The movie everyone is talking about is Avatar, James Cameron’s sci-fi epic adventure about a soldier who joins a mission to pursuade the Na’vi, the native humanoids on the moon Pandora, to relocate from their home, which is the site of a vast deposit of a rare and valuable ore that the humans want, and his conversion to the struggle of the Na’vi. Debates are raging whether the film is a racist, white guilt, rehash of ‘Dances with Wolves’ , where the white hero ‘goes native’ and becomes the leader of the primitive natives who resist genocide by the greedy humans. Or whether the film is essentially a progressive environmentalist and anti-imperialist statement.
One review in Counterpunch that caught my eye was an analysis of the elements of real world counterinsurgency doctrine, in particular the Human Terrain System, a new element of military counterinsurgency strategy in which social scientists are deployed to study restive populations and formulate strategies for pacifying and controlling them. Earlier this year, Counterpunch published another article about the expansion of the Human Terrain System program.
Peace and justice movements need to study the elements of counterinsurgency strategy. The U.S. military has made a deliberate shift towards counterinsurgency doctrine in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the new direction of U.S. military operations, where the lines are blurred between war and police actions, nation building and anti-terrorism, foreign and domestic methods of maintaining social control.
December 23, 2009
Hollywood’s Human Terrain Avatars
By DAVID PRICE
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
August 7 – 9, 2009
A Key Element in Obama’s Smart Power Campaign
Expanding Human Terrain Systems?
By JOHN STANTON
On 5 August 2009 the US Government’s General Services Administration and HQ Training & Doctrine Command (TRADOC) sponsored a Bidder’s Conference for defense contractors looking to work in the US Army and Marine Corps Irregular Warfare program. The subject of that conference was new opportunities for recruiting, training, and managing the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS). HTS is set to become a pivotal element, according to documentation, in other US combatant commands besides CENTCOM; namely, SOCOM, AFRICOM, STRATCOM, and PACOM. Can NORTHCOM and EUCOM be far behind? HTS is currently funded by US Army TRADOC’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence (G2) and CENTCOM. Long term requirements have been validated for funding in the Common Operating Picture funding line of the US Army budget in Presidential Review Briefing 11-15.
Citing specifications, the US Army Training & Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has broadened its efforts to include supporting the Army in combat operations with enhanced, up-to-date training oriented on a current assessment of enemy capabilities as well as predictions for enemy reactions to a dynamic battlefield. TRADOC responsibilities regarding combat and transformation have multiplied, expanded and increased in complexity. As a result, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-2 (Intelligence) has been assigned a wide range of missions and projects that require expert analysis, planning, assessments, and execution from an increasing array of capabilities offered by defense contractors through a flexible tool which brings these capabilities to bear on the challenges G-2 and TRADOC face today, and will face in an ever evolving and dynamic future.
Reach-back and HQ functions will be performed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Hampton, Virginia. A Top Secret/SCI clearance is required for non-deploying HTS employees. HTT members require a Secret clearance. Incumbent contractors are DYNETICS and BAE Systems. On 30 August 2009 the current HTS contract expires. Bids are due on or about 21 August 2009.
The Green Layer is People!
According to the Bidder’s Conference briefing, critical to the success of HTTs is individual replacement of team members during unit rotations in lieu of mass replacement thus mitigating loss of institutional knowledge and expertise while providing for mission continuity. Individual Replacement of existing team members and the addition of whole teams in response to increasing demand for support requires an average of 40-50 personnel per month to fill requirements. As a result of the existing Status of Forces Agreement with Afghanistan and Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, dated January 2009, contractor personnel filling HTT requirements must convert to government employment prior to deployment. Average period of performance for HTT member contractor positions prior to deployment as a government Term Hire is equal to approximately six months.
Citing TRADOC documentation, the Human Terrain Teams (HTT’s) operate in the Effects Cell of the Brigade Combat Team/Regimental Combat Team and support decision making (battle command) for current and future operations. HTT’s collaborate with patrols, civil affairs, psychological operations, information operations, special operations forces, law enforcement and provincial reconstruction teams. HTT’s share information through the Distributed Ground System—Army (DCGS-A)—with other intelligence and battle command nodes in the network. They advise commanders, staffs and supporting subordinate units and support an immediate operational need which will be long term capability for peace time engagement (that’d be Peace Enforcement). Their operational research provides current, accurate and reliable data on specific social groups in the areas where supported units are operating. Human terrain knowledge sharpens the commander’s military decision making process and enables a more effective rotation of forces through the creation and maintenance of a living, human terrain knowledge base.
