The quiet death of the Human Terrain System
August 22, 2015 1:32 PM   Subscribe

The Quiet Demise of the Army’s Plan to Understand Afghanistan and Iraq. "In the heyday of counterinsurgency, the United States military’s Human Terrain Teams were a bold idea. In the drone-war era, they became an anachronism." [Previously 1, 2] posted by homunculus (30 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 


Mixed feelings about this one. I think that developing cultural sensitivity in combat forces is a very good thing, and that there is a role for sociology and anthropology in counter-insurgency.

But the data being gathered is also the data that can be sued by death squads, torturers, and various nasties of the Karzai government. And there's no guarantee that the observations are actually going to filter into the conduct of US forces, especially at the higher echelon.

Project Camelot was fascinating as well. In particular, there was POLITICA, a computer program designed to model political events. The POLITICA analysis was one of the bits of evidence which convinced the CIA to have Allende killed in Chile.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 2:00 PM on August 22, 2015 [9 favorites]


John Dolan, who writes under the name Gary Brecher, aka "the War Nerd" at PandoDaily (and before that, The eXile) had a fantastic piece up a few weeks ago about his personal history with Montgomery McFate (aka, Mitzy Carlough) co-inventor of the Human Terrain System program. Sadly, it's pay-walled, but if you have a membership and haven't read it, it's very much worth the read:

My Human Terrain, Part One: Me and Mitzy Carlough
My Human Terrain, Part Two: “Which way to the bombs?”

(if someone here does have a PandoDaily membership, I think you can share a link to Dolan's piece here which would be available to everyone who clicks on it for a day or so)
posted by Auden at 2:22 PM on August 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


If you go to this page and click through the links there, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of the Dolan/Brecher/"War Nerd" piece without hitting the Pando paywall.

Although, for those who are not already familiar with "The War Nerd", personally I find the guy's SA Goon Squad / Internet Tough Guy schtick wearing to the point of grossness. I'm not entirely clear whether the entire character of Brecher, including the War Nerd shit, is all sort of a long-game troll by Dolan (who by all accounts is a mild-mannered poetry professor), or if it's just his own personal Mr. Hyde who became internet famous. But for those who want to read him, there you go.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:23 PM on August 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


Thanks, Kadin2048. I do share some of your misgivings about him and for the same reasons, but those those two pieces are so interesting and wonderfully written (... although somewhat tangential to this post).
posted by Auden at 3:53 PM on August 22, 2015


a long-game troll by Dolan... or if it's just his own personal Mr. Hyde

For a while I followed War Nerd closely, and if you separate the tone from the content (which is pretty wearing), it's some good, unflinching analysis of war, power, politics, and the use and limits of violence in geopolitics. I always thought of him as Gwynne Dyer on meth.
posted by fatbird at 4:03 PM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


That said, I always thought the schtick was a pose to say the things he says without constantly battling an atmosphere of existentialist despair, because without the "fuck yeah", it's pretty goddamend depressing.
posted by fatbird at 4:05 PM on August 22, 2015


Note that unlike the APA, the American Anthropological Association explicitly bans its membership from participating in efforts of this nature and opposes the Human Terrain System Project.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:48 PM on August 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


I wonder what role the wearing of military fatigues while talking to people played in the program's failure.
posted by rhizome at 4:58 PM on August 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


It took Gezari two-thirds of her essay to get to the Vietnam syndrome. Our version of the Human Terrain System was to "Win The Hearts and Minds" of the Vietnamese. Many of our Special Forces teams worked intimately with various peoples in SE Asia, but one important message never seemed to get past the field grade officers to the Movers and Shakers: the people that live there are not a simple homogeneous blob. They are dozens of cultures with various interests, some of which are conflicting. An American A Team can successfully sponsor a Mike Force, comprising one or another of the hill tribes. Thing is, they might be happy to kill Vietnamese, either north or south, without ever embracing America's interest in the Area. In their limited area of responsibility, most of the A Teams and SOG units were insanely successful. But their success was only local.

For the most part, American troops are not organized to win anybody's heart or mind. They are organized to grab them by the balls. Drone warfare epitomizes this design function in a way that's so sparse as to be almost poetic. I say sparse, because the tooth to tail imprint in any given impact area is all tooth, while the tail resides in a compound perhaps somewhere in Colorado. I say poetic because of the existential ambiguity that comes with raining death from above while sipping coffee from a mug without ever having to feel any of the human interaction that combat soldiers deal with daily: the ambush, the booby trap, the smell. I don't sneer at the drone operators, because I have been given an inkling of what they do, and they are not totally free from the consequences. Their demons hide under different rocks, is all. They are, however, spared the daily sense of futility of the well-trained team of in-country operators--the ones that speak the language and look upon faces. Drone pilots don't see trusted and trusting friends among the "others" slaughtered because they (for some reason) allied themselves to the Americans.

We have not changed at the policy level since we bought the Philippines from Spain: we think of "them" as pigs, and we need only to apply a bit of American lipstick to bring them into the fold of civilization and enlightenment, where they will embrace our vision of the American Dream and sell it to their children (perhaps at the newly constructed McDonalds). Our leaders can send intelligent and well-schooled scholars, but we can't absorb anything about the people they study because of our own hubris. It seems like the IQ quotient of our analysts decreases as the information the assemble moves up the chain of command. The alternative, to my mind, is either institutional cynicism or congenital stupidity.

