Burlesque Afghanistan: Pulp Fiction from an Embedded “Reporter”

This is the second 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 first was “The Many Faces of the Human Terrain System in Iraq.”

Much more remarkable, and coming from a supposedly professional journalist who embedded with the U.S. Army in order to tag along with several Human Terrain Team members, is this series from The Virginian-Pilot by Joanne Kimberlin. What she loses in honesty and credibility she more than makes up for in her cheer-leading for a Human Terrain System in deep disrepute and disarray. Her work also proves why taking a “balanced” approach to our critiques is a worthless endeavor, as she cynically misappropriates certain revelations made only on this site, that she finds amenable to painting a positive lacquer on HTS. We now need to be the real balance once again, and the only way to do that is by being as skeptical and critical as possible.

PART ONE

Pulp: Framing HTS within the genre of war-related action/adventure is tried, tested, and yet still popular with American readers, if one takes the production of such fictions as answering some demand. We have seen this before with HTS, when it was written about here. Here we begin with Part 1, “New weapon in an old war:”

[Kimberlin:] “Boom! Heads snap toward the blast….No one speaks. Nothing moves – except salty trickles of sweat that seep from beneath helmets. There! From the other side of the mud-brick village, a plume of black smoke boils into an empty blue sky…. “That,” one says quietly, “was Afghanistan.”

Boom! Patriotic readers snap into formation. That was Afghanistan—a curious use of the past tense. Boom! That is not America. America makes no sound at all as it occupies what was Afghanistan.

“The idea: fewer bullets, more brains.” Brains—the zombie metaphor beckons yet again. It’s about brains, brains will save America from this morass. We need more articles about brains, to get Americans thinking about thinking, instead of ejaculating about bombing.

“The Human Terrain System embeds civilian scholars with combat units to help outsmart the insurgency….anthropologists and other social scientists delve into the population, which the military now dubs “the human terrain.”

They are outsmarting the insurgency—I see—more Afghan than the Afghans now, are they? Well not really, just license on the part of the pulp fiction writer, the reality is more mundane: “Insight into the customs and history of the people could help troops avoid the kind of blunders that make it tough to gain traction in Afghanistan.” Tour guides.

It’s a Good Idea… It’s a Good Idea… It’s a Good Idea… It’s a Good Idea… It’s a Good Idea… It’s a Good Idea… It’s a Good Idea… It’s a Good Idea… It’s a Good Idea…

The idea, that HTS is a good idea, is repeated throughout. Kimberlin writes, “for all the problems and controversy, one big question persists: In a long war short on answers, could HTS be one that works?” She then interviews Col. Steve Fondacaro for her answer, as she does consistently: asking those employed with the program, and those with personal reputations tied to the program’s public image, to speak about the value of the program. Fondacaro, for his part, cannot seem to give an answer without doing further damage: to Kimberlin he complains about President Obama firing General Stanley McChrystal, for his vulgar and public insubordination. Fondacaro thinks the firing “was really petty,” and praises his former classmate for his indiscretion: “Stan’s always been a straight shooter.” (Even, it seems, when he shoots himself in the foot.)

Kimberlin makes a plea for extending the war effort, betraying her role as military stenographer: “We’ve been here before and seen what happens when we just pack up and leave….Once the Russians were gone, we lost interest.” But, there has to be an end in sight, and here she is more careful to align herself with Obama’s foreign policy: “Still, no one wants us to stay forever. An armed occupation, well-intentioned or not, eventually wears out its welcome. Every wayward drone, every ham-fisted house search, every wrong squeeze of the trigger creates new enemies.”

News?

Kimberlin offers us very few revelations about HTS, apart from a handful scattered across the four articles. In this first one, she helps to confirm what we already understood, thanks to her interview with Fondacaro: “Funding would come from the Department of Defense, but, Fondacaro says, every dollar required a dog fight in the competition-heavy military machine.” As part of that dog fight, a media blitz, of which this series itself is a residual artifact, having been started and prepared before Fondacaro and McFate were removed from HTS.

