The End of Debates About the Human Terrain System?

Posted on 17 February 2013 by


Social Scientist on Camel

The End of Debates?

Having been asked (and declined) to write commentaries, or respond to one or another essay on the Human Terrain System (HTS) over the past 18 months, I realized that I had enough, and had said enough that it did not warrant repetition. However, unlike others who said their piece, I might have made the mistake of claiming that because I had ceased to debate in public, this would permit me to wrongly declare that some closure had been reached. It was not unusual after the American Anthropological Association’s commission, CEAUSSIC, had issued its so-called “final” report, that there would be expressions of institutional and disciplinary self-interest in declaring that, yes, the debate around HTS had indeed come to an end, or had at least “slowed.” They had their say, and presumably it was time for the “rest of us” to move on.

Before going further, let me agree. I do agree that debates about HTS are no longer as publicly widespread, prominent, and prolific as they were up to two years ago. Some were ready to come to this conclusion as early as four years ago, without suggesting that it would mean the end of all discussion. From my own knowledge based in part on a steady inflow of email from widely dispersed students, from Illinois to New Zealand, in classrooms debate and analysis of HTS in anthropology continue as if it were still 2007. I have been asked to provide sources, or respond to student interviews for such purposes. Even while the debate has largely if not entirely moved away from blogs, it continues to gain new life in an array of recently published books, with more journal articles to come as well. I feel safe in predicting, that like the controversy around Napoleon Chagnon’s work with the Yanomamö at the centre of the storm generated by Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, the HTS conflict was serious enough that it will be present in discussions in American anthropology for at least a generation. I also suspect that, if not exactly permanent, the mark imprinted on American anthropology as a result of the HTS scandal, and the generally weak institutional response that seemed designed to legitimate military anthropology as a whole, will have a much more lasting effect on the image of anthropologists held by communities around the world who are faced with the visiting field worker from the U.S. The few critics of HTS who were ever interviewed by the mainstream media have been sufficiently demonized and pilloried by the war corporatists who own the media and pushed the wider militarization of “patriotic” consent, that if their names are even spotted by indigenous communities researching the collaborations of U.S. anthropology they are likely not to be seen as the outspoken conscience of the discipline, but rather as a tiny grouping of aberrations. Indeed, in many ways that was a key lesson to be learned from this experience: actual critique was an anomaly in public debate, with many taboo areas, the privileging of endeavors deemed unquestionable, and institutional self-images preserved against all other interests.

I would also agree with the reasons some might list to illustrate why HTS is no longer a matter of important public debate, not in the media, and not in much of U.S. anthropology either. These would include the fact that HTS has changed its leading personnel to types that do little to attract media attention, and who would probably not sustain sensationalist media interest anyway, being generally low-profile characters who have not repeated the mistake of making themselves into the message. (This is true even with what appeared to be King’s remarkably candid admission that human terrain mapping is “scary” and “troubling.”) Here I am speaking of the shift from Montgomery McFate and Steve Fondacaro to Christopher King and Sharon Hamilton, the latter couple being almost the mirror image of the first, even if the order of anthropologist-as-social science director, and military officer as overall director, has been preserved. There has also been the shift from BAE Systems, with a worldwide reputation, to CGI, a Montreal-based corporation that stands out less, even if in Montreal we have observed it moving from some floors in an office tower to now occupying a mid-level skyscraper of its own, with its name emblazoned at the top. There is almost no media coverage of HTS at all, apart from very sparse mentions in local community or campus newspapers, profiling a small town resident or local adjunct just returned from “duty” as a member of a Human Terrain Team. Then there is the manifest shift from counterinsurgency to airstrikes and drone warfare, with little in the way of official pronouncements of the obvious: counterinsurgency was, as we predicted, a miserable and costly failure that served to prolong war on false promises and intellectually dishonest premises. Gone are the leading advocates of HTS, from the disgraced General David Petraeus to John Nagl (now a high school principal). The others are rarely heard from any longer. Nonetheless, Obama has yet to tell his domestic subjects that the counterinsurgency he backed, resulted in failure. As Gastón Gordillo argues elsewhere, the drive to dominate airspace and project force through high altitude bombings and drone strikes, is an admission that the U.S. has no control over the facts on the ground. That takes us to the final point: the wars that HTS supported have either ended in nothing but continued bloodshed and social disaster (Iraq), or have reached a level of infamy with the U.S. public that far from declaring “there is no rush for the exits” (we could still hear that up to a mere year ago), that there is precisely such a rush right now in Afghanistan, timeline and all.