Our failure in this case lies not with our anthropologists, but with the underlying motives that send them there: We want to get to know you better, so we can more efficiently chose those whom we wish to kill.
posted by mule98J at 5:06 PM on August 22, 2015 [34 favorites]


the American Anthropological Association explicitly bans its membership from participating

Not quite:
The Association appointed two task forces, both well balanced between critics and anthropologists who worked with the military, to examine the issues carefully and deliberately. They concluded at the end of this careful process that anthropologists would be in grave danger of violating our ethics code and endangering human subjects if we worked with HTS, and so strongly recommended that anthropologists steer clear of the program.
[emphasis mine].
posted by unliteral at 6:46 PM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Trying to use anthropology to counter a revolutionary movement is like trying to use psychology to further industrial relations: always fraught with peril, and, often, a distraction from real solutions. It's essentially the military trying to do politics "the nice way", because the use of real military terror is not acceptable.

What I mean by "real military terror" is the kind of stuff Saddam Hussein would do: gassing civilians, mass murder, etc.

But the military of a democratic government is not the right organization to promote a political solution to a conflict: the democratic government itself is. If you want to create a viable civilian government, you need a reasonable political process, a decent constitution, good elections, a will to fight corruption, etc. Essentially, you need to look at the politics of South Vietnam and try to avoid doing anything like that.

Sending a unit beholden to the military hierarchy, with no real decision power, to try to patch things up quickly is never going to work.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:01 PM on August 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Read the war nerd piece which is more of a memoir about the human terrain systems guru Montgomery McFate than it is about human terrain systems. There are two points that I do not get how they fit together.

War Nerd reports he had McFate inside an IRA affiliation group in San Francisco.

In one of the counterpunch articles from the previously on mefi,

Human Terrain Systems, Anthropologists and the War in Afghanistan
by DAVID PRICE
, we find Price reporting:

The anthropologist Montgomery McFate has become the public spokesperson for Human Terrain, and while she has increasingly pulled back from public discussions of the workings and implications of Human Terrain, in reading her early writings on British counterinsurgency operations against the IRA, we find a model of how she (and, it appears, her military sponsors) view anthropology working as a tool for military conquest.

So the British government hired her to do the double-agent thing against the IRA? She was an infiltrator agent to begin with in San Francisco? She was loyal to the IRA cause for awhile and then found she could make some money leaking on them? How did she avoid getting whacked by the IRA?

The two items if both reliable seem to need backstory to make sense.

Also it sounds like war nerd has had a sad life for a civilian in a wealthy country which is not a war zone.
posted by bukvich at 8:13 PM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's funny. Trying to understand people -- that seems good. The alternative of fucking off and raining death on them from above -- that's bad. But the Human Terrain Systems approach -- even if it worked, a big "if" in the world of military contracting I think -- just feels kind of uncomfortable.

The thing is -- war is bad. And the fix for that is not -- we have this sensitive new way of doing war! and it employs humanities graduates! And it's equally not, we have this super-safe new way of doing war where our pilots never have to leave their air-conditioned trailers in Colorado, or Florida. I mean, these things have their virtues. But the trap is, either way you're killing people, driving them from their homes, destroying their ways of life.

Making sure our forces represent the full spectrum of college majors does not really help.

These conflicts in the APA, AAA -- I think the pro-participation people can say, war, "enhanced interrogation" -- it's work! (If not, also, a sacred calling in defense of the, ugh, homeland.) These are professional organizations and our members should work.

What's the saying? "The US government is an insurance company with an army"? In fact, the whole economy is retooling in this direction, with a staggering share of GDP going to military and surveillance activities and a staggering share going to health expenditures.

I applaud the APA's efforts to wash away the stain of torture, and I hope they stick. But because of the growing size of the war industry, I think most professional bodies will (continue to?) see which side the bread is buttered and rule that it's ethically okay to use their unique knowledge for killing people. If we're lucky, we'll get some enduring bright lines against torture -- but I doubt it. I think when the President decides torture is cool again, the relevant experts will find a way for it to be ethical again.
posted by grobstein at 10:19 PM on August 22, 2015


Also it sounds like war nerd has had a sad life for a civilian in a wealthy country which is not a war zone.

I think Dolan would be the first to tell you that it was such because he actively avoided every easy path to a comfortable life.
posted by fatbird at 10:46 PM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not entirely clear whether the entire character of Brecher, including the War Nerd shit, is all sort of a long-game troll by Dolan (who by all accounts is a mild-mannered poetry professor), or if it's just his own personal Mr. Hyde who became internet famous.

