Debating the End of the Human Terrain System, Part 2


US Army caption: “Fist bump–A group of local Afghan children bump fists with U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the 1775th Military Police Company during a mission to Kuchi village, Afghanistan, May 27, 2011. The purpose of the mission is to distribute radios and flyers to local villagers, and to evaluate the needs of the locals”.

Part 1 ended with the observation that what might not stand out from the various debate positions on HTS, is the underlying unity that existed between the main lines of debate. As a result, certain opportunities for further developing critical analysis were lost, as I suggested back in 2013. This is what I turn to below.

Lost Opportunities for Self-Criticism in US Anthropology

Anthropologists in US universities almost exclusively dominated in articulating critiques of the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS). Fundamental ethical, methodological, and certain theoretical tools of the discipline were put to the test, and sharpened. However, there were serious pitfalls to their criticisms.

One was that HTS was largely not guilty of the kinds of things of which it stood accused by its critics—it was almost as if HTS needed to be directly involved in killing Afghan villagers, routinely participate in torture, and conduct deep espionage, in order to be open to serious criticism. In other words, it needed to be Rambo. That is not anti-imperialist critique—this is more a critique of spectacular forms of militarism, and little beyond that. HTS generally defeated such criticisms. Here, US anthropologists failed. However, had they not failed to produce a more comprehensive critique of US imperialism, then they would have felt compelled to equally criticize all US anthropologists working for, consulting with, or otherwise collaborating with the US State Department, or allied NGOs and international financial institutions, in pushing regime change agendas, intervening in the domestic political affairs of other nations, destabilizing established institutional arrangements, and undermining sovereignty. They might have found themselves very much marginalized had they done so.

US anthropologists used the HTS debate to negate or suppress deeper contradictions and to delay raising uncomfortable questions by externalizing and projecting them onto HTS. If one could argue that HTS social scientists did not control the uses to which the knowledge they gathered would be put, then the same can be said (and has been said), about anthropologists publishing ethnographic information in journals, which we sometimes discover has been used for harmful ends. As for military anthropologists, HTS was a convenient scapegoat–pushing all the negative attention its way, while maintaining a semblance of clean hands.

US anthropologists tended to identify the wrong problem, showing the limits of the discipline, and the epistemological cul-de-sacs of authorized lines of debate and their political barriers. We will see a list of some examples shortly. Among the wrongly identified problems were those involving ethical issues and HTS’ purported support for violent operations.

HTS and its US anthropological critics shared more in common than either cared to admit, because maintaining the debate was profitable to both sides in achieving ends other than the ones that either side stated. HTS personnel sought to prove their worth in performing domestic counterinsurgency among US academics, while the AAA sought to negotiate more control over the use of anthropologists by the Pentagon. Indeed, at every step, key AAA spokespersons emphasized that they were not advocating any anthropological boycott of the military.

The protection of others, and professional self-interest, became prominent features of the earliest ethical critiques of US anthropological collaboration with the US military in counterinsurgency. However, HTS’ proponents also made an argument for protection—promising to reduce violence by reducing the “cultural misunderstandings” that could produce it—and they promised to adopt ethical guidelines. Moreover, HTS’ lead anthropologist, Montgomery McFate, expressed a concern for US anthropology’s public value and importance. Same goals, different means.

Even now, one complaint recently produced by US critics is that HTS failed to intervene more directly in stopping paedophilia in Afghanistan. First we condemn HTS as interventionism, then we complain about its lack of “humanitarian intervention”. This creates a lose-lose situation for HTS, but it also renders the anthropological argument worthless.

In other ways, US anthropologists seemed unwilling to apply their critical logic to their own discipline, where it would have found even more fruitful grounds for critique. One example involves criticism directed against HTS for its chosen terminology, especially around the concept of “terrain” that is human.

