The Many Faces of the Human Terrain System in Iraq

This is the first in a two part series on recent examples of the Human Terrain System in the military’s own media, and in military-embedded media. The second one is “Burlesque Afghanistan: Pulp Fiction from an Embedded ‘Reporter’.”

Revised 09 October 2010

Human Terrain Teams: Mapping a course for a peaceful, prosperous Iraq” by Pfc. Jennifer Spradlin (U.S. Army Official Homepage, 01 October 2010) is obviously an example of the U.S. military’s own public-oriented media efforts, and one cannot expect an “unbiased” nor accurate picture of anything that is projected, other than a preferred and official view of what they would like you to see and understand. In other words, in the absence of at least a minimum of skepticism, and preferably critique, one becomes a mere extension and tool of military media. We therefore need to act as the “balance” that is clearly lacking in such one-sided pieces of official propaganda.

In this article, Human Terrain Teams are said to possess “cultural awareness.” There is no indication of the fact that it is something that remains to be gained, given that the Human Terrain System is unable to recruit anything beyond a negligible number of persons who actually possess prior expertise and experience in Iraq (the geographic focus of this article). The author emphasizes that a HTT “plays a pivotal role in helping both the U.S. and Iraqi governments realize their goals for a stable and prosperous Iraq” –this is asserted, not demonstrated, and it is not surprising: Iraq is neither stable nor prosperous. The statement is meant to sound good and cheerful. Col. Edward Vaughn, who served more than 32 years in the active Army, National Guard and Army Reserve, is said to have “volunteered” to be a part of a HTT—this too is misleading: voluntary work is unpaid. He applied and was hired, at a rate higher than he would get in the regular armed services.

Indeed, the assertions made in this article are based on the self-assessments of people tied to the program, apparently solely on the basis of their experience in an artificial, simulated “Iraq” in Fort Irwin, California. While the U.S. military continues to occupy Iraq, no actual examples are drawn from Iraq, and no Iraqi voices are heard. This is military media and the propaganda function is strictly enforced in this invention of reality.

This article also says that at press time there were 15 HTTs in Iraq. Other media reports (referenced in part two of this series of posts) say there are a total of 30 HTTs, and most of those are in Afghanistan. It is difficult to know who is right, without official disclosure.

Also quoted in this article is Dr. James Forsythe, a medical anthropologist who is training with a HTT at the U.S. Army National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. Forsythe says “the people of Iraq have been through decades of turmoil and are in need of assistance. They’re building their own country back, and we want to help them in any way possible,” which makes HTS sound like a NGO effort, that is purely about reconstruction, and is there to serve Iraqi goals, all of which is disingenuous at the very best. Vaughn’s remarks differ, but are also misleadingly broad and aimless:

“The goal of the human terrain team is to provide knowledge of the local population and their way of life to the U.S. military commanders. (We are there) to help them better understand the people and make better decisions. For a long time, we followed the principle that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, but now we need to stop and get to the know people and develop that bond, that trust.”

Their way of life—is it so unknown that background reading could not have helped? Are local collaborators so few that U.S. military commanders cannot get cultural advice from their supposed allies in the Iraqi government? To make “better decisions” –better decisions about what? Forsythe says they are there to help Iraqis build their country, which implies Iraqi decision-making takes the lead, while Vaughn’s remarks imply the reverse. To develop “that bond, that trust” toward what ends, and whose ends?

A third narrative appears, that of the report writer, voice of the U.S. Army: “the majority of efforts now focus on the responsible transfer of authority to Iraqi security forces.” So not “reconstruction” in any civilian, humanitarian sense that members of the public may have pictured in their minds. What does a “responsible transfer” imply? What would an irresponsible transfer of what belongs to Iraqis—sovereignty—look like? Who decides what is responsible? Which Iraqis benefit, and in which ways?

But then is this about a transfer of authority? Again the article equivocates when it brings in statements about battle. Col. Christie Nixon, a former Reserve brigade commander and current HTT member says “It’s a people battlefield.” Alright, but what does this have to with the transfer of authority? Forsythe says “the role of the command group is increasingly focused on facilitating a transition.” But then Nixon says, “The Army carries the standard of the United States all across the world.” Well this is a problem then, because two speakers on the same team cannot even get their story straight—little can we expect them to come to a valid understanding of what is “the standard” of “the United States.”

As if to sound like he has some folksy anthropological wisdom under his helmet, Forsythe produces these lyrics: “HTT has the ability, to coin an African proverb, ‘to find a path to a clearing.’ We are helping to build that path to that clearing and the clearing is an open space where Iraq can flourish.” The clearing. An open space. The terrain. One gets a sense of someone who loves the smell of napalm in the morning.

Forsythe also added that if the HTTs “are used properly,” they could “help prevent future conflicts and diminish local unrest before it manifests into violence.” How does he know this? Who cares, it doesn’t matter, let’s just say we’ll take him at his word. There. That should work.

“HTT is the Army’s light touch with a heavy impact,” said Forsythe. And what is that “heavy impact”? Is that the thing about clearing an open space, representing the U.S. standard, being culturally aware…what?

This article quotes one social scientist, and two U.S. military officers. While many Iraqis were hurt to make the conditions for this kind of article possible, absolutely none are interviewed, and thus continue to proceed invisibly like ghosts toward “the open space” created for them by geniuses like Forsythe.

