Human Terrain System in the Media

First, and in case you missed them, a series of YouTube videos produced by the U.S. military about the Human Terrain System:

The U.S. Army’s “light touch with heavy impact…a non-lethal force multiplier” — “a Human Terrain Team working with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment is comprised of military and civilian analysts who specialize in capturing the mood of a local people:

“Knowledge is power in Afghanistan” — bridging the gap between the local population and occupation forces:

The Human Terrain Team — “prime cuts” of the above, longer, no narration:

[Please note, in light of the Pentagon’s accusations against Wikileaks, that the U.S. military and NATO forces, which produce the photographs and videos like you see above, never blur the images of the Afghan civilians who are clearly providing them with information (an act that one would think is sufficient to provoke at least some questioning by the Taleban, if not something more punitive and drastic). No names are given, but in a country where many individuals go only by one name, or a name shared by many, photographic/video evidence is a much more reliable means for the Taleban to track down collaborators. However, feel free to continue ignoring this point–I raised it with a former HTS employee, who denied the practice of informants being photographed by the military even occurred.]

Second, some recent articles on the Human Terrain System:

It annoyed me that the critics of “mercenary ethnography” took cover in principled arguments. I wanted to form my own opinion about the HTS. I have to admit, I also wanted to experience firsthand one of the major events of this century. When I climbed out of the cargo space of an airplane, full of ammunition, onto the crushed rock track of the military base, Salerno, I was unsuspecting of the dangers that were ahead of me; I had no idea how I would investigate the lives of the Afghans in the middle of this war.

…and Katherine Carroll, a Vanderbilt assistant professor of political science, who spent a year in Iraq as a part of the military’s Human Terrain System’s team, dodging IEDs and suicide bombers.

These individuals — who put American values into practice throughout the world — say they’re aghast fellow Tennesseans would cite those values as reason to deny Muslims a place to meet and pray.

We should be clear that the third sector is simply one of a multitude of international actors whose work is being compromised by greater militarisation. Academics (human terrain teams), journalists (embeds) and diplomats (Hilary Clinton has demanded 7,000 fully armed security operatives to protect the US embassy in Iraq) are all experiencing a similar trend. In place of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s concerns over a military-industrial complex we may be heading toward a military-industrial-academic-media-diplomatic-NGO complex whose eventual hegemony could prove unchangeable.

An entirely new space has been created between wartime and peacetime development – “stabilisation operations” – which are driven by the military leadership despite its alarming similarities to the work of humanitarians. These operations include support from the newly formed human terrain teams, which have also brought the independence of academia into question.

The armed Peace Corps idea is not just a fantasy or red herring propaganda. It has been promoted and institutionalized by a new generation of pseudo-intellectual militarists who are trying to synthesize a military/anthropological strategy for restructuring failed imperial adventures in other cultures beyond Vietnam, like Iraq and Afghanistan. To accomplish this, the army instituted a program in Iraq in 2007 labeled “The Human Terrain System.” This program was an actual formal effort to use anthropology to bridge the gap between the Green Berets and the Peace Corps. Not surprisingly, it was roundly criticized by the American Anthropological Association and not surprisingly, it has had the support of General Petraeus.

Several interpreters told me, however, that every meeting includes some young American soldiers whose locker-room-style male bonding features bouts of hilarious farting.

To Afghan men, nothing is more shameful. A fart is proof that a man cannot control any of his apparatus below the belt.  The man who farts is thus not a man at all.  He cannot be taken seriously, nor can any of his ideas or promises or plans.

Blissfully unaware of such things, the Army goes on planning together with its civilian consultants (representatives of the State Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and various independent contractors who make up what’s called a Human Terrain Team charged with interpreting local culture and helping to win the locals over to our side).  Some speak of “building infrastructure,” others of advancing “good governance” or planning “economic development.”  All talk of “doing good” and “helping” Afghanistan.

