Grace McFate: Anthropology, Avatar, and the Human Terrain System in the Italian Press

In some overdue posts, including this and the next one or two, I draw your attention to how the mass mediated propaganda for the Human Terrain System has spread to elements of the European press.

Back on 05 March 2010, one of Italy’s oldest and most prominent–not to mention right wing–dailies, Corriere della Sera, carried a flattering article of Mongtomery McFate and “her” Human Terrain System (if that link expires, the archive of the original page can be found here). The article by Raffaele Oriani was headlined as follows:

Vi svelo i veri avatar
«Mi hanno chiamata i militari. Avevano capito che non bastavano le armi per sconfiggere la guerriglia»

My translation:
Montgomery McFate, American anthropologist, speaks
I’ll show you the real Avatars
“The military called me. They understood that weapons were not enough for defeating the guerrillas”

The article mentions Danger Room‘s praise for McFate as one of the top people that Obama should listen to, and adds that The Atlantic also listed her as one of the “brave new thinkers,” which clearly amounted to authorization for the pro-American Corriere to jump in and join the round of applause. McFate basks in the glow of the widely acclaimed film by James Cameron, Avatar, the article continues,

Sì, perché l’idea di abbinare conquista e conoscenza, prove di dominio e assaggi di convivenza, su Pandora prende il volto della studiosa Grace Augustine – alias Sigourney Weaver – ma nelle guerre di tutti i giorni ha il copyright di questa quarantacinquenne laureata a Yale e specializzata ad Harvard. Non per nulla Montgomery McFate ha messo i suoi occhialini da intellettuale al servizio dell’esercito Usa: a detta dello stesso generale David Petraeus, il comandante della svolta in Iraq, la sua consulenza antropologica è stata decisiva per migliorare la situazione sul campo.

My translation:
Yes, because the idea of marrying conquest with conscience, evidence of domination and a taste  of coexistence, is what Pandora is confronted with by the scholar, Grace Augustine–alias Sigourney Weaver–but in real everyday wars, the copyright to this idea belongs to this forty-five year old graduate of Yale and Harvard. Montgomery McFate has put on her intellectual’s eyeglasses in service of the U.S. military: General David Petraeus himself, the commander of the surge in Iraq, said that her anthropological advice was crucial for improving the situation on the ground.

McFate says she experienced the reverse of the character played by Weaver in Avatar (but not, otherwise, questioning how the press casts her, McFate, as some superstar). In McFate’s case, the military came to her, she tells the Corriere:

«Nel mio caso è successo il contrario » spiega McFate. «Fin dal 2004 è stata la frustrazione dei comandanti in prima linea a convincere Washington che in Iraq e in Afganistan non c’era modo di sconfiggere la guerriglia senza conoscere la società che ci circondava». Loro ponevano un problema, lei offriva la soluzione: «Il gap di conoscenza di cui soffrono i nostri soldati» scrive McFate sulla Military Review nella primavera 2005 «è dovuto all’emarginazione quasi totale dell’antropologia da parte dell’establishment militare». Come confessava candidamente un capitano di stanza nel deserto attorno a Baghdad: «So sparare, so uccidere, ma nessuno mi ha mai insegnato come si accetta l’invito a pranzo di uno sceicco». Il marine di Avatar scopre i segreti di Pandora seguendo l’esempio della sua bella indigena, i soldati americani dal 2006 imparano a mettersi a tavola grazie a McFate e ai suoi colleghi del programma di consulenza antropologica Human Terrain System.

My translation:
“In my case the opposite happened,” said McFate. “Since 2004 front line commanders faced frustration in trying to convince Washington that in Iraq and Afghanistan there was no way of defeating the guerrillas without knowing the surrounding society.” They [the military] posed a problem, she [McFate] offered the solution: “The knowledge gap suffered by our soldiers,” writes McFate in
Military Review in spring 2005 “is due to the almost total exclusion of anthropology by the military establishment.” As a captain stationed in the desert around Baghdad candidly confessed: “I shoot, I can kill, but nobody ever taught me how to accept a sheik’s invitation to lunch.” The marine Avatar discovers the secrets of Pandora by learning from the beautiful indigenous guide; U.S. soldiers since 2006 have learned how to sit at the table thanks to McFate and her colleagues in this anthropological consultancy program known as the Human Terrain System.

