‘American Counterinsurgency’ – The Human Terrain System
The Human Terrain System, a program which embeds social scientists with brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan, is billed as a mechanism for improving the U.S. military’s knowledge of culture and local populations — heretofore perceived as sorely lacking. “It’s a chance to change the military; it’s a chance to change the Army,” one HTS member said at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in November. The HTS Web site states that the program “does not collect intelligence or have a role in targeting.” However, AAA’s executive board has formally opposed the program, citing a number of ethical issues including the potential misuse of anthropological information for targeting purposes — which would violate the bedrock principle that those studied should not be harmed.
One of the leading critics of HTS has been Roberto J. González, an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. In American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, forthcoming February 1 from Prickly Paradigm Press, and distributed by University of Chicago Press, González strongly critiques the human terrain concept in its historical and contemporary contexts. He answered some questions for Inside Higher Ed.
Q. Would you summarize the magnitude and mission of the Human Terrain System, as you understand it, today?
A. The Human Terrain System (HTS) is a $200 million U.S. Army program that embeds anthropologists and other social scientists with combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program’s building blocks are five-person “human terrain teams” that include armed personnel. Approximately 25 teams have been deployed since the program began in 2006, mostly in Iraq. According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s budget justification, the goal of the program is “to collect data on human terrain, create, store, and disseminate information from this data, and use the resulting information as an element of combat power.” In other words, HTS is designed to help the military gather ethnographic information — intelligence data about Iraqis and Afghans — in order to improve its war fighting capabilities. Human terrain team members are employed by BAE Systems, a British firm awarded the contract to manage the program.
A revealing description of HTS was published in Military Review. In it, the authors state that the program is designed to “understand the people among whom our forces operate as well as the cultural characteristics and propensities of the enemies we now fight.” They also note that HTS is a “CORDS for the 21st Century” — a reference to a Vietnam-War era counterinsurgency initiative (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). CORDS gave birth to the infamous Phoenix Program, a secret operation in which ethnographic data on Vietnamese civilians was collected and turned over to CIA-funded paramilitary troops. In the end, Phoenix operatives assassinated more than 26,000 suspected Viet Cong sympathizers. The possibility that HTS might be used for such purposes deeply concerns me, and it’s what inspired me to write American Counterinsurgency.
Q. You write, “The way in which HTS has been packaged — as a kinder, gentler counterinsurgency — is completely unsupported by evidence.” Instead, you argue that HTS was created “primarily as a tool for espionage and intelligence gathering.” Could you summarize the evidence you rely upon in making this argument?
A. To fully understand HTS, we should place it in the broader context of what might be called today’s “cult of counterinsurgency,” which centers around the personality of General David Petraeus. For several years, he and a loyal group of advisors — many with Ph.D.s in the social sciences — have been involved in an effort to whitewash counterinsurgency. In other words, they have tried to clean up the image of counterguerrilla warfare, which is always a dirty business. The U.S. military has more than a century of experience of this kind of warfare (going back to the bloody “Indian Wars” of the 1800s and the cruel campaign against Filipino revolutionaries in the early 1900s), yet Petraeus and others have portrayed it as a newer, gentler method of fighting — “the graduate level of war” in the words of one enthusiast. HTS was developed as a central component of this “new” old method.
Many sources indicate that HTS was designed primarily as an intelligence-gathering program. As I’ve mentioned, government budget documents and military journals describe the program as means of collecting ethnographic intelligence to boost “combat power.” In the Department of Defense’s 2008 Global War on Terror Amendment, human terrain teams are described as military intelligence assets which “have proven invaluable in identifying and tracking threats.” The statements of brigade commanders are also revealing. For example, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Gian Gentile recently wrote that “these human terrain teams, whether they want to acknowledge it or not … contribute to the collective knowledge of a commander which allows him to target and kill the enemy.” This fits the military’s definition of human intelligence.
Q. In your book, you trace the term “human terrain,” prefacing the chapter on the term’s origins by writing, “When I first heard the term ‘human terrain,’ a nightmarish vision came to mind.” If Webster’s asked you to write a definition of the term, what would you write?
A. I’ve always felt uneasy about the Orwellian juxtaposition of the words “human” and “terrain.” Linguistic anthropology tells us that in military contexts, such a term will tend to objectify and dehumanize people, because it implies that they are geographic space to be conquered. Personally I wouldn’t want to give “human terrain” the legitimacy that goes along with a spot in Webster’s Dictionary! But if I had to provide a definition of the term, it would probably be something like: “a euphemism referring to civilians living in a war zone, or under military occupation.” (Last year, the American Dialect Society declared “human terrain team” the most euphemistic term of 2007!)
