Questioning the “Top Misconceptions” About the “Human Terrain System”

[Update: Since this post was published, the Human Terrain System deleted the page to which this post refers, and did not replace it with a revised version. Therefore, the links below do not work. This is the second time that critical attention to a HTS team member or webpage has resulted in deletion.]

One component of the Human Terrain System website is a page titled “Top Misconceptions,” in which the authors, presumably Montgomery McFate and/or Steve Fondacaro and/or Laurie Adler, argue with a series of “misconceptions” about their program, without actually quoting the sources of these alleged misconceptions. It might be a useful exercise to scrutinize the choice of terms, ideas, and concepts in what the HTS intends as a corrective. There are several other pages on the HTS website that restate the main elements of one another, with the FAQ extending or in essence repeating some of the ideas found below. A more comprehensive analysis would require an equally critical scrutiny of each of the other pages, while guarding against the repetition that is built into that site.

All of the lines that follow that are in italics are from the original document, and the regular text is my writing.


HTS is assisting the military in combat operations.

Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) do not provide direct support to combat operations.

This leaves one possibility open: indirect support to combat operations.

The only military training HTTs receive pertains to personal safety rather than tactical operations. HTTs work primarily with units whose function is explicitly non-lethal, such as medical personnel, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Civil Affairs, etc. When they do work with maneuver units, HTTs improve the units abilities to carry out non-lethal aspects of their roles, such as how to better dialogue with the population, how to read body language and visual cues, what appropriate cultural protocols are for interaction with locals, how to appreciate the history of particular tribes and social groups in their area, etc.

The meaning of “maneuver units” is not specified. How “dialogue” is to be carried out with the population when only a small minority of HTS researchers in Iraq can speak Arabic, is something that is left untouched.

By McFate’s own account, of the 38 HTS personnel in Iraq, only 13 speak Arabic, and only two of those are social scientists. Therefore, those who are supposed to be helping the military appreciate the history and culture of the area, by and large do not even speak the language. With such expert advice, one is permitted to question whether room is opened up for further “misunderstandings” and potential conflict. One of these experts is Dr. Marcus Griffin, anthropologist at Christopher Newport University, whose previous research was reportedly in the Philippines, and among “Freegans.” He had never been to the Middle East before he arrived in Iraq. According to a report in Newseek, one of the social scientists with the HTS in Iraq, “is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on America’s goth, punk and rave subcultures.”

Matt Tompkins, a former Human Terrain Team member has repeatedly stated that the information provided by such teams has been superficial, and that there is little or no opportunity to become immersed in the local population or to become familiar with existing culture. This has been corroborated by Zenia Helbig, a former HTS member as well. Indeed, Helbig has argued that Human Terrain Teams pose little danger precisely because they are ineffectual: “HTS has become…a joke.” Both Tompkins and Helbig have revealed that HTS hires “prior service” civilians (retired military personnel) to serve as Team Leaders, Research Managers or Analysts. One of these,

showed himself to be completely unqualified for the program: demonstrating an inability or unwillingness to distinguish between Sunni, Shia, Arabs, Kurds or Iraqis (all “those people” to him), often expressing a desire to “just kill ’em all,” and demonstrating a complete inability to build a rapport with units supported in training—the key responsibility of a Team Leader.

(See the joint statement by Tompkins and Helbig to the Project on Government Oversight; and, Zenia Helbig’s presentation to the AAA.)


The US military does nothing but kill people and break things.

A soldier’s job is to defend the country through both lethal and non-lethal means.

The first thing to note is that this “misconception” is not ostensibly related to the Human Terrain System, but more broadly to the role of the military. Once more, there is no reference to any sources. What is worthy of note is the resort to an implicit nationalism: “defend the country.” This is a seriously contentious statement that skirts the issue of U.S. aggression against Iraq having been unprovoked, that Iraq has never attacked the U.S. and posed no threat. The main argument of this section of the HTS document is to clarify that the military does other things … besides killing people and breaking things.