The reputation of HTS was tied to these wars–in other words, there is hardly anything left for the militarized media to sing about. Not being governed by honesty and integrity, however, we should not expect a Charlie Rose to go from asking McFate “How come you’re so smart?” to asking any critic of HTS “Why were you so right and why did the rest of us not see that?“–and yet some will still wash their mouths with talk of “balance,” a balance that never existed in this debate. The whole exercise was rigged from the outset, and that continues to be the case. That makes the effective vanishing of HTS from the front pages even more astounding, because it means that HTS failed to win the debate on its own terms, with a deck stacked in its favour, sometimes failing to convince its own audience of (former) supporters and hopeful wishful thinkers, and failed to convert any opponents into supporters. That HTS continues to exist is due to the fact that its existence is profitable for larger interests, and it serves other ends beyond its own.

So if there has been some measure of “end” to public debates, this does not solve a lingering problem: what were the ends of the debate?

Problematic Contentions

Contrary to any opinions that suggest otherwise, critics of HTS do not always share all of the same perspectives. Personally, I always found certain emphases in some of the arguments against HTS to be either problematic or somehow underwhelming. I am not convinced that the program’s potential for lethality, for refined targeting, and for violent forms of control ever had more than circumstantial support, and little actual evidence that has come to light. Nor am I convinced that the program stood to be most damned if one could prove that it had lethal applications. Imperialism can function quite well, and is indeed at its very best, when it does not kill adversaries. Similarly, arguments that HTS was essentially an espionage program, designed to collect actionable intelligence, had some support but not much, and often there was a clash between what some anthropologists meant by intelligence, what their sources meant by intelligence, and what people in the military meant by intelligence–therefore, HTS representatives could always shield themselves in some form of plausible deniability, dismissing critics for using the wrong definitions of intelligence. (Anti-war critics similarly find their descriptions of the spread of U.S. military bases countered by Pentagon spokespersons who use entirely different definitions of what constitutes a “base.”) Then there is the argument, by disillusioned former insiders in the program, that the training and management of the program were such a mess that HTS could never be effective enough to do any real harm even if it aimed to do so. The level of alleged incompetence, fraud, and waste were so high, it was argued in a slew of articles by John Stanton, that HTS could only keep falling over itself, becoming a kind of comedy.

Arguments about the damage HTS could do to anthropology, and the extent to which field work performed for HTS was (not) anthropological, were unsatisfactory and frequently fell short of what a properly contextualized analysis of the program ought to have been. The debate about whether HTS field work was ethical was all too often narrowed down to the minutiae of research procedures: were identities of informants kept confidential, where did the information go once it left the hands of the civilian researcher, was informed consent possible in a war zone, etc. The problem with these points is that even if HTS could have been ethical on all of these fronts, would that mean that we should support the program or at least suspend our criticisms? What about the program’s aims to facilitate U.S. domination? Then the question became a political one–well, war is political. War is not just a series of discrete little ethical quandaries that are best handled by collegial, scholarly conversation. Not only is war political, but the attempt to artificially separate critique of HTS from political concerns, the attempt to depoliticize the discussion as best represented by CEAUSSIC’s report, was itself a political act. Also political was the American Anthropological Association’s inclusion of a number of military anthropologists in CEAUSSIC, in an obvious situation of conflict of interest, where certain insidious characters who seek to push their foot into every open door dealing with the militarization of anthropology were given the chance to defend their self-image, and their way of life. When an exercise is thus lacking in objectivity, where the commissioners are unable or unwilling to stand outside of their own vested self-interest, then we are dealing with a rigged exercise that is intellectually fraudulent and, ironically, unethical for that reason. In this sense, this was a debate that was ended before it could even begin.

