David Price interviews Roberto González on the Human Terrain System

The interview below was reproduced with the permission of Dr. David Price, from CounterPunch (03 February 2009). In connection with this post, see also: AMERICAN COUNTERINSURGENCY, by Roberto J. González (U. Chicago Press, 2009)

Counterinsurgency, Anthropology and Disciplinary Complicity


During the spring and summer of 2007 word began circulating of a new military program designed to draw upon anthropological theory, field methods and personnel in theatres of military battles and occupation. As anthropologists’ concerns over the program grew, mainstream media outlets availed themselves for a cascade of fawning uncritical personality profiles and news pieces selling the American public on the idea that more culturally nuanced forms of military occupation would lead to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. While different branches of the military have a number of anthropologically informed programs, the Human Terrain System (HTS) has become the most visibly controversial program because of the ethical and political problems it creates (and ignores) by embedding social scientists with battlefield troops. Since it was conceived in 2006, the Pentagon has allocated nearly $200 million for HTS.

When the details of the HTS first became publicly known, Roberto González, associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University, wrote a series of articles appearing the Royal Anthropological Institute’s journal Anthropology Today, CounterPunch, and Z Magazine critically analyzing the political, ethical, and military problems with Human Terrain. González is a founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists and has been at the forefront of debates on Human Terrain within the American Anthropological Association (AAA). He has also introduced AAA resolutions denouncing the Iraq War and the use of anthropological knowledge for coercive interrogations and torture.

González’s book, American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, has just been published in Marshall Sahlins’s University of Chicago Press Prickly Paradigm Press series; it is a timely hard hitting critique of Human Terrain Systems and the dangers of social science subservient to counterinsurgency. This past week Professor González gave CounterPunch an exclusive interview.

David Price: How did you come to write American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain?

Roberto González: I decided to write “American Counterinsurgency” because I was concerned about growing connections between the military and the social sciences, and how these connections might threaten the lives of Iraqis, Afghans, and others. For more than two years, a group of military planners has been involved in a scheme to whitewash counterinsurgency — to clean up the image of anti-revolutionary warfare, which is always a dirty business. Even though the US military has more than a century of experience in counterinsurgency warfare (going back to the “Indian Wars” of the 1800s and the cruel campaign against Filipino revolutionaries in the early 1900s), General David Petraeus and other battlefield technicians have portrayed the method as a “gentler” means of fighting, while recruiting political scientists, anthropologists, and other social scientists to create the tools to do this. The Human Terrain System, which embeds social scientists in combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan, is among the most visible new counterinsurgency programs, and this became the focus of my work.

Price: Where did the idea of human terrain come from?

González: The idea of human terrain-euphemistically defined as the local population in a theater of war — is not a new concept. Although one could go back centuries to find similar metaphors, its contemporary roots stretch back to 1968, when it appeared in a report by the infamous US House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC. (HUAC was responsible for witch hunts of suspected communists during the 1950s.) The report was about the perceived threat of the Black Panther Party and similar groups within the US, and it warned that such militants “possess the ability to seize and retain the initiative through a superior control of the human terrain.” From the beginning, discussions of human terrain were linked to social control in the context of domestic counterinsurgency. Keep in mind that all of this was happening as the FBI’s nefarious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) — which brutally repressed political dissent within the US — was in full gear.

The human terrain concept resurfaced decades later, in 2000, when retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters — a hard-boiled neoconservative pundit who advocates using American armed forces for a “cultural assault” upon non-Western societies — published an influential article that was circulated widely. In the article, Peters argued that in urban combat operations, “human terrain. . .the people, armed and dangerous. . .will determine the success or failure of the intervention.” Over the next several years, Peters’ ideas spread quickly and eventually entered the military’s lexicon. The Human Terrain System cleverly incorporated the term, perhaps in order to capitalize on the buzzword’s popularity within military circles.

Price: This history linking notions of human terrain with social control and suppression of domestic political movements strikes me as being very different from normal anthropological research undertakings designed to understand rather than control or subvert other cultures. How does this past history of human terrain as tool to suppress domestic political movements align with Human Terrain Systems today and with normal anthropological research or practice standards?

