The Leaky Ship of Human Terrain Systems

Human Terrain Systems, one of the U.S. military’s key counterinsurgency efforts to stabilize the occupation of Iraq, appears to suddenly be under serious attack by groups that once offered it support.  This latest round of attacks comes not from progressive anthropologists like me or my fellow members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists; these attacks come from groups with far more centralized power and access to documents and media than any of us  academic critics.  I don’t know who is behind these attacks but they may be coming from within the belly of the Pentagon or within Human Terrain itself.

On Thursday December 11, two apparently separate attacks were launched.  One attack came in the form of publication of a fierce editorial in the pages of the British scientific journal Nature. It declared that the “the US military’s human-terrain programme needs to be brought to a swift close.”  This position is all the more devastating when contrasted with an editorial supporting the principles of Human Terrain and other forms of military-funded anthropological work published by Nature just five months ago.  A second attack came the same day with the leak and web distribution on of the UNCLASSIFIED Human Terrain Systems Handbook.  These two attacks, whether coordinated or independent, further destabilize  already shaky support for the poorly designed Human Terrain Systems program.

I don’t pretend to understand why these attacks are now converging now, but it is no secret that some divisions in the Pentagon oppose the “hearts and minds” strategy of counterinsurgency, and it is possible that some of these actors are working to undermine Human Terrain by leaking this document and sewing seeds of discontent in public discourse for their own reasons; reasons quite separate from my own and having to do with their favoring the use of brute military force over soft counterinsurgency.

The Human Terrain program is the brainchild of anthropologist Montgomery McFate, whose longtime interest in supporting the suppression of insurgent groups through the adoption of counterinsurgency tactics led to the formation of Human Terrain Systems based at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas and run through BAE Systems contractors.  Human Terrain Teams (HTT) are designed to supplant or complement roles that Civil Affairs units have traditionally played in assessing the needs and conditions of occupied populations.  As the recently leaked Handbook states, “Human Terrain Teams bring another aspect of the population: the average persons’ perspective, when the HTT incorporates the “grass-roots” perspective with government and tribal perspectives.”  These Human Terrain Teams are designed to incorporate military-embedded anthropologists and other social sciences who interview members of local populations in war zones, often with armed Team members, sometimes wearing uniforms.

Because of the complex ethical issues involved in conducting ethnographic fieldwork for occupying military forces in war zones, the Human Terrain Program is viewed by most anthropologists as being  highly problematic. In November 2007, the American Anthropological Association’s Executive Board produced a statement condemning the Human Terrain program for its inattention to basic anthropological ethical concerns for voluntary informed consent and the well-being of studied populations.

In the last half year, American journalist John Stanton has written a series of damaging exposés published here on the CounterPunch site, in Pravda and elsewhere detailing a failures of Human Terrain management and the program’s overall inefficiency in the field.  Stanton’s work draws largely on unidentified disgruntled Human Terrain personnel and paints a picture of fiscal mismanagement, poor field supervision, lack of training before sending social scientists into life-threatening situations, and a non-working “reach-back system” that was supposed to connect deployed field Human Terrain personnel with personnel located at HTS headquarters at Ft. Leavenworth.

Nothing seems to be working right at Human Terrain.  During the past year two Human Terrain social scientists have been killed and last month saw an attack on,  and severe burning of, a third Human Terrain social scientist. Murder charges were recently filed against Human Terrain Team member Don Ayala. Ayala is accused of executing a detained  man believed to have attacked and burnt his Human Terrain Team colleague).  Many have tried to dismiss John Stanton and his work because it appears in alternative press sources but bastions of mainstream journalism have been giving the Human Terrain program a free ride since its inception, so I would not look to these sources to publish critical reports.  That Nature has turned against Human Terrain is big news.

Inside the Leaked Handbook

The recently leaked (unclassified) Human Terrain Team Handbook (September 2008) reflects Human Terrain’s vision that by aiding in the more sensitive occupation of populations, Human Terrain Teams are reducing violence.  The Handbook states that, “the end-state of Human Terrain Team support is to provide the unit the reasons why the population is doing what it is doing and thereby providing non-lethal options to the commander and his staff.”  This statement expresses the Handbook’s internal logic that: anthropologically based non-lethal subjugation = good; lethal subjugation = bad.  The Handbook ignores more traditional political and ethical considerations of anthropologists’ responsibilities following a logic more aligned with notions that subjugation of other cultures = bad.  Such traditional anthropological considerations are outside the logical scope of the Handbook; it takes anthropologically aided subjugation as an acceptable goal from the outset.

