Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture

Several weeks ago, a CounterPunch special report revealed that the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS)—a $726 million embedded social science program—had quietly expired. As media outlets picked up the story, it became evident that HTS’s demise was a welcome development for many. Tax payers were fed up with what appeared to be a costly boondoggle, anthropologists bitterly opposed the program for its ethical shortcomings, and a small but vocal group of military officers complained about how it drained resources from other priorities.

Yet some voices, most notably former HTS employees, publicly complained over the loss of what they insisted was an indispensable military tool. A flurry of policy pieces written over the last several weeks have called for a new improved version of HTS, reflecting a deep longing by military-linked strategists to reboot the program in some yet to be determined form (Dearing & Lee 2015; Kassel 2015; Evans 2015). After news of HTS’s closure became public, Christopher King, its former chief social scientist, stated:

“While HTS may be mothballed until needed again, the program did hammer home to the military the need for social science research. Military commanders re-learned the advantage of knowledge as much as possible about the people they are having to interact with on a daily basis. This ultimately led to better decision making on the ground. Today, social scientists still are active in the intelligence and rest of military community as both contractor and government employees. . .they are still bringing value added to commanders.” (comments in Perlmutter 2015)

In the wake of HTS’s termination, many questions remain. Where exactly did the $726 million go? Why did the program produce few tangible results? And how will the military now try to integrate cultural knowledge borrowed from anthropology and other disciplines into its operations and training?

American military and intelligence agencies have a long history of seeking the sort of cultural knowledge that HTS’s architects sought to weaponize in Afghanistan and Iraq. These agencies have largely failed to harness social science for military purposes, but they stubbornly persist. Given this background—and ongoing efforts to subjugate and control foreign populations—we should understand HTS’s termination as an exercise in retiring one brand and replacing it with newly packaged operations that are well militarizingcultureunderway. The gaps in military knowledge that HTS claimed to fill still remain. The desire to weaponize culture is as old as dreams of counterinsurgency, and such dreams do not die easily.

It would be premature for those concerned about the militarization of culture to breathe a sigh of relief. The needs of empire—especially an empire in denial—are far too great to ignore cultural concerns. HTS’s sudden death can obscure the fact that elements of the program continue to survive, though in distinct and sometimes unrecognizable forms. The basic idea behind HTS—to equip the military with cultural expertise for battlefield operations—has not been eradicated. If anything, the concept has firmly taken root.

Enlisting Experts

To better understand how the military’s quest for cultural knowledge has evolved, we must go back in time. Since World War II, American military and intelligence agencies have drawn upon anthropological knowledge to train personnel, to reshape engagements with local populations in theaters of conflict, and to provoke or quell uprisings. During the 1960s and 1970s, Army and CIA efforts to use anthropological knowledge for South American and Southeast Asian counterinsurgency efforts were made public. These scandalous revelations led many anthropologists to advocate ethical or political stances against such uses of their discipline. Anthropologists’ opposition to counterinsurgency programs held strong after news of HTS surfaced in 2007 (AAA 2007).

Four years ago, as HTS funding peaked, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) launched the Cultural Knowledge Consortium (CKC). It began in 2011, at about the same time that defense firm CGI Federal was awarded a $227 million contract to manage HTS. CKC emerged as the Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative reached out to scholars at American universities, seeking to draw in social scientists willing to align their research interests with those of the military.

Minerva generated new interfaces between military and academic worlds. According to a resource guide prepared for the Pentagon’s 2nd Annual Minerva Conference, the Army initiated CKC “to support the availability, analysis, and storage of socio-cultural data to satisfy the information requirements of the COCOMs [combatant commands] and the defense intelligence enterprise. . .an operationalized expertise network” (US OSD 2011: 4-5). The resource guide outlined an impressive list of objectives to be pursued by “CKC Scholars” including relationship building, electronic collaboration, regional working groups, the creation of a pool of subject matter experts (SMEs) and the coordination of symposia, seminars, and teleconferences.

Despite its lofty goals, CKC had limited impact. It established a (now-defunct) website,, which included a blog, regionally focused discussion boards, and lists of resources such as academic journals. The website included a seemingly random assortment of topics including “current trends in Hungary,” Syrian cultural information, analysis of developments in Sudan, and information from humanitarian workers in Somalia (CKC 2011). (We were able to locate snapshots of the website using the Internet Archive’s “Way Back Machine.”) It also developed a series of YouTube lectures in 2012 covering a scattershot collection of topics such as “Human Trafficking in Moldova,” “The Evolution of Boko Haram,” “The US/Mexico Border and Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere,” and “Socio-Cultural Fieldwork,” the latter of which features Kansas University anthropologist Felix Moos (CKC 2012). According to a social scientist familiar with CKC, the program ultimately “didn’t produce much” and “very few people at the commands knew who they were.”