González: Today’s HTS program is aligned with past incarnations of human terrain in at least two ways. First of all, it is clear from early descriptions of HTS (published mostly in military journals) that its architects envisioned it as an intelligence-gathering program along the lines of Vietnam War-era efforts such as the US Army’s CORDS (short for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). An essential part of CORDS was the collection of ethnographic data on Vietnamese civilians, which was then passed on to paramilitaries working for Operation Phoenix, a secret branch of CORDS. As a result, the paramilitaries eventually assassinated more than 26,000 Vietnamese with alleged ties to the Viet Cong. If we take descriptions of HTS seriously, then political suppression of Iraqis and Afghans appears as a very real possibility.

Another similarity between HTS and the 1960s human terrain concept has to do with its uses as a tool for suppressing domestic dissent. HTS supporters from John McCain and Robert Gates on down have used it as a way demonstrating to Americans that we’re involved in a culturally sensitive occupation. It offers us the illusion that we’re fighting a kinder, gentler war, a war that we can feel good about supporting. I think it’s revealing that HTS — though still an experimental program — has employed a well-connected, full-time public relations specialist to help groom this public image. Dozens of puff pieces have appeared in the corporate media, which has had the effect of winning over liberals who might otherwise be opposed to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Using anthropologists for these kinds of objectives — for political suppression and propaganda purposes — runs completely against normal anthropological research practices. For many years, American anthropology has typically been used as a means of understanding other societies, not as a way of controlling them more efficiently. It’s useful to think of anthropology as a field that is similar in many ways to the fields of medicine or psychology. The knowledge in each of these fields can be used responsibly, in ways that improve the human condition, human health, human self-awareness. But the same knowledge can be used to harm people, to make their lives more miserable rather than better.

Price: In reading public statements and published articles from Human Terrain personnel and leaked documents like the recently surfaced Human Terrain Manual I’m struck by the crude efforts to harness specific forms of anthropological theory for the program. It seems that the program only wants to use certain types of anthropological theories and methods; what do you see as the key elements of Human Terrain System’s efforts to apply anthropological theory?

González: HTS personnel tend to use outdated anthropological concepts, theories, and methods, mostly from the 1930s and 1940s. For example, Montgomery McFate (the Pentagon’s senior social science advisor for HTS) has recently published articles and given presentations in which she relies heavily upon the concept of “tribalism,” functionalist theory, and data collection methods developed for the Human Relations Area Files. Others have sought to incorporate social network analysis as a research method. Each of these elements was either created or elaborated at a time when many anthropologists were employed by colonial governments to more effectively control indigenous populations. It’s no accident that these are precisely the tools advocated by HTS’s architects.

In the past, when military planners and colonial administrators sought the counsel of anthropologists, they looked for a social science stripped of ambiguity, meaning, and context. They wanted simple analytical tools that might help them accomplish short-term objectives: to put down an uprising, to manufacture propaganda, to conduct psychological warfare, to divide one ethnic group or religious sect against another. Today, anthropologists commissioned by the Pentagon as counterinsurgency consultants use the same tools as instruments for manipulation and social control-not as a means of humanizing other people. Some of this work is published in army journals with titles like, “The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture” and “Operational Culture for the Warfighter.” These kinds of articles tell us a great deal about a principal aim of militarized social science: transforming culture into a weapon.

Price: There are indications that AFRICOM is interested in using Human Terrain, or Human Terrain-type programs. What is your read on how the Obama Administration will approach Human Terrain Systems or other efforts to adopt cultural forms of “soft power” to control and occupy other cultures?

González: Recently, a military contract firm called Archimedes Global posted a recruitment ad for “socio-cultural cell” members within the newly-established AFRICOM (US African Command). The ad calls for specialists with “human terrain” expertise, among others. It’s a clear example of how human terrain has become a much broader phenomenon, now embraced by the military, industries, and research universities. Beyond the army’s HTS program, human terrain has become a growth industry.

After Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, there was a boom in funding for projects focused on human terrain research and “culture-centric” warfare, and this attracted dozens of companies from the military-industrial complex — BAE Systems, Aptima Corporation, MITRE, the RAND Corporation, Wexford Group, MTC Technologies, NEK Advanced Securities Group, and Alpha Ten to name a few. Unfortunately, President Obama has asked Gates — a staunch supporter of HTS — to continue serving as Defense Secretary, while simultaneously calling for an escalation of the Afghanistan war. I think that HTS and similar programs are likely to flourish as long as the US military continues to occupy other countries.

