The Human Terrain System: Undermining the Military, Antagonizing Academics

No, this is not an (anti-imperialist) “rant” as one conservative blogger recently wrote in characterizing this blog, but rather the conclusion arrived at by a Major in the United States Marine Corps, Benn Connable, writing in the latest issue of the Military Review:

Connable, Ben. (2009). All our eggs in a broken basket: How the Human Terrain System is undermining sustainable military cultural competence. Military Review, March-April: 57–64.

There is no need for my narration here, although a selection (and thus editing) of some key points (from my perspective) is tantamount to narration. Readers should therefore consult the original source in its entirety, these notes and quotes are, as always, here primarily for my future ease of reference. The headings, however, are my own, as are the emphases in bold lettering.

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HTS damages relationships with academia:

“Moreover, the practice of deploying academics to a combat zone may undermine the very relationships the military is trying to build, or more accurately rebuild, with a social science community that has generally been suspicious of the U.S. military since the Viet Nnam era” (58)

“Each human terrain team fields at least one civilian social scientist. In recruiting these social scientists for active military operations, the program staff has widened a long-existing schism between academics willing to work with the military and those who are not. The HTS program has provided groups like the Network of Concerned Anthropologists a legitimate target in their efforts to prevent social scientists from supporting the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan” (63).

“Members of this network and others contend that the civilians on HTT are violating academic ethical standards. These standards are in many ways akin to the Hippocratic Oath: field researchers are restricted from disturbing or harming the subject of their studies. Academic critics of HTS see social scientists wearing military uniforms, carrying weapons, and providing direct input to combat staffs that may use the information to apply deadly force” (64).

“Whether the criticisms or comparisons are legitimate is irrelevant; the controversy is real, and it degrades the ability of patriotic social scientists who help the military through less controversial means. Many cultural anthropologists working with the military have been ostracized by their academic peers as a result of HTS blowback” (64)

[Open Anthropology is proud to serve as part of the HTS blowback campaign.]

We do not need you, we already do culture:

“The other side of the debate, represented by the advocates of the Human Terrain System (HTS), calls for an immediate solution in the form of non-organic personnel, new equipment, and the direct application of external academic support. HTS essentially adds a quick-fix layer of social science expertise and contracted reachback  capability to combatant staffs. This “build a new empire” proposal is based on the assumption that staffs are generally incapable of solving complex cultural problems on their own” (57).

“The HTS approach is inconsistent with standing doctrine and ignores recent improvements in military cultural capabilities. American military staffs have proven capable of using cultural terrain to their advantage in the small wars of the early 20th century, in Viet Nam, and contrary to common wisdom, in Aafghanistan and Iraq” (57-58).

“By doctrine, mission, and organization, the U.S. military is mandated to train and maintain organic cultural expertise. Staffs are required to conduct training in the navigation of cultural terrain. Cultural information is inextricably linked to the intelligence process. Reachback centers do exist and are actively supporting combat operations. There is no justification to support a, “we fight wars, we need to pay someone to do culture.” Despite the initial failures of poorly trained military personnel to “do culture” there is no valid, systemic requirement for nonorganic personnel or equipment” (59-60).

Redundancies, overlaps, misrepresentations of military operations:

“According to the [HTS’ own] website, the [Civil Affairs] CA staff is responsible for “developing, coordinating, and executing plans to positively influence target populations to support the commanders’ objectives, and to minimize the negative impact of military operations on civilian populations and interference by civilians during combat operations.” officers “provide technical expertise, advice, and assistance on FN/HN [foreign nation/host nation] social and cultural matters.” This doctrinal description almost directly mirrors the claimed capabilities of an HTS human terrain team” (61).

“According to the 15 July 2008 HTS briefing, the HTT is staffed by at least two officers or enlisted soldiers with FAO [Foreign Area Officers], CA, [Civil Affairs] Special Forces, or intelligence backgrounds. The team is led by an experienced combat arms officer. Why is it necessary to create a separate program, costing (at a minimum) tens of millions of dollars, to assign these personnel to the very staffs at which they were trained to serve? What do the Human Terrain Team FAO and officer bring to the table that organic and CA officers do not? If HTS can find these qualified officers, why can’t the U.S. military services?” (61).