Some CEAUSSIC members spoke directly to these issues. In the words of David Price, “the convenience of a categorical separation of ‘the ethical’ from ‘the political’ has left large issues unaddressed, and like most unaddressed issues I suppose that in the future these will surface in all sorts of predictable and unpredictable ways.” Indeed, they will. Agreeing with Price was Jean Jackson who argued that “no one can deny that the context is 100% political,” and by that she meant the context of deliberations about HTS. As if to strongly reaffirm Price’s argument, George Marcus pointed out: “Without the discussion of the political contexts of anthropological research, the discussion of ethics can be formulaic, moralistic, however virtuous, and frankly naïve investing only in terms of established professional imaginaries of practice. Yet, Price’s referent for ‘the political’ goes directly to the big issues—how one’s actions are complicit with the great and tragic game of nations and states. I take his point, but prefer to start, and stay awhile, with the very granular level of the politics of research or expertise itself.” However, and this was subtle, instead of taking up Price’s challenge directly, Marcus then veered off into more “granular” issues. Laurie Rush, addressing readers in a manner and with ideas that become more salient further down, produced a sharp counter statement. After extensive propaganda selling the supposed benefits and virtues of working with, if not for the military, Rush lists some criticisms at the very bottom of her article–to which she does not respond, except for expressing a desire for intellectual pacification: “However, the only way for that form of interaction to be productive is if those thoughts are knowledgeable and are offered in a collegial manner. When Mars Turns to Minerva, we would hope that Minerva, in the form of the Academy, would set the tone for positive informed conversation with room for productive discussion and collegial disagreement. These issues are far too important to settle for anything less.” What an ironic call for “collegiality,” when she implies that critics are basically ignorant.

The argument against HTS that least moved me was that the program involved misappropriating anthropological knowledge, and applying anthropological knowledge in order to do harm. Interesting how this knowledge was thus implicitly revealed to be potentially harmful. Perhaps we anthropologists should not be producing knowledge that can lend itself to such ends–why is this not at the centre of debate? Institutional, professional, and disciplinary self-interest, that’s why. Once again, being honest in this debate, and thus achieving what is the only plausible form of “objectivity,” would require one to think and write as if one had no vested interest in one of the institutional parties to the debate. If the argument was instead that anthropological knowledge was not inherently or potentially harmful, but the opposite, that it could serve as an epistemological virus that would eat away at militarism and imperial counterinsurgency from the inside, then the logical course of action would have been for all of us to rush as many of our journal articles and books to HTS personnel. But we did not argue that, because we do not believe it to be true. This takes me to the next points.

Don’t Look at Me

What could have been a day of reckoning for anthropology itself, for the discipline’s own built-in conventions and biases that support the status quo as a whole or facilitate the continued functioning of some of its significant parts, was instead externalized and deflected. It was McFate who was personally lambasted as essentially a crappy historian of anthropology–with none of her documented findings of the many instances over the history of the discipline when well-known and well-respected senior anthropologists played a direct role in warfare, covert operations, counterinsurgency, and intelligence-gathering. Some of us now praise the founding figure of American anthropology, Franz Boas, for having condemned fellow anthropologists for working as spies, but then breeze past the fact that there were spies. Nonetheless, at the conference of the American Anthropological Association held in Montreal in 2011, I personally heard two Yale anthropologists, speaking to different audiences in separate panels, both express their personal embarrassment that McFate had been a colleague and a graduate of their department, one going as far as condemning the “intellectually shoddy” nature of her work, also argued in similar terms by others as a “shoddy history and misdirected anthropology.” One has to wonder how greasy were the floors in Yale’s Department of Anthropology, and how fractured with gaping cracks, for McFate to just slip through them with such ease.

