Video Propaganda: Human Terrain System on National Geographic

In terms of American mainstream media propaganda at the service of U.S. wars of occupation, and particularly favourable to the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, my vote for the most generous treatments, in descending order, are first the piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, second this prize in The Atlantic, third this recommendation to Obama in Wired, and fourth this Hollywood-styled production by National Geographic (shown above). National Geographic producing imperial imagery is nothing surprising to anthropologists. Here National Geographic embeds itself with the military, uses a Hollywood actor as a narrator (to lend greater credibility?), and touts the insights of counterinsurgency gurus such as Gen. David Petraeus and John Nagl (Center for a New American Security), who are almost the only other voices ever heard “explaining” to viewers the importance of what is shown. Petraeus shares his great wisdom with us: “I get asked by people all the time if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I say I’m a realist.” John Nagl explains how civilians are stuck between two opposing forces. To be sure, they are not both  equally alien and unwanted, or the U.S. would have won this one already–no matter, such commentary is absent from the piece.

The Human Terrain System’s “senior social scientist,” Montgomery McFate, not only appears in this production but is also one of National Geographic’s acknowledged sources of assistance (as if it was not obvious already). Col. Steve Fondacaro, HTS director, also makes several appearances. Their presence marks certain glaring absences, which makes this stand out as a propaganda video.

First, it is clear that HTS managers concocted a four-person Human Terrain Team solely for the purpose of the photo op with National Geographic, with Fondacaro and McFate dropped in to serve as half of the make believe team. We leave the video half expecting that McFate and Fondacaro remain in that village in Afghanistan, permanently holding meetings with elders and attending the vaccination of children as a way of inserting themselves. There is no sense that soon after, they would be off to Washington, to their desk jobs, or off to Paris. National Geographic mentions two of the Human Terrain Team members by name, and prints their names at the bottom of the screen (John Greene and Matthew Arnold)–but remains silent about who the other two “team members” are, McFate and Fondacaro, and therefore does not mention they are program managers, not even when Fondacaro speaks to the camera. I could not include the portion where McFate interviews two villagers about where they think the mortar that hit their home came from–she remains off camera, and National Geographic does not say who is speaking. Yet, there is ample time and indication when the two assigned HTT members, Greene and Arnold, speak. This would be like doing a documentary of a unit in Afghanistan, placing Petraeus as an actor, playing the role of one of the grunts, and never mentioning: he’s actually the General in charge. Needless to say, the two unmarked program managers answer no questions about the program.

Second, while Human Terrain Teams are celebrated by National Geographic, there is no mention of how they come at great expense. Therefore, there is no talk about what they cost for taxpayers, nor their cost in terms of deaths of their employees. Of course, the tightest-lipped, most regulated militarist propaganda is notorious for its avoidance of this taboo subject. Noting how many died might prompt viewers to say “what a waste” or to question the value of the effort. The preferred mode is either silence, or eulogy–questions not permitted, criticisms strictly prohibited. Another of the clear signs of the intentional propaganda purposes of this video.

Third, and perhaps as a means of countering the embarrassing results of embedded journalism gone astray such as this one, HTS clearly wanted to send the picture that it gets around, with great ease, and with massive protection. The video gives the impression that the U.S. Army provides 30 armed soldiers and 7 armoured vehicles, purely for the purposes of escorting HTS. No discussion of course of whether that might change how villagers respond to HTTs. The program thus remains both perfectly decontextualized, unproblematized, and beyond analysis. National Geographic’s action reporters remain strangely mute and almost invisible throughout. McFate and Fondacaro could not have controlled this more if they did their own HTS home movie.

Peter Coyote for his part does a great job here as a voice actor, dropping his voice low when the situation looks grim, aided by a musical score that sounds sweet when HTS is busy at work, sounding somber and foreboding when speaking of the Taliban or when an impending attack materializes.

