A “Radical New Experiment” in “Anthropology”? What HTS is NOT

So some political scientist (David Kilcullen) decides to call his counterinsurgency work “conflict ethnography.” Do we take that at face value as ethnography? On what basis is the Human Terrain System “anthropology” as Grant McCracken celebrates it, bemoaning that anthropology is only ever really applied when it is applied in dominating other nations and murdering those who oppose U.S. hegemony? Failing that, it is a “museum piece.” On what basis do we call it a “radical new experiment,” when there is a long history of anthropological service to imperialism, a fact promoted by Montgomery McFate in her own writing? Anyone who knows anything at all about anthropology in the last 30 years would know that we have had these debates before, and anthropologists have served in counterinsurgency programs long before now. So why feign such ignorance, or is it real ignorance? Why the preposterous claims to “novelty” when there is nothing new here? Why the foolish appropriation of the term “radical” in connection with an ideologically reactionary stance and imperial militarism? How many more times will the degraded salesmen pitch their product in such hackneyed terms? Why not just stand for what you mean to say, and what you mean to think, instead of couching it in such awfully banal language of “NEW!”, “experimental!”, “applied!” and “radical!”?

Unless Grant McCracken’s audience consists entirely of teens, or the irredeemably ignorant, he should do readers a favour and treat them as if they had intelligence, and failing that, at least some tiny amount of knowledge. Then again, maybe he is safe to assume that they are hopeless cretins, given some of the garbled comments I read on his blog.

Otherwise, my final question is a purely mathematical one: is the bullshit about the Human Terrain system INFINITE in quantity, or is it finite, that is, does it have an actual end?

19 thoughts on “A “Radical New Experiment” in “Anthropology”? What HTS is NOT

  1. Answer:
    The propaganda promoting the Human Terrain System will continue to grow at an excremental rate.

    I am surprised nobody got that answer, it’s pretty basic mathematics.

  2. […] The debate in the halls of anthropology continues over the Human Terrain System program under way in Iraq, Afghanistan and, likely, other zones where the U.S. is engaged in conflict. Academic counterinsurgency? Conflict anthropology? Finding social and cultural sore spots to better flex your military muscle? I’m not going to seriously weigh in on the topic – because I’m unwilling to design my own personal Star Wars system to deflect the barrage of missiled attacks that would surely be launched my way from the philosophical Pyongyangs of the discpline – except to ask: Why is it not, as many in the halls are claiming, anthropology? That question was raised once again on a blog I often frequent, Open Anthropology. […]

  3. Hi Max, can you point us to the propaganda that promotes HTS? And can we define “propaganda”? If propaganda refers to the material issued by HTS itself, the program needs a new Propagandist-in-Chief. That is, they haven’t been very successful.

    In my limited understanding, any report or opinion that doesn’t actively portray HTS as a secret assassination program abetted by a handful of anthropologists is considered propaganda, but I’m probably overstating the case. I’m sure your definition of propaganda is much more sophisticated and considerate.

  4. BTW, you’re right to point out the empty marketing language that some have used to promote not only HTS, but rather, the whole ‘COIN’ meme.

  5. Good questions, Steve. In terms of propaganda supporting and promoting HTS…you could just do a search under “HTS” on this blog, because a lot of it, but not all of it (lack of time) has been covered here already. HTS has not been very successful at propaganda, because of the depth of criticism that counters it. That does not mean it is not propaganda, and it does not mean that it has not swayed some.

    When you speak of the marketing language that is the same thing that I am essentially speaking about with reference to HTS propaganda. I plan to write a piece soon about the question of how HTS anthropologists, the few that there are, are allegedly “anthropologizing the military.”

    Any window dressing that works to obscure, or to produce a nice candy-coated gloss fostering support for national security objectives pushed by certain elites would be part of what I call HTS propaganda. Really, the widely agreed upon details, rather than the conspiracy theories, are enough to indict the role of social scientists in HTS as far as I am concerned. I have never heard the particular conspiracy theory you allude to.

    Incidentally, another aspect of HTS propaganda involves creating caricatures of critics as somehow unhinged types with whacky ideas, as well as patrolling blogs looking for fires to put out. Sometimes we don’t need abstract definitions of propganda, when we can just point to the practice.