Failing to Return the Gaze:

“…anthropologists in North America and Britain speak of going into ‘the field,’ and ‘going native’ (as a problem), and refer to local hosts as ‘informants’. It is noteworthy that even as some anthropologists object to the nomenclature of the US Army’s Human Terrain System (see González, 2012)—finding it objectionable that, in the military’s linguistic rendering, human beings are symbolically reduced to inanimate terrain to be mapped and marched on like dirt—anthropologists themselves nonetheless persist in using a term related to terrain through land, that being field. In fact, terrain is also a synonym of two other key conceptual terms in anthropology: space and arena. Interestingly, forming a bridge between field and terrain are various other synonyms pertaining to the battlefield. While González (2012) would like to a see a linguistic analysis performed on military terminology, we should also turn that gaze back. One would in fact not have far to travel to find identical terminology in US anthropology, as when George Marcus described ‘multi-sited ethnography’ as follows: ‘multi-sited ethnography is an exercise in mapping terrain” (Marcus, 1995, p. 99). In a theoretical piece of dubious value, that was nonetheless influential in US anthropology, Arjun Appadurai disaggregated the world-system into one composed of distinct ‘scapes’ (such as mediascapes, technoscapes, etc.)—which is not too distant from the idea of ‘landscape,’ a term that approximates ‘terrain’ (Appadurai, 1990)” (from Forte, 2015, pp. 189-190)

In other words, while searching for the roots of the “human terrain” concept, and finding them somewhere in US urban policing under COINTELPRO, we miss or downplay how George Marcus talks of ethnography as “mapping the terrain,” in a major anthropology journal. Moreover, Marcus himself served in the very role of Chair of the AAA commission to investigate HTS, where he spoke of the sometimes “necessary complicity” of US anthropologists (Israeli anthropologists are another matter). The ironies could not get any thicker.

“Let’s sit down together and share our concerns…”

The excessive focus on research ethics, management issues, salaries, and scholarship, suggest certain limits to the mainstream critiques and to their political complicity with military anthropology and with the US’ position as the dominant imperial power more generally. What we learn from this is that a criticism of war, of the national security state, of militarization, are not necessarily critiques of imperialism, and that such critiques can very happily generate themselves in the absence of a theoretical framework of imperialism. Seen from another angle, the AAA vs. HTS debate mirrored arguments internal to the US state, with competition between the State Department and the Pentagon, between more invested in civilian work and soft power, versus allowing the Pentagon to take over more functions that were previously civilian-controlled. In this respect, the AAA sided with the State Department.

Many of the criticisms divorced ethics from politics, and made it sound like it would be fine if anthropologists contributed to military and intelligence endeavours in different circumstances, or if anthropologists could preserve institutional autonomy and peer review.

Among the dominant criticisms, which were usually from a liberal perspective, there was concern with the “tone” of debate. There were calls for collegial respect, viewing the stronger expressions of criticism with some distaste as if they were mere ideological polemics. Respect for tone is used when convenient, when protecting a status quo. When the AAA recently convened to vote on BDS, there was little patience with any opposition from Israeli anthropologists—whatever one thinks of anthropology in Israel is irrelevant on this point.

Thus both sides of the debate—HTS advocates and mainstream academic critics, especially military anthropologists—tended to betray shared affinities, a mutual sense of belonging, and common concerns in terms of “care” and “protection” of those under US occupation. There was, in some cases, a shared concern in finding practical solutions (that took occupation as a given, and thus out of bounds as a target of critique) and providing useful advice to military and political authorities. Interestingly, much of what some tout as anarchist anthropology, was totally silent throughout these years of debate. You mean you really did not notice that?

What Don’t You Support, Exactly?

Having examined the diverse lines of criticism in great detail, the larger contexts in which they were developed, and the many individual publications where they appeared, both online and in print, my sense is that by far most US anthropological critics of HTS would either answer in the affirmative, or profess neutrality, in response to the following questions of this fictitious survey.

In light of the criticisms of the Human Terrain System voiced by the AAA and most critics of HTS in the discipline, would you support the Human Terrain System if

  1. it was better managed?

  2. its research passed inspection of Institutional Review Boards and was peer reviewed?

  3. it could be proven that informed consent was obtained?

  4. if it had a better, more extensive training program?

  5. if HTS actually employed well-regarded specialists in the regions where it was deployed?

