Global Ethnographic Surveillance

HTSThis and the next post feature two chapters by Brian Ferguson dealing with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, and broader issues of militarization, global surveillance, and cultural counterinsurgency that arise. One of the chapters was nearing publication, but the very sad passing of our friend and colleague, Neil L. Whitehead, this past March has apparently hindered one of the projects. Both papers are published here with the expressed permission of Brian Ferguson. I am also using the opportunity to draw attention to some key passages.

Ferguson, R. Brian. (2011). “Plowing the Human Terrain: Toward Global Ethnographic Surveillance.” In Laura A. McNamara and Robert A. Rubinstein (eds.), Dangerous Liaisons: Anthropologists and the National Security State (pp. 101-126). Santa Fe: SAR Press.


Brian Ferguson begins by accepting that “those who advocate or sign up for the HTS have good intentions,” though he is more generous than I am in making such a generalization. Ferguson adds that, “they hope to use ethnographic understanding to save lives and lessen the destruction of war.” However, as he argues in this chapter, “the information they gather in the field also can be used to help identify enemies for ‘kinetic’ targeting, the application of military force. That is why participation in Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) crosses the ethical line” (p. 101). The issue of lethal targeting, and specifically of supplying the kind of information that can be used to sort out who the enemy is and thus to refine targeting, has been a persistent and controversial point in the debates around HTS. This raises two problems: 1) by focusing on issues of lethal targeting, HTS advocates have tended to narrow their responses to this issue, thereby dismissing any discussion of the many other ways that their work broadly serves the interests of U.S. imperial domination; and, 2) much of the evidence supplied to sustain the targeting argument tends to be circumstantial and suggestive. However, I think the focus in Ferguson’s chapter is a valid one, and I believe he has done the best job yet of making a convincing argument. Few writers, however, remind readers that a formal war crime was also committed by a Human Terrain Team, when Don Ayala executed a detainee, one of the most glaring examples of the lethal side of HTS. Ferguson at least supplies information that shows that violence was always a latent capacity of HTS, to the extent that many of its team members carried weapons. More broadly however, Ferguson argues that, “Anthropologists must not help militaries figure out whom to kill. More than that, the HTS folds into a projected worldwide monitoring of indigenous peoples for security threats by the Department of Defense (DoD). Anthropologists should not do that either” (p. 101).


Among the passages that struck me was the one in which Ferguson explains that if HTS “were anything but a Pentagon program, it would be dead by now”:

“three team members killed in the line of duty, one convicted of manslaughter, one under investigation for espionage, loud whistle-blowing about incompetence in multiple areas, inadequate training, unacceptable scholarly and anthropological standards, unclear and unworkable chains of command, intractable personality collisions from top to bottom, sudden changes in management and training locations, inability to recruit competent social scientists, appointment of unqualified personnel and cronies, an investigative finding of sexual harassment and creating an intolerable work atmosphere, abrupt pay cuts midstream followed by resignation of many civilian employees, and so on” (p. 102).

The Humanitarian and the Military Faces of HTS

Ferguson points out how the idealistic vision of “war without blood” is one that, “appeals to humanitarian sentiments,” however, “that goal is conspicuously absent in articles written for military audiences. In those writings the point is that anthropology can help our side fight smarter and prevail” (p. 104). Thus, “HTS has two faces–one for the military and one for the public. The public relations campaign has been remarkably successful, but available facts do not support this claim of harm reduction” (p. 104). Ferguson goes in detail through the available accounts that provide evidence, both direct and suggestive, that Human Terrain Teams either explicitly or indirectly provide tactical information that could be used for lethal targeting purposes, even specifying individuals by name or position in a village as being a likely threat to U.S. forces. In addition, HTTs provided the kinds of measures needed for profiling whole segments of local populations as likely insurgents, would be insurgents, or supporters of insurgency. By zeroing in on HTS claims that they help soldiers avoid misunderstandings, to understand that not all locals are enemies, Ferguson rightly asks:  “But how can one better understand who is not the enemy without better understanding who is the enemy?” (p. 117). In other instances he finds that, “the mapper of human terrains is directly charged with identifying ‘significant persons of influence’ in a mission area and their connections to ‘threat organizations'” (p. 118).

Military officers themselves have also written against “sugarcoating what these teams do,” about how cultural information is inextricably tied to the intelligence process and to sorting out the local population to determine potential enemies (pp. 118-119). As Ferguson unveils, “whether HTTs are used for lethal targeting depends on the intentions of the commander” (p. 119), and as one HTS supporter, Col. Martin Schweitzer remarked, if he had an HTT during his first tour of duty, “I would’ve used it to have a better understanding of the population so I could eliminate them. You can do that with the HTT, but that doesn’t win the fight” (p. 119).