Le constat que dresse Allison, lui, est encore plus clair : c’est celui d’une attitude déplorable et constante de terrain conquis. Les afghans étant …les nouveaux indiens  : “ce n’est finalement pas si différent de ce que les Américains d’origine européenne ont fait aux Amérindiens. Maintenant, plusieurs générations plus tard, les histoires se sont transmises et sont profondément enfoncées dans la conscience collective de ces peuples indiens et leur façon de voir les Européens-Américains d’aujourd’hui, et ont un effet sur la façon dont ils perçoivent les programmes gouvernementaux, tentent de modifier leur point de vue sur le travail, l’alcool et la drogue, etc’.

Sometimes, however, the line between civilian and military is blurred. During one stop, a man swore that his neighbor was working with the insurgents. Although the accusation could have potentially serious consequences for the person in question, Carnahan didn’t hesitate to pass the information to company officers. “If we get something that’s a threat to a unit, then we turn it over to them,” he says. “One way or another, you’re involved.”

Asked about the programme in a meeting with reporters in March, US secretary of the army John McHugh said that he was “neither happy nor unhappy” with the HTS. “Whether it’s a long-term solution or one in which we can glean short-term lessons and then move forward is still something we’re not able to judge,” McHugh said.

Not only did Carroll learn to confront fears head-on, she also began to understand the U.S. military, a topic she hopes to continue to study. While she has spent much of her career studying Middle East politics, the military was a foreign concept. That is, until a recruiter knocked on her Vanderbilt office door in June 2007 looking for professors to embed with a unit.

In the summer of 2007, Carroll heard that the Army was searching for Ph.D.s with specialties in Middle Eastern culture and history to embed with combat brigades, to “help them take into account the social, political and cultural context,” she says. Carroll just happened to have the required doctorate, in her case from the University of Virginia in political science with a specialty in Middle Eastern politics. She sought advice from everyone she knew. “By November, it was clear I wanted to go.”

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

12 thoughts on “Human Terrain System in the Media

  1. ishtar

    Reference to both articles about Professor Katherine Carroll, readers would conclude that her tasks in Iraq did not require the services of a professor holding a ph.D, but any Iraqi illiterate informer, or a media reporter could do it.

    What did she do?

    “Among other things, Carroll worked on mapping the astonishing 150 different political parties in a particular section of Baghdad to determine where violence might break out during elections. And although spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a year embedded…”

    “My typical day was to go outside the wire (the military base) to someone’s home and meet with political actors or leaders. Or I’d go to the Rasheed Hotel on the edge of the Green Zone and talk to Iraqis about who was who in their neighborhood, what they needed or how they viewed the political environment,” the social scientist says. “I spent a lot of time talking to sheiks and figuring out who did what and who was influential in what area, so that the soldiers would know who to work with to solve problems of security, service provision and reconciliation. Then I’d write and work on briefings until 11 or 12 at night.”

    Believe me, such information can be gathered while you are sitting to your computer surfing the internet. On the other side, Iraqi collaborators including interpreters, etc did that job for the military. So why were social scientists holding high degrees embedded with the army in the first place?

    One may wonder also, is one year of living on a military base, where your movements are restricted and where you can not go out without a convoy, is enough to understand a foreign, very complicated society?

    As an Iraqi, I can assure you that all the answers and information she gathered were false. Why? because, no Iraqi in his right mind would tell an invading personnel wearing full gear and moving with the invading army, any useful information. They will beat around the bush and come out with the wrong answers.

    After returning from her adventure in Iraq, she is teaching now her classes how great is the US army!! This is all the lesson she has learned in her one year tour in Iraq.

    Like embedded journalists, I think this is what embedding is all about: to turn academics into propagandists.

  2. Ishtar

    Now compare the useless efforts of those army embedded anthropologists who spent some fleeting time interviewing collaborating shiekhs and puppet politicians in baghdad through translators, with some of the people who did real work trying to understand a culture. The following examples were not anthropologists by profession but they carried on some great studies in that field.

