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.