  6. Hi Max, I jumped the gun a bit when I didn’t specify in my question that I was looking for examples of mainstream media propaganda about HTS. I didn’t mean blogs, like McCracken’s, or stuff written by military folks — Kilkullen, etc — with an obvious bias. Outside of some fairly narrow circles, I don’t think the average person has any idea, favorable or unfavorable, what HTS is. To me, the term propaganda implies mass communication as a vehicle for spreading lies or half truths. I haven’t seen that yet with regard to HTS.

  7. I think you’re right, there has been very little of what one could see as outright favourable press coverage of HTS, with maybe one or two notable exceptions, perhaps George Packer in The New Yorker being one (just based on memory, and it’s been a good while since I read that piece). So I agree with you on this.

  8. Yes, Packer’s article, published two years ago in the New Yorker, was ‘postive’ about HTS, although the program barely rated a mention. Packer’s article was a long profile of Kilkullen and how social sciences were going to ‘save’ the war in Iraq. At the time, Kilkullen wasn’t the name brand that he is now among geeks like us who follow this sort of news.

    Max, it’s often hard for me to get through the dense layer of assumptions in your blog posts. For instance, I don’t know what this means:

    “Any window dressing that works to obscure, or to produce a nice candy-coated gloss fostering support for national security objectives pushed by certain elites would be part of what I call HTS propaganda.”

    “National security objectives” seems to be at the heart of this sentence, but I don’t know what it means. On the face of it, it’s a neutral phrase. All states have national security objectives. But your sentences seems to imply that national security objectives are sinister. Or maybe you mean only those specific national security objectives that are “pushed by certain elites”. In that case, it seems you’re suggesting that there are both legitimate national security objectives and illegitimate ones. Which brings up another question: who are these “certain elites” pushing the illegitimate national security objectives… and so on.

  9. Hello Steve,

    I am not “offended” by the word “assumptions,” because I certainly have many…I am just unsure as to why “national security state” is an assumption. A rough list at best:

    1. You are either with us, or against us
    2. Global War on Terror
    3. Homeland Security
    4. domestic spying
    5. secret detentions
    6. torture
    7. invasion and occupation
    8. preemptive strikes
    9. authorizations to use force
    10. “Pentagonization” of social science
    11. “I am a war president”
    12. “we need a leader who is ‘tough’ on national security”

    Those are observations more than assumptions, I think.

    You did understand me when you said that I implied that national security objectives are sinister. I don’t favour states, let alone state violence, and I don’t identify with states. Whether some call this legitimate or that illegitmate…that’s not my discussion. If I focus on the national security state that is the U.S. today, it is because I think it is the most dangerous one on the planet at this moment.

    Which elites run Washington? Very good question. I wish I had all the time and all the information to produce a comprehensive and integrated overview. In the meantime, one can follow published reports tying senators, congressmen, presidents, vice-presidents, etc., to various boards of directors, to the oil industry, to the weapons industry, just two examples, and if you go far back enough, to fruit companies and railroad companies (and quick support for coups against elected leaders in Latin America that threatened those interests).

    You will likely disagree with all of this, and I don’t sense any “conversion experience” coming soon for either of us.

  10. No biggie, I know it’s not intentional. The medium is failing us, I think. Next time I’m in Montreal I’ll look you up and we can have coffee.

  11. Steve, in case you come back–I have seen you posting on a few other blogs as well, basically any blog that mentioned the Harper’s article. It took me a little while to realize you’re the same Steve Featherstone who wrote that piece. I was surprised — surprised to see you aggressively countering anyone with an opinion critical of HTS, slamming John Stanton here, but not addressing some important questions posed to you on the Danger Room blog. Given how much pure propaganda has been planted by the U.S. in the Iraqi media, one can see where the dividing line between media and state, media and military, have been repeatedly blurred or erased. My question is: who paid you to write that article?

  12. Hi Max, CENTCOM paid me to write the article. They gave me an F16 and a coupon for one hour of flight training.

  13. At least you have a sense of humour. Anyway, it is interesting that you chose to ignore certain questions (perhaps you missed them) on the Danger Room blog post about your article.

    By any chance, could you lend me the keys to that F16?

Comments are closed.