Counterinsurgency’s Free Ride

Like a mad scientist’s slime monster that will not die in a 1950s B Movie, the Human Terrain System’s counterinsurgency teams not only somehow remains alive in the face of extensive devastating criticism, but the program’s existence remains firmly publicly boosted by a seemingly endless series of uncritical mainstream news and features stories that frame the program as America’s last best hope to win the hearts and minds of the occupied peoples of Iraq and increasingly Afghanistan.  If this were a B monster movie, such prolonged survival would be due to remarkable adaptive abilities, but Human Terrain has no such extraordinary power; its success has been guaranteed by the support it receives from the corporate media as it fawns over HTS in a flurry of glowing formulaic profiles ignoring the program’s fatal flaws.  If this were a 1950’s B monster movie, this situation would like finding those we depend on to open fire on the monster shooting blanks (and feeding it table scraps) while abundant cases of live ammo lay at their feet.

The Human Terrain program embeds social scientists, such as anthropologists, with troops operating in battle theatre settings as members of Human Terrain Teams.  These teams are part of counterinsurgency operations designed provide military personnel with cultural information that will help inform troop activities in areas of occupation.  Since the first public acknowledgement of HTS two and a half years ago, it has been criticized by anthropologists for betraying fundamental principles of anthropological ethics, as being politically aligned with neo-colonialism, and as being ineffective in meeting its claimed outcomes.  For the most part, the mainstream media has acted as cheerleaders for the program by producing a seemingly endless series of uncritical features highlighting what they frame as kind hearted individuals trying to use their knowledge of culture to save lives; while misrepresenting the reasons and extent of criticism of the Human Terrain program.

A few early boosters of Human Terrain Systems (HTS) have now called for its closure (most notable, the British journal Nature), and some journalistic coverage has shifted from uncritical fawning to more reserved critical writing (e.g. Noah Schachtman‘s writings on Wired’s military Danger Room blog).  But most media coverage remains uncritical in its thinly veiled support for a program that has never had to answer to the fundamental critiques of its critics, and Human terrain continues on its trajectory of counterinsurgency domination.

The press has moved beyond its initial scandal-instincts feeding off the human interest generated by the controversy and disciplinary outrage over anthropologists assisting military occupations and in its refusal to hold Human Terrain Systems answerable for the questions and critiques launched by its critics, the media has become a key supportive enabler of HTS.  In the last two years I have probably spent twenty to thirty hours speaking with journalists from NPR, Elle, USA Today, Newsweek, Time, AP, New York Times, Wired, Harpers, Washington Post, etc. patiently explaining what the critical issues for anthropologists are when a program like Human Terrain Systems embeds anthropologists with troop engaged in counterinsurgency operations in occupied battle settings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Sometimes portions of these critiques show up along the way in the final stories, but in most cases, the arguments and critiques against the efficacy, ethical, neocolonial politics as well as the practical impossibility of HTS working as advertised are ignored, or worse yet, they are presented as absurd caricatures.

Alternative press journalists like Amy Goodman at Democracy Now or Lindsay Beyerstein at In These Times or foreign journalists in Holland, Finland, Germany, Spain or the UK have had no problems describing the fundamental problems for their readers, but the mainstream American press seems committed to keeping the story one-sidedly simple and manifestly jingoistic.

Over the years, Human Terrain’s saleswoman, anthropologist Montgomery McFate, has a adopted a policy of not answering the academic critiques of her many critics regardless of the documentation upon which these critics base their work.  This policy has allowed Dr. McFate to avoid answering some pretty serious questions; questions about her reported involvement in the surveillance of an American gun control group; questions about the unattributed writings of other anthropologists appearing in the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual; Questions about why, rather than acknowledging that Human Terrain Teams raise complex ethical issues to be negotiated, she has instead moved forward without even trying to publicly address these issues.  And while this approach works well in the political environment of Washington, D.C., where accountability and memories are short, this is the most non-academic approach imaginable—academics engage with each other when disputes arise, they answer critiques with data and arguments rather than rely on silence and professionals to spin stories in the press.  Dr. McFate’s position of leaving critiques unanswered appears to have become that of HTS, and a compliant corporate media has followed this lead as it increasingly refuses to report on the problems, corruptions, and complexities of HTS, instead only providing the public with narratives that would have them believe that HTS anthropologists are good caring people trying to lesson harm, while critics are either invisible or portrayed as ivory tower America-hating kooks.

The real bad news for American foreign policy is that given President Obama’s commitment to “soft power” and his open endorsements of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, we can only expect more of this uncritical coverage on HTS as a crucial tool needed for America’s occupations in foreign lands.  I am left to wonder how Barak Obama’s mother, anthropologist Ann Dunham would have reacted to her son’s reliance on such clearly unethical anthropological means to achieve political ends so aligned with neocolonialist goals of occupation and subjugation?