“As early as 2004, the First Marine Division held regular tribal councils and established a ‘graybeard’ board of disgruntled former Iraqi general officers. Provincial reconstruction teams and infantry battalions often attend and support loya jurga meetings in Afghanistan. Without input from the Human Terrain System reachback cells, FAOs, CAofficers, and PSYOPS officers have been actively engaging with local leadership and proposing culturally savvy solutions since the onset of the war” (62).

“One quote published on the HTS ‘impact’ webpage stands out. Rreferring to the local populace, an Army brigade operations officer states, “We don’t ask them about their needs—paratroopers just don’t think that way.” By prominently displaying this quotation, the program managers imply that this officer’s inability to understand or execute simple counterinsurgency tactics is typical” (62)

HTS does damage to, or does not serve long-term military needs:

“Post-9/11 joint doctrine pounds away at the solution to the systemic weaknesses identified in cultural training, education, and intelligence: Soldiers, Marines, and combatant staffs must become cultural-terrain experts. Cultural terrain considerations must be closely woven into the full spectrum of military training and operations. excessive focus the Department of Defense (DOD) has placed on the extraordinarily expensive Human Terrain System has, and may continue to come, at the expense of precisely those long-term programs that will develop this mandated, comprehensive level of expertise” (58)

“The HTS program has attempted to create its own contracted reachback capability in the form of an expensive cell at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This cell provides feedback to HTTs but is incapable of providing cultural support to the full range of deployed forces around the world. Despite this demonstrated limitation of capability, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI) has seriously considered the HTS reachback cell as the best solution to provide cultural support to combat staffs” (63).

HTS is stuck between conflicting purposes:

“The civilian academic, the military cultural experts, and the leader of the team serve as special advisors to the brigade commander, providing a separate stream of data and advice that in theory is not “polluted” by the intelligence cycle. This separation makes it easier for the managers to sell the terrain team to academia and to recruit social scientists. If HTS is not related to military intelligence, then the fraught concept of applied academics seems more palatable” (59).

“The progenitors of took a requirement that called for a comprehensive and sustainable solution-train combat units to navigate the cultural terrain-and instead created a costly quick-fix response to an immediate need. That response relied heavily on nonorganic technology and contracted support. In theory, could have addressed the perceived immediate need while the services addressed the long-term programs. In effect, the fundamental flaws in the HTS concept put the system at cross-purposes with the services’ short-term goals and future needs” (59).

“The HTS team’s response to the cultural intelligence failures of the early war period was to argue that cultural information is generally unclassified and is best processed by academic researchers. This proposed solution ignores the fact that the intelligence staff is, by doctrine, specifically designated to collect and analyze cultural data. The inference that cultural information is inherently unclassified shows a clear lack of appreciation for the contemporary operating environment” (63).

What is a solution?

“The alternative to deploying academics into combat theaters is to enlist their support in training and educating our staff officers. In this role they do not risk endangering their research subjects, provide no direct input into targeting cycles, and they do not provide antimilitary elements within their own community any substantial ammunition with which to undermine the military-academic relationship. Keeping them in an academic setting will help build an untarnished and sustainable relationship” (64).

It is time for HTS to go:

“HTS has sapped the attention or financing from nearly every cultural program in the military and from many within the military intelligence community. The human terrain teams have given a number of staff officers an excuse to ignore a complex and challenging training requirement. We have been at war for eight years. When do the ‘quick fix’ solutions give way to long-term, doctrinally sound programs? It is time for HTS to give way” (64).


19 thoughts on “The Human Terrain System: Undermining the Military, Antagonizing Academics

  1. Pamthropologist

    Forgot. Did I mention I am an American? According to the deterioration in the comments section of your last post, I take it that I am supposed to rant at you for your sense of smug Canadian superiority. I just hate it when I can’t conform to stereotype. Do you suppose I coud make some rude comments about Celine Dion and, thereby, retain my citizenship?

  2. Major Scarlet

    this Major put very little thought in to this scholarly work. As i was reading, i couldn’t help but internally answer all his questions very easily. so easily that it seems to me he constructed the questions as a to attack the HTTs in an effort to kill them. it is amateurish at best. there are many reasons we can’t staff HTTs internally and the biggest reasons are a lack of personnel because we are understrength and other missions have priority, it takes time and training to make a good anthropologist (not just someone that is culturally sensitive), not every soldier “gets it” contrary to his claim, and lastly, FAOs are critically undermanned. Geez, what a shoddy piece of work.

