Video Propaganda: Human Terrain System on National Geographic

Posted on 10 June 2010 by


In terms of American mainstream media propaganda at the service of U.S. wars of occupation, and particularly favourable to the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, my vote for the most generous treatments, in descending order, are first the piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, second this prize in The Atlantic, third this recommendation to Obama in Wired, and fourth this Hollywood-styled production by National Geographic (shown above). National Geographic producing imperial imagery is nothing surprising to anthropologists. Here National Geographic embeds itself with the military, uses a Hollywood actor as a narrator (to lend greater credibility?), and touts the insights of counterinsurgency gurus such as Gen. David Petraeus and John Nagl (Center for a New American Security), who are almost the only other voices ever heard “explaining” to viewers the importance of what is shown. Petraeus shares his great wisdom with us: “I get asked by people all the time if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I say I’m a realist.” John Nagl explains how civilians are stuck between two opposing forces. To be sure, they are not both  equally alien and unwanted, or the U.S. would have won this one already–no matter, such commentary is absent from the piece.

The Human Terrain System’s “senior social scientist,” Montgomery McFate, not only appears in this production but is also one of National Geographic’s acknowledged sources of assistance (as if it was not obvious already). Col. Steve Fondacaro, HTS director, also makes several appearances. Their presence marks certain glaring absences, which makes this stand out as a propaganda video.

First, it is clear that HTS managers concocted a four-person Human Terrain Team solely for the purpose of the photo op with National Geographic, with Fondacaro and McFate dropped in to serve as half of the make believe team. We leave the video half expecting that McFate and Fondacaro remain in that village in Afghanistan, permanently holding meetings with elders and attending the vaccination of children as a way of inserting themselves. There is no sense that soon after, they would be off to Washington, to their desk jobs, or off to Paris. National Geographic mentions two of the Human Terrain Team members by name, and prints their names at the bottom of the screen (John Greene and Matthew Arnold)–but remains silent about who the other two “team members” are, McFate and Fondacaro, and therefore does not mention they are program managers, not even when Fondacaro speaks to the camera. I could not include the portion where McFate interviews two villagers about where they think the mortar that hit their home came from–she remains off camera, and National Geographic does not say who is speaking. Yet, there is ample time and indication when the two assigned HTT members, Greene and Arnold, speak. This would be like doing a documentary of a unit in Afghanistan, placing Petraeus as an actor, playing the role of one of the grunts, and never mentioning: he’s actually the General in charge. Needless to say, the two unmarked program managers answer no questions about the program.

Second, while Human Terrain Teams are celebrated by National Geographic, there is no mention of how they come at great expense. Therefore, there is no talk about what they cost for taxpayers, nor their cost in terms of deaths of their employees. Of course, the tightest-lipped, most regulated militarist propaganda is notorious for its avoidance of this taboo subject. Noting how many died might prompt viewers to say “what a waste” or to question the value of the effort. The preferred mode is either silence, or eulogy–questions not permitted, criticisms strictly prohibited. Another of the clear signs of the intentional propaganda purposes of this video.

Third, and perhaps as a means of countering the embarrassing results of embedded journalism gone astray such as this one, HTS clearly wanted to send the picture that it gets around, with great ease, and with massive protection. The video gives the impression that the U.S. Army provides 30 armed soldiers and 7 armoured vehicles, purely for the purposes of escorting HTS. No discussion of course of whether that might change how villagers respond to HTTs. The program thus remains both perfectly decontextualized, unproblematized, and beyond analysis. National Geographic’s action reporters remain strangely mute and almost invisible throughout. McFate and Fondacaro could not have controlled this more if they did their own HTS home movie.

Peter Coyote for his part does a great job here as a voice actor, dropping his voice low when the situation looks grim, aided by a musical score that sounds sweet when HTS is busy at work, sounding somber and foreboding when speaking of the Taliban or when an impending attack materializes.

“The insurgents,” official American code for the Afghan resistance, are all referred to as “the Taliban.” The Taliban, needless to say, are duly demonized as per instructions. The Taliban never speak (“Can’t talk…beheading”)–except for one case, in another striking demonstration of the failure of media (action journalists) to observe professional ethics, not to mention the Third Geneva Convention, in interviewing a Taliban prisoner held by Pakistani forces. Perhaps they are not even actual Taliban prisoners, or prisoners at all–maybe à la McFate-Fondacaro’s staged authenticity, the prisoner is actually the local police chief, anxious for some face time with the media.

Coming very close to my mocking suggestion of “Talibbean,” this film refers to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan as “Talibanistan.” We’re getting there. (Likewise, the border region between credibility and fantasy in this film is an area densely populated by American journalists, known as Kissassistan.)

This infomercial, of which the focus on the Human Terrain System is just a part, is understandably predictable, as an elite prop for imperial domination, and as a training video for what the producers hope are suitably passive audiences. The narrative is pure Marvel comic bookery–the Taliban are brutal, we have these great new strategies (winning hearts and minds and counterinsurgency, as old as colonialism itself), they are working, but if we fail–and here comes John Nagl at the end with a splendid doomsday scenario–the Taliban will march over Pakistan, take over the nuclear missiles, and you fill in the blanks (as you’ve been trained to do). “Game over, man! Game over!” (So, all you doubters, man up and strap on an air drone.)

And if you don’t believe just how extremely brutal and violent the Taliban are, this film will prove it to you once and for all: by showing you scenes of wanton destruction throughout Pakistan’s Swat Valley…except that even National Geographic, which blamed the Taliban solely for all of the destruction, later remarks briefly that Swat was the scene of intense violence as the Pakistani army ploughed into it to remove the Taliban. No comment on the Pakistani government fighting a war against its own people, on behalf of the U.S., or its raising new taxes from the population so as to better afford war against whole provinces. Meanwhile, while National Geographic shows splendid footage of Predator Drones, it offers not a single word about the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by drone strikes. The National Geographic team visits Bagram, but mentions nothing of the abused detainees held incommunicado there. The Taliban are just so very awful that they cause our memories to collapse, and reflections to disappear from our very mirrors.

In this authorized spectacle, the Human Terrain System wins, according to specifications. No Taliban are converted to the American side, but HTS certainly seems to have confirmed the status of National Geographic as one of the U.S. Army’s model villages.

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