The aim here is not to defend McFate’s few paragraphs as the unquestionable, accurate, and complete view of the history of anthropology. Nor would it be justified for one to characterize most anthropologists of the past as handmaidens of imperialism. Moreover, even in cases where such an argument can be made, it turns out to be a complicated argument fraught with contradictory tensions. Nor would I disagree with Roberto J. González’s conclusion that McFate’s assertion that anthropology was “a warfighting discipline,” to be one that is of dubious validity. I think that neither McFate’s accounting, nor my few comments here, would satisfy anyone, least of all me, as an adequate rendition of the history of anthropology and imperialism. What I am pointing out is that in cases such as Lawless’ critique, not only were McFate’s historical references left generally unmolested, Lawless only added to them. In the case of Sluka’s (2010) critique, he responded to her examples from WWII by drawing attention to how anthropologists responded during the Vietnam War, which would be like my arguing that the scientific racism of mid-19th century evolutionism never really happened because decades later Boas appeared. If the counter to counterinsurgent anthropologists is that anthropology is somehow innocent, and a hotbed of anti-imperialism, then that is an equally bad argument that fails to convince on the grounds of a dearth of evidence (apart from notable exceptions). The prospect of HTS recruiting at conferences (and I witnessed one volunteer approach Christopher King in Montreal in 2011), would not have been deemed such a threat by some anthropologists if HTS had no prospect of finding sympathetic ears.

Apart from shunting aside our duty to reexamine our own production of knowledge, we generally failed to consider how our practices and institutional modes were at least partly responsible for generating the material conditions ripe for recruitment by military and intelligence agencies. Here I am speaking of the dogged overproduction of PhD graduates without any regard for their employment prospects, because their graduation adds to our personal and departmental prestige. This is not to say that individuals seeking a PhD in anthropology, with little concern or understanding of the changes sweeping academic employment, do not share the blame. But how do we perform our ethical duties to students when we fail to even warn them about their chances post-PhD? Lesley Gill (2007) does a far better job than I in explaining some of the fundamental transformations occurring in academia that make the situation ripe for militarization:

“As the war rages in Iraq, academia is itself under siege. The rise of part-time, untenured positions has eroded job security, making it more difficult for academics to take stands on controversial issues, and unlike the Vietnam War generation, college students today are burdened with debt, which limits their career choices. In addition, right-wing groups, such as Campus Watch and Students for Academic Freedom, bring political pressure to bear on faculty members who do not hold their extreme views, and they encourage students to inform on professors. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, new scholarship programs that combine intelligence training with anthropology and other social sciences have appeared….

“Clearly, we are living in a reactionary political moment in which the institutional and organizational forms needed to challenge U.S. militarization have weakened. Now a new group of security anthropologists seek greater legitimation in the AAA for their work in a variety of military and intelligence organizations (e.g., Selmeski 2007). Their numbers have grown in recent years for several reasons. Job growth within universities has not kept pace with the creation of often better-paid positions outside the academy, and the security forces advertise a need for ‘cultural knowledge,’ as they enlist social scientists in the struggle to gain control over the insurgency in Iraq. Moreover, the AAA has made more room for academic and nonacademic anthropologists doing proprietary or confidential research, after the revision, in 1998, of its ethics code and the removal of the condemnation of secret research.” [Gill, 2007, p. 140]

If debates about phenomena such as HTS were to evolve, I would want them to begin considering how we are fully engaged in laying the groundwork, intellectually and materially, for such phenomena to potentially flourish in our midst. Thinking against the system, and thinking as if having no vested interests in the system, is critically important; however, thinking as if one stood outside the system altogether, in actuality, can only lead to self-delusion.

Diversionary Tactics

Stated simply and bluntly, I believe that the debate around HTS was largely a diversion, whether intended or not. I say this as someone who was deeply involved in that debate for at least four years. Why a diversion? There are four reasons I would list:

