In spite of the few articles that raise any kinds of questions or criticisms about the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), such as the latest by John Stanton, and to a lesser extent the article in Nature News by Sharon Weinberger, the past month has seen a few pieces in the media that distinguish themselves for their lack of critical attention, or the after thought manner of hastily covering criticisms, and the general praise for the “smart” strategy of the U.S. Army, that one cannot be unmoved by what appears to be another concerted propaganda effort, less drastic but no less mendacious than the same mass mediated lies that moved most Americans to cheer for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. One of the more supersized pieces of propaganda was written by Noah Shachtman in Wired, to the dismay and disbelief of those who had credited him with an independent form of intelligence. Today, and I mean on the exact same day, two more pieces have appeared: Paul McCleary’s “Future Face of Conflict: Human Terrain Teams,” in World Politics Review (14 October 2008), and Lee Hill Kavanaugh’s “Human Terrain Teams: Winning Hearts and Minds,” in the Kansas City Star (14 October 2008, p. 1). Perhaps October 14 has been secretly designated “HTS Day”?
[Indeed, since this post was first published, I have learned that two more articles appeared, one that also appeared on Oct. 14, and one the night before that. It is extremely interesting to see this “coincidence.” See
Nathan Hodge, “Afghanistan Diary: Mapping the Human Terrain in Helmand, Part I,” Danger Room, Oct. 14, 2008, and,
DPA(?), “US forces find footing in Afghanistan’s ‘human terrain’ – Feature,” The Earth Times, Oct. 13, 2008.]
I will not produce a summary of the first two pieces I mentioned above since readers can suffer through the articles on their own. However, I will signal one major deficiency in most of the prevailing arguments in favour of HTS (there are many, and I have spotlighted most thus far), and I will argue that there really is only one way to make most sense of the purpose of HTS, and it by betrayed by the very outflow of these articles.
Less Deaths is a Good Thing
Killing fewer people is a good thing, and HTS helps to achieve that. That is a routine statement that is made, and it is brandished like a club against critics — typically, we are assaulted for not wanting to “help” in “reducing killing,” which also implies that we might be happier with more killings. Only two options are ever offered by these self-professed lovers of neutral, grey, ambiguity and nuance. Killing nobody — well, that’s just not an option in the murderer’s mentality. What we are being asked to do is in fact to sign on to murder, but more humane murder, better targeted murder.
Killing fewer people is a good thing, it helps to win hearts and minds, and HTS helps to achieve those goals. Never mind that beyond unsubstantiated anecdotes lacking in independent confirmation, that no evidence exists to support the idea that HTS is achieving a lot of good. (Never mind that this fails to address the more profound question of imperial occupation and of one society deciding it has the right to make over another.) Never mind — except that at least one of these anecdotes has been debunked, and another is based on no recorded evidence (see here for more).
Why does “killing fewer people” and “lessening harm” not “win hearts and minds”? Hopefully the reader is an American, or one who can see the world from the vantage point of many Americans, or the significance of this exercise will be lost:
It was widely remarked by all the major mass media in the U.S. that the death toll at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 could have been far greater had the attacks happened later in the day, when the population of the destroyed buildings would have been at a peak. These attacks were, of course, planned — they were not random or accidental events. Since we have heard so little directly from the alleged planners, we have to assume that they could have chosen other times, but did not. Indeed, even the hijacked planes were very lightly booked — a terrible choice, as it means that the hijackers would stand a greater chance of standing out in a smaller crowd of passengers. Whatever the reasons for the choice of the time for the attacks, there was a choice that was made, and it resulted in: LESS DEATHS. Indeed, by the same logic used by HTS, Al Qaida could go as far as asserting that it “saved lives” on 11/09/01.
Having established that, how many American hearts and American minds have been won over to the cause of Al Qaida as a result?
Less deaths are simply less expenditure of military hardware, less labour for soldiers, they do not win any hearts and minds, and the suggestion is a grossly foolish one, one of those arguments that deserves the label “idiotic” because it is beyond any redemption.
What HTS Really Does
One might assume that those in charge of the military establishment are not complete fools, that they never just “waste” money for no reason at all. That they would choose to waste money on a program that has won such few converts outside of the Pentagon, and that has no proven track record of success, might suggest that they are fools for maintaining such a costly program, but I would prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt instead.
What I think the Human Terrain System is meant to do, and I have mentioned this before, is to serve as a domestic propaganda effort and a deodorant for reducing the stench of increasingly unpopular wars. The aim is domestic stabilization, getting voters to better adjust themselves to corporatist war efforts by believing that these are “smart” wars, fought by Ph.Ds, less lethal, more humane, winning friends and not just killing enemies. In this new mythology, America is building nations abroad, not sowing the seeds of resentment, resistance, and retaliation.
