Zombie Humanitarians: It’s Obama’s Human Terrain System Now

A believer in the forms of sorcery commonly associated with Haiti should be forgiven for thinking that the souls of miscreant, anti-communal academics had been captured by the Pentagon and bottled up in military uniforms, resulting in the creation of zombies. Like the so-called living dead, the Human Terrain System keeps coming back from the grave, the grave that it has dug for itself among anthropologists, and the graves it has dug for three of its own researchers (who are periodically resusicated in the media — more on this in the next post — so they can serve an eternity of servitude for HTS, when their whole lives will be known only by their last place of employment). Who is the chief sorcerer, the bokor, of this program? For a while, some of us would have said Montgomery McFate, but the chief sorcerer here is really none other than Papa Doc Obama (dubbed “No Drama Obama” by those who have been captivated by the man’s utter elocutionary blandness, simply because it is spoken with pompous conviction — he obviously blew the powder in their faces).

In a recent article in CounterPunch, David Price wrote: “I am left to wonder how Barak Obama’s mother, anthropologist Ann Dunham would have reacted to her son’s reliance on such clearly unethical anthropological means to achieve political ends so aligned with neocolonialist goals of occupation and subjugation?” Seemingly in response, another anthropologist essentially suggested that Dunham might not have reacted as negatively as one might think, having herself served as an anthropological agent of American foreign policy (see “HTS and Barack Obama’s Mother: Whose ‘Anthropology’?“).

The point I wish to make is that it serves little purpose appealing to Obama’s dead mother or to demand answers from the elusive and selectively taciturn McFate: the program’s continued existence, indeed its very incorporation into the Pentagon structure (HTS personnel are no longer employees of BAE Systems, but are now government employees), and the promised expansion of the program, should tell us that ultimate responsibility lies at the top. This is Obama’s Human Terrain System. The newest war president has taken responsibility for the latest poison in his war chest of imperial sorcery, placing it right next to the toxic marine toad (Stanley A. McChrystal), the puffer fish (John Nagl), and the tree frog (David Petraeus). The final ingredient in the bokor’s tetrodotoxin is human remains, and here too HTS has its own in-house supply.

One of Obama’s objectives, in apparently embracing counterinsurgency, another zombie (this one brought back from the grave of Vietnam — it has been a while since people have seen it wandering the neighbourhood and scavenging on bags of government cash, so they think it is “new”). Obama is intent on not just widening the war from Afghanistan to Pakistan (as we see with his mercilessly shoving the Pakistani government into civil war, along with incessant missile attacks with U.S. air drones, the combined result being the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians), he is also intent on Americanizing the war (with increased U.S. military forces now rivaling the total size of all NATO forces in Afghanistan), and civilianizing it. As the Boston Globe reported on 27 March 2009:

Obama’s plan will also expand a controversial program that sends social scientists to counsel the military on local customs and support counterinsurgency operations, two senior military officials said yesterday. The expansion of the so-called “human terrain teams,” which hire cultural anthropologists and other academics to help in the war effort, is likely to bring a mixed reaction. Anthropologists have protested that cooperation with military operations violates their code of ethics, and some analysts say the program has limited value, since it has trouble finding academics with deep knowledge of Afghanistan’s languages and culture.

This expansion is described as part of a “civilian surge“:

…military officials say the social scientist teams – which will increase from six to at least nine – are part of a “civilian surge” that will build up necessary institutions in the country and help the fledgling central government extend its authority to rural Taliban strongholds. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Mexico yesterday that Obama is proposing “an integrated military-civilian strategy,” and that the effective use of civilian trainers, aid workers, technical assistance is critical to success. It was not clear last night how many civilian advisers Obama will propose.

Overall, the immediate plan is to increase the number of U.S. civilians serving in Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy by 50%, to more than 900 (source).

Ironically, the Boston Globe article tells us the following towards the end:

…military officials say they have worked hard in recent years to come up with creative programs that can win the population’s trust, crucial to any effective counterinsurgency strategy. The human terrain program has become a cornerstone of that effort.

One would think that the fact that Afghans blew up one of the researchers and torched the other would have led even American journalists to be more hesitant about associating HTS with winning hearts and minds.

Then again, do HTS researchers really ever die, or do they come back as zombified media reruns?

10 thoughts on “Zombie Humanitarians: It’s Obama’s Human Terrain System Now

  1. Andros

    The way I look at the HTS is influenced by my area of expertise, but had the Wehrmacht employed competent and motivated anthropologists during the early part of the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, I believe the severity and damage of the occupations in the Ukraine and Baltic states would have been much less. Better? I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of the war and any conciliatory moves by the Germans would have been repaid when the Soviets came back, but yes, probably net-net fewer civilians would have been killed in 1940-1943.