Thus, US troops do much more than engage in combat operations. For example, they also engage in providing medical and veterinary care [note: at least one Marine animal abuse video from Iraq has gone “viral” since this document was posted], law enforcement training, reconstruction projects, humanitarian assistance distribution, reconciliation facilitation/negotiation, support for local media and broadcasting development, etc. HTTs play active roles in supporting these types of non-combat functions.

Support for local media,” and the role of Human Terrain Teams raises a controversy that critics of HTS had not previously raised, and it was surprising to see this phrase inserted above. It has been revealed in numerous American mainstream news sources, and in the U.S. Congress, that the U.S. military had planted propaganda in the Iraqi media. Is this what social scientists are contributing to?

For more, see:

Los Angeles Times: Planted Articles May Be Violation
By Mark Mazzetti, January 27, 2006

Los Angeles Times: U.S. Military Covertly Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Press
By Borzou Daragahi and Mark Mazzetti, November 30, 2005

Washington Post: Military Says It Paid Iraq Papers for News — Possible ‘Improprieties’ to Be Investigated
By Josh White and Bradley Graham, Saturday, December 3, 2005; Page A01

New York Times: U.S. is said to plant articles in Iraq Papers
Jeff Gerth and Scott Shane, December 1, 2005

PBS Online Newshour: Planting News in the Iraq Media
December 2, 2005

In terms of the role of the military in committing human rights abuses, this is a subject that the HTS site completely sidesteps, even while purportedly seeking to deal with misconceptions.

Reportedly hundreds of veterans of the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars have gathered to testify about atrocities committed against civilians. See: “Winter Soldier: Hundreds of Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Gather to Testify in Echo of 1971 Vietnam Hearings“, March 14, 2008, Democracy Now. Five videos of this testimony have been posted on YouTube, starting at

Also, Evan Wright, an embedded journalist, has written of the U.S. of artillery during the invasion, such as the attack on the city of Nasiriyah:

But the fact is, the Marines rely much more on artillery bombardment than on aircraft dropping precision-guided munitions. During our thirty-six hours outside Nasiriyah they have already lobbed an estimated 2,000 rounds into the city. The impact of this shelling on its 400,000 residents must be devastating.

The U.S. has also used cluster bombs in close proximity to civilian populations, with a documented death toll among civilians whenever and wherever these have been used. See:

San Francisco Chronicle: U.S. Under Fire for Use of Cluster Bombs in Iraq
by Jack Epstein, May 15, 2003

U.S. forces have also engaged in siege attacks on civilian population centres, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, with small cities and entire neighbourhoods essentially razed. Other war crimes have been reported by the U.S. media, as compiled here.

The HTS document makes light of these issues by trivializing and oversimplifying in the form of a fabricated and seemingly simplistic statement. By ignoring widespread concerns and condemnations of war crimes, the HTS writers manifest dishonest intent and cast an even darker shadow on their program.


HTTs are being used to collect intelligence.

HTTs do not proactively elicit actionable intelligence from the local civilian population.

Once more, readers are presented with a “loophole” statement — they do not “proactively” gather intelligence, leaving open the possibility that they may gather intelligence by other means. And when such intelligence falls into the laps of HTS researchers, what are they to do with it? No answer is provided.

Team members are legally prohibited from performing active intelligence collection. Only Military Intelligence (MI) Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Collectors can answer specific questions from the brigade’s intelligence unit. Furthermore, brigades do not need HTTs to collect intelligence or assist with targeting, since they already have a large intelligence staff that performs this function for them. The role of the HTTs is to help the troops better understand who is NOT their enemy.

In battling a “misconception,” the HTS document once more reaffirms a criticism leveled at it by many anthropologists, it does not dispel it. Understanding who not to target is, surely, built in to the process of target selection. Without such selectivity, the HTS would be implying that targeting is otherwise random and sweeping, and keep in mind their objection to such characterizations in the previous section. If the targeting is instead selective, then of course understanding who is not the enemy is a part of the targeting process.


Meaningful voluntary informed consent is not possible when the researcher carries a weapon.

This should have been avoided by the HTS writer(s), because it is such a no brainer.