“The insurgents,” official American code for the Afghan resistance, are all referred to as “the Taliban.” The Taliban, needless to say, are duly demonized as per instructions. The Taliban never speak (“Can’t talk…beheading”)–except for one case, in another striking demonstration of the failure of media (action journalists) to observe professional ethics, not to mention the Third Geneva Convention, in interviewing a Taliban prisoner held by Pakistani forces. Perhaps they are not even actual Taliban prisoners, or prisoners at all–maybe à la McFate-Fondacaro’s staged authenticity, the prisoner is actually the local police chief, anxious for some face time with the media.

Coming very close to my mocking suggestion of “Talibbean,” this film refers to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan as “Talibanistan.” We’re getting there. (Likewise, the border region between credibility and fantasy in this film is an area densely populated by American journalists, known as Kissassistan.)

This infomercial, of which the focus on the Human Terrain System is just a part, is understandably predictable, as an elite prop for imperial domination, and as a training video for what the producers hope are suitably passive audiences. The narrative is pure Marvel comic bookery–the Taliban are brutal, we have these great new strategies (winning hearts and minds and counterinsurgency, as old as colonialism itself), they are working, but if we fail–and here comes John Nagl at the end with a splendid doomsday scenario–the Taliban will march over Pakistan, take over the nuclear missiles, and you fill in the blanks (as you’ve been trained to do). “Game over, man! Game over!” (So, all you doubters, man up and strap on an air drone.)

And if you don’t believe just how extremely brutal and violent the Taliban are, this film will prove it to you once and for all: by showing you scenes of wanton destruction throughout Pakistan’s Swat Valley…except that even National Geographic, which blamed the Taliban solely for all of the destruction, later remarks briefly that Swat was the scene of intense violence as the Pakistani army ploughed into it to remove the Taliban. No comment on the Pakistani government fighting a war against its own people, on behalf of the U.S., or its raising new taxes from the population so as to better afford war against whole provinces. Meanwhile, while National Geographic shows splendid footage of Predator Drones, it offers not a single word about the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by drone strikes. The National Geographic team visits Bagram, but mentions nothing of the abused detainees held incommunicado there. The Taliban are just so very awful that they cause our memories to collapse, and reflections to disappear from our very mirrors.

In this authorized spectacle, the Human Terrain System wins, according to specifications. No Taliban are converted to the American side, but HTS certainly seems to have confirmed the status of National Geographic as one of the U.S. Army’s model villages.

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21 thoughts on “Video Propaganda: Human Terrain System on National Geographic

  1. It should be mentioned that HTS’s mission is not to “convert Taliban” to our side at least not directly. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have been extremely reluctant to negotiate with the Taliban openly so that any efforts at secret negotiations are generally undermined by other elements of the U.S. or NATO military not privy or in active opposition to such negotations. In otherwords the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. Max, do you think that HTS would be useful if its efforts were directed towards direct dialog and negotiation with the Taliban with a primary focus on ending the conflict and to withdraw NATO forces from the country?

  2. That’s a difficult question for me to answer–thanks for the visit and the comment by the way. The difficulty stems from this: the Taliban themselves do not seem to want to consider negotiations while NATO forces are in their country (but then there have been other reports that some elements have been conducting discussions in secret, and even getting nabbed by Pakistani forces when trying to do so). I believe that Karzai, for his part, is very interested in a negotiated solution, and is possibly one of the most interested parties. However, given the Taliban stance, it seems unlikely that they would accept partisans on the other side of the conflict–HTS–as intermediaries. Moreover, people in HTS have not “embedded” with the Taliban, and therefore cannot perform in the role of intermediary. Other anthropologists, with long-term knowledge, personal experience, personal ties, and without compromises to one armed party or another, not acting as representatives of a state, would be a better choice…but there are very few.

    However, that is if the question you asked depended on HTS acting as an intermediary. If instead the question was about whether HTS could itself perform the negotiations on NATO’s behalf, I would still say no. We pay for diplomatic corps to do that. HTS people have no training in diplomacy, peacekeeping, etc.; they are designed to be an interventionist force.

