AMERICAN COUNTERINSURGENCY, by Roberto J. González (U. Chicago Press, 2009)

(…apparently, this is another “Counterinsurgency Day” on Open! (A)nthropology…)

Like all counterinsurgency projects, it is designed to control or suppress popular movements. This runs completely counter to normal anthropological approaches which seek to bridge societies by promoting cross-cultural understanding. You can be a counterinsurgent, or you can be an anthropologist, but you can’t be both. — Roberto J. González


americancounterinsurgencyAMERICAN COUNTERINSURGENCY: Human Science and the Human Terrain, is Roberto J. González’s newest volume, co-published by the University of Chicago Press and Prickly Paradigm Press, now available for sale. This is, if I understood correctly, the first of at least thee volumes that will be published this year that focus on the Human Terrain System, the next two to be edited or authored by other prominent critics of HTS.

The publisher’s description of American Counterinsurgency states:

Politicians, pundits, and Pentagon officials are singing the praises of a kinder, gentler American counterinsurgency. Some claim that counterinsurgency is so sophisticated and effective that it is the “graduate level of war.” Private military contracting firms have jumped on the bandwagon, and many have begun employing anthropologists, political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists to help meet the Department of Defense’s new demand. The $60 million Human Terrain System (HTS), an intelligence gathering program that embeds social scientists with combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan, dramatically illustrates the approach. But when the military, transnational corporations, and the human sciences become obsessed with controlling the “human terrain”—the civilian populations of Iraq and Afghanistan—what are the consequences? In this timely pamphlet, Roberto González offers a searing critique of HTS, showing how the history of anthropology can be used to illuminate the problems of turning “culture” into a military tool.

The following is the book’s Table of Contents:

1.  The Myth of a “Gentler” Counterinsurgency
2.  The Origins of Human Terrain
3.  Phoenix Rising? The Birth of HTS
4.  Imaginary Terrorists, Virtual Tribes: HTS as Technological Fantasy
5.  Social Science and the Imperial Imperative

Also see an interview with Roberto J. González in today’s Inside Higher Ed, where he addresses the following questions put to him by Elizabeth Redden:

  1. Would you summarize the magnitude and mission of the Human Terrain System, as you understand it, today?
  2. You write, “The way in which HTS has been packaged — as a kinder, gentler counterinsurgency — is completely unsupported by evidence.” Instead, you argue that HTS was created “primarily as a tool for espionage and intelligence gathering.” Could you summarize the evidence you rely upon in making this argument?
  3. In your book, you trace the term “human terrain,” prefacing the chapter on the term’s origins by writing, “When I first heard the term ‘human terrain,’ a nightmarish vision came to mind.” If Webster’s asked you to write a definition of the term, what would you write?
  4. The Human Terrain teams themselves have been in the headlines. But you write of human terrain as a much broader phenomenon, one that’s being embraced by the military, industries, and research universities. How so?
  5. You write of parallels between HTS and anthropology’s historical role in helping colonial powers retain control of their empires. In your opinion, are there any ways that social scientists can productively engage with the U.S. military, without binding themselves in that colonial legacy?
  6. Is there a way for HTS to fix itself — and if so, where would you start — or is it, in your opinion, fundamentally flawed?


One thought on “AMERICAN COUNTERINSURGENCY, by Roberto J. González (U. Chicago Press, 2009)

  1. I’m looking forward to reading Gonzalez’s work, but I do take exception with part of the publisher’s description, which reads “Some claim that counterinsurgency is so sophisticated and effective that it is the “graduate level of war.”” This claim is not based on perception of effectiveness of counterinsurgency, but the difficulty of counterinsurgency. Not only must those fighting insurgents fully understand and perform the mechanics of combat, but they have to operate in an environment that soldiers may find counter-intuitive. Normally their mission is to kill a uniformed enemy, but in counterinsurgency the use of force may actually create more enemies. Finding the balance necessary in the use of lethal violence is difficult, even impossible.

    Add the difficulty in identifying the enemy, understanding radically different cultures, religions, and languages, and protecting your own personnel to counterinsurgency certainly makes it seem like a more difficult and challenging type of warfare than the already difficult conventional warfare. On top of these challenges, soldiers are asked to build roads, hospitals, and schools, protect the populace from violence, and deal with the negative actions of their predecessors.

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