The other aim of HTS is domestic intellectual counterinsurgency, shutting up critics, academics especially, who might have an impact in lessening the program’s attractiveness among potential recruits to be drawn from academia itself — remember, this is a “smart” war, with “smart” people lessening the need for “smart” bombs, and “smart” people usually have Ph.Ds…like General David Petraeus, as “asked for” by BAE Systems which hires for HTS, but obviously a MA is suitable enough in many if not most cases. So if you work for the Pentagon, how do you fight back against hostile and recalcitrant academics?
Here are some of the things you can do:
You offer $300,000 per annum, about five times what the persons would be making if they had Ph.Ds, if they had been hired by universities. It is frequently said that the “actual pay” is $100,000. Nonsense. From one of my own sources who left the program, $100,000 is the base pay — what you are to get in training, but the hours are inflated so that every recruit is put down as working 60 hours a week so they get overtime. Therefore, it is never, except on paper, $100,000. They get the overtime-inflated amount, plus 35% of that inflated amount, as hazard pay. Take that amount now, and add 35% more for “in country” pay when they are in Iraq or Afghanistan. The point behind the extravagant pay, offered at the same time as more Americans relocate to tent cities, is to lure academics by producing highly paid “role models” of a sort.
You then fabricate a figurehead, a representative character of smartness and success, with the hope that she can appeal to potential recruits. Here is where the Army made its biggest mistake, by selecting Montgomery McFate. But they tried: like some tutti frutti concoction, she was to be something for everyone: Goth, punk rocker, grew up on a barge, San Francisco, got past suicides, chain smoker, fashion diva, go go dancer, vulgar blogger, lawyer, anthropologist … and to top it all off, the fascist proclaimed on her now deleted blog, “I’m a Democrat, for fuck’s sake!” McFate seemed perfect, she has a Ph.D in anthropology and articles (published in military journals however) attacking and ridiculing contemporary anthropology, urging the discipline to rediscover itself in its past involvements in spying and counterinsurgency. She seemed perfect, except that her work and her mission was soundly opposed by anthropologists, and then embarrassing reports began to surface of her work as a corporate spy, as well as circulating stories of how she usurped credit for HTS from an academic by the name of Andrea Jackson. (The Jackson story has yet to come out, and no journalist to date has apparently cared to do any real investigative work.)
You start planting stories in the media. The idea of an independent mainstream media in the U.S. has taken significant blows to its credibility in recent years. Aside from that, HTS has hired a chief press propagandist of (dis)repute, one Laurie Adler. Winning the support of compliant media is even better, and the candidates are plentiful. You create sock puppets to troll on blogs, and we have seen that in anthropology as well. Information warfare as practiced by HTS is practiced primarily at home.
You buy research. That is not HTS, strictly speaking, but its much bigger and more ambitious successor, the Minerva Research Initiative. You now clamp on to the veins that carry the lifeblood of academia: research funding. You make the academics come to you, you make them beg you, you make them compete against one another. You dangle big carrots in front of their noses, you cajole university presidents, and you sign memoranda of understanding with research agencies. You are now a player in the academic market, that fearful, hungry market.
Finally, you hope and pray that people are too stupid to notice what you are doing. That is also an excellent strategy, one well suited for the reality of political unconsciousness in the U.S. There is no end to the line of dupes who are willing to either cheer for the program, or give it a pass, and that is among anthropologists themselves.
What is Interesting about the Newest Support from the Media?
Well, not much really, which is why I have avoided delving into these articles. Nevertheless, a couple of points stood out from what I perused.
Within the next few years, the number of Human Terrain teams will double around the world, deploying into Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Word about the Army’s program is spreading, says Lt. George Mace of Lenexa. He was on the first Human Terrain team to Iraq and now is a spokesman for the program.
“The institutional knowledge that the teams are bringing to the units is a jumpstart to what’s happening in an area,” Mace says. “Other services are noticing and asking us now if they can join the teams too. We are looking to open this up.”
The Pentagon believes the program is the key to countering insurgents wherever they emerge in the world.
The article by McCleary also makes this point:
McFate says that program managers want to embed teams with Army units wherever they deploy, most critically in Africa. In fact, the program is currently “in discussions” with elements form the newly formed African Command about a plan for HTTs to accompany American elements into Africa on humanitarian and stability operations.