    Before this goes down a Godwin’s Law path, I’m not advocating, but merely stating there would have been a military benefit for the invading army to have that resource. What does this have to do with Bushitler? If you’re going to invade a country, may be efforts to improve the army’s understanding is an unqualified improvement over sending an army in anyway without any understanding…

    1. Alex

      >had the Wehrmacht employed competent and motivated anthropologists during the early part of the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, I believe the severity and damage of the occupations in the Ukraine and Baltic states would have been much less

      I’m not sure what kind of motivation would these motivated Nazi anthropologists provide to the Eastern Europeans in light of Generalplan Ost that stipulated the extermination of the majority of the Ukranians, Belarusians, and Russians.


      1. Maximilian Forte

        …yes, but could they have made that extermination “better” and more culturally informed? (No, I am not being serious — thanks for the comment and visit, Alex.)

    2. Ben

      Btw, the Nazis DID employ anthropologists and ethnologists to work on several “issues” concerning their “expansion-politics” in Eastern Europe as early as the late 1930s. The well known anthropologists Wilhelm Emil Mühlmann, for example, or Hans Findeisen were in close contact to Himmlers “Reichskommissariat für die Festigung Deutschen Volkstums” , which was supposed to enforce politics of an ethnical cleansing of Eastern Europe. Mühlmann worked together with Alfred Rosenberg (later “Reichsminister for the Occupied Eastern Territories”) and actively contributed to several state-committees in charge of “solving the problem” of the Eastern Europe’s multi-ethnic population, i.e. finding ways to restructure the landscape in ethnical terms. These studies included the “Assimilation” and “Umvolkung” of the populations in the occupied/annexed territories – assuming an ethnic re-structuring of the regions according to Nazi-racial-ideologies such as G. Teich’s “Scheinvölker” (something like “fake-peoples” ) – definition and Konrad Meyer’s “Generalplan Ost” (see above).

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks Andros, and before you start thinking that I am about to light a torch, let me say that I think I understand the constructive angle from which you are taking this. My only reservation is this: I think that you may be combining both invasion and counterinsurgency into one phenomenon. I am not sure about the historical references either — I thought the concept of “blitzkrieg” was about maximizing damage to the enemy, and “shock and awe” is not so different. I am not sure that either of these require or even desire a cultural understanding of the country — indeed, the US Air Force has no apparent relationship with HTS in Afghanistan, and it continues to do some of the worst damage possible in terms of killing large numbers of innocent civilians.

    That HTS may provide better cultural understanding is indeed one of the program’s sales pitches. I don’t think that it does offer such understanding, and in any event, offering it to soldiers while B-1’s continue to drop 500 pound bombs on homes seems to underscore that HTS in itself is meant more as propaganda for the war.

    1. Bob Bateman


      The original “blitzkrieg” idea (quotes intentional because the Germans never actually used that term at the time; it was apparently coined by Time magazine) was not necessarily focused on destruction, although that was its mechanical tool; it was more about moving so much faster than your opponent that they were completely out-maneuvered, and optimally forced to give up long before their resources were put to the test. (This only makes sense if you understand how deeply rooted the concept was in the German experience of WWI.)

      But you are mostly correct in drawing the parallel with the airpower based concept of “shock and awe,” at least as its designers believed it could/should work. They thought that they could do the same thing with bombs, almost exclusively.

      Bob Bateman

      1. Maximilian Forte

        Thanks very much Bob for those notes, interesting ones at that.

        I was curious to know if you are writing anywhere about COIN, or is that not one of your main interests? Nothing intended here, I know that you are a historian, but I wanted to know if this would fit within the scope of your research.

      2. Bob Bateman


        No, you know what, it was never something that interested me academically. On the professional side (my military side I mean) it’s something in which I’ve obviously been deeply involved in at a personal level, and I try to read every single thing I can, but I haven’t written on the topic, not as a military theoretician anyway. I’ve tried a little (hence that list), but never got my mind around something that I thought would help anybody, or when I did have an idea, somebody else had already written on the topic. Indeed, if anything my intellectual talents (such as they are) are inclined to counter-punching. So, when the COIN crowd goes too far, I puncture some of their stuff. Same with the Anti-COIN crowd.

        The strange thing is that I am friends with both all of the “COINdinistas”, as well as those who are opposed (Gian Gentile, for example). So I’m often the one, in private, via e-mail or whatever, who tries to calm both sides when their wars of words become too personal. Except for Ralph Peters. Ralph is a friend too, but he’s both too far to the right (politically) for my tastes and too enamoured or real honest-to-god jingoism, for me to talk him down off a ledge. We therefore usually confine our discussions to history, and then we don’t even get into the 20th Century at all.)

        Bob Bateman

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