    The first is Freya Stark “1893-1993 British writer well known for her books describing local history, culture, and everyday life of countries she visited. Many of her trips were to remote places where no woman had ever traveled. Far more than just a traveler, Freya carefully and thoroughly researched the geography, language and customs of a place before setting foot there, and once there she absorbed every detail. Through self-study, the occasional tutor, and choosing to reside among native-speaking people, Freya became a scholar, learned numerous languages and became fluent in Arabic. She also read and thoroughly studied the Koran.”- wikipedia

    She wrote among other books “Baghdad Sketches”. Lesson one of her achievements is that you have to learn the language of the communities you want to study. You can not understand a people without learning their language first. Lesson two, you have to embed with these commnities, not with an invading enemy of them.

    The other, is the American Elizabeth Fernea who “After she married Robert Fernea in 1956, she followed him to Iraq so he could finish his doctorate in anthropology. For two years she stayed with him in the village of El Nahra (south of Iraq). While there, she learned a lot about women of the Middle East. At first, Fernea acted stubborn and did not want to wear the veil or abayah but after being stared at, she decided it was best to don the clothing worn by the women of El Nahra

    By the end of her stay, she felt like she was leaving home when she and Robert came back to America. She had become very close with the women from El Nahra and had created lifelong friendships with some of them.

    One of the skills it appears she obtained from living in El Nahra was the ability to learn from that culture and also realize that it needs to be taught to outsiders.” wikipedia

    She wrote among other books “Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village”

  3. CM

    The first article written by David Price that I read was from October 30, 2007 when he exposed the hastily cobbled together and largely plagiarised Counterinsurgency Manual supposedly written by David Petraeus.

    Pilfered Scholarship Devastates General Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Manual

    “Human Terrain research gathers data that help inform what Assistant Undersecretary of Defense John Wilcox recently described as the military’s “need to map Human Terrain across the Kill Chain”. The disclosure that anthropologists are producing knowledge for those directing the “kill chain” raises serious questions about the state of anthropology…[I]n large part, what the military wants from anthropology is to offer basic courses in local manners so that they can get on with the job of conquest. The fact that military anthropologists appear disengaged from questioning conquest exposes the fundamental problem with military anthropology.”

    Since much military terminology is meant to obscure rather than clarify its operations, before I read this article I wasn’t really sure what a Human Terrain Team was supposed to mean – apart from sounding slightly sinister.

    Didn’t Hillier once remark, when he was pushing for Canadian soldiers to go south to Kandahar and get into a real shooting war, “We’re not the public service of Canada, we’re not just another department. We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people.”

    So, anthropologists embedded with the military are there for…what, exactly?

    It seems like all of human endeavour is become a hyphenated addition to the military-industrial complex. Not good.

  4. Ishtar


    (So, anthropologists embedded with the military are there for…what, exactly?)

    For spying and informing the army on the soft spots of the “enemy” to strike. The tasks of any army in the world is to kill and destroy, not build and make peace.

    1. CM

      I agree. That’s what anthropologists are worried about, as shown by the “Counter-counterinsurgency Manual” mentioned above. Anthropologists have a duty not to harm the population they are studying as part of their code of ethics. Having embedded anthro’s in Human Terrain Systems (I loathe that phrase) goes against their code of practice.

      The same could be said of doctors who advise on how to inflict the maximum torture on people without leaving visible marks or how to bring people to the point of death without actually killing them, or of psychologists who give guidelines on how to cause the most mental distress during interrogations in their attempt to get answers. Like the anthropologists, they must “first do no harm”. Some don’t seem bothered by it or don’t care.

      As for the truth in the news from embedded reporters, you won’t find much. The military keep a close watch on what they write. If they say something that the military types don’t like, they don’t get permits to embed with the units again. Ann Jones worked from inside a military unit just to find out what it was like. She told the truth because she wasn’t interested in ever embedding again.

      It seems as if some members of the military are simply running their own show for their own reasons, are willing to pervert professionals for the own reasons and have even forgotten their own rules of conduct. And nobody seems able to stop them. I find that pretty terrifying.