In an environment where most of the population is armed, a blanket assumption that the presence of weapons automatically carries with it the threat of coercive force is simply incorrect.

Blanket? HTS has characterized the majority of Iraqi civilians as armed, an outrageous statement. It is followed by a wholly illogical statement that weapons do not suggest a threat of coercive force — then why are they even conceived as “weapons”? Such loose writing and shoddy reasoning, for what sells itself as a research program, a very expensive publicly funded one at that, is alarming.

Local nationals who live in a war zone are smart enough to understand the difference between combat troops and personnel who conduct non-combat functions.

According to any journalist who has interviewed Marcus Griffin in Iraq, he is indistinguishable from a soldier. He wears a military uniform and carries a gun. Nicole Suveges, who was a recent HTS fatality, was shown by newspapers wearing a military uniform. Just who are these Iraqi civilians who can distinguish between one American with a gun, in uniform, as “military” as opposed to another American with a gun, in uniform, as “civilian.” It is outlandish arguments such as these that have attracted so much, apparently warranted, negative attention to the tenets of HTS.

Local nationals are also smart enough to understand the need for self-defense in an environment full of people who want to kill you.

Local nationals are apparently also smart enough to understand the need for self-defense from an armed occupier, which is precisely what HTS researchers are.


HTS is carrying out secret or covert work.

HTS was designed as an open-source, non-classified program.

HTS has published no reports that have been made available publicly. It is not open source. Recently, detailed login instructions have been circulated among a limited number of message recipients, that clearly indicate that whatever data there may be is behind a wall, and in order for non-government persons to gain access, they must request and place a statement to the effect that “you are a partner with HTS and need access to the site.”

The willingness of team members and staff to talk to the press, write blogs from the field, and to answer emails and phone calls of our critics is proof positive of the fact that the program is neither secret nor covert.

That is not proof positive of anything other than the fact that much of what has been “released,” like the page on the HTS site to which this post refers, is often little more than thinly veiled propaganda and promotional pitches. Moreover, the covert nature of McFate entering a blog discussion under a fake identity, to sell her own program and make promotional statements is, besides reprehensible, an indication of the honesty and openness that is really at play.


HTS violates the AAA code of ‘do no harm’.

The goal of HTS is to reduce the harm that the military does through lethal force and enhance the effectiveness of non-lethal alternatives.

The AAA code of ethics does not, at any point, indicate or suggest that the concept of “harm” can be reduced to lethality alone. There are many forms of harm spoken of in that code. HTS is attacking a misconception, by producing a misconception. If this is done willfully, it confirms the worst suspicions. If it is done because they have failed to read, or review, that code, then it shows an unprofessional lack of concern for key principles.

The goal of HTS is the same as that of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) code of ethics: do no harm, or at least help the military to do less harm.

Once again the HTS document provides a meandering logic — doing no harm is now qualified, but equated to, doing less harm. No harm is a statement of an absolute: none. Less harm is a relative statement: some. It is astounding that the author(s) of such a document feel that they can get such statements past the eyes of critical readers, and insulting to their intelligence.

Each Social Scientist on an HTT has the ultimate responsibility and authority to adhere to his or her own personal and professional ethical standards.

This statement above thus disclaims any HTS liability — not a resounding endorsement of a principled adherence to ethical research. The language is deceiving, but the intent is realistic: there is little in the way of solid ground on which to build an argument that ethical research can be done by an armed party to a conflict.

The program staff and supported unit cannot compel the Social Scientist to act unethically; he/she always has the right to refuse. The supported units also appreciate the necessity of maintaining the ethical code because violating it compromises the Social Scientist’s ability to do their work, thus undermining their mission.

This is plausible, and represents a welcome break from the course of the HTS argument thus far. The reality of exercising refusal may be more complicated than suggested above however.


Human Terrain Team members conceal their identities.

Aside from one unique case where a team member concealed her last name as a result of concerns for her personal safety, HTT members can be identified by name and unit patches on their uniform.

One should note the level of relationship and rapport between the researcher and the local that is betrayed by the aloofness built into the statement. An Iraqi civilian would not know the name other than by reading it on the uniform? One can safely say that the “informants” of by far the vast majority of anthropologists learned the anthropologists’ names personally and directly, not by reading a name tag.


