such situations is something that many archaeologists talk and think, even if they never do it themselves – everyone I interviewed had an opinion on the ethics of it, whether they could imagine themselves being able to do it, and so on. Most saw it as a way of being involved in the world outside of academia, as being socially involved, and as a positive part of the discipline – as something they respected, but would be emotionally unable to do themselves because of the highly traumatic nature of working with the recently dead.

I am also going to draw on the writings of Margaret Cox, a British professor of archaeology who has written very intelligently and compassionately about such work based on her own involvement in creating this as a sub-discipline within archaeology and physical anthropology. She is particularly vocal on a) the psychological effect on the archaeologists of working with recently dead bodies, and b) the responsibilities that accompany such work and how they include directly confronting media misrepresentations of the victims/causes of homicide and genocide. Her work would be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about these debates, along with that of Zoe Crossland.

So first, what is it that forensic archaeologists and physical anthropologists do, and how is it different to being an embedded anthropologist? As Margaret Cox often points out, there is a fascination in popular media with archaeologists as ‘forensic scientists’. But this terms is a misnomer that comes about partly because of a wider fascination in the media with all things gory – murder and crime movies are cool, therefore archaeology can be made to appear cool if its associated with gore and called ‘forensic’. Most archaeology is not ‘forensic’. But the skills that most ‘traditional’ archaeology requires can be highly useful in criminal investigations – careful excavation of physical evidence with the aim of attempting to establish what may have happened and how, and with the direct aim of identifying bodies; and understanding wider socio-cultural contexts. Involvement in homicide and genocide investigation is, to being with, a very new practice. Despite the existence of at least three MA courses in the UK dedicated to ‘Forensic Archaeology’ (and I am sure there must be a few in the US, but I know less about the situation here), the number of people who work full-time in collaboration with the police or in genocide cases is very small. As well as assisting with the police ‘at home’, there is the work done in many parts of the world working with war crime investigation and specifically the excavation of mass graves. This has included, to name only a few, places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and looking for Argentina’s “disappeared” – the latter being something that Zoe Crossland has written extensively about. And now there is the work in Iraq.

What does it take to work in these situations? Well, it can be pretty traumatic work. It takes someone who is emotionally and intellectually able to deal with not only the decomposing flesh aspect, but also with the ethical, political and emotional environment that they are immersing themselves in. As an archaeologist I interviewed pointed out, its one thing to excavate medieval skeletons in the calm of the English county-side, another thing when the watch on the arm of the body you are uncovering is still ticking and there are crowds of distraught relatives standing 2 meters away. This in itself points to a difference between the subject of investigation for archaeology and anthropology, in that people usually assume archaeologists work with the dead and anthropologists work with the living. Archaeologists work with dead people who (in some sense at least) can’t be affected any more by being studied, and yet they are also always working with living people in a contemporary moment. There is a responsibility towards the dead but also a pressing responsibility towards the living. In the case of forensic archaeology, this connection is especially clear. Any archaeologist who agrees to work in such situations has to think very clearly about their responsibilities and the moral implications of their work – will my involvement in this case lead to someone being tried and subject to the death penalty? Will I be part of imposing an inappropriate (and neo-colonial) conception of justice on a non-western group of people? Do I have a responsibility to the non-white, non-female, non-middle class victims of homicide that get ignored by the media – and should I apply my anthropological and archaeological training to understanding and representing the causes and contexts of both the phenomena of homicide and its distorted media representation?

There is a responsibility to work professionally and within legal structures, but also to be involved in a contemporary world – with our eyes open. To excavate and investigate a case in as objective a manner as possible – and to recognise that data does not speak without a human interpretor, and that subjectivity of interpretation is therefore not only something we have to be aware of – it is essential to being ethical. For this reason, the situation in Iraq is a difficult one. Those archaeologists who end up working in forensic cases often do so out of a desire to apply their skills, to have some positive impact, to help the victims of injustice and so on. What of Iraq? My understanding of the particulars is sketchy, but here are some personal reflections. When the email recruiting people from our department to go to Iraq to work on the mass graves there came around in 2005, I personally felt very conflicted about the moral implications of this particular case. I have considered in the past doing such work, and on the whole agree that it is a positive way of acting on my own (much talked about but rarely acted on) desire to connect academic to the rest of the world. But how could I bring myself to work within the US Army? I have no doubt that any benefit that came about for the families of the victims of the genocide would probably have to be balanced against the use of those crimes in an ongoing justification process for the US led invasion and occupation. To be sure, individuals would benefit from being able to identify and bury their family members, and we would learn something about genocidal practises in pre-invasion Iraq. But as long as this was conducted under the auspices of the current occupation, it would no doubt contribute to the justification of a colonial project. Although I think there are aspects of these dilemmas in all cases of working with war crimes, in the case of Iraq the ongoing occupation and propaganda campaign make them particularly urgent.

The complications of this moral dilemma directly parallel the situation of Tracy and co, but also reveal the hollow core of the arguments for anthropologists working in Iraq. Who is Tracy responsible to, and for? Is her involvement a response to a need on the part of the Iraqis, or on the part of the occupiers? In 2003 the media brought us images of Iraqis excavating mass graves in what was portrayed as a chaotic and frantic manner. Margaret Cox has claimed that, when she arrived very shortly afterwards, the same communities were excavating their dead in a highly organised manner, but that the media were not interested in showing this to the world. Her assistance in Iraq in these excavations was based on an already existing need to do that work. Once that work gets taken over by the US army, then yes, there is a problem in how you feel about how the results of that work is going to be used in the longer term. But if your help is requested by relatives of the dead to do something specific they are trying to do themselves (finding evidence of mass murder, identifying bodies) and you are able to do it, should you turn it down? The other side of course would be, should you reject the Army’s request to excavate, if living relatives don’t want you to, which is something some of my interviewees discussed.

Do the Afghan and Iraqi people Tracey is working with require or request her assistance? Is she using her professional skills to assist people in something they are trying to do themselves already? Of course not. The anthropologists who are working with the Army are responding to the direct and indirect needs of the occupiers, not the occupied. At best, they are making colonisation a little more PC. The difference is not between studying dead people or living people, because ultimately all archaeology and anthropology is concerned with, and impacts on, living people. (Although there is the very valid point of archaeology as a means of seeking ‘justice’ etc on behalf of the dead.) Instead the difference lies in who the anthropologist or archaeologist is working for the benefit of. This, to me, is what makes the Tracey a ‘mercenary anthropologist’, and the war-crimes investigators not.