  5. Nicholas Smith

    This may be one of the all-time great ironic statements: “I think this is what embedding is all about: to turn academics into propagandists.” This implies that academics are not propagandists unless the military has made them that, and most empirical evidence is to the contrary; academics are very often spokesmen for political positions which are ‘a priori’ anti-military. They are propagandists against the military! Some of them may be turned by actual experience of the armed forces but they will be still a minority. The notion that the serpent of propaganda enters the academic Eden of objectivity only when the military introduces it is naive at best, and at worst…. well never mind that. Professors frequently see their mandate as teaching students “What” to think rather than “How” to think. And the “What” is most usually the left wing position. The issue is not turning fair-minded analysts into pro-military ones, but completely uninformed ones into those with some actual experience and observation,

    1. Maximilian Forte

      As someone with extensive experience, as both a student and a professor, I have not once encountered a professor who taught us what to think. Perhaps what to think about, but we were never constrained to limit our thinking to what we covered in class alone–nor is any student. In addition, teaching people how to think can be, by very far, the more insidious of the two in terms of turning people’s heads. You are relying on three great myths: that of professors as engaged in indoctrination; that of professors as being “left wing” (which, I grant, in the U.S. is so loosely and sloppily defined that anything can be classed as left wing); and the myth that students’ minds are like sponges, just waiting to absorb everything poured into them. If that were true, they would all get A+ and there would never be any misunderstandings. Not very credible.

      And what to you may seem to be the final irony: those with actual experience and observation in Afghanistan…are usually the ones to have rejected getting involved with the Human Terrain System.

      1. CM

        “…teaching people how to think can be, by very far, the more insidious of the two in terms of turning people’s heads.”

        When I read this, it made me smile because of my own experience.

        As the product of a Catholic education in public schools in Montreal, before the secularization of the educational system (yay, Quebec! for that move), I remember that the only “what to think” subject we were taught was religion. In that, no ifs, ands or buts were accepted, even though I had serious problems with the whole thing from the age of about six (age of reason?). As such, I was looked upon as an infant heretic by some of the more devout teachers. Questions were not frowned upon in any of the other subjects.

        In my later high school years, we took a course in apologetics to hone our skills in defending the faith against all comers. Having come from an argumentative family, as my poor mother could attest to after years of heated arguments between my father and me over Sunday dinner, I took to the course like a duck to water. But by using the skills of logical thinking and argument taught to us, I turned from a serious doubter into a complete, final and absolute atheist. The law of unintended consequences, I suppose.

        Someone said that the best discoveries come not with a “eureka!” but with a little voice in the back of your mind saying, “That’s funny.” The little voice has turned into a chorus of that’s funny’s since 2001. What the officials say is happening and what’s really happening are different things – in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Wrap it up in a cloak of secrecy and call it national security and the alarm bells ring even louder.

        To use a scientist or a medical professional to help you invade and occupy a country is perverting a profession to serve imperialism. As the military have a right to state their reason for being – breaking things and killing people – so the sciences and social sciences have a right to not be involved. And the Fourth Estate, the press, should also be able to act freely and tell their stories. If everything becomes a servant of military interests, we’re a military dictatorship, not a democracy. Vive la résistance!

      2. Nicholas Smith

        Maximilian, Thanks for your response. There is no way that I would dismiss your own life experiences. Life is a pretty contingent matter and if you have had an academic career very different from mine, that is not to be doubted. You are the best authority on your own subjectivity, and experience is rarely objective. I have a long time on both sides of the desk, too, and clearly, it was different. I muddled through law school and graduate schools, decades ago, with observations unlike yours: those were undimmed by academic appointments in years afterward. A good anthropologist could sort out the reflexivity of our respective academic years! I don’t think I am relying on any “myths” of mistaken content, as you say. Nothing I said supports the notion that students are passive sponges. 90% of faculty members are self-described Democrats, often anti-war. Propagandists are common on all sides; not a shocking statement.

  6. Pingback: Wednesday Round Up #118 | Neuroanthropology

Comments are closed