  3. Major Scarlet

    I’m only here temporarily. I’m stationed in Oklahoma. Going to Iraq next week. I sent an email to the Military Review with a more detailed analysis of this article and what I thought was wrong with it. I also emailed someone I know at UFMCS and he saide this was the first he had heard of this issue. I was surprised because he works with the HTT team daily.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much for your response. In the event that MR, for whatever reason (and it need not be a negative one) chooses not to print your analysis of the article, would you be willing to post it somewhere where we can read it?

      1. Maximilian Forte

        I forgot to ask: do you think the FAOs are undermanned because the DoD has been giving too much of its business to private contractors, at much greater expense, rather than devoting its budget to enhancing its own internal resources? It seemed to me that the so-called “nationalization” of HTS that was recently announced (I think Connable’s article was written before that news) was meant, in part, to deal with that problem of contracting.

  4. Major Scarlet

    FAO is undermanned because the basic branches can’t afford to let their officers go and do FAO assignments. I was a Korean FAO but I’ve never done the job. This has been a problem since the early 2000’s and is only getting worse.

    Based on what my contact at UFMCS told me, the early days of hiring contractors didn’t go well. there was no vetting process. consequently, some were hired and caused real problems. he seems to think that problem is gone and the reputation of the HTS will improve with time.

    i only did a mini-review (because there were so many logical fallacies it made my brain hurt) of the article but if i find some time today i’ll cut and paste the email here. bottom line up front, the article was very one sided, narrow minded, and insular. The author demonstrated that we still have a problem with critical thinking and an inability to think outside of the box.

  5. Major Scarlet

    My review. I got an email response from them today telling me that the article will be listed on their blog and inviting me to comment.

    Military Review “All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket”

    The title says it all. This is going to be an article attacking
    HTT/HTS. Got it. The author, a FAO, wrote this hit piece from the
    perspective of a FAO. It was self serving by making the case that
    people like the author should be employed in the fight instead of
    HTT/HTS’s and it was illogical in calling for “Soldiers, Marines, and
    combatant staffs must become cultural-terrain experts”. Simple
    question… why? Why must these people become “experts”? How do you
    define “expert”? Do you think it is feasible to spend the time, effort,
    and money to train this group since they are already trained to do a
    different job (unlike the FAO author). How many cultures are you going
    to become expert in? The author cherry picked situations and facts in a
    way that he wove a tale about the war that is a shell of the complexity
    of what really happened. While I agree with the 3 shortcomings he
    addressed in the section “Addressing the Capability Gap” the author left
    out one important detail. Many units simply didn’t want to do these
    things even in the face of the successes of other units doing it right.
    As late as 2006, I mobilized a unit to go to Iraq and all they trained
    on was kicking in doors. Like it or not, this mentality is ingrained
    into an entire generation of military people. Some people get it and
    others don’t. It takes time, money (something the author seemed overly
    concerned about), and a certain kind of soldier to “get it”. The
    program may have some flaws but

    I found this article so lacking in context, intellectual honesty, and
    logic that it made my brain hurt to read it.

  6. Bob Bateman


    A couple of things on this one. First, as I pointed out on another area of your site, the military has many professional and even some quasi-academic journals, the best of which not only encourage but actively solicit internal expert criticism about all aspects of military operations. In rank order, with regard to degree of professional introspection each supports, I’d rate the Army and USMC at the top, followed by the Navy, then the Air Force. (Sorry, I have little respect for the quality of writing or thought which comes from USAF sources. Mostly they write propaganda and then add footnotes.)

    Second, and as a byproduct of the first, the military is (no doubt ironically from your POV) one of the few places where one will find a true Hegelian dialectic constantly churning, in the open, supported by the institution.

    Third (although this has been partially answered already), in the Army, and to a lesser degree in the Marines, there are only a set number of “Basic Branches” into which one is commissioned. So, for example, I am an infantryman. My career has been controlled by the “Branch Manager” of this branch. Another officer might be a tanker, or an artilleryman, or a quartermaster. The point is that these are “BASIC” branches.

    Now what happens is that there are some functions in the military for which we need a lot of young officers, but fewer and fewer as they age. Think of a pyramid. Each infantry battalion needs about 20-25 lieutenants, but only seven or eight captains, just two majors, and only one lieutenant colonel.