In conducting research for my book, I learned that human terrain appeared more than 40 years ago in a report by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee — the same committee responsible for whipping up anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s. The report (Guerrilla Warfare Advocates in the United States) evoked images of a country threatened from within. It warned that militants like the Black Panther Party might possess “superior control of the human terrain.” From these beginnings, human terrain was linked to domestic counterinsurgency campaigns at a dark moment in U.S. history, when the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) — which brutally repressed political dissent within our country — was in full gear.
Q. The Human Terrain teams themselves have been in the headlines. But you write of human terrain as a much broader phenomenon, one that’s being embraced by the military, industries, and research universities. How so?
A. HTS has indeed been in the news, especially since three of its social scientists have been tragically killed in action over the past nine months. In American Counterinsurgency, I wanted to go beyond the headlines, to examine the development of the human terrain concept and how it has been transformed over the years. I discovered that the concept was reborn in the early 21st century, when influential people like retired Lieutenant Colonel (and neoconservative pundit) Ralph Peters, Major General Robert Scales, and Senator John McCain embraced the concept. It diffused quickly across the armed forces and into the private sphere and university research labs. After Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, there was a boom in funding for projects focused on human terrain research and “culture-centric” warfare, and this attracted dozens of companies from what Dwight Eisenhower once called the “military-industrial complex” — BAE Systems, Aptima Corporation, MITRE, RAND Corporation, Wexford Group, MTC Technologies, NEK Advanced Securities Group, and Alpha Ten to name a few. Today contract funds connected to human terrain dwarf funds allocated by the National Science Foundation for basic anthropology research.
Modeling and simulation programs and dynamic social network analysis are the latest fads in human terrain research. Engineers, computer programmers, and social scientists seek to integrate ethnographic data into predictive computer programs. Each year the Pentagon spends tens of millions of dollars in a quest to find a technological holy grail that forecasts political hot spots — organized protest marches, riots, or full-blown terror attacks. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Purdue, and other universities are competing with private corporations for these funds. It’s become a real growth industry.
Q. You write of parallels between HTS and anthropology’s historical role in helping colonial powers retain control of their empires. In your opinion, are there any ways that social scientists can productively engage with the U.S. military, without binding themselves in that colonial legacy?
A. Many people have written about anthropology’s support of colonial governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Oceania — not to mention its role in the subjugation of Native American peoples — but it’s a much more complex picture. History tells us that anthropology has occasionally played an essential role in resisting imperialism. For example, in the 1930s a young Kikuyu man named Jomo Kenyatta from British East Africa (today Kenya) arrived in London and attended seminars led by the renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. In 1938 Kenyatta published a stirring ethnography of Kikuyu life, Facing Mount Kenya, which inspired many people by examining the painful consequences of British colonialism from an insider’s perspective. He used anthropology as a tool for challenging — not supporting — colonial rule. Kenyatta became a revolutionary leader and eventually the first Prime Minister and President of independent Kenya in the 1960s. His experience illustrates how students of the human sciences are as capable of challenging imperialism as they are of serving it.
With respect to working with the U.S. military, I think that there are many anthropologists who have consulted for the armed forces ethically — that is, without violating professional codes of ethics established over the past 60 years. For example, medical anthropologists such as Genevieve Ames have conducted research on the way that U.S. “military culture” might contribute to excessive drinking and tobacco use. Others, like William Beeman, have addressed officers at the Naval Postgraduate School to explain why many Iraqis are revolting against the U.S. in a way similar to the revolts against Great Britain in the 1920s. These social scientists are doing fine work that bears no resemblance to neo-colonial counterinsurgency projects such as HTS.
Q. Is there a way for HTS to fix itself — and if so, where would you start — or is it, in your opinion, fundamentally flawed?
A. Some argue that HTS is suffering from poor management and lack of oversight, and that if these problems could be corrected then it would be successful. I disagree. Conceptually, the entire program is flawed because human terrain team members are thrust into an impossible situation in which they are torn between conflicting interests. I’ve interviewed current and former HTS employees who have expressed serious concerns about this. On the one hand, they must be loyal to combat brigades — in fact, the Human Terrain Team Handbook stipulates that the teams “belong to the [brigade] Commander.” On the other hand, the teams’ social scientists are expected to respect and trust Iraqis and Afghans who they are interviewing. One can imagine all sorts of situations in which team members might confront grave ethical dilemmas: What should team members do if a commander requests field notes or targeting information in preparation for an attack? Are human terrain teams obliged to identify Iraqis or Afghans suspected of having ties to insurgents? How is it possible for embedded social scientists to obtain informed consent if they are attached to armed units conducting door-to-door searches? Each of these situations demonstrates basic flaws with the HTS concept. Like all counterinsurgency projects, it is designed to control or suppress popular movements. This runs completely counter to normal anthropological approaches which seek to bridge societies by promoting cross-cultural understanding. You can be a counterinsurgent, or you can be an anthropologist, but you can’t be both.
— Elizabeth Redden