Fake “Cultural Misunderstandings”
There is a tendency in the apologia for HTS in reducing everything about the war in Iraq to a “cultural misunderstanding.” One of the examples that flies in the face of what is known and accepted by most analysts appeares in the article by McCleary:
In the aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing chaos of the insurgency, the older generation of sheiks, secure in their tribal power, waited for the Americans to come to them for help or advice. When they didn’t, the resulting power vacuum became a huge source of instability in Iraq, leading opportunistic young men to rush in and fill the void, assuming power in a breach of tribal custom. Without an understanding of the culture, the Americans never realized this, choosing to deal with whomever assured them that they could deliver results.
What this paragraph omits is any mention of Paul Bremer’s de-Baathification process and the demobilization of the army, which turned tens of thousands of soldiers into potential or actual insurgents, still led by former officers of the regime of Sadam Hussein. This was not a “power vacuum” caused by accidentally ignoring an old man in a corner, but of a vindictive imperial policy of absolute conquest.
In fact McCleary indulges his fantasies too much when he treats this “old man in the corner” vignette (the real sheik, who sits quietly, ignored by U.S. troops, but who is the real power broker) with reverence bordering on naivete were it not for the mendacity behind the assertion:
If it had just been the musings of some academic sitting in his ivory tower, you can bet it would have been ignored.
Is that so? Then McCleary needs to ask the Pentagon why it is pumping $50 million this year into buying the work of academics under the Minerva program. His shallow statement is simply nothing more than another gratuitous insult against academics who refuse to participate in HTS. I reproduce it here purely for its comical value.
A War against Intelligence
The McCleary piece introduces us to a “professor in anthropology from California,” a David Matsuda who is a “lecturer” in anthropology at California State University-Hayward, according to McCleary (it is actually California State University-East Bay). Matsuda, as one can see from his faculty profile, has no background in the Middle East and he appears to be more of an archaeologist than an ethnographer.
According to the article, Matsuda makes a practice of asking Iraqis who man checkpoints if they have any “bad men” (Ali Baba) among them, and if they have been shot at recently, and who by. That is interesting given that we are told that HTS is not about targeting, and not about intelligence. Indeed, McCleary first reveals these facts about Matsuda’s practice and then later, hoping the reader would have forgotten, McCleary exclaims like a true believer:
…people only dimly aware of the program … mistakenly think that the Army is fielding teams of civilian anthropology professors to collect information about Iraqi and Afghan civilians, for use by the military in combat operations.
This is what McCleary hopes our attention deficit disorder will lead us to forget:
“Are there any ali baba (Iraqi slang for thieves) at this checkpoint?” Matsuda asked. “Or any bad men?”
The Iraqis paused, and started shaking their heads “No, no, we are all good men here.”
“What about at the other Sons of Iraq checkpoints?” Matsuada went on. “Are there ali baba there?”
“We don’t know about the other checkpoints, we can only speak about this one,” the ringleader answered.
In the piece by Nathan Hodge, there is more discussion about how “mapping the Human Terrain” is indeed about gathering intelligence on potential suspects:
Hence the “human terrain mapping.” As part of the census, the Marines also took photographs of local leaders; they created map overlays that show tribal affiliations; poppy growing areas; and attitudes toward the coalition….The MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] does not have a formal Human Terrain Team – embedded sociologists or anthropologists – but it seems to have taken to the business of human intelligence collection.
What is also disappointing is a remark Matsuda makes to McCleary, about what “excited” him “most” about HTS:
anthropologists were going to embed with brigade combat teams but not in a colonial way, not in a missionary way, but really to try and understand the relationship between the peoples and cultures of the areas where coalition forces operate.
Not in a colonial way? Not in a missionary way? Obviously not the latter — he lives with soldiers, not far off by himself in a village. Not knowing Arabic, he wouldn’t do very well as an evangelist. Not in a colonial way — perhaps he is leaving open “in an imperial way“? By some strict definitions of colonialism, the latter occurs only when an occupying power tries to settle the dominated nation with an influx of people from the “mother country.” Matsuda is leaving aside the 106 American military bases in Iraq, and the Green Zone, populated by American troops and mercenaries (for those who care to undertake the labour of drawing such distinctions). But then again, the individuals themselves are not meant to reside there permanently, so perhaps Matsuda’s word play is still on safe grounds.
Where his answer resonates with the “feel good” superficiality that one might expect from a contestant in a beauty pageant is his whitewashing the imperial nature of his involvement in Iraq — he is there, in military uniform, stationed among troops of the foreign invader, interviewing subjects on behalf of the interests of the occupier, in a war of occupation.
Matsuda is also not too clever in parroting McFate’s line about “anthropologizing the military.” Nowhere and at no time has anyone been able to demonstrate how the military has been “anthropologized” — in fact, no one has cared to explain what that even means. It is merely propaganda, of the most vacuous sort.