Then comes the predictable part: HTS has helped to save lives. How do we know? Finally, McFate confesses we cannot know for certain.

Montgomery McFate è convinta che il suo drappello di antropologi embedded abbia il merito storico di aver fatto diminuire il numero dei civili uccisi per errore. Quanti? Non ci sono statistiche. Ma si racconta che ai posti di blocco la mano aperta per fermare il traffico spesso veniva interpretata come un segno di benvenuto e buon viaggio: le macchine non si fermavano, i marine si agitavano, ed erano stragi anche là. Come conferma un comandante della 56ma brigata di combattimento: «Da quando è operativo lo Human Terrain System siamo passati dal risolvere i problemi in modo letale, ad applicare soluzioni non letali». O, per dirla con l’ingenuo cinismo di un ufficiale della 172ma brigata: «Il programma ci ha fornito uno strumento per non ammazzare la gente».

My translation:
Montgomery McFate is convinced that her squad of
embedded anthropologists merits the historical distinction of having decreased the number of civilians killed by mistake. How many? There are no statistics. But it is said [reporter does not say who says this] that at checkpoints an open hand to stop traffic was often interpreted as a sign of welcome, wishing a pleasant journey: cars did not stop, the marines got agitated, and massacres happened. As confirmed by a commander of the 56th Combat Brigade: “Since the Human Terrain System became operational we have moved from solving problems in a lethal way to non-lethal solutions.” Or, to quote the naive cynicism of an officer of the 172nd Brigade: “The program has given us a tool for not killing people.”

McFate then explains how originally the program was about preparing software to be used by troops, as part of “Cultural Preparation of the Environment,” but what was really needed was “people in the flesh who understood something.” The software exists still, the reporter notes, now called the MapHT Toolkit which offers a panoramic view of customs and power structures in a given area. However, and here the reporter embellishes considerably by presenting as fact what is untrue: “in the meantime there have arrived dozens of specialists on the society, economy and religion of the Middle East,” he writes, when in fact the opposite was largely the case, that is, most HTS academics had no prior knowledge, experience, or expertise in the region. McFate tells the reporter that “we concern ourselves with everything, from archaeological consultancy [cultural resources management], to developing programs for women’s health, to monitoring in order to avoid bloody skirmishes during elections.” Not able to cite a single anthropologist for support, McFate once again tuns to her revered figure of Lawrence of Arabia, harking back to colonial domination:

«Non c’è nulla di strano in questa commistione tra scienza ed esercito» insiste McFate. «Per fare la guerra hai bisogno di sviluppare sia l’empatia sia la capacità di prendere le distanze dal nemico. In fondo se T.E. Lawrence è potuto diventare Lawrence d’Arabia è anche merito della sua passione per l’antropologia».

My translation:
“There’s nothing wrong with this blend of science and the military,” insists McFate. “To go to war you need to develop both empathy and the ability to distance yourself from the enemy. Basically if TE Lawrence was able to become Lawrence of Arabia it was due to his passion for anthropology.”

In response to anthropologists who have criticized her program, and here the article notes the Network of Concerned Anthropologists and the American Anthropological Association, and names David Price in particular, McFate only says:

«La gente ha paura di ciò che non conosce. La diffidenza dell’accademia dipende dal fatto che la maggioranza degli americani non ha più famigliarità con le nostre forze armate»

My translation:
“People are afraid of what they don’t understand. The reason for academic distrust stems from the fact that the majority of Americans [or “the glorious, overweight, self-complacent American populace,” as McFate said
here]  have lost any familiarity with our armed forces.”