    Again, the problem will likely be that the Taliban will not consider negotiating with NATO at the table. It would effectively mean the same thing as surrendering, if they suddenly conceded that NATO should have say in charting their country’s future. They do not have the same objections to Karzai, and Karzai does not seem to have any need for Human Terrain Teams.

  3. Thanks for the great article. I’m looking forward to seeing the National Geographic video; it reminds me of another piece N.G. did called Triple Cross in that it seems like something done for propaganda value in favor of U.S. government and next to nothing in getting a realistic view of what is really going on…and sadly, National Geographics’ poor reporting and milprop reminds me of the old poster: Travel to exotic distant lands; meet exciting, unusual people and kill them. I was given 40 plus years of National Geographic by my aunt when I was a teen and loved them. By the time I got to college I realized that N.G. had a not-so-open-mind and was rather conservative with an Anglo agenda (my opinion at the time).

  4. My grandma’s been giving me subscriptions for my birthday for YEARS. I’ll be sending a pile to my reading-starved friends in the Marshall Islands because they’re the only magazines we have, not that I’ve even read most of them. It’s either that or Architectural Digest. The latest issue is on “Cher’s Hollywood Home.” : P

    Maybe it’s only remarkable because NatGeo markets itself as apolitical. I look up The Weekly Standard and get the positive report on HTS that I’d expect (here). You’ve probably already read it Max. It’s from January.

    On the bright side, maybe if people keep hearing about HTS, in any form, they’ll get bored of it, and fail to see the glamour of the shiny outer coating it’s being painted with, just like they’re bored of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, I don’t even know why you’re still talking about HTS (sarcasm). The oil spill is the hot topic these days, along with that shaven-head serial killer in Peru… You need to do more than keep complaining about HTS to attract my easily-diverted goldfish-like brain.

    Back to the other post, I don’t know why GA Tech plans to end its involvement with HTS, but I’m glad they’re doing it. I’ve always had a pretty high opinion of the school otherwise – lots of friends who went/go there. Too bad others involved don’t follow suit.

  5. I am an Army officer who worked with John Green and Matt Arnold, mentioned in your piece and the NG show, Dr. Forte. And while it amazes me that a person of your stature and acumen would waste time tearing down a show that was obviously meant to provide a glimpse into what is happening on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you do make some valid points about the program. But as a military man, and admittedly one that lacks your academic credentials, I find great utility in the HTS program that you so readily rip apart. There were many times on the ground when Mr. Green and Dr. Arnold provided valuable information that helped guide decision-making. My decision making. And while it is okay to tear the program down, you have offered no alternative or no solution to the program. In your mind, how can we improve this system or what can we replace it with while still receiving the valuable inputs and insights that HTTs often provide? In my simple layman’s terms, what is your beef with HTS, and what is the alternative?

  6. I was kidnapped by McFate, turned into her carnal pleasure slave, drugged and forced into an HTS assassination squad. I know that sounds glamorous and all, but after reading your stuff I am beginning to think there are some problems with the whole HTS concept.

  7. Well, don’t be “amazed”. The reality is that a majority of people in most NATO countries, apart from the U.S. perhaps, the war in Afghanistan is rejected. Try not to forget this, because that is the starting premise for much that follows. My support for the war, through payment of taxes, is involuntary and coerced, as is the case with all other taxpayers of course.

    For example, you ask what is the alternative. The alternative is that you get out of Afghanistan. The most viable alternative to war is always “no war,” except in cases of self-defense, which this war is not. It is neither a “just” war nor a necessary one, and it is directed against a nation and a people who never attacked the U.S. The majority of NATO citizens demand that the war be ended. Don’t you respect what citizens demand, or are we instead here to serve you? (By “you” I mean the military and the policy makers above the military, but you may also be aligned with their decisions, in which case “you” really is you).