HTT members are armed.

This involves the same “misconception” as the one above titled, “Meaningful voluntary informed consent is not possible when the researcher carries a weapon.”

Military members of the HTT carry weapons as required by US government regulations. No civilian member of an HTT is required to carry a weapon. Weapons are distributed at the discretion of the brigade commander depending on the security situation. However, all civilian members of the HTT must be proficient in the use of weapons in order to guarantee their own security should this be necessary. Weapons issued to civilians are for self-defense only.

This statement states some of the legalities of the issue, but sidesteps the more meaningful discussion of what kind of social science is at play when the researcher enters, armed, into a war of occupation.


There might be unintended consequences for local nationals as a result of speaking to a team member.

Only an Iraqi or Afghan can answer this — this is not a question that can honestly be answered by the HTS writers. The following statement is an affirmation of this.

Nobody understands the problem of unintended consequences better than a population that has been living under totalitarian dictatorships or fundamentalist regimes for decades.

Once more, the subterranean appeal to American nationalism by resorting to the favourite propaganda of American political leaders and some media.

Those local people who choose to talk to HTT members (or to the US military more generally) have decided to engage because they believe there is some benefit (political, security, economic, etc.) to them in doing so. Nobody is forcing village elders to discuss their needs for fresh water, veterinary care, or physical security. From the perspective of many local nationals, the consequences of not engaging outweigh the risks of engaging.

Again, the HTS writers are performing ventriloquism. No part of the statement above is valid without substantial evidence from local sources.


Bad things happened in the past, so bad things must be happening now.

The use of Social Scientists by the government during WWII and Vietnam certainly casts a shadow over the activities of HTS in the present, despite the fact that HTS is not involved in detention operations, writing interrogation manuals, analyzing the size of Japanese soldier’s nostrils, or any other such activities. The belief that the present simply recapitulates the past assumes that the US government, the US military and the social science community have learned nothing from history.

This statement is premised on the idea that people involved with the HTS have the capacity for learning, which is very welcome news. However, it does not indicate what they have learned from history. Indeed, since before recently so very little was written about the role of anthropology in supporting past military efforts, and much of what is now available is there thanks to a staunch critic of HTS, David Price, then it would be important to find out what HTS has learned from a leading authority on this subject.


HTS is merely extending the war in Iraq and perpetuating the violence by helping the US military.

By helping brigades better understand the local population’s political, economic, social needs, and by identifying non-lethal alternatives for meeting the population’s needs, HTS has assisted in stabilizing the country. Stability is the fundamental pre-condition for the withdrawal of troops.

First, a point about sloppiness: the statement above says “stabilizing the country.” Which one? Secondly, it is making a claim to final success which, if it were true, would nullify the need for a continued U.S. presence and a role for the HTS, on its own terms. HTS has not assisted in “stabilizing” because there is nothing “stable” about either the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having seen two of its researchers killed, and one wounded, one would hope that HTS could be more sensitive to reality.


There is no military solution to the situation in Iraq, and thus Social Scientists shouldn’t be involved.

The military is more aware than anyone else that military power alone is not sufficient, but must be complemented by other levers of power (diplomatic, economic, and information). In fact, the recognition that there can never be a military solution is a fundamental tenet of counterinsurgency….[excess verbiage deleted]

The point that is being missed here is that HTS researchers buy into an occupation that involves the assertion and imposition of their country’s interests over those of another. Imperialism is a word that simply does not exist in the HTS vocabulary.


It’s ethically permissible for Social Scientists to advise on policy, but it’s not permissible to work with US military forces on the ground.

It is deeply ironic that, according to various critics of HTS, a Social Scientist can brief diplomats and advise on policy, but cannot engage with the soldiers who are in fact an extension of policymakers and diplomats.

Various critics? Which ones?

As one critic, it has been my contention that social scientists should not play a supporting role of any kind, in any sphere, of the military or in the direct and avoidable service of an imperial state. If others have chosen more nuanced approaches, then this is precisely the kind of inconsistency and irony which lays them open to such criticisms back from the HTS.