Perhaps a draft would help solve that problem? She does not say. In the end, we are taken back to the Avatar comparison:

Finirà per trovare conforto nell’esempio di Sigourney-Grace? «Augustine mi piace perché è piena di contraddizioni» ammette. «In fondo cerca una soluzione non-violenta a un imperativo economico: nel film finisce per ribellarsi e per essere uccisa, nella vita spero che il regista abbia in serbo un finale diverso».

My Translation:
Will she eventually find comfort in the example of Sigourney-Grace? “I like Augustine because she is full of contradictions,” she admits. “Ultimately she is seeking a nonviolent solution to an economic imperative: in the film she ends up rebelling and getting killed, but in real life I hope the director has in mind a different ending for me.”

We’ll see.

For a related article, comparing the Human Terrain System and Avatar, see David H. Price’s article in CounterPunch from 23 December 2009:

Going Native: Hollywood’s Human Terrain Avatars

Some extracted quotes:

“Since 2007, the occupying U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan have deployed Human Terrain Teams (HTT), complete with HTT “social scientists” using anthropological-ish methods and theories to ease the conquest and occupation of these lands. HTT has no avatared-humans; just supposed “social scientists” who embed with battalions working to reduce friction so that the military can get on with its mission without interference from local populations….”

and I especially liked this part (which relates to the video in the next post):

“Among the more interesting parallels between Avatar and Human Terrain Systems is the way that the video logs that the avatar-ethnographers were required to record were quietly sifted-through by military strategists interested in finding vulnerability to exploit among the local populous. Last week a story in Time magazine quoted Human Terrain Team social scientist in training Ben Wintersteen admitting that in battlefield situations “there’s definitely an intense pressure on the brigade staff to encourage anthropologists to give up the subject..There’s no way to know when people are violating ethical guidelines on the field;” and the AAA’s recent report found that “Reports from HTTs are circulated to all elements of the military, including intelligence assets, both in the field and stateside.” Like the HTT counterparts, the Avatar teams openly talked about trying to win the “hearts, mind, and trust” of the local population (a population that the military derisively called “blue monkeys”) that the military was simply interested in moving or killing. And most significantly, the members of the avatar unit had a naive understanding of the sort of role they could conceivably play in directing the sort of military action that would inevitably occur. Sigourney Weaver’s character, the chain-smoking, pose striking, tough talking Avatar Terrain Team chief social scientist, Grace Augustine, displayed the same sort of unrealistic understanding of what would be done with her research that appears in the seemingly endless Human Terrain friendly features appearing in newspapers and magazines.”

I very much agree with Price’s conclusion:

“On the big screen the transformation of fictional counterinsurgent avatar-anthropologists into insurgents siding with the blue skinned Na’vi endears the avatars to the audience, yet off the screen in our world, this same audience is regularly bombarded by media campaigns designed to endear HTT social scientists embedded with the military to an audience of the American people. The engineered inversions of audience sympathies for anthropologists resisting a military invasion in fiction, and pro-military-anthropologists in nonfiction is easily accomplished because the fictional world of a distant future not pollinated with the forces of nationalism and jingoistic patriotism that permeate our world; a world where anything aligned with militarism is championed over the understanding of others (for reasons other than conquest).”

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2 thoughts on “Grace McFate: Anthropology, Avatar, and the Human Terrain System in the Italian Press

  1. Guanaguanare

    Just speechless!

    “marrying conquest with conscience, evidence of domination and a taste of coexistence…” –Raffaele Oriani

    “To go to war you need to develop both empathy and the ability to distance yourself from the enemy.” –McFate

    I’ll let Hamlet’s witches respond, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair; Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Great to see you here again Guanaguanare, many thanks for the comment, incisive as usual. Yes, those may have been two of the most outright obscene statements in that article, perfect for the Corriere, and for McFate. If they ever developed any empathy for the resistance (not my enemy), then the only distance they would seek is between themselves and Afghanistan, and go back home. On the other hand, they are probably almost as welcome at home as they are in Afghanistan.

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