    The second problem is that anthropology is not meant to be an instrument of war, a tool in geopolitics. Thankfully, we do not train our students to think of their society and their culture as superior to all others and deserving to be in a position of dominance over them. That you may have found HTS useful, to the extent that is true, cannot be a concern or priority for me of any kind. It’s not what you want that matters here–in a democracy you serve the citizenry, not the other way around. You expect us to take the war as an unquestionable given, that we should just accommodate ourselves to it, and figure out the best ways to serve you. No sir.

    Useful, smarter, saving lives, all of these have been used to sell counterinsurgency to the public as the best and most effective way to go, a route towards what most sober analysts–on the inside–recognize as impossible: a winnable war. One can object to HTS being used as part of this sales pitch, as one can object to it on many other grounds, ranging from ethics to politics.

    I also have a problem with the military using domestic mass media for propaganda purposes, which I believe violates at least one of your laws that prohibits using journalists as an arm of the military…not to compromise their independence and credibility. Clearly both the military and National Geographic have compromised both. I argue that, like journalists, the independence and credibility of social scientists ought not to be compromised either, especially in something so lethal, and so roundly rejected, as (this) war. That this was a staged fabrication, there is no doubt, even if by virtue alone of the imaginary Human Terrain Team constituted by senior managers like McFate and Fondacaro.

  8. “I was kidnapped by McFate, turned into her carnal pleasure slave, drugged and forced into an HTS assassination squad.”

    Indeed. Well then that makes two of us.

    (I don’t know about you, but I started to enjoy the part of being bound in leather and having that little orange ball stuck in my mouth…at least it helped to muffle the screams, which everyone is trained to ignore anyway.)

  9. Of course it is also important to know why McFate and Fondacaro felt the need to be present and on the scene, and what happened to the other HTT members who are not named in the NG piece, the persons who normally would have been part of the same HTT as Greene and Arnold.

    Guess what? We’ll never know, because asking questions of this program is like talking to a wall. Note also the complete silence of National Geographic on this.

  10. Gee, what a bunch of communists you folks are. If ever a country has had the right to invade and occupy another nation, America has right that right in this instance(9/11…remember?). But I suppose to Reds like you, dead Americans are a good thing, and we NEVER have the right to defend ourselves. It sure would be nice if all of you were rounded up and forced to live in a 1990’s-era Taliban state. That would be amusing (at least, for us sane people).

    As for the commentor who says that people no longer support the war, that’s not true in the United States (look up the polls). People in the EU don’t support it, but they haven’t had balls for a long time now, and their fancy new “United States of Europe” is circling the drain.

    So, snipe on, totalitarians! Real Americans understand the nature of the fight.

  11. “Communists”

    Good. Now according to the labels used by irate (not to say irrational) accusers this means that I am a: Muslim atheist Taliban communist conservative libertarian. I distinctly recall being called a womanizer, and faggot, in the same comment posted by one person a while back. (Then, opinions about my avatar–yes, I do get some very idle commentators here. Some see Lenin, others see a tribute to Che Guevara. Actually, it’s my tribute to Marilyn Manson. Uh-oh…now Satanist gets added to the list, and suddenly womanizing queer seems plausible.)

    Apparently you are having some serious problems with picking a target. For example, Afghanistan and 9/11. What do you remember about it? The attack was neither launched from Afghanistan, nor did it involve any Afghans, and the Taliban had zero to do with the attacks.

    However, you are right about the principle of self-defense. That applies to the Afghans fighting back against your occupation. That is a basic human right, and a principle enshrined in international law, by the way, not that you would care. Of course, suggesting that anti-Western Afghans have rights, makes one a “Taliban sympathizer,” right? Just like being in favour of gay rights must mean you are gay, and wish to harm heterosexual unions. If George W. Bush seemed to do such a number on your heads, it’s because there wasn’t much there to begin with.

    Europe is swirling down the drain, indeed. But don’t get too cocky, because all you are is the blue water in the toilet bowl, flush steam purchased on loan from China. Anyway, thanks for the comment, it offered some needed entertainment, and I get the feeling that you posted it for fun ;-). Thanks.