    But there are other fields that need more senior officers, and zero junior officers. Things like Comptrollers (for which the Army sends you off for an MBA), or professors at West Point, or Strategists, or…FAOs. But because these cost so much (all of these fields come with the educational requirement that the assigned officer will get an MA or PhD in the appropriate field), they’re often underfunded and/or undermanned.

    So the critique of Connable’s article is valid. But then so are some parts (not all, IMO) of Connable’s.

    Bob Bateman

  7. Maximilian Forte

    This is what Major Connable said in response to various criticisms, including some of the above, on the blog post for the article at MILITARY REVIEW:

    I suppose that as a Marine I should be happy I made so many heads hurt with mere words! Since I wrote this article to encourage some sorely lacking debate on the subject of HTS, I’ll try to address Major Dabney’s and Charles Wellington’s remarks.

    Both have isolated the following statement: “Soldiers, Marines, and combatant staffs must become cultural-terrain experts.” The quote has been both misread and taken out of context. I know all too well what it takes to become a cultural expert and no, I do not want to see our soldiers and Marines become “cultural experts” or, for that matter, cultural anthropologists. In fact, I have been arguing against such bizarre proposals for six years. Both the Major and the Doctor are absolutely right in asserting such a goal is laughable rather than laudable.

    I said, “cultural-terrain experts.” The difference is significant. A cultural terrain expert is as good at reading cultural terrain as he or she is at reading physical terrain. In my article I urge the services to, “view the cultural terrain as a co-equal element of military terrain—without abandoning core warfighting capabilities.” The key points are two-fold: the skill set is generic, not specific, and no more time is dedicated to training cultural skills than is dedicated to training physical terrain reading skills (many equate cultural-terrain reading with map reading).

    As a former company commander I am familiar with the finite nature of training time. Therefore, I believe the best cultural training is woven into existing training, just as the Marines have done at 29 Palms, as the Army has done at Fort Leonard Wood, and as our professional military education houses are trying to do on limited budgets and schedules. I believe we can do still more within the confines of our training schedules if we learn how to make cultural training combat-relevant.

    Major Dabney asserts that many Soldiers and Marines will never “get it,” with the “it” being a culturally-savvy counterinsurgency outlook. That may be true but, I argue, all the more reason to try harder. Why try harder and not just give in to the door-kicking, shoot-‘em-all mentality at the core of all good warfighters? If the lessons of 2003-2006 in Iraq are not sufficient evidence, then how about: because the counterinsurgency manual penned by General Petreus, the widely recognized guru of modern counterinsurgency, tells us we have to.

    Here I’ll respond to Major Dabney’s personal comments and some of the unpublished emails from various lists floating around. I do so in order to help deflate the ad hominem attacks so we can continue honest debate. As for being a FAO and a former Marine Corps cultural intelligence manager, I plead guilty. Of course, I plead guilty in the short bio on the first page of the article, hiding nothing. “Broken Basket” was an opinion article and does not reflect the official position of the United States Marine Corps. As of 2007 I no longer represented any cultural program in the Marine Corps. As a certified FAO with three combat tours and an attaché posting I feel I have gotten my money’s worth and have no way to benefit from increased FAO funding (that is especially true since I am retiring this year). I do not dislike HTS because it is an Army program: I have opposed HTS since it was a joint program (COR) under the J-3 IED Defeat office and during the following years through 2007 when it was sold as a joint program. I am personal friends with Dr. Montgomery McFate and I have tremendous respect for her fortitude and for the courage of the HTT members deployed to combat zones. If all that can be put aside I’m interested in continuing debate.

  8. Maximilian Forte

    John Stanton’s reply on the same blog post as the above comment by Connable:

    I’ve mentioned this before in other fora: there are 33 sources that have contacted me over a 15 article period: active, retired, new beard/gray beard, in Conus, in theater, in program/out of program. It’s really their story, not mine.

    If, indeed, 33 people have been kicked out of the HTS program-as you imply–because they are disgruntled or were incompetent, then that stands as a damning indictment, from top to bottom, of a relatively small Pentagon program.

    Getting beyond the vindictive here, we are in good measure looking at public administration/program management matters/interdisciplinary studies/situational awareness theory. The case should be made to, as Colin Gray noted recently, that the rush to COIN and Cultural Awareness should be tempered.