The Handbook claims that Human Terrain personnel produce “expert human terrain & social science advice based on a constantly updated, user-friendly ethnographic and socio-cultural database of the area of operations that leverages both the existing body of knowledge from the social sciences and humanities as well as on the ground research conducted by the team.”   But as John Stanton’s reporting clarifies,  the needed software and the “tactical overwatch reach-back links” at the Ft. Leavenworth Reachback Research Center has never worked as planned with failed software systems and personnel reportedly unable to use the system.

The Handbook describes how a Human Terrain “toolkit” can be used to make subjects living in military occupied areas understandable to the U.S. military forces occupying them.  This toolkit is used in ways designed to make populations (to borrow from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State) “legible” and thus controllable.  The Handbook states that:

“HTTs will use the Map-HT Toolkit of developmental hardware and software to capture, consolidate, tag, and ingest human terrain data. HTTs use this human terrain information gathered to assist commanders in understanding the operational relevance of the information as it applies to the unit’s planning processes. The expectation is that the resulting courses of actions developed by the staff and selected by the commander will consistently be more culturally harmonized with the local population, which in Counter-Insurgency Operations should lead to greater success. It is the trust of the indigenous population that is at the heart of the struggle between coalition forces and the insurgents.”

Human Terrain social scientists’ mission is thus expressed in terms of engineering the “trust of the indigenous population.”  The Handbook clarifies how Human Terrain Systems envision its role as a tool by occupying military forces:, “the HTT will research, interpret, archive, and provide cultural data, information, and knowledge to optimize operational effectiveness by harmonizing courses of action within the cultural context of the environment, and provide the commander with operationally relevant, socio-cultural data, information, knowledge and understanding, and the embedded expertise to integrate that understanding into the commander’s planning and decision-making processes.”  Like many other contemporary articulations of anthropologists’ working with the military, the Handbook acts if its project is somehow separate from larger neo-imperial missions of invasion and occupation.

Consistent with claims by McFate and others supporting Human Terrain Systems, the Handbook insists that Human Terrain Teams should not engage in “Lethal Effects Targeting.”

But the Handbook remains silent on how the supposedly non-classified collected Human Terrain data will be protected from the “unintended” uses by others. It does state that “the commander has an intelligence section for lethal targeting; what they require is a section that can explain and delineate the non-lethal environment (e.g. tribal relationships and local power structures), as well as the second and third order effects of planned lethal and non-lethal operations.”  Human Terrain Systems appears to naively believe that it can control the uses to which its data is put by others.  In a similar state of denial, the Handbook includes the admonition that personnel should: “avoid direct involvement in tactical questioning. Tactical questioning is a function of the intelligence world and designed to elicit primarily lethal-targeting information. It would also endanger relationships with the local population if HTTs are seen being involved with the “interrogating” of friends/family.” This statement pretends that the world of the intelligence community is neatly compartmentalized and could not possibly have access to HTT reports, and that by insisting that HTT personnel avoid “direct involvement” with the intelligence community somehow means that whatever passive involvement they have is acceptable.  The Handbook does not address the possibility that as Human Terrain Personnel collect information reporting identities of cooperative and compliant individuals or groups as “not” Taliban or “not” sympathetic to al-Quaida, those occupying the negative space of these composite pictures risk becoming targets.

The academic lineages exposed in the leaked Handbook are enlightening.  In particular, the Handbook draws heavily from and cites the work of American anthropologist and research methods guru H. Russell Bernard (Disclosure: I have known Russ Bernard for over twenty years, he was a member of my doctoral dissertation committee, I consider him a friend.) and anthropologist James Spradley—both highly regarded anthologists and research methodologists. The Handbook recommends several specific ethnographic tools, some of which are found in many anthropologists’ toolkits including: “The core software components (Analyst Notebook, ArcGIS, Anthropac, UCINet and NetDraw) allow the team to conduct network analysis, Modeling and Pattern analysis and geo-spatial analysis that place those people and events in place and time.” The Handbook includes sample interview forms that can be used to catalog members of occupied populations in remote databases.  There are discussions of qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis written at a high school or middle school level of sophistication, describing such techniques as producing ethnographic field notes or conducting structured and unstructured interviews.  James Spradley’s 1979 “Taxonomy of Ethnographic Questions” and his “Elements in the Ethnographic Interview” are cited and reproduced in full. The Handbook includes a list of an interesting knowledge-tree of local concerns that military occupiers should be aware of—this list includes such items as knowledge of local archaeological resources, hand gestures, shortages of water, electricity and other resources.  The list provides a matrix to be used by anyone wishing to inventory items needed when attempting to establish full spectrum dominance over a given occupied people.