  1. The critique of HTS was tied to a critique of militarism, which was itself conceptually and theoretically divorced from critiques of imperialism. I very much support Hugh Gusterson’s call for an anthropology of militarism, but without an anthropology of imperialism such an endeavor will get nowhere. Typically, we might note, there are also no courses in anthropology that deal squarely with theories of imperialism.
  2. The protest against HTS sometimes sounded like it came from disillusioned liberals–after all, many of them like McFate voted for Obama, who himself made HTS permanent. The argument, as if it were one about keeping liberal democracy liberal, was an essentially empty critique that was easy to defeat, and then ignore.
  3. CEAUSSIC’s criticisms of HTS seemed to be especially suspicious: aside from institutional self-preservation, we see a repeated effort to defend military anthropology more generally, singling out HTS as an anomaly that could be chastised while protecting other acts of service for the national security state. Military anthropology came out the winner, in no small part due to the large presence of military anthropologists in CEAUSSIC. That was not just once, but twice that CEAUSSIC generated such an outcome favourable to broader militarization (2007, 2009). In this sense, the whole exercise was rigged from the outset.
  4. The focus on HTS might have had the effect of directing attention away not only from programs with similar titles, or roughly similar efforts shrouded in complete secrecy and media invisibility, as well as all sorts of other applications of “cultural knowledge” to surveillance and counterinsurgency both globally and domestically, but also directing attention away from the broader thrusts of “humanitarianism” as an instrument of warfare and domination. The high decibel level of debates around HTS contrasted dramatically with the almost absolute silence around Obama’s “humanitarian” war in Libya and its claims to have “protected civilians”–there were probably no more than three anthropologists in total who spoke out, even if only once, on the war against Libya. Rather than being better equipped and critically sharpened to apply lessons learned from the debate against HTS, the end of debate against HTS began to look like the end of critique of empire altogether. Yet, perhaps the critiques of HTS were never meant to be classed as critiques of imperialism, merely protests about what was happening to anthropologists’ preferred public image and the reputation of their discipline, in which case I apologize for making the wrong assumption.

Time was also wasted fighting specious arguments and related casuistry of an altogether different sort. Perfectly suited for the rubbish bin are all of the following claims that we debated, tirelessly and perhaps needlessly. Some of them are utterly perverse conceptions, others are illogical beyond repair.

  1. HTS is about saving lives.
  2. We can make warfare more humane.
  3. If you want to help Afghans, you should join HTS.
  4. Being critical of war and imperialism, must mean knowing a lot about the military, so the best thing to do is to first enlist in the military and study it as an insider.
  5. You can’t criticize war unless you have personally fought in one.
  6. If you want to change the world you have to join the ranks of those who don’t want you to change anything.
  7. The greatest impact anthropologists can have on policy is to be hired by a private military contractor, because Pentagon and White House policies are usually only set after close consultation with the lower ranks of employees.
  8. For anthropology to be relevant to the world, it must be relevant to U.S. warfare.
  9. HTS research is ethical.
  10. Criticisms of military anthropology are just ideological and polemical–defenses of work at the service of the national security state are objective and scientific.
  11. If you don’t support U.S. goals, it must mean you are an Al Qaeda terrorist sympathizer.
  12. Denunciations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are too “moralistic,” “indignant,” and “self-righteous.”
  13. When fighting pure evil abroad, we need more nuanced and balanced perspectives on our own actions and ideology (only our actions and ideology, because there is “no moral equivalence” here).
  14. Serving the public as an intellectual, means serving the state.

The Real Ends of the Debate

Stemming from the above, and this is not a new realization of mine, I came to the hypothesis that the real purpose of programs such as HTS, of the wider state and corporate militarization of the academy, and the periodic mass denunciation and expulsion of critical scholars (such as Ward Churchill, but there are many others, especially in the U.S.) was that of domesticating academics. Critical academics, usually painted as demagogic radicals seeking to harm “the nation,” were perceived by many right wing elements as having gone wild, cast as taking over the university (hence incessant calls to “take back the university”), and in need of severe punishment for exercising both their rights to free speech as citizens, and their right to academic freedom as professors. The militarization of anthropology could thus be seen as part of a wider project of pacification, a form of domestic counterinsurgency that was not “kinetic” but could certainly be coercive, illegitimate, and sometimes illegal. “Science,” like science back in the good old days of the mid-1800s, meant work done to uphold established interests and the position of the dominant class–deviance was “ideology.”

Given that the dominant interests at work have neither disappeared, nor surrendered, we can expect many more rounds in this fight.