    I have made a number of suggestions in the articles I’ve written over the past nine months that mirror those in Major Connable’s recent article. In one case, I cite the ideas of Major Kevin Burke, USA, Fort Bragg, CA, and recommend his thesis as one option for inspiration to move past/restructure what is clearly a crippled HTS program. Dozen’s w/interest in HTS requested copies of that document from in and out of the Pentagon and contractor/academic community. I also suggested that the military adopt community policing models rather than invoking Genesis, and rectifying foundational problems that deal with the exclusion of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience/psychology, human behavior. I broached these matters–and inter/intra service cultural matters in a brief at the UK Defence Academy a year ago.

    Does that make me an expert? No.

    I will weigh in with a no “sources say” article in a professional journal at some point in the future.

    In the meantime, it’d be helpful to keep focused the core issues and corrective action here rather than get infected by the current HTS program’s many legal and ethical troubles.

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  10. Jonagthan Stensland

    What is most striking is that there can be a debate at the academic level: terrorism is 95% human terrain warfare, or cultural terrain warfare–with only a small smear of physical terrain impacts. The bottom-line seems to be, that we are severely lacking in real human terrain weaponry and implements.
    That there is not a doctrine in the works right now at DOD on developing a nearly pure form of human terrain warfare would be absurd–yet, granted, possible. How are we doing there?
    The weapons in cultural terrain warfare are not going to be physical lead, gold and plutonium, but cultural lead, gold and plutonium.
    We have no cultural atom-bomb or neutron bomb or even a simply bullet. When it comes to cultural terrain warfare, the hollow backside of our “way of life” is suddenly exposed–that American Culture produces very little real substance.
    Naturally, then, the academic community splits so easily into sides in a debate: that is all they can do, lacking cultural substance, lacking the content that collides with the cultural core of human beings.
    We all bleed real blood when hit with physical lead, fired out of the barrel of a riffle–where is the psycho-cultural equivalent to that lead? In cultural terrain warfare, bleeding is not physical but psychical–and equally real–but we have yet to even start working this stuff out.
    Our sacred “way of life” is our greatest weakness in confronting global terror because it systematically blinds us to the laws of conflict on the ground. We are ceding the field of conflict without even realizing it. HTT or HTS is as close as we have gotten to actually keeping a toe in the real battle.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I am not sure that I understand this, because it is both confusing and confused. For example, you begin with the assumption that “culture” (whatever that is) can be somehow compared to “terrain,” which is the first conceptual flaw of HTS, in that it takes a static, reductionist and essentialist approach to human culture. More than that, it treats cultures as something to be stomped on, occupied, and managed. This may be a way of seeing the world that comes out of your “way of life”, but then you separate HTS from that way of life as if it emerged from…god knows where.

      Second, the assumption that academics take sides because they lack cultural substance, seems to be an entirely indefensible one. Not only does it not follow from “lacking cultural substance” but it also creates a third, impossible category: (1) little real cultural substance (American)…whatever this means; (2) by implication, “the enemy” has lots of real cultural substance; and, (3) academics, who have no culture. The question then is from where did these academics emerge and where do they reside that they can be so culture free?

      Third, if we take your points at face value, then you are left with a serious contradiction: what about the academics involved with creating, conceptualizing, and implementing HTS? By your own argument then they too lack any cultural substance and therefore are pre-determined failures in the face of “the enemy”. This is why I say your post is both confusing, and confused.

      Finally, about this so-called “cultural terrain warfare”…don’t get too wrapped up in the metaphors they use for their sales pitches. It is part of very real warfare, with very real bleeding. Let’s not get all “virtual” about this subject, it won’t work.

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  12. Anthrogeek

    Someone needs to explain the importance of fieldwork in anthropology to this guy. Training military professionals to understand the culture in a classroom is a good start, but you cannot possibly teach them every aspect of the culture in practice that may become important in a conflict situation. What’s worse is that military presence itself invariably alters the culture in a way that needs to be analyzed and explained anthropologically. Unfortunately, you need to have an anthropologist or cultural expert on the ground with you specifically for this reason (not just to inform officers how how the culture was, but also how it is adapting and changing, and what all of it means for how the conflict must progress).

    Personally, I don’t know how I feel about this. Just as much as soldiers aren’t anthropologists (trained to do ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation, or cultural analysis), anthropologists are not soldiers (trained in self defense, recognize signs of an IED, or operate a firearm). In order for this to work, they need someone who is able to do both and switch back and forth between mentalities as needed. I think anthropologists and military officers need to get together and brainstorm the practicalities of this.

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