“Anthropology” Does Not Make War or Domination “Better”

While Ferguson says that “an anthropologized Department of Defense might well mean less blundering around, less shooting and bombing” (even though he himself has found to evidence to warrant such a claim),” he notes that “a well-run imperium always finds ways to reduce the bloodshed,” and that therefore there is at least nothing remarkable about the claims that U.S. military and political leaders are looking for “humane” ways to fight war. This is now a routine part of their sales pitch. Ferguson makes the interesting point that “increased power means decreased use of force,” though this opens up debates on how that power is attained and maintained, and the very conception of power that he is using (apparently non-coercive) is also open to debate. Ferguson’s basic argument here is that “if HTS works as its proponents say it does, it could be an important tool in strengthening US hegemony”:

“However chimerical the vision of global ethnographic surveillance may be, the capacity the HTS is helping to build cannot be seen as being in the interests of the indigenous peoples of the world–the people to whom anthropology is most responsible–unless their interests coincide with incorporation into a neoliberal US empire” (p. 126)

Many thanks to Brian for circulating these papers for wider distribution and discussion.

5 thoughts on “Global Ethnographic Surveillance

  1. One fact that must be added to leaven the guilt of those who have joined HTS:
    Our universities and their anthropology department have sold more seats than are available on the flight to professional solvency. There are numerous unemployed anthropologists with MA or Ph.D. degrees from these universities, and they sit on the human capital super market shelf.
    This over-stocking of anthropologists, combined with the “situational ethics” that is the “culture” of the USA, land of free enterprise, leads a man or woman – especially with a family – to do whatever is necessary to “survive”. So, the money and the “moral support” of the predominantly career military group of “peers” in the training cycles – being included in the fold, going to practice at the shooting range, getting praised for finally seeing it their way – allows one to let his or her values “float”, much like the value of currency. And, when you adopt their way of talking and their way of walking, you are embraced as a “brother in arms”. I noted Obama’s conversion to their vocabulary in the second year of his presidency. “The Way Forward” and such.
    We are all vulnerable, especially in a controlled social environment, where the Stockholm Syndrome is an explicit dynmic used, to opening to offers fulfilling our emotional and our financial needs; so, we become Patriots, like those who we live among; the Soldiers.
    Some of us, however, when submitted to the disease, develop anti-bodies and resist it and escape that fatal disorder.

  2. I love how you worded what should be obvious to all (but is still a taboo subject, even among supposed critical thinkers), and that is the overproduction of anthropologists which, when added to other factors like those you listed, directly feeds the military machine:

    “Our universities and their anthropology department have sold more seats than are available on the flight to professional solvency. There are numerous unemployed anthropologists with MA or Ph.D. degrees from these universities, and they sit on the human capital super market shelf.”

    I also liked the idea of values floating like monetary values, like currency. It’s a useful little nugget of insight into what happens to belief systems and principles when one is submitted, without the means of self-defence and the necessary tools for resistance, to the capitalist market-place.

    Brian Ferguson has done us a great favour by helping to provoke these comments and ideas.

    Many thanks, and apologies once again for comments disappearing into the spam queue.

  3. John knows money was devised, not to facilitate trade or to to address “the coincidence of wants” but rather as a means of control by the few, over the many as explained by anthropologist David Graeber in his work showing that debt preceded money. This system of money on each side of a transaction could then be used to “unemploy” labor, providing an extremely strong incentive for money to facilitate how the controllers of money wished labor to be used. Aristophanes makes clear this concept was understood at least by the time of the Greeks, as pointed out by Chris Hedges in his article “How Democracies Die”.

    The truth is, they want you, you see, to be poor,” Aristophanes wrote in his play “The Wasps.”
    “If you don’t know the reason, I’ll tell you. It’s to train you to know who your tamer is. Then,
    whenever he gives you a whistle and sets you against an opponent of his, you jump out and
    tear them to pieces.

  4. Interesting citation–thanks, I had not seen this particular item before. The article speaks of the Stanford Prison Experiments, which establishes an interesting connection that helps to further underscore features of HTS that critics have pointed to. The SPE, funded by the U.S. military, and involving the relationships between military guards and prisoners, seems like an “interesting” way to frame both teaching and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The premise of the article is a very simple one: devising a set of propaganda tools that could help to undermine support for insurgency. Inserting this citation here reminded me of a few things I left out of my “definition” in a subsequent post.

Comments are closed.