Anthropology on Stage, Human Terrain System on Screen

Posted on October 30, 2009 by

[A momentary “distraction” from my “zero series,” and a big thanks to John Stanton for the first set of news below.]

Tonight, Friday, 30 October, a free play reading in North Hollywood will start at 8:30pm — the title of the production: ANTHROPOLOGY: Or How To Win Friends and Influence Afghans (see the circular). The play was written by Rick Mitchell, an associate professor in English at California State University, Northridge. The featured story line is,

“A satirical examination of the US policy of making the War on Terror more culturally sensitive, ANTHROPOLOGY: Or How To Win Friends and Influence Afghans features a poor Afghan family struggling to survive as an overpaid private contractor, with a predilection for opium, a drug dealing warlord, an earnest academic and bawdy shadow puppets battle it out for who controls the story and the land.”

According to the author of the play, Rick Mitchell,

“Due to the absurdities of the current occupation of Afghanistan, the play contains a significant amount of comedy, along with live music, out-of-control private contractors, and violent puppets. And the performance features a great, multi-ethnic cast.”

In Rick Mitchell’s very interesting project description that laid out the original plan for the play, the main “objective will be to create a sweeping, epic drama that theatrically examines, through the plight of an anthropologist embedded in Iraq [now Afghanistan], cultural differences and historical conflicts related to the Iraq War and, importantly, the battle over the control of knowledge.” The play, according to that initial plan, was to feature “several individual, culturally specific stories offering widely divergent points of view that are representative of stories being told, contested, and collected (by social scientists) within contemporary Iraq (and perhaps Afghanistan). The play will also suggest that the pertinence of such stories to ‘winning the war’ is well understood by the United States military, which attacks not only ‘enemy combatants’ and their supporters, but also— culturally and psychologically—the primary narratives that they tell.” The play also critiques the Army’s December 2006 counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, a portion of which is to be read out during the play.

Anthropology itself, which after all is the first word in the title, comes in for some critical exposure as well:

“US-backed anthropologists have historically operated in war zones, in places like Japan, Viet Nam, Central America, and, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that many anthropologists are strongly against allowing anthropology to support US war efforts. They fear, like the play’s embedded anthropologist (at least early in the play), that there is potential for government-funded fieldwork within “theatres of war” to be turned against the very people whom the social scientists are living amongst and studying.”

Mitchell says that anthropology is “a discipline historically referred to as the ‘handmaiden of colonialism'” (which seems to take me back to my zero series). The role of science and society and the legacy of the Enlightenment figure in the play’s contextualization:

since the Enlightenment a key problem in the West has been: How should scientific knowledge (and technology) be utilized, and whom should it benefit (or oppress)? This problem is also relevant to Western portrayals of the current “War on Terror” that pit the consumerist, technologically advanced West, with its high-tech military apparatus, against the “underdeveloped,” “primitive” Islamic insurgents of the Middle East, who often rely on low-tech guerrilla warfare and improvised explosive devices.

Research for the play was based on “extensive reading of books, articles, and blogs,… interviews with anthropologists, Iraq War veterans, Iraqis living in the US, and US-supported soldiers-for-hire (from companies such as Blackwater).”

The play will also feature comedy, music, and audience interaction.

The reading takes place tonight at the Academy for New Musical Theatre, 5628 Vineland (near Burbank), in North Hollywood, at 8:30 p.m.


HUMAN TERRAIN: War Becomes Academic, is a new documentary film by James Der Derian at Brown University. According to the synopsis posted on the website for the film:

‘Human Terrain’ is two stories in one. The first exposes the U.S. effort to enlist the best and the brightest of American universities in a struggle for the hearts and minds of its enemies. Facing long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military adopts a controversial new program, ‘Human Terrain Systems’, to make cultural awareness a key element of its counterinsurgency strategy. Designed to embed social scientists with combat troops, the program swiftly comes under attack by academic critics who consider it misguided and unethical to gather intelligence and target potential enemies for the military. Gaining rare access to wargames in the Mojave Desert and training exercises at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth, ‘Human Terrain’ takes the viewer into the heart of the war machine and the shadowy collaboration between American academics and the armed services.

The other story is about a brilliant young scholar who leaves the university to join a Human Terrain team. After working as a humanitarian activist and winning a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford, Michael Bhatia returned to Brown University to conduct research on military cultural awareness. A year later, he left to embed as a Human Terrain member with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan. On May 7, 2008, en route to mediate an intertribal dispute, his humvee hit a roadside bomb and Bhatia was killed along with two other soldiers.

Asking what happens when war becomes academic and academics go to war, the two stories merge in tragedy.

On that site you can view a list of the persons who appear in the film, read an extensive director’s statement and more about the filmmakers, and check for upcoming screenings.

With respect to the director’s statement, it does not appear to be pitched as a war propaganda film, given the references to “a dying empire” and “illusions of empire.” On the other hand, the film seems to pivot around the figure of Michael Bhatia, his interests, circumstances, decisions, and ultimately his death as a HTS researcher in Afghanistan in 2008. The director notes, “Michael became a public figure, with all sides swift to attach their own interpretations upon his death.” He adds: “After extensive and often rending conversations with his family, we decided that we could not make the film without having Michael’s story be part of it.” It is not clear why that had to be so.

Why must the story be about Bhatia? Is it because he encapsulates all of the main features of HTS, its development, and application (unlikely), or is it because of the drama of his death (likely)? Both the director, Der Derian, and Bhatia were at the Watson Insititute at Brown University, so I can appreciate that there can be an insider’s angle on an insider’s story. At they very least, I can say that the logic of the decision to focus on Bhatia is open to question. Der Derian goes further: “To the extent it was humanly possible – and humanely necessary – we wanted to provide all parties to Michael’s life and death the opportunity to tell their side of that story.  We went to the family, back to the military, and interviewed the supporters as well as critics of Human Terrain.”

Not to continue to offend as I apparently have offended many American readers many times (not that this in itself is of concern to me), my question is a simple one: Why is the story always about the Western protagonist as if his life matters more, and is more valuable and worthy of note, than any of the thousands of Afghan civilians who were killed by Bhatia’s employers, the U.S. military?

As for the HTS critics interviewed, these comprise Roberto González, Hugh Gusterson, and Catherine Lutz — which is great, except that their voices are submerged under more than twice as many supporters of HTS in the film.

Here’s the trailer:

The film that remains to be made, and will likely never be made, is one about HTS that does not feature Western protagonists, whether they be supporters or critics of the program, but rather one that is filmed entirely in Afghanistan and features only Afghans, especially in villages that have been “visited” by Human Terrain Teams. It would be an unembedded film, and led by Afghans themselves.

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