17 thoughts on “The Many Faces of the Human Terrain System in Iraq

  1. skysoldier1

    You should really get your facts straight before you publish a critic of something it seems you know so little. You are wrong on many of the points you make about said article.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Really? I should get my facts straight? Why, what “facts” can you spot in this article? What you really meant to say is that you wish I would not ask that many questions. I didn’t argue about facts–I argued about the lack of them.

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  3. NY2008

    How is one suppose to get quotes from Iraqis when they are in California during a training exercise? This article was written at the National Training Center in California…it’s called training.

      1. NY2008

        Um…yea. But obviously this soldier is not in Iraq. Do some homework before you hop on your soap box.

      2. Maximilian Forte

        Um…the article does not say it was limiting its conclusions to what was observed within the U.S. alone at a training base, which would make the article look even weaker. Thanks, but you just elevated my soapbox.

        According to you, this article is based on nothing other than empty assertions made by hopeful trainees…as a result of experience in a simulated environment. In other words then, it is far worse bullshit than I first realized. Thanks for your corrections, though you probably regret it, if that snarky militarist tone is anything to go by.

  4. defenestrator

    Hey Maxi, since you like quoting other people and not generating anything original of your own, I’ll follow your example.

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

    Theodore Roosevelt

    Now here’s my quote: If you have a problem with the way the military does things, sign up and come help us before you judge. When’s the last time you helped an Iraqi or Afghan citizen?

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Quoting Theodore Roosevelt is something you get to do once only on this blog. Your comment should be deleted on that basis alone.

      As for generating nothing original of my own–I am criticizing a published article. Obviously, you would rather I not do that. We do have a CONTENTS page, and you are welcome to investigate the original work that I have done…or you can continue to ignore it and sound stupid.

      Why don’t you ask me when the last time was that I harmed any Iraqi or Afghan citizen? Because they surely never asked me for my “help,” they are not waiting to be rescued by me as if they were wretched infants, and are probably very happy every time an interfering outsider leaves. These are the simple lessons that you seem incapable of learning, while quoting the words of some fascist bigot.

  5. NY2008

    What would I regret? Someone that can google facts living in his mom’s basement to try and one up people? I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’m out living a life…not dissecting the work of others and doing nothing to assist which the example you have set. I contribute to American society. You can talk all the shit you want about the military and the article they publish but your little blog here will never influence anybody that you don’t already know. Now quite wasting your time here and get back to your eharmony account.

    1. Jérémy

      Apparently this blog at least did influence you NY2008, it drove you to try to spit some venom, and to behave in a very stupid and childish way. That’s one of the thing I love with this blog, it’s a bit like a honeypot, and always full of lulz.

      1. Maximilian Forte

        No Jérémy, it is instead totally insignificant, which is why last night he was hanging around on this blog waiting breathlessly for any reply I might post so that he could pounce on it armed with the usual cliched Internet attacks. It’s great when people take time out of their lives to devote to telling you that you don’t matter–it makes so much sense, even more so when the actual author of the article shows up.

  6. Jennifer Spradlin

    Sir, I am the Soldier whose article you dissected. I am currently deployed to Afghanistan and work in public affairs shop that embeds civilian media. It makes me sad to see how quickly this discussion has disintegrated into name calling and insults. I respect your right to disagree with my article and to respond negatively to the HTT; however, I do want to make it clear that I am not a war monger because I am in the military. I have a function to serve within the Army, and I write for a very specific audience. I accept that there is a bias in that. I also know that I am able to tell the Soldier story and it is clear to me that you disagree with these conflicts but real people are involved. On both sides. My husband, also a Soldier, just covered a memorial ceremony of an airman who was killed so that his family would have a tangible record of what his service meant to the people within his unit.

  7. Maximilian Forte

    Thank you Jennifer Spradlin. I also regret how the discussion degenerated, but it seems impossible to present any sort of critical questions regarding what the military’s media arm present, without there appearing–almost instantaneously I might add–a group of anonymous hawks who want to do damage control by inflicting whatever damage they can. It is amazing to see the sensitivity and the degree to which it seems some in the military quickly know who is writing about their presentations. My questions still stand, but I do apologize for returning the insults to the nameless wonders above.

  8. grouchypete

    These quotes were gathered and story written in country, by a Soldier deplyed there. Fact. How do I know. Chatting with her on facebook. Military communicators are not first amendment journalists. This is hardly secret knowledge. Nor are they propaganda pushers. they gather facts and genuine quotes and are held liable by their own chain of command if they do not. The tone they take is one of an internal publication and they make no claim to the contrary. So, I’m not sure what your issue is.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      It’s very simple–I raised several questions about the basis for making the assertions that appear in the article. It’s the most elementary kind of question anyone should ask when approaching any media product, to avoid being automatically lulled into uncritical, head nodding, credulity: how do you know what you know? Some seem to be especially offended that anyone would even ask this–which takes me to the intended propaganda function of the article, which is to create belief and suspend disbelief. The “tone” may be that of an internal publication, but it is not an internal publication having been posted on the Web for all to read. I was not suggesting that the quotes were falsified, or that any of the details were fabricated, and propaganda is not to be mistaken for or reduced to mere “lies.” In other words, there are lies, and then there is propaganda, and the two are very different.

      However, while the specifics may be correct–that X person said Y, while in Z location–the grander claims about the successes of HTS remain without demonstration, merely asserted. One does that in commercial advertising and in political campaigns as well.

      Instead of answers, there were insults, and then the author of the article appearing and making some irrelevant reference to deaths of people in the armed services. Where asking questions is not tolerated, it seems that answering them is like having a legless person ride a bike.

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