  6. if deployed Human Terrain Teams lived with villagers, and not on US bases?

  7. it was a fact that HTS never directly contributed to targeting?

  8. instead of using anthropologists, HTS turned to other social scientists?

  9. if it asked better questions, but still supported the US military?

  10. if it was separate from the US military, but still supported US foreign policy?

  11. if it could be proven that it had reduced violence where it operated?

  12. if it could be shown that its work was humanitarian in nature?

What has been called criticism instead usually contained an inexplicable mix of messy contradictions, such that one could never really be sure about what was being criticized, to what degree, or which were the most important criticisms. For example, complaining about mismanagement in HTS is just one, rather weak criticism—if such management issues can be solved (and they usually can), then that would eliminate one of the stated reasons for rejecting the program. What seemed like a messy and confused grab bag of criticisms, instead did make sense on an altogether different level: together they constituted a call for setting the right conditions for complicity.

It was not just US anthropologists who failed to more clearly articulate their line of critical opposition, HTS’ proponents also failed to avail themselves of what could have been devastating counter-blows.

How McFate Missed

Lead HTS anthropologist, Montgomery McFate missed the opportunity to deliver what could have been some powerful counter-critiques. It is understandable why she would not have done so—because it would have required considerable self-criticism, and self-criticism was not the name of the game for any of the parties to the debate. Some counter-critiques that she could have chosen to use, would have included merely posing the following questions:

  1. If harm can be done by appropriating anthropological knowledge, then why do anthropologists produce such knowledge in the first place?

  2. If no harm can be done with anthropological knowledge, then why shouldn’t the military have it?

  3. If you support the truth value of anthropological research, then why withhold it?

  4. What harm has HTS done to the reputation of the discipline that non-military anthropologists haven’t already done?

Let’s remember that immediately before the HTS “controversy,” the AAA was boiling over allegations against its member, Napoleon Chagnon, for his unethical and harmful research in Venezuela, which saw him earning a ban from the country. On what basis does one determine McFate to have been worse than Chagnon—or many other, lesser known figures—for US anthropology’s “reputation”?

To be fair to McFate–unusual as that may be on my part–she did explain somewhere that the US military would use anthropological knowledge regardless, and there was a danger they could misunderstand it, misapply it, and thus do harm. So why not have US anthropologists present as advisers to make sure such misuses did not occur? While I do not support complicity on any level, I do not know that her question ever received a serious answer from her US colleagues.

I suppose that the big question that remains is: how did the dominant form of institutionalized US anthropology create the conditions for HTS to become possible? In other words, what is it about US anthropology that provides the rationale, the personnel, the tools, and the context for something like HTS to come into being? Do those conditions continue to be reproduced? While there are multiple historical contexts that shaped, motivated and informed the rise of US military anthropology, and the opposition of some anthropologists, less attention has been paid to US anthropology’s own internal sources of sustenance for a HTS phenomenon. What is it about US anthropology’s own inner contradictions and internal logics that are suitable for exploitation by the imperial state? What I raised in these pages consists merely of some notes toward an answer to that question.

In the end, odd as it may seem, there is one single remark that disturbs me the most, after all of the tens of thousands of remarks made across many thousands of pages of writing on HTS over the years. It came from a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which took the lead in denouncing HTS. In reply to my raising the same points as above, he emailed me to say: “Sometimes, you can be too radical for your own good”.


Appadurai, Arjun. (1990). “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”. Theory, Culture & Society, 7(2), 295–310.

Forte, Maximilian C. (2015). “On Secrecy, Power, and the Imperial State: Perspectives from WikiLeaks and Anthropology”. In M.C. Forte (Ed.), Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism (pp. 187-221). Montreal, QC: Alert Press.

González, Roberto J. (2012). “Anthropology and the Covert: Methodological Notes on Researching Military and Intelligence Programmes”. Anthropology Today, 28(2), 21-25.

Marcus, George E. (1995). “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography”. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 95–117.

Marcus, George E. (2009). “CEAUSSIC: Origin Story and Grand Finale”. AAA Blog, December 7.