Mystery Critics

The treatment of critics is minor and brusque, opting to render them homogeneous and nameless. Human Terrain Team members, on the other hand, get extended personal treatment, are named, and shown to have diverse views. Part of the bulk criticisms from nameless critics has been aimed at Fondacaro’s leadership—here Kimberlin writes: “Personally, Fondacaro has taken a lot of heat. He’s been called a ‘mad man,’ a ‘war profiteer’ and an ‘idiot’.” In the fourth article in the series Fondacaro says even he hated himself after reading John Stanton’s articles.

Paula Loyd: Blonde

Finally, in this first installment, a few words about those who died while working for HTS. Standing out again is Paula Loyd—and note the lead description: “Loyd was an outgoing, 36-year-old blonde with a long history of aid work.” What does her having blonde hair have to do with anything? Why even bother mentioning it, when the hair colour of the other dead HTS people is not mentioned? Because it matters to Americans, as a cultural icon, as symbolic of the superior White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. She was outgoing—she went too far. A long history of aid work—and no mention of the even longer history spent in the military. Hear that bell ring? An angel in fatigues just earned her wings.

PART TWO

In Part 2, “American muscle proves futile in land of extremes,” Kimberlin continues the main theme: “The Hampton Roads-based Human Terrain System is one attempt to wage smarter war. HTS embeds civilian scholars with troops in the battle zone, where it’s their job to decipher the complex cultural landscape that allows the militants to maintain their stubborn toe hold.” Keep these in mind: complex cultural landscape—decipher—smarter war. The value of HTS is a matter the interviewees all insist upon, never demonstrate—here a soldier says “They start from a vantage point that’s strictly about the people and what they think. That’s invaluable. Anybody who can help us get a piece in the puzzle is an add.”

Later in the article, this out of place statement, concerning “criticism that its scholars aren’t qualified to give local insight. ‘They’ve got Ph.D.s,’ Fondacaro says. ‘They’re smart people. They can learn’.” This complex cultural landscape, so complex it must be deciphered, can be apprehended by just about any foreigner who is air dropped into Afghanistan without prior experience, without facility in local languages—but they can learn, because they have credentials. Are they then saying that ordinary soldiers, some with multiple “tours” of Afghanistan, are just too stupid to learn?

Again With the Critics

About those critics—Kimberlin notes: “Anthropologists working for HTS are defying their profession. Last December, the American Anthropological Association condemned the program, wary that its scholarly findings might be used by the military to target the enemy, a breech of the field’s ‘do no harm’ code of ethics. The association also takes a dim view of its own members becoming casualties.” Even this brief element draws no direct response from anyone she interviews. Instead, we hear that

“the backlash has helped turn Fondacaro and his academic counterpart, Montgomery McFate, into lightning rods. Bloggers have vilified the pair, accusing them of all sorts of shadowy deeds, including bilking the taxpayers and recklessly endangering lives.”

Who are these mysterious, nameless bloggers? That doesn’t matter, as we are told about McFate that, “She doesn’t bother to read any of the blogs about HTS, where she’s described as a ‘hustler,’ a ‘poisonous individual’ and ‘the crazy aunt in the room’.” Too bad she doesn’t read “them” …because those are statements made from people who served in HTS.

Wait…did McFate tell Kimberlin that she doesn’t read any of the blogs?

“But her jaw sets at some of the personal attacks in journals or anthropology blogs — not the accusations of intellectual prostitution, but claims that she is motivated by greed.” (source)

Oops. Kimberlin’s research is selective: she “missed” that piece, but not another: without attribution she recycled some of the material about Fondacaro from The Men’s Journal article written by Robert Young Pelton, particularly the part (see Part 1 of the series) where Fondacaro breaks his jaw during an interview with RYP.

Meet Mac the Mercenary: Second-in-Charge

Any new revelations in Part 2? Not many, except that a former mercenary is now in charge of HTS in Afghanistan, someone who goes by the name of “Mac:” “He first came to Afghanistan in 2003 as a security contractor on the Ring Road…. He joined HTS in November 2008 and worked his way up to second-in-charge in Afghanistan.”