Social Scientists: New Crop of Intelligent Mercenaries
According to TRADOC specifications, one of the six issues addressed in Irregular Warfare and considered a critical variable in defining the Operational environment is social/cultural dynamics. HTS supports the Irregular Warfare Focus Area by training and educating analysts, social scientists and supporting personnel. HTS personnel and systems provide a new Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capability in support of US Army BCT’s and USMC RCT’s.
TRADOC G-2, citing documentation, envisions long term system integrator services for the program will occur in multiple geographical locations around the globe. This will include in-theater locations in support of the US COCOMS. HTS will provide the critical human terrain or green layer in strategic and tactical defense plans, analysis of adversaries and potential threats and in the analysis of threats to ground, air, sea and space in support of information operations capabilities for STRATCOM and other major Commands. The contractor shall provide support to analyze concepts, architectures, plans, doctrines, and requirements studies. The contractor shall analyze missions and mission areas as they are promulgated and provide support to the drafting and review of requirements documents (e.g., Concepts of Operations (CONOPS), Mission Needs Statements (MNS), Operational Requirements Documents (ORDs), etc.). The contractor must consider intelligence threats and coordinate with integrated strategic and tactical defense plans, and other related studies, plans and programs. The contractor must consider all battlefield operating systems issues in coordination with integrated strategic and tactical defense plans as well as other related studies, plans and programs.
Further, data collection and dissemination of the HTS products is essential in building a Common Operating Picture for the warfighter. The HTS effort includes coordinating data collection efforts with Battle Command (BC) ; oversight of deployed team collection efforts to ensure a process is established to support staffing and implementation of future spirals and requirements; ensuring the HTS fills the Combatant Commanders requirements; development and implementation of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities (DOTMLPF) solutions; implementation of DOTMLPF to leverage the strengths of the capabilities while improving theater operations; capability development; and Force integration of a “System of Systems” which provides intelligence and information to small unit leaders to increase Force effectiveness and influence operations.
What doesn’t HTS do?
Going Geospatial like the Bowman Expeditions
Citing US Army documentation, HTS provides comprehensive descriptions and analyses of the population in a given area of operations and enables Soldiers to operate effectively in accordance with US Army doctrine that defines social and cultural factors necessary to understand the operational environment. Factors include: Social Structure, Roles and Statuses, Social Norms, Culture, Identity, Beliefs, Language, Power and Authority Structure/Hierarchy, etc. Understanding a population’s support for insurgency is rooted in knowing how the population is socio-culturally constructed and understanding how the various structural elements interact with each other. HTS provides understanding and insight on the populations necessary for effective US Army operations. HTS integrates information about what people think, do, and say in patterned ways to achieve knowledge, respect and understanding in the operational environment. The contractor shall use the Tactical Ground Reporting System (TIGR) as the primary means of Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPR) data collection and storage. It will serve as the primary tool for the collection and storage of HTT field notes, field reports, or summaries of daily activity.
Further, the HTS contractor shall conduct multidisciplinary research and analysis in support of military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. The HTS contractor provides rapid analysis of qualitative and quantitative data and in the production of timely reports that meet the operational requirements of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps units in building a common operating picture of the human terrain. The contractor shall provide all of the personnel, equipment, supplies, etc., to conduct field research in combat and provide immediate onsite qualitative insights on the drivers of human behavior and group dynamics in specific geospatially referenced locations that cannot be secured from other sources. The HTS team personnel increase force capability through continual real-time refinement of knowledge and understanding of the local population shared in the Human Terrain System Knowledge Center and an integrated common operating picture of the battlespace.
Finally, HTS is to assist in battle management. The HTS contractor is to analyze and recommend battle management strategies and Tactics, Technique, Procedures/Planning. The HTS contractor will propose optimal sighting and deployment schemes for mission accomplishment and analyze the impacts of both peacetime and wartime operations and requirements on system design and concepts of operations. HTS personnel will provide inputs to a functional, top-level, military requirements plan that leads to concepts of operation and analyze and integrate requirements and concepts to achieve militarily useful defense capabilities. The HTS contractor will also assess man-in-the-loop and autonomy control issues on system performance and requirements for maintaining positive control.
Say sources, “This was a done deal.” If so, that would make theater out of the current solicitation effort by TRADOC and GSA.
John Stanton is a Virginia based writer specializing in national security and political matters. Reach him at email@example.com.