The inclusion of these specific methodologies, toolsets, interview and inventory sets is an artifact of  Human Terrain Systems’ focus on neo-positivist notions that social control of the human landscape can be achieved by the recording of, and then manipulation of key variables in these environments.  At a theoretical level, the Human Terrain project is reliant on a form of social engineering where the anthropologists working inside the program seem to believe they are reducing harm for the studied occupied populations, but the program itself is designed to manipulate these populations as studied objects—objects to be controlled for what has been determined as “their own good.”

The most startling methodological revelation in the Handbook comes when the current Human Terrain project connects itself to past anthropological efforts to catalog disparate cultural traits in George Peter Murdock’s Human Relations Area File, a project with financial roots firmly planted in anthropologists’ efforts to catalog cultures during the Second World War.  The Handbook states that,

“As part of the research, we will eventually use the Organization of Cultural Materials schema in order to contribute our research results to an existing database of cultural practices and social systems known as the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) housed at Yale University. This practice allows us to provide significant, abundant, and contemporary socio-cultural information that others around the world may use in their own research. This practice will also allow us to tie into the HRAF database and compare the existence of one social practice, symbolic system, or historical process in our area of operations with others elsewhere in the world. Such cross-cultural analysis enables us to get closer to explaining causation and make weak assertions of what will likely happen in the population in the near future.”

With this statement Human Terrain comes full circle and connects to World War II projects using anthropological data to inform military interactions with occupied peoples, yet there is no expressed awareness of the many failures of the HRAF project, or of the problems faced by World War Two users of Murdock’s data.  Instead, the Handbook blindly marches towards a high-modern world of imagined social engineering where handheld data units provide occupiers with the sort of specific data readings that Captain Kirk, Science Officer Spock and their red shirted human terrain ensigns had in the original Star Trek series.  But this project isn’t exploring where no [hu]man has gone before, it is only a broken high tech version of colonial projects that many anthropologists hoped had become part of a shameful disciplinary past.

In a few places the Handbook makes fleeting suggestions that issues of research ethics are being dealt with by someone or something else.  Without explanation, the Handbook states that “an accompanying document is written outlining how the research will comply with the protection of human research subjects according to 45 CFR 46 to ensure the research falls within accepted ethical guidelines.”  The Handbook also claims that, “the results of our research provide non-target data that suggests Courses of Action to the commander and his staff. Our research is performed in the same manner in which academic social scientists conduct their research and is similarly rooted in theory and complete with ethical review boards.”  It is difficult to evaluate the claims of non-targeting.  In his forthcoming book American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, anthropologist Roberto González quotes U.S. Army, Lt. Colonel Gian Gentile, scoffing at suggestions that such cultural data would not be used for targeting in active war situations, responding to similar claims by Human Terrain anthropologist Marcus Griffin: “Don’t fool yourself. These Human Terrain Teams whether they want to acknowledge it or not, in a generalized and subtle way, do at some point contribute to the collective knowledge of a commander which allows him to target and kill the enemy in the Civil War in Iraq.”  That the Handbook claims HTT’s research is “complete with ethical review boards” is news to me, and I await further clarification for how this claim is actually being implemented. I remain skeptical that this has in fact been implemented in any meaningful way.

Human Terrain Systems is a failed attempt to approach problems of subjugation or occupation with tools and understanding of cultural nuance and culturally appropriate manipulation.  Many anthropologists like myself oppose these methods on ethical and political grounds. The ethical problems of voluntary informed consent, and protection of  research participants in such battle settings are ignored by Human Terrain, as is the political reality that anthropology is being used to aid and abet the forced occupation and subjugation of others.  Human Terrain supporters like McFate argue that it represents a nonviolent alternative to the use of force, but these supporters fail to address the larger political context of supporting conquest and subjugation, instead choosing poses in which they present themselves as if it is they who are actually “insurgents” working within and against the military as they try and teach the military to use less-lethal means of achieving conquest.  The leaked Handbook shows that this is not insurgency against the military; it is a betrayal of what might have been anthropology’s promise to represent those we study in ways that reflect not only who they are, but their own self interests.

DAVID PRICE is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.  He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, just published by Duke University Press. He can be reached at





David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.