Also, the number of Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan: “Two-thirds of the 30 HTS teams are now embedded with the military in Afghanistan.”

Finally, the only HTS member I met in person, Christopher King, is now in Afghanistan: “Chris King, an anthropologist from Ohio, is on an HTS team assigned to ISAF. Reserved and bookish, King does not leave ‘the wire,’ as the perimeter of the base is known. It’s his job to supply ‘theater wide’ cultural insight to the host of generals and colonels who make up the high command.” One of the few anthropologists they get—not that he had any expertise on Afghanistan—and they have him perform in the role of armchair anthropologist. One of his valuable discoveries is that Afghans are a lot like Americans. They hate outsiders imposing on them.

PART THREE

In Part 3, “Building trust amid fear, one mission at a time,” we are introduced to a few more HTS members, most notably Amy Bursell, Patrick Flanagan, and Chris Fitz, only the first being an academic—and we are also introduced to the “mission monkey:”

Oh Goody! The Mission Monkey is Here!

“Amy Bursell climbs out of a bulletproof car in front of an Afghan police station. Strapped to the back of her flak vest: the Mission Monkey, a stuffed animal she brings along for nearly every meeting with the locals. Patrick Flanagan rolls his eyes: ‘I hate that stupid monkey. I mean hate.’ Bursell, 38, is a talkative social scientist from Alexandria. Flanagan, 43, is a conservative Army reserve colonel from Manassas. ‘The monkey helps break the ice,’ Bursell says firmly. ‘It lets people know I’m not a soldier’.”

When meeting with Afghan elders, what does Bursell do? Please tell us she doesn’t take out her stuffed toy and wiggle it in their faces! We are not told how she uses it. It seems to be her outward way of symbolizing that she is a civilian…but then again, we are told later that she carries a gun. I would like to suggest that the mission monkey here is not the one on the back of the flak vest; it’s the one wearing the vest.

It gets worse—“Radios have been synced, and call signs are being chosen for the two hardened SUVs that will carry the team into town. Bursell suggests ‘Muppet One’ and ‘Muppet Two’.” Either Bursell is having a tough time outgrowing an American infancy fed on a diet of incessant television, or, her psychological tactic involves lowering everyone else to the level of children.

One thing about Bursell, as an expert required to provide advice and insight on the basis of her sensitivity to locals, is that she has learned to tune the locals out: “All eyes watch as she and the Mission Monkey weave their way through a group of men in a garage outside the police station. ‘They’re mostly just curious,’ she says. ‘At first it makes you feel pretty weird, but now I just try to ignore it.’

Bursell “tries not to think about the fact that three HTS social scientists have been killed on the job,” Kimberlin tells us. Bursell says: “My parents thought I was crazy to come here. But I just find it really stimulating.” Really stimulating—yes, indeed, it’s all about me and my personal gratification.

European Luxury and West Virginia Savages

Camp Marmal, where this particular Human Terrain Team is based,

“is an oasis of European civilization. It features a cozy atrium with bistros and socializing. Fresh herbs grow in pots outside comfortable barracks. There’s even an indoor badminton court, earning the base the nickname of Club Med.”

Like their Soviet predecessors, this new crop of colonials has learned that the good life is to be had in the colonies. “Bursell feels fortunate to be assigned to such a cushy post.” Reports are that her mission monkey can be heard cooing with pleasure.

What about Afghanistan…beyond that oasis of European herbs and badminton? HTS member Chris Fitz “says the country reminds him of West Virginia: ‘They’re conservative, religious and they like their guns’.” But do they like headcheese sandwiches and banjos?

Take it Easy: We Just Supply the Information that Kills

Patrick Flanagan “dismisses the frowns of social scientists back home who accuse HTS of supplying ‘mercenary anthropology’ that the military could use to hunt down and kill the opposition, a violation of the field’s neutral pledge to the subjects it studies. ‘We provide information,’ Flanagan says. ‘We can’t be responsible for what the commander does with that information’.”

A remarkable statement: he confesses to irresponsible complicity, and confesses to the fact that some of the information is used for targeting.