The military does not make foreign policy, but is Constitutionally required to execute that policy. That the military should have the requisite knowledge to do so efficiently, carefully, and with less loss of life is simple common sense. Are US soldiers less deserving of this critical knowledge than policy makers or diplomats because they execute rather than make policy? Such a view displays the worst sort of ‘cherry picking’: one that prioritizes the senior leadership of the US government at the expense of those men and women in uniform whose job it is to defend the country with their lives if necessary.



If Social Scientists oppose the war in Iraq, they should eschew any ‘collaboration’ with the military.

While some academic Social Scientists may personally oppose the war in Iraq, this political position should not be confused with professional ethics. Maintaining the ethical mandate of doing no harm to the population under study should not be confounded with a blanket opposition to the use of force under any circumstances. Similarly, opposing the war in Iraq should not lead to an automatic condemnation of those Social Scientists who do work with the military: to issue such a blanket condemnation would imply that the military is an illegitimate social institution. While this may be a personal political opinion, it should not be a professional ethical standard.

In some ways, this is correct, and it points to the problems inherent with the very professionalization and disciplining of knowledge production.

Just as a footnote: some of us also oppose the war in Afghanistan. The statement above singles out Iraq alone.

According to an HTT member “War causes tremendous human misery. How can an anthropologist not use their knowledge, skills, and abilities to put an end to the conflict? In my experience, the Iraqi people are wonderful people. If I can help move operations in the direction that fosters reconciliation and reconstruction, then that is good and I am comfortable with my ethics.”

I have addressed this elsewhere. The implicit logic is a defeatist one: I cannot change my society, I cannot educate people against war, I can only jump in after a war has started to try to perform some palliative role, my only ambition is to help “soften” a war. The logic is founded on certain political and moral premises that are unacceptable to some of us, especially when stated as if there were no alternative.


HTS is a program that uses anthropology to help the military.

Surely, this very document establishes that fact, and supports it? Why is this suddenly a “misconception”? It was McFate herself who asked, “How can I make anthropology useful to the military?” Why is this even an object of debate?

While some staff members of HTS are anthropologists, HTS is not an applied military anthropology program.

What is an “applied military anthropology program”? The document suggests it is playfully entering the field of semantics, and specifically nominalism. What it does not do is to reject the alleged “misconception.”

HTS can be better described as a cultural insight and risk mitigation program, designed to aid in military planning and decision making to reduce or eliminate the need for lethal violence.

A better description? It actually reads like something that could pass for an elaboration of something that might be called an applied military anthropology program.

This work draws on a variety of skills, many of which can be found in a well trained anthropologist, but other needed skills and knowledge are not part of the traditional anthropology ‘kit bag’, including military culture, area studies, COIN theory, decision making, and conflict resolution. The HTS mission is fundamentally multidisciplinary in nature.

So this “proves” that anthropology is not being used to support the military? All this statement says that is even more areas of expertise are needed to support the military — incidentally, none of the above are actually required, as evidenced by the HTS’ own recruitment ads.



This HTS document leaves standing virtually all of the criticisms leveled against it, while even reinforcing a few, and raising some new ones. Rather than appease the critics, it will leave most totally unmoved. Perhaps the biggest criticism of all is the one that is never mentioned: HTS is a way of using social science so that one state may assert itself over another, that it is a fundamentally colonial enterprise, and it stands completely at odds with anything that might be called a decolonized anthropology. The other criticism that is not mentioned at all is that HTS “anthropology” is not even anthropological. Given the exhaustive and even repetitive nature of the HTS propaganda, one can only assume that if the program’s directors are silent on these issues it is because they have no answer.