Price: The journalist John Stanton has written a detailed series of investigative reports indicating widespread financial mismanagement, lack of accountability and programmatic conditions indicative of a military-contract-without-accountability gone wild. Last month, the British journal Nature reversed its earlier support for Human Terrain Systems and called for an end of the Human Terrain program. While most anthropologists and even members of the intelligence community have come to recognize Human Terrain as a rogue program, do you foresee either the ethical, political or financial problems bringing any sort of investigation to Human Terrain Systems?

González: A great deal of evidence points to extreme waste and fraud in the Human Terrain System — something that is typical of many other Pentagon programs farmed out to military contractors. Former HTS employees told me that millions of dollars were routinely wasted on ineffective and inadequate training exercises, useless software programs, and incompetent staff members. They reported that an expensive “Reachback Research Center” located at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas was rarely used for research, but instead functioned as a warehouse for employees who weren’t “deployable assets.” Zenia Helbig, a former employee of the program, has stated that “the program is desperate to hire anyone or anything that remotely falls into the category or ‘academic’.” To make matters worse, HTS has not had any independent reviews or assessments. In fact, the only assessments that have been conducted were carried out by evaluation teams consisting of people with a vested interest in the program’s continuation.

Despite this overwhelming evidence pointing to a program run amok, the US Congress has not shown much interest in investigating HTS. In fact, when a joint session of the House Armed Services and Science Committees held hearings in April 2008 to discuss the Human Terrain System and other social science programs, House representatives did not ask Steve Fondacaro (director of HTS) any tough questions. Since that time, three HTS social scientists — Michael Bhatia, Nicole Suveges, and Paula Loyd — have been killed in action, an HTS employee has been charged with murder for a revenge killing in Afghanistan, and yet another has been charged with espionage. These scandals, along with persistent pressure from academic groups, may yet lead to HTS’s demise. But remember that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been a staunch supporter of HTS and counterinsurgency warfare, and he will continue his term as a member of the Obama administration. We can’t rely on the new administration to bring an end to these programs. It will be left to citizens of conscience to demand the abolition of human terrain teams-and the imperial wars that employ them.

David Price is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologist.  He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, just published by Duke University Press. He can be reached at dprice@stmartin.edu

Roberto J. González is author of American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2008) and Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca (University of Texas Press, 2001). He can be reached at roberto_gonzalez@netzero.net


3 thoughts on “David Price interviews Roberto González on the Human Terrain System

  1. Many of the atrocities of the past could have been prevented by way of the military and policy-makers having a greater cultural understanding of the peoples embroiled in those conflicts. Preventing the errors of the past can only be possible by bringing in experts in the social sciences to alert and advise.
    My personal experiences with the US military have been overwhelmingly positive. Their primary interest has always been how to keep from making things worse, and how to get from active fighting to peace ASAP. This truth may not sell as many articles, but it is fact.

    I cannot speak for others. I can only state that after tours as a senior advisor to US military command in both Afghanistan and Iraq (2006-2008), I am speaking from day to day experience, not assumption, not hearsay.
    I hope that the negative chatter over HTS die down and that attention gets redirected to where it belongs: the fact that there is a valuable role to play for anthropologists of conscience in conflict- mitigation and reconsiliation with the US military.

  2. I do not believe that you have understood the critiques, of which there have been many, from several different viewpoints, especially if you can (mis)characterize them as mere “negative chatter.” Much of what you are hinting at has nothing to do with stopping adventurist wars and wars of choice to begin with, but with refined targeting.

    As an anthropologist, allow me to disabuse you of certain notions: we don’t do targeting.

    If the wider world comes to think of anthropologists as tools of counterinsurgency, then the Human Terrain System will have not just been responsible for the three deaths of its own researchers, but will jeopardize the lives and certainly the reputation of all Western anthropologists who do fieldwork in areas of geo-strategic interest to the U.S. This is an extremely serious issue, and until you can get past that thin liberal gloss that you paint over the subject, we cannot have a productive discussion.

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