Dishonest Use of Wikileaks References

Where any remaining veneer of honesty cracks and falls off Joanne Kimberlin is when she raises the issue of what was found in Wikileaks about HTS. As it happens, it was this very site—which she does not name—that did the research about HTS in Wikileaks, and the only site to have written about that aspect. In the first contribution we made, we extracted all of the records dealing with HTS; second, we dealt with some of the problems surrounding the records’ release, and to what extent they can be counted on as useful; third—and this is the only piece on which Kimberlin bases her irresponsible, dishonest, and deliberately propagandistic claims—we talked, ironically, about how Wikileaks’ records could be used to construct a positive gloss for HTS, not realizing anyone would be incompetent enough to single out that information and do so without question—but then again, we didn’t know Kimberlin existed back then; and, fourth, the really critical piece that Kimberlin and the rest of the media continue to choose to ignore.

Instead, Kimberlin lazily plonks down these words, again without attribution, hoping that readers are lazy and gullible and will do no searches of their own:

“The program cropped up dozens of times in the Afghan War Diaries, the reams of insider documents posted by Wikileaks this summer. According to the entries, HTS has helped uniforms understand clans and disputes, assess loyalties, and figure out that construction supervisors were siphoning off money and police were stealing from households.”

Remember 9/11 When I Run for Congress

Patrick Flanagan has political ambitions, he reveals. No doubt these factored into what otherwise seemed like a sloppy and all-too-fast invocation of 9/11: “And if it’s useful to help us win the war on terror, then that’s good, yes? Do you forget 9/11?”

No, don’t ever, ever, let them forget 9/11. Flanagan “plans to run for Congress in his Northern Virginia district in 2014.” For which party? “Republican…of course.”

PART FOUR

Part 4, “In the enemy’s lair, fighting for Afghanistan’s future,” is more interesting for what it tells us about Fondacaro, even though it contains a few notes about two HTS members, Patrick Carnahan and Brian Ericksen.

The one person finally named who is a critic of HTS management, John Stanton, gets an ironic swipe from Kimberlin: “Stanton’s articles lean on mostly unnamed sources.” That is better than using other people’s published material without even token attribution, and I know and have relied on some of those sources and they demand anonymity.

The problem, as identified by Kimberlin, is that,

“Bad press can bring heat from above. A congressional review of HTS has been ordered by the House Armed Services Committee. A senior staffer on the committee described the inquiry as mostly routine but acknowledged that it’s partially propelled by the criticism. ‘The bosses don’t like complaints,’ Fondacaro says.”

Kimberlin updates her article to take into account more recent events, speaking of what we now know was the outright firing of Steve Fondacaro: “His boss at the Training and Doctrine Command gave him 24 hours to turn in his government-issued gear and clear out. ‘I gave him a chance to resign and he refused,’ said Maxie McFarland, the man who hired Fondacaro four years ago.” McFarland says the firing had nothing to do with the detractors or the congressional review: “Steve did a great job standing up the program, but his skills are not the right ones to carry it to the next level.” Sure, we get it.

And Fondacaro gets it too: “I’m the toad in the road,” he says quietly. “In personal terms, I’m absolutely pissed off.”

Finally, the message is repeated again, in ever simpler terms (you do this when you think your readership consists of imbeciles and children): “HTS is part of a new strategy that puts as much emphasis on shoring up the good guys as it does on destroying the bad. Cultural insight is now considered as crucial as high-powered weaponry.”

The good guys, versus the bad guys. This is contemporary American journalism.

15 thoughts on “Burlesque Afghanistan: Pulp Fiction from an Embedded “Reporter”

  1. First it was the flamenco-guitar-playing theology student. Now we have outgoing blondes (that’s an extra two points for each qualifier) and guys – at least he’s a little bit honest – who do the required public service before diving into the lucrative pool of politics.

    But the “mission monkey” takes the cake – to mangle a metaphor. Did she ever think that the reason people looked at her strangely was that she was a grown woman in a war zone with a stuffed animal stuck to her backpack? They probably thought she was nuts. I won’t even comment on the Muppetmobiles.