CKC was terminated in December 2013, but TRISA (TRADOC Intelligence Support Activity) officials initiated a project called the Global Cultural Knowledge Network (GCKN) in October 2014—right after the closure of HTS. TRISA director Gary Phillips recently stated that he and others began working on a “transition plan” to provide cultural expertise in the post-HTS era (Doubleday 2015). At this point GCKN appears to be a relatively lean operation, staffed by a commissioned officer, a geospatial analyst, three social scientists, and a “knowledge manager,” but as we saw with HTS, small programs can grow to monstrous proportions within months. Phillips acknowledged problems with HTS, but stressed that the GCKN would improve upon its predecessor: “We spent about five months going through everything we learned and [are] building this from scratch to not make the same mistakes again” (Doubleday 2015).

We are skeptical of Phillips’s claim that GCKN was built “from scratch.” One source familiar with GCKN told us that it was essentially a “reboot of CKC. . .[without the] headache of deployed teams and the drama that was HTS’s poorly selected personnel.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Phillips nowhere mentions that defense firm CGI Federal—the same corporation that managed HTS in its final years—now manages GCKN.

One social scientist with extensive contacts in the military branches told a similar story: “It picks up the SME-Net aspect of HTS and CKC. . .it will serve as a sort of clearinghouse/reachback capability that allows Army units planning to deploy or conduct exercises to request information or access to expertise.” “Reachback capability” references a key component of HTS, the so-called “Reachback Research Centers.” These were designed to link human terrain teams with stateside specialists who could provide databases of cultural information to assist with counterinsurgency operations, but the effort was plagued with technical problems. The specialists were also notorious for recycling anecdotal information mined from Wikipedia and blogs, mixed with indiscriminate samplings of peer-reviewed literature. “Reachback capability” was in a sense HTS’s unrealized high-tech dream—and we find this element of the dream intact, still luring military clients to promises that culture can successfully be engineered for militarized goals.

Like CKC, it appears that GCKN will rely primarily upon the Internet as a means of linking SMEs with the combatant commands. Apart from its primary portal (not available for public use), GCKN has a secondary portal accessible to broader publics public via the Defense Department’s All Partners Access Network (APAN). (The portal is not fully functional—CounterPunch readers will find that not anyone can join the network [GCKN 2015].) Theoretically, APAN will allow GCKN to build social networking communities that include DoD personnel, academics, and independent researchers. Whether GCKN succeeds where CKC failed has yet to be seen, but it seems unlikely given the similarities between the two programs.

Cultural Intelligence, Special Ops Style

Even though the Human Terrain System program has technically ended, the “human terrain” concept survives—and appears to be multiplying. Just months after HTS was being shuttered, the US Army began expanding its cadre of civil affairs officers. According to the Army Times, these oxymoronic “warrior-diplomats” are often organized in four-person teams who operate “in a low-profile way, leveraging soft power to quietly strengthen and stabilize friendly governments” (Gould 2015)—tasks that resonate with at least some of the activities conducted by embedded personnel during HTS’s heyday. On the surface, civil affairs troops appear to engage with local people ethnographically: “through their ground-level interactions and understanding of local cultures and the people, [they] are able to glean a sense of local dynamics” (Gould 2015). But such “interactions and understandings” are easily mobilized for intelligence purposes or for bolstering psychological operations programs.

Claims of culturally sensitive occupations are the heart and mind of counterinsurgency campaigns. An interesting example is the effort to develop gender inclusive approaches. The US Army and Marine Corps have deployed “Female Engagement Teams” (FETs) for weaponpricecounterinsurgency, under the assumption that “one of the best ways to achieve strategic goals is to use female marines and soldiers to influence the family unit” (Holliday 2012: 90). More recently, US Army, Navy, and Marine Corps Special Operations Commands have introduced “Cultural Support Teams” (CSTs) which despite its gender-neutral name, were comprised exclusively of female service members. According to Megan Katt (2014), “the primary difference between the two was that FETs were used to soften coalition forces’ footprint as they moved through an area, whereas CSTs were designed to provide persistent presence and engagement—a key tenet of population-focused operations conducted by SOF [Special Operations Forces].”

An equally disturbing development is the recruitment of human terrain experts by the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). According to researchers from the National Defense University, SOCOM created “some classified programs related to human terrain” before HTS was launched in 2007, and we can assume these classified programs continue in some capacity (Lamb et al. 2013: 29).