  12. Incidentally, jokes aside now, the record of public opinion polls in the U.S. about the war in Afghanistan is, at best, mixed. Either way, one cannot simply assert most Americans favour the war, and both the Pentagon and the Obama administration are painfully aware of that fact. See for example:

    58% of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan | CNN

    52% of Americans say the war is not worth fighting

    Only 32% back an expansion of the war in Afghanistan

    As for public opinion across NATO, don’t be so quick to dismiss it: you sorely rely on NATO support for this war, indeed NATO itself sorely depends on it for its own reputation.

  13. Shit, COMMUNISTS!?! *Eyes widen and scan the room.* I hope it’s not me. I’ve been told I have communist hair. But those Taliban, everyone knows they hide copies of the Manifesto in caves in Afghanistan. That’s why we’re at war, RIGHT? That’s why the radical left-wing commie dems are on THEIR side. They’re going to unite for change, then round up the dissenters… throw them in camps. Oh wait, that last one came from Dain. *Grabs a shotgun from behind the chair.* Just in case.

    Your site is so damn CONFUSING Max.

  14. He must be a Nixon fan, who supposedly once said that the cold war isn’t thawing, and the communists are always plotting and scheming. The truth is that the war in Afghanistan has re-divided the Marxist left in very sharp ways. Perusing various Marxist sites produces a range of opinion from why the Taliban are puppets of the West and must be defeated (by the West, incidentally), to the Taliban must be supported (not sure what exactly they mean by “support”). Even the expression, which I use, of “Afghan resistance” masks a wide variety of movements and ideologies, some of which are at war with each other, even if not always violently.

    However, as usual on this side of the world, the dominant opinions always reduce the Afghan resistance to the Taliban, and the Taliban to terrorism, and then 9/11. Everything is 9/11, there was no history before then, unless it was history strictly oriented toward producing 9/11. (I can’t wait for 9/11 to become so normalized and safe to use, like the way Americans use “colonial” as a charming term of quaintness. Look forward to 9/11 homes, 9/11 furnishings, and 9/11 Bank.) The fact that the Clinton administration was mostly on positive terms with the Taliban government is actively denied, even when it might be useful to the “blame Clinton” crowd, simply because Clinton is American, and the new orthodoxy is that no Americans ever supported the Taliban–9/11 allows some to project the present back in time, and white out anything that unsettles the current Western fundamentalism.

  15. I was in the USSR in 1984. I also write for Pravda.

    I’ll be the judge of who is a commie, democratic socialist, cosmopolitinist, capitulationist, bourgeoise defender–miltary types–kulak sympathizer, anti-state propagandist….Wait! I just realized we have slightly different terms for the same things in the Republic of America….heh, heh, heh

  16. Max–

    I decided against my better judgement to watch part this clip.

    It was awful. Even as propaganda it was poorly done.

    Still, 30 soldiers to guard a 4 person civilian team?

    Pitiful is the word that comes to mind.


  17. Notice though the pattern of continued dishonesty, fabricating a human terrain team. The directors of the program clearly wanted to have hands on where media control is concerned, and also wanted to be on National Geographic, to the extent that the action reporter at the centre of the “documentary”, ever present elsewhere in the show, is barely visible and entirely mute in the human terrain segment. Cowed into submission.

    I do believe the part of the heavily armed patrol, and the large military escort. If and when they do get to leave base, it must now be under these conditions. The fact that fighting has escalated drastically in Afghanistan since the last HTS death two years ago, but without any further HTS deaths, suggests they have become a lot more cautious about going out.

  18. You are very accurate in saying that they were in the NG piece because they wanted control. They were not going to let happen again what Robert Pelton did to them. Heads rolled on that Men’s Journal piece. There is so much more going on with this piece than anyone will ever know. I suspect that everything finally fell apart for McFate and Fondecaro starting with that Paris trip on the Taxpayer’s dime. The NG piece, and several other “Issues” to include a complete audit by the IRS of the HTS books led to his demise.

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