    It reminded me of a kindergarten teacher I met once who treated everyone she met like a four-year-old. The best one I ever met treated her four-year-olds as adults in training. They loved her.

    It’s the old war-is-just-another-name-for-summer-camp approach. And is this ever going to look good on my resumé.

    Is there any way of finding out how many of these people actually were camp counselors? The correlation might be interesting.

    I like the way they have a go at their professional association. If their “mission” is going against the “do no harm” ethic, then it must be the association that’s the problem. Is there any way to bring a suit for anthropological malpractice?

    There’s no way you can put a fluffy, friendly face on this war. It’s a disaster.

  2. I also noticed that many articles about Paula Loyd tend to make hay out of her having been a blonde. They also like to mention her as being “petite,” which is extra odd because Paula was an athletic 5′ 6″ or 5′ 7″. I guess they like their victims to seem more victim-y.

  3. Any team leader that allowed a team member to carry around a stuffed animal should have been shown the door! But, we have to remember the HR process that brings these people to the program, and the apparent ignorance of the HR managers concerning the fact that a “Reserve” Officer lacks the talent and skill sets of an “Active Duty” Officer.

  4. CM, your “the
    ‘mission monkey’ takes the cake”
    made me laugh out loud. I must also be stuck in kindergarten because I made a mental note to self to add that verse to all my future renditions of Farmer in the Dell:

    “And the mission monkey takes the cake
    The mission monkey takes the cake
    Hi-ho, the derry-o
    The mission monkey takes the cake.”

    Max, I agree: “I would like to suggest that the mission monkey here is not the one on the back of the flak vest; it’s the one wearing the vest.”

    So, here we have it – the monkey on the back of the Afghans also has a monkey on it’s back, because it perceives those people “below” it to be as easily manipulated as monkeys. I guess we are expected to conclude (to mangle another metaphor)that “It’s monkeys all the way down.”

    What are these people…. thinking?

  5. You’re right: only once I have been there, will I understand the need to occupy them, and slaughter them. In the meantime, I should ignore what Iraqis and Afghan themselves tell me on this blog, and tell the rest of the world in their own voices. Until I wear American combat fatigues, I can’t understand the world.

    Excellent points, thanks.

  6. If you have a point to prove go there as an embedded “journalist,” I guess nerd with a blog would be more accurate. Then you could also talk to Iraqis and Afghans in person, get the real scoop before the kidnap you. Since they are “themselves” on here and you can prove they are Iraqis and Afghans.

  7. Do you doubt that Jamil Hanifi is an Afghan? Go ahead, you have already protected yourself with an anonymous identity, so as to not to put your reputation in jeopardy.

    I do have a point to prove, and what is great is that you are helping me to prove it. I am revising the article to make the case that much more forcefully.

  8. NY2008, I have multiple tours in both countries, and an extensive COIN background and haven’t heard a positive thing about the HTTs yet. Why don’t you tell the readers about your qualifications.

  9. This is Amy Bursell. While I find it amusing that there are plenty of interesting jokes about me based on this article. My work and interaction with troops and Aghans is absolutely no joke. It is deadly serious. Clearly, it appears that some of these comments are made for shock value devoid of any true knowledge of the difficulties of working in a combat zone. Humor before and after mission work is critical. It keeps you sane. The Monkey itself, really does break the ice. Think about it. The Afghans often have aggressive impressions of any and all forces (makes sense). They don’t think i am crazy. They find it fun. And quite frankly, if any of you interacted with the Afghans i have, in the places they have to, under mind-boggling poverty and horrific stressors of making it through a day to live: the monkey often actually makes them laugh. It serves as a segue for them to talk about the joys in their life, such as their children. What they wish for their kids. And the kids respond, too. All the while the Monkey stays put on the back of the vest. In sum, it is a disappointment that people are not able to view the positive utility of such an object rather than blanketly assume that it is used in some crude way. Finally, thousands of soliders carry stuffed animals around the battlespace with them. Some are more obviously placed than others.

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