More recently, SOCOM appears to have dramatically stepped up its efforts. In contrast to HTS’s brash public relations campaign, SOCOM has taken a quieter approach by contracting small- to medium-sized defense companies relatively unknown to those outside the industry. Today companies such as Cyberspace Solutions, Streamline Defense, Charles F. Day & Associates, Bluehawk LLC, Atlas Advisors, Quick Services, and Red Gate Group are using popular online job search engines to advertise dozens of positions with titles like “Human Terrain Analyst,” “Cultural Subject Matter Expert,” and “Human Terrain Specialist.”

As an example of how the new privatized version of HTS is being deployed, consider the case of Engility Corporation, a Virginia-based company. Engility is currently advertising “Human Terrain Analyst” positions “to support a SOCOM contract” (Engility 2015). The job involves assessment of “tribal, cultural, and geographic data. . .in order to create human terrain data layers and apply socio-cultural principles to intelligence collection and targeting.” The position requires employees to be ready to deploy to combat zones “with permissive, uncertain, or hostile environments while living in austere conditions.” The job listing is unambiguous about how the position fits into the lethal architecture of Special Ops: “The Human Terrain Analyst will have advanced targeting skills and a comprehensive understanding of the operational cycle as well as the data, tools, and techniques used for each phase of the F3EA targeting cycle” (Engility 2015). It is worth defining “F3EA,” as described by General Michael Flynn, Director of Intelligence at US Central Command:

“An aggressive targeting model known as find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze (F3EA) features massed, persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] cued to a powerful and decentralized all-source intelligence apparatus in order to find a target amidst civilian clutter and fix his exact location. This precision geolocation enables surgical finish operations [kill/capture] that emphasize speed to catch a fleeing target” (Flynn, Juergens & Cantrell 2008: 57).

In a similar vein, another Virginia-based firm, Charles F. Day & Associates, continues seeking applicants to fill “Human Terrain Analyst” positions who “will have advanced targeting skills. . .[and] firsthand experience targeting networks or individual within networks and identifying vulnerabilities for exploitation” (Charles F. Day & Associates 2015). Like Engility, Day & Associates is supporting a SOCOM contract. Defense firm Silverback7 also seeks a “Human Terrain Analyst” who has “advanced targeting skills and a comprehensive understanding of the operational cycle as well as the data, tools, and techniques used for each phase of targeting. . .Human Terrain Analysts shall have firsthand experience targeting networks or individuals within networks and identifying vulnerabilities for exploitation.” The employee will work as part of a Special Operations analytical team (Silverback7 2015).

Yet another company, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, seeks “Human Terrain Analysts” for “research, analysis and production of products supporting United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) irregular warfare (IW) unconventional warfare (UW) planning initiatives. . .[to] provide the initial cultural and social overview for assigned area of interest and continue to research the cultural information for the area to prepare detailed analyses of populations” (DigitalGlobe 2015). Analysts “will nominate and analyze significant socio-cultural variables for analysis; acquire and extract HT and geographic information from relevant current open source data and archival material; collaborate with geospatial analysts to recreate and integrate HT data layers into geospatial systems and databases; analyze and develop the data into working databases that create a baseline of information on tribal and geographic data for assigned area of interest.” Job requirements include an “MA/MS in a social science discipline and training and/or experience with identity studies (e.g. anthropology, sociology, political science)” (DigitalGlobe 2015).

The emphasis on integrating sociocultural, geospatial, and biometric data for targeting purposes confirms what each of us has found in previously published research (Price 2011, González 2015): that a prime objective for collecting “human terrain” data has do with the requirements of automated, mechanized killing via drones, algorithms, and predictive modeling programs.

Rebooting and Rebranding the Human Terrain

In hindsight, the rise and fall of HTS appears predictable. During its earliest days, its salesmen were given a free ride by an unquestioning press, as HTS’s shills made outrageous claims about their ability to manipulate foreign cultures. It was obvious to many critics that the program could not work as advertised, but our critiques fell on deaf ears as HTS personnel and contractors profited and the military was given false hope. The corporate media was complicit to the extent that it helped sell the public an expensive bag of tricks that gave some hope for hopeless wars far from home. There were many voices of dissent outside the program that became a minor part of the story, but the objections didn’t fit mainstream media narratives. Some people made lots of money from HTS, as there was little accountability or measurable outcomes.