Because the media’s lack of critical coverage of Human Terrain Systems has become such a key element of its continued existence, I’ve produced below a simple list of ten fundamental issues I’d like to see reporters cover in the next media barrage supporting Human Terrain Teams.  Any reporter working these beat can have a real news story if they just pick up and run with a few of these points.  Reporters covering HTS need to stop telling one side of the story; and here is my list of ten points reporters should address if they are ever going to move beyond functioning as an advertising vehicle for Human Terrain and American counterinsurgency:

1. Please find and identify even a half-dozen anthropologists working for the CIA, Army, Air Force, Marine Corp or any other branch of the military (not current or former HTS employees) who are willing to go on the record supporting Human Terrain as an ethical or even productive use of anthropology in the military.  Good luck.  I’ve spoken with dozens of anthropologists working in these agencies, and they have privately become some of HTS’s worst critiques, and raise many of the same concerns that I and other outsiders in the Network of Concerned Anthropologists raise about HTS.   If journalists bother to look for military anthropologists supporting HTS, what they will find are HTS critics—though these are critics who remain publicly silent for institutional reasons, but that doesn’t mean they won’t express their deep misgivings to reporters off the record

This first point is so important that any journalist exploring this would find a real story simply in reporting the deep disdain HTS has generated among most anthropologists working in military and intelligence agencies.  That’s news.  Those of us who are radical or liberal critics of HTS have pretty much laid-out and documented the problems, but our voices can’t carry the weight that these insider critics can.  It is time for them to be heard—after all, they have loudly been claiming that their primary reason for working in military and intelligence settings is to inject new ideas and to help steer these agencies away from flawed practices.  Now is their chance to show skeptics like myself that the structural conditions of their workplace will allow the sort of institutional criticism that they have longed claimed is their institutional raison d’être.

There may well be some military anthropologists who despise HTS for reasons related to interagency rivalries or turf wars, but most of these anthropologists despise it because the carelessness of the design and unethical core of Human Terrain Systems casts shadows of dispersion upon them and the work they do in their agencies.  These anthropologists are tired of having to explain to colleagues and others that the work they do is in no way related to Human Terrain—they don’t want to be polluted by HTS’s misdeeds, but internal structural workplace conditions prevent them for vocalizing their critiques in public; but this doesn’t mean that reporters can’t find them and talk to them off the record.  My colleague, anthropologist Robert Rubenstein, recently critiqued opponents of military anthropology as being worried about symbolic pollution by colleagues working for the military; I see this critique as being one that can be extended to analyze mainstream military anthropologists’ dislike of Human Terrain.  This past year I heard another colleague, himself an anthropologist employed by the Pentagon described the professional stigma of being incorrectly identified as having anything to do Human Terrain as being “like having to go to a high school dance with your ugly cousin.”  Any journalist wishing to find out what lies beneath this surface of silence won’t have to look very long to figure out how despised HTS is amongst non-HTS military anthropologists.

2. Most journalists find it easy to dismissively look down upon the outlets where journalist John Stanton’s investigative reports on HTS has been published (e.g., Pravda, various online news outlets), but it is not so easy to discount his findings regarding allegations of: systemic HTS sexual harassment, illegal financial practices, fiscal irresponsibility, nonfunctioning reach-back software programs, problems with contractor profiteering, poorly trained personnel working in dangerous settings, incompetence in HTS’ leadership, spy charges against a HTS member, and the circumstances leading up to charges of murder against a human terrain team member.  The level of mismanagement reported by Stanton warrants congressional investigations, but so far his coverage has not really grown legs.  The elements of my own work that overlap with Stanton’s work find his reporting to be credible.  It strikes me as odd that other journalists are not pursuing, or even trying to disprove the scandals that his work has unearthed.  Mainstream media should follow-up on Stanton’s work, if they can find information contradicting his sources, so be it; but ignoring the damning evidence Stanton reports while continuing to pump out the same old fluff HTS profile pieces goes beyond just poor journalism, and begins to function as domestic propaganda.

3. Please accurately explain to your readers why the American Anthropological Association’s Executive Board condemned Human Terrain Systems in its 2007 statement.  It was not because they categorically believed anthropologists should not work for the military (they don’t believe this), it was not because the invasion of Iraq is a shameful neocolonial disaster (it is, but that isn’t why they condemned HTS): it was because the poor way that HTS was designed ignores basic anthropological principles of ethics (including trying to address issues of voluntary informed consent, issues of secrecy, doing no harm, etc.).  Please ask HTS directors why the cultural educational features of HTS could not occur outside of battle theatre settings; thereby ignoring the fundamental ethical problems raised by embedding anthropologists with troops.  If journalists don’t think ignoring professional ethics is a big deal, then I recommend they publicly denounce journalistic principles of ethics; or publish a flattering story on medical doctors who state that they aren’t interested in medical ethics because they’re doing important work that they claim “saves lives.”

4. Please report that claims that Human Terrain Teams engage in targeting the enemy or that HTS provides intelligence are not something made up by HTS’s critics, these claims come from HTS anthropologists themselves.  In a March 8, 2009 story, the Dallas Morning News, (that otherwise followed the HTS cheerleading format) reported that:  “[HTS anthropologist Audrey] Roberts does not worry about what the military does with her information, even if it is fed into the intelligence used by U.S. Special Forces for killing or capturing insurgent leaders.  ‘If it’s going to inform how targeting is done – whether that targeting is bad guys, development or governance – how our information is used is how it’s going to be used,’ she said. ‘All I’m concerned about is pushing our information to as many soldiers as possible. ‘The reality is there are people out there who are looking for bad guys to kill,’ Roberts said. ‘I’d rather they did not operate in a vacuum.’”  As U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Gian Gentile, put it: “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.”  HTS’s stance on this issue is an outrageous perversion of anthropology’s commitments to protect the interests of studied populations and should be reported as such.  Audrey Robert’s stance is in keeping with Dr. McFate’s vision for Human Terrain, but it has nothing to do with anthropology.

5. Please ask Human Terrain Team members to name an historic instance of a successful counterinsurgency campaign waged by foreign occupiers?  When they are unable to name one historical example (beyond possibly Malaya, which took over a dozen years to accomplish, or if one believes the British won in Ireland, 30 years), please ask them why they believe that a group of social scientists without cultural expertise in the theatre of operation will be able to accomplish this.  The United States tried and failed to accomplish this in Vietnam, and President Obama seems positioned to repeat this folly today.

6. Please ask HTS managers why they are unable to get qualified regionally trained anthropologists to work for HTS.  When you don’t hear the phrase “ethical train wreck” in the answer, you will know you are being lied to.

7. The recently leaked Human Terrain Handbook does not even identify the obvious ethical issues raised by embedding anthropologists with military personnel, but instead claims that HTS “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.” HTS’s greatest failure has been to ignore the complex ethical issues raised by embedding anthropologists with troops—rather than trying to address these issues, it simply ignores them.  This is unacceptable.  Please, ask Human Terrain managers and employees what they believe allows HTS to operate outside of federal legislation mandating Institutional Review Board’s clearance of their studies involving human subjects?  Again, such practices warrant coverage in the press as well as congressional investigations.

8. Please inform your readers that there has been no independent assessment of data on the impact of HTS actually reducing “kinetic engagements” with occupied people in Iraq and Afghanistan.  While this claim has been a central feature of friendly HTS media coverage it is entirely without basis.  This claim has been recycled since Army Colonel Martin Schweitzer’s first made it in the New York Times in the Fall of 2007, but my efforts under the Freedom of Information Act to get any reports verifying these outrageous claims led Col. Schweitzer to write me (2/11/08) admitting that no such studies verifying these often repeated claims exist (and even if they did, they would be complicated by confounds of changes in other conditions) and that this claimed reduction is a loose estimate made by Col. Schweitzer.

9. Frequently, the anthropologists interviewed by reporters do not have their identities revealed and are instead only identified by pseudonyms.  Anthropologists routinely use pseudonyms to protect identities of studied populations, but cloaking the identities of anthropologists distorts anthropological power relations and is revealing of just how un-anthropological HTS’s mission is.   Please ask HTS anthropologists if they can come up with any other historical instance of anthropologists hiding their identity for the public or those they study.

10. Please discuss the extent of criticisms originating from within the Pentagon arguing that HTS cannot work as designed and that it is making things worse in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Again, as with my first point, I assume that if HTS is to be stopped, it will be because people with internal legitimacy (and in this case: people with real internal power) attack it.  Lt. Colonel Gian Gentile argues that Dr. McFate and others pitching the HTS radically overstate what counterinsurgency can accomplish, and HTS and other COIN projects simply cannot work as claimed.  In an article entitled, “All Our Eggs in a Broke Basket: How The Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence” published in the current issue of Military Review, Major Ben Connable, USMC, argues that HTS undermines existing, functioning means for cultural education (that while still linked to the neocolonial missions that HTS supports, do not create the ethical problems for anthropologists that HTS inevitably does).  While some of these critiques differ from my own, the silence surrounding the existence of these internal critiques in the press’s stock HTS profiles is one measure of just how HTS friendly these pieces are.

The many problems with Human Terrain Systems have been well documented and discussed by its critics in the alternative press, within professional associations, and in academic sources, it is not difficult to find or identify these critiques.  But public rebuttals from the military or from Human Terrain itself have not been forthcoming largely because the press has allowed them to ignore these criticisms.  The uncritical approach played by the press has become an important part of the story and the press needs to start asking basic questions of HTS and not allowing the silence to continue.
Reporters who want to cover any of these ten points can have them as their own.  But I have to believe that the continued production of the same uncritical formulaic HTS profiles that have been rewritten dozens of times stands as a measure of just how much the Fifth Estate has abandoned its critical obligations and become nothing more than a tool of militarized forces that have taken over American society.  It’s time to hold Human Terrain Systems accountable, and the mainstream media can start by ending HTS’ free ride on the PR machine by holding them to account for these ten basic points—and the dozens of other points that others can generate.

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, published by Duke University Press, and a contributor to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ forthcoming Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual published later this month by Prickly Paradigm 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.