8 thoughts on “Questioning the “Top Misconceptions” About the “Human Terrain System”

  1. Maximilian Forte


    The notion of doing “less harm” when speaking of the AAA code of ethics’ principle of “no harm” continues to intrigue me. It appears to be the tool of an argument that cannot possibly avoiding being on the wrong side. To the extent that HTS proponents might argue, “we need a more nuanced notion of harm,” that is fine, but then they are on the wrong side of the AAA code which does not entertain discussions of degrees of harm. And who has the right to decide what is an acceptable degree of “less” harm? (Less harm also has a decidedly sinister quality to it.) Once HTS proponents accept degrees of harm as a valid way of evaluating how ethical a program is, then they are on the wrong side of most anthropologists, who can argue that they do even less harm than HTS. It’s a no win argument, and were it not for my opposition to HTS, I would almost sympathize and wish that they would do a better job at handling themselves.

  2. Marc Tyrrell

    Max, I’m only going to comment on your addendum now, although I will probably blog on your main post over the next couple of days.

    First, I think you raise a very important issue with the notion of “less harm”. I would suggest that there is already a relativistic understanding of “harm” built into the AAA Code of Ethics. The relativity is not so much in the form of “less harm” as it is in the form of “less contact” with that which may produce harm. Thus, for example, if we were to publish a book or write an article that analyzed a given situation, we are not responsible for any harm that readers of that work may do. Certainly, we try to mitigate against this by not naming actual informants, but that mitigation does not extend to, say, structural analyses.

    Second, there is now and has been for quite some time, a real problem with the term “harm”. If we help a community in Africa develop new industries or marketing strategies that allow them to get their products to market, is this harm? Obviously, it’s a rhetorical question since we cannot know with exactitude that any given action will have no harmful consequences.

    This is complicated even further by the shear fact that “harm” is a subjectively defined term with very few objective parameters outside of such obvious ones as violence. Are hurt feelings a form of harm? Again, it’s a rhetorical question and one that parallels the social debates on trying to define the term “abuse”. Personally, I would argue that the AAA Code, while holding to a “no harm” setting, has, de facto, relegated the subtle (as opposed to overt) definition of “harm” to individuals.

    Max, it’s good to see another Canadian engaged in the online debates over the HTS. As I’m sure you know, I do disagree with a lot of what you say, but I also feel that this debate, however it turns out, is way too important to leave to vicious exchanges of blind rhetoric.

  3. Maximilian Forte

    I appreciate your writing Marc, and I will check your blog over the next few days. Yes, what you are calling vicious exchanges of blind rhetoric can be regrettable, but in the end they are the least of anyone’s problems given the kinds of situations we are discussing. Let me address your two main points above.

    The first one, having to do with “less harm.” I think that the code can envision situations like the ones you describe. It also is clear that HTS at the very least intends to be part of a project that does harm to an insurgency — the word “stabilization” is used, and in the context of active insurgencies against foreign occupation, that can only mean pacification. It’s part of counterinsurgency, I don’t think there can be any debate about that. So I am revising what I addressed in my original post — I gave too much credence to the HTS’s idea of “less harm,” while bypassing the real harm that HTS seeks to fulfill as part of a military operation. The AAA code does not advocate that.

    The second point certainly does involve subjectivity. I am not sure that is meant to reduce to our subjectivity alone. The people we work with have their own ideas about what could constitute harm, and those ideas need to be built into the research process, which is why in the same code the AAA recommends active and ongoing dialogue and negotiation with our hosts. Of course, the code is not binding, and by necessity the AAA says it is up to us to use our judgment. That also means we are the ones to be called to account. Unfortunately, in most discussions I see no reference to anything that might be construed as “local opinions,” and that’s troubling. These are not our countries to play with as we see fit.

    Ultimately, however, what the AAA says is not my final source of ideas on these matters. My own position is that there can be very professional research done in the service of a state’s military occupation of another nation — Tompkins and Helbig would refute the idea that HTS currently meets most standards of professionalism. However, my position is that we should never be assisting in conquest and domination, and especially not when local resistance has been so abundant that there is no reasonable doubt about what locals want. In other posts I have on this blog — leaving armed resistance completely aside — I present details on the only opinion polls and parliamentary votes that have occurred in Iraq with reference to the occupation, and the constant theme is that most Iraqis want the occupiers out. Any project that negates that fact of ultimate non-consent, is unethical.

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