But with time, HTS became a public relations disaster on multiple levels.   Some social scientists attacked it for ignoring obvious ethical issues, others for uses of anthropology for neocolonial ends. Some in the military attacked it for its waste of funds and lack of results, while others simply distrusted the larger counterinsurgency soft power project of which it was a part. In the end, not even the efforts of Laurie Adler, a dedicated PR operative who was previously employed at the infamous Lincoln Group, could save HTS from reports of fiscal mismanagement, sexual harassment, racism, and waste. By 2013, even hawks like US Representative Duncan Hunter (R-California) of the House Armed Services Committee attacked the program (Vanden Brook 2013).

While HTS is no more, the mistaken ideas at its core live on. With plenty of profit to be made by military contractors pitching the importance of cultural knowledge as a tool for warfighters and armed “peacekeepers,” we should not be surprised to find evidence of old wine in new bottles. So long as America’s militarized foreign policy remains expansionist, spreading to foreign shores, there will be audiences ready to be convinced that expertise in local culture can help manage people—as if differences in manners and customs were at the root of the problems of invasion, occupation, and conquest.

Now that the HTS brand has been retired, we find efforts to repackage the same old snake oil under multiple programs that do not immediately carry HTS’s negative associations. While the public may have difficulty in figuring out how these programs are linked to the original brand, military contractors are eager to tap the same funding sources that enriched BAE Systems, CGI Federal, and other firms associated with HTS Version 1.0. The loss of HTS as an obvious target of criticism now provides an opportunity for war profiteers and counterinsurgency’s hucksters.

The rebranding of the Human Terrain System leaves unresolved three troubling inherent elements of the initial program. First, HTS officials always claimed it was an educational program rather than an intelligence program, even while information leaked out demonstrating how it was being used in intelligence and targeting capacities. This same confusion remains with the new programs. Second, HTS failed to follow basic ethical guidelines for research on human subjects, avoiding compliance with human subject review standards and professional ethics codes like the American Anthropological Association’s Principles of Professional Responsibility. We find no evidence that these basic standards are now being followed with the new programs. Finally, HTS’s use of anthropology and other branches of social science for military occupations and wars of global expansion raises troubling political issues that remain with us today.   The rebranding of “human terrain” may buy its supporters some more time, but the failure to resolve these fundamental issues leaves these recent efforts irrevocably tied to HTS’s origins.



AAA (American Anthropological Association). 2007. Executive Board Statement on HTS. October 31.

CKC (Cultural Knowledge Consortium). 2011. Blog.

CKC (Cultural Knowledge Consortium). 2012. Videos.

Dearing, Matthew & Jim Lee. 2015. Research Returns from War. Foreign Policy (online edition). July 23.

DigitalGlobe. 2015. Human Terrain Analyst in United States.

Doubleday, Justin. 2015. “Controversial Army Social-Science Program Morphs into ’Reach-Back’ Office.“, 13 July.

Engility Corporation. 2015. Human Terrain Analysis – Expert (Job ID: 2015-12961).—expert/job?mode=job&iis=Indeed&

Evans, Ryan. 2015. The Seven Deadly Sins of the Human Terrain System. Foreign Policy Research Institute Blog, July 13.

Flynn, Michael T., Rich Juergens & Thomas L. Cantrell 2008. SOF Best Practices: Employing ISR. Joint Forces Quarterly 50.

GCKN (Global Cultural Knowledge Network). 2015. Global Cultural Knowledge Network.

González, Roberto J. 2015. Seeing into Hearts and Minds (Part 2): Big Data, Algorithms, and Computational Counterinsurgency. Anthropology Today 31(4), 13-18.

Gould, Joe. 2015. Civil Affairs: The Army’s Hottest Job Is Hiring Now. Army Times, June 1.

Katt, Megan. 2014. Joint Forces Quarterly 75.

Kassel, Whitney. 2015. The Army Needs Anthropologists. Foreign Policy (online edition), July 28.

Perlmutter, Dawn. 2015. The Murder of the Human Terrain System: How the Academic Left Shut Down a Crucial US Military Program. FrontPage Mag , July 14.

Price, David H. 2011. Weaponizing Culture: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. Petrolia, CA: CounterPunch Books.

US OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense). 2011. Social Science Resources for Academics and Policymakers. Washington: DoD.

Vanden Brook, Tom. 2013. Rep. Duncan Hunter calls the Human Terrain System a waste of money. USA Today, December 2.



Roberto J. González is Chair and Professor of Anthropology at San Jose State University. His latest book is War Virtually: The Quest to Automate Conflict, Militarize Data, and Predict the Future.

David H. Price is Professor of Anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent.