FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hollywood’s Human Terrain Avatars

by DAVID PRICE

This week, as James Cameron’s 3D cinematic science fiction saga dominates the American box office, and tie-in products permeate fast food franchises and toy stores, it is worth noting an interesting bit of cultural leakage tying our own real militarized state to Cameron’s virtual world of Avatar.

Avatar is set in a world where the needs of corporate military units align against the interests of indigenous blue humanoids long inhabiting a planet with mineral resources desired by the high tech militarized invaders.  The exploitation of native peoples to capture valuable resources is a story obviously older than Hollywood, and much older than the discipline of anthropology itself; though the last century and a half has found anthropologists’ field research used in recurrent instances to make indigenous populations vulnerable to exploitation in ways reminiscent of Avatar.

Avatar draws on classic sci-fi themes in which individuals break through barriers of exoticness, to accept alien others in their own terms as equals, not as species to be conquered and exploited, and to turn against the exploitive mission of their own culture.  These sorts of relationships, where invaders learn about those they’d conquer and come to understand them in ways that shake their loyalties permeate fiction, history and anthropology.  Films like Local Hero, Little Big Man, Dersu Uzala, or even the musical The Music Man use themes where outsider exploitive adventurists trying to abuse local customs are seduced by their contact with these cultures.  These are themes of a sort of boomeranging cultural relativism gone wild.

Fans of Avatar are understandably being moved by the story’s romantic anthropological message favoring the rights of people to not have their culture weaponized against them by would be foreign conquerors, occupiers and betrayers.  It is worth noting some of the obvious the parallels between these elements in this virtual film world, and those found in our world of real bullets and anthropologists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2007, the occupying U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan have deployed Human Terrain Teams (HTT), complete with HTT “social scientists” using anthropological-ish methods and theories to ease the conquest and occupation of these lands. HTT has no avatared-humans; just supposed “social scientists” who embed with battalions working to reduce friction so that the military can get on with its mission without interference from local populations.  For most anthropologists these HTT programs are an outrageous abuse of anthropology, and earlier this month a lengthy report by a commission of the American Anthropological Association (of which I was a member and report co-author) concluded that the Human Terrain program crossed all sorts of ethical, political and methodological lines, finding that:

“when ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment – all characteristic factors of the HTT concept and its application – it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.”

The American Anthropological Association’s executive board found Human Terrain to be a “mistaken form of anthropology”.  But even with these harsh findings, the Obama administration’s call for increased counterinsurgency will increase demands for such non-anthropological uses of ethnography for pacification.

There are other anthropological connections to Avatar.  James Cameron used University of Southern California anthropologist, Nancy Lutkehaus, as a consultant on the film.  I recently wrote Lutkehaus to see if her role in consulting for Cameron had included adding information on how anthropologists have historically, or presently, aided the suppression of native uprisings; but Lutkehaus wrote me that her consultation had nothing to do with these plot elements, her expertise drew upon her fieldwork in Papua New Guinea to consult with choreographer, Lula Washington, who designed scenes depicting a gorgeous coming-of-age-ritual depicted in the film.

Among the more interesting parallels between Avatar and Human Terrain Systems is the way that the video logs that the avatar-ethnographers were required to record were quietly sifted-through by military strategists interested in finding vulnerability to exploit among the local populous. Last week a story in Time magazine quoted Human Terrain Team social scientist in training Ben Wintersteen admitting that in battlefield situations “”there’s definitely an intense pressure on the brigade staff to encourage anthropologists to give up the subject..There’s no way to know when people are violating ethical guidelines on the field;” and the AAA’s recent report found that “Reports from HTTs are circulated to all elements of the military, including intelligence assets, both in the field and stateside.”  Like the HTT counterparts, the Avatar teams openly talked about trying to win the “hearts, mind, and trust” of the local population (a population that the military derisively called “blue monkeys”) that the military was simply interested in moving or killing.  And most significantly, the members of the avatar unit had a naive understanding of the sort of role they could conceivably play in directing the sort of military action that would inevitably occur.  Sigourney Weaver’s character, the chain-smoking, pose striking, tough talking Avatar Terrain Team chief social scientist, Grace Augustine, displayed the same sort of unrealistic understanding of what would be done with her research that appears in the seemingly endless Human Terrain friendly features appearing in newspapers and magazines.

Past wars found anthropologists working much more successfully as insurgents, rather than counterinsurgents: in World War II it was Edmund Leach leading an armed insurgent gang in Burma, Charlton Coon training terrorists in North African, Tom Harrisson arming native insurgents in Sarawak.  These episodes found anthropologists aligned with the (momentary) interests of the people they studied (but also aligned with the interests of their own nation states), not subjugating them in occupation and suppressing their efforts for liberation as misshapen forms of ethnography like Human Terrain.

Anthropologically informed counterinsurgency efforts like the Human Terrain program are fundamentally flawed for several reasons.  One measure of the extent that these programs come to understand and empathize with the culture and motivations of the people they study might be the occurrence of militarized ethnographers “going native” in ways parallel to the plot of Avatar.  If Human Terrain Teams employed anthropologists who came to live with and freely interact with and empathize with occupied populations, I suppose you would eventually find some rogue anthropologists standing up to their masters in the field.  But so far mostly what we find with the Human Terrain “social scientists” is a revolving cadre of well paid misfits with marginal training in the social sciences who do not understand or reject normative anthropological notions of research ethics, who rotate out and come home with misgivings about the program and what they accomplished.

On the big screen the transformation of fictional counterinsurgent avatar-anthropologists into insurgents siding with the blue skinned Na’vi endears the avatars to the audience, yet off the screen in our world, this same audience is regularly bombarded by media campaigns designed to endear HTT social scientists embedded with the military to an audience of the American people. The engineered inversions of audience sympathies for anthropologists resisting a military invasion in fiction, and pro-military-anthropologists in nonfiction is easily accomplished because the fictional world of a distant future is not pollinated with the forces of nationalism and jingoistic patriotism that permeate our world; a world where anything aligned with militarism is championed over the understanding of others (for reasons other than conquest).

DAVID PRICE is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologist.  He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, published by Duke University Press, and a contributor to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ new book Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual published last month by Prickly Paradigm Press. He can be reached at dprice@stmartin.edu

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 03, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix the ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Obama’s Legacy
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Christopher Brauchli
Parallel Lives: Trump and Temer
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail