Human Terrain System – A reporter’s notebook


I’m currently doing some inquiries for an article I’m preparing on the Human Terrain System — a program that’s had more than its share of controversy surrounding it, and as far as I can tell, a lot of political FUD-spreading.

The name of the program is somewhat misleading to those who don’t know about it, because the primary element of the HTS in place is HTTs — Human Terrain Teams, made up of social scientists, who have been providing “human terrain” data — information on local anthropological, sociological and political systems in Iraq and Afghanistan–to help the Army resolve as many potential conflicts without using “kinetic” action (blowing things up). An admirable goal, no doubt.

But the program has been getting smeared quite a bit–some of it being legitimate, but a great deal of it being…well…like I said, FUD. I’ve seen enough FUD in my time to know when I see it. And apparently, so has Old Blue over at Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure. Take a look, and see what I mean, as he takes apart a story that ran in Men’s Journal on the program, and its author. (The Army responded to the article, and the author to the Army’s response, which you can see here.)

HTS is interesting to me for a number of reasons. There *is* a technology element to the program — a reporting system called MAP-HT, which is supposed to provide for data collected by HTTs to be distributed to units as part of a geospatial intelligence system that tells unit commanders not just about the physical terrain they’re entering, but the people who live there, their customs, and potential sources of conflict. But human analysts — HTT members– have to collect that data, and they’ve often found themselves in harm’s way.

The program is evolving, in part because of the Status of Forces agreement in Iraq (which has changed the game for Army contractors considerably), and in part because of the shift of emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan. I’m hoping to get an accurate picture of what’s going on with the program as I dig–a balanced view, based on the facts. Of course, I won’t be bringing whiskey to Afghanistan to do that…

Update: Today, I interviewed Dr. Bill Stuart, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, for some background on why anthropologists are so disapproving of HTS, and the relative merits of the program minus the ideology.

Stewart said, essentially, that the problem with the program from the American Anthropologial Association’s standpoint was largely based on a post-modernist, ideological view of the nature of anthropology.

ome in our discipline (Anthropology) are heavily ideological in the stances they take. .. and that many of them are users/champions of a more-or-less “post-modernist” stance that (i) the traditional distinction between “fact” and “value” is a phony – and perhaps pernicious one; and that (ii) it is the right (perhaps responsibility) of anthropologists to see our discipline as a “moral” rather than strictly “scientific” one and that, accordingly we must address and assess issues in terms of matters of “justice” rather than in terms of “truth”. Thus anthropology becomes first and foremost a Normative/Moral rather than a Postivist undertaking. [Perhaps Nancy Scheper-Hughes has given most articulate voice to this position. See her “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology” (Current Anthropology, Vol 36, No 3 (Jun., 1995), pp. 409-440.). Her position was challenged by Roy D’Andrade (Moral models in anthropology. Current Anthropology, 36(3) (Jun., 1995), pp. 399-408) . Thus, it’s especially those who take the manifestly “left-of-center” postmodernist or critical anthropology to take ideology-informed stands…they have converted even applied anthropology into a heavily ideologized undertaking, including the limiting of applied anthropology to approved topics and tasks… where such a list of approved applied anthropology would not include HTT.

But he was unsure that using applied anthropology–“rapid ethnography”, as he called it, in the way HTS does is practical, since it would take long periods of field work to understand the dynamics of a community so well as to turn it into actionable information. In other words, the payoff from HTTs will likely not be very high without long-term deployment within the communities. “Perhaps more usefully such anthropological input as part of HHT would best be done ‘in the classroom’,” he said , “in briefings, before, and de-briefings after the combat teams did they onsite work, without an anthropologist being present. ”

[updated with clarification from Dr. Stewart]