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Hollywood’s Human Terrain Avatars


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

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.

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