References/Further Reading

Albro, Robert. (2009). “Anthropologists and Analysts.” American Anthropological Association, June 8.

American Anthropological Association (AAA). (2007). AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities, Final Report, November 4. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

———- . (2009). “AAA Commission Releases Final Report on Army Human Terrain System.” American Anthropological Association, December 8.

———- . (2009). AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC), Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Boas, Franz. (2004 [1919]). “Scientists as Spies.” In Roberto J. González (ed.), Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power (pp. 23-25). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. (2009). “Why Not Mandate Ethics Education for Professional Training of Anthropologists? American Anthropological Association, October 13.

Forte, Maximilian C. (2010). “The Pentagon’s Human Terrain, beyond the Human Terrain System.” Zero Anthropology, May 29.

———- . (2010). “SCRATs: AFRICOM after the Human Terrain System.” Zero Anthropology, May 30.

———- . (2010). “A Major Report of a Minor Exception, or a Minor Report of a Major Problem? The American Anthropological Association’s CEAUSSIC vis-à-vis the Human Terrain System–Part 1.” Zero Anthropology, June 7.

———- . (2010). “A Major Report of a Minor Exception, or a Minor Report of a Major Problem? The American Anthropological Association’s CEAUSSIC vis-à-vis the Human Terrain System–Part 2.” Zero Anthropology, June 7.

———- . (2011). “The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates.” American Anthropologist, 113(1), March, 149-153.

———- . (2011). “Anthropology, the Military, Global and Domestic Counterinsurgency.” Anthropologists for Justice and Peace, June 12.

———- . (2011). “Alert: Canada Is Now Home to Recruitment for the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System.” Anthropologists for Justice and Peace, September 30.

———- . (2011). “Human Terrain Mapping: It’s Still Scary and Troubling.” Anthropologists for Justice and Peace, November 7.

Gill, Lesley. (2007). “Anthropology Goes to War, Again.” Focaal–European Journal of Anthropology, (50), 139-145.

González, Roberto J. (2009). American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Gordillo, Gastón. (2012). “The Terrain as Medium of Violence.” Space and Politics, August 29.

Gusterson, Hugh. (2007). “Anthropology and Militarism.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 36, 155-175.

Jackson, Jean. (2009). “Reflections on the Soon-to-be Released CEAUSSIC Report.” American Anthropological Association, November 30.

Lawless, Robert. (2009). “Empires and the Sullying of Anthropology: From Malinowski to Human Terrain Systems.” CounterPunch, November 6-8.

Marcus, George. (2009). “Origin Story and Grande Finale.” American Anthropological Association, December 7.

McFate, Montgomery. (2005). “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of their Curious Relationship.” Military Review, March-April, 24-38.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. (2013). “Tribal Warfare: ‘Noble Savages,’ by Napoleon A. Chagnon.” The New York Times, February 15.

Price, David. (2009). “Anthropological Engagements with Military and Intelligence Agencies: Ethics, Politics, and ongoing Discourse.” American Anthropological Association, September 9.

———- . (2009). “Human Terrain Systems, Anthropologists and the War in Afghanistan: A Better Way to Kill?CounterPunch, December 1.

Renzi, Fred. (2006). “Networks: Terra Incognita and the Case for Ethnographic Intelligence.” Military Review, September-October, 16-22.

Rose, Charlie. (2007). A discussion about Counterinsurgency with Sarah Sewall, Harvard University & Montgomery McFate, Institute for Defense Analysis. Charlie Rose, December 24.

Rush, Laurie W. (2009). “Mars Turns to Minerva: Thoughts on Archaeology, the Military, and Collegial Discourse.” American Anthropological Association, July 21.

Schoch-Spana, Monica. (2009). “Anthropology, Public Health and National Security—An Eyewitness Account of Colliding Worlds.” American Anthropological Association, August 21.

Sluka, Jeffrey A. (2010). “Curiouser and Curiouser: Montgomery McFate’s Strange Interpretation of the Relationship between Anthropology and Counterinsurgency.” PoLAR: Political & Legal Anthropology Review, 33, 99-115

Tierney, Patrick. (2001). Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: Norton.