Gary Brecher is an alter-ego expressing the self-loathing of Dolan toward his own past as a socially inadequate, militaristic, obsessive loon. Dolan also uses the War Nerd column to describe the tribal, atavistic, and cynical aspects of humanity that he feels are downplayed in mainstream discussion of conflict. I'd say "Gary Brecher" is a kind of Mr. Hyde, but Dolan focuses on dark attributes of people and society in his writing regardless whether he's writing under his own name or one of his psuedonyms.
posted by 3urypteris at 11:10 PM on August 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Cultural training and deep, nuanced understanding of Afghan politics and history were in short supply in the Army; without them, good intelligence was hard to come by, and effective policy making was nearly impossible.

None of this makes sense if you can't speak the language. I recall when I was reading Marcus Luttrell's account in "Lone Survivor" my surprise that although he spent many chapters discussing in detail the intense physical and combat training required to become a Navy SEAL, he did not seem to have been equipped with even the most basic foreign language skills. You can't win anyone's heart or mind if you can speak with them.

I'm pretty sure that during the Vietnam war, the Army's special forces (Green Berets) were required to speak at least basic Vietnamese.

Perhaps in an all volunteer military, the requirement that recruits are able to learn a foreign language is too high a hurdle?
posted by three blind mice at 2:41 AM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


John Dolan is an interesting writer. A good poet, too. I have a lot of time for the good poets, which is why I continue to read him.

The War Nerd articles started as a persona, Gary Brecher, a basement dwelling data entry clerk in Fresno. They were a dramatization of the absurdity of how most modern Americans relate to war. The idea was to create an voice that would articulate a kind of high-postmodern take on the world, but from the perspective of someone at the bottom of the social pecking order, yet who didn't have any outsider credibility. Someone completely devoid of either authenticity or authority. Dolan once compared Brecher to Baudrillard, but without the academic baggage.

But over the years the persona aspect of the writing diluted and now it's pretty much just Dolan writing as himself. His particular gift as a commentator is being able to synthesize lots of information into an easy to follow story. That said, I think his writings outside of the War Nerd articles are probably better. The column ties up too neatly, most of the time. His more personal articles are more open. I think that remembrance of Montgomery McFate might be the best of those articles, at least since his memoir of working for that crazy university in Kurdistan.
posted by Kattullus at 2:43 AM on August 23, 2015 [4 favorites]


If you go to this page and click through the links there, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of the Dolan/Brecher/"War Nerd" piece without hitting the Pando paywall.

I tried that and it gave me the paywall. Even trying in a private browsing window. I am frustrated because I'd really like to read the pieces but I do not want to spend $10 just for them. Am I doing something wrong? Please hope me, I'd like to read the articles.
posted by megafauna at 2:49 AM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


What megafauna said - its telling me the freebie expired 8 hours ago.
posted by infini at 3:08 AM on August 23, 2015


I tried that and it gave me the paywall.

Me, too.
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:09 AM on August 23, 2015


Here is the I'M NOT PAYING; WON'T READ encapsulations of war nerd's memoir of his relationship with montgomery mcfate.

1.) they were an item when Dolan was a post-doc at Berkeley and McFate was an undergrad

2.) her real name is Mitzy and she grew up on a houseboat in Marin County with a single hippie mother

3.) Mitzy is a moocher

4.) Mitzy got into postmodernism and theory and several big shot Yale professors were in competition to be her, um, advisor

5.) Once she got to the big time and could mooch off guys that drove BMWs she couldn't be assed to give war nerd the time of day

The End.

(Some time before step 5---call it step 4.1 if you want, maybe 3.9---Mitzy and war nerd hung out at an Irish pub in San Francisco regularly with the San Francisco cell of the IRA which was the only point that I recall that had anything to do with the War on Some Terror. Also if you have read any Philip K. Dick you know all about the war nerd mitzy relationship--it is a tvtrope of loving a borderline personality disordered person.)
posted by bukvich at 6:36 AM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


three blind mice: "the intense physical and combat training required to become a Navy SEAL, he did not seem to have been equipped with even the most basic foreign language skills. You can't win anyone's heart or mind if you can speak with them.

I'm pretty sure that during the Vietnam war, the Army's special forces (Green Berets) were required to speak at least basic Vietnamese."


SF teams came in four flavors. The A team was the tip of their particular spear. B & C teams handled logistics, supplies, and training other FS personnel to the job at hand. A fourth team handled various liaison duties between the teams in the field and the DoD. I may have some of these jobs scrambled. It's been over 40 years and I was a LRRPbird, not a snake eater. These teams were not specifically combat units. They were trained to organize indigenous people in counter-insurgent tactics. So, many of the SF teams had trained linguists. After a couple of tours, most snake eaters had a working knowledge of a pidgin related to the tribes they lived with.

SEALs didn't operate that way. They were highly skilled raiders and recon units. As I understood them, they were the sneaky-petes of sneakey-pete ville. They were the guys who mainly grabbed the balls, so to speak.

SOG (Studies and Observation Group) units were forward operating bases, comprised of some ASA personnel, some SF people, and a bunch of local tribesmen. They lived along the Vietnamese border (all of the borders) or in Laos and Thailand. They operated signal intercept units and DF units that related to bombing in North Vietnam. Some of them supported LIMA units, which were isolated signal units comprised of mainly Air Force ELINT or SIGINT operators.
posted by mule98J at 9:30 AM on August 23, 2015 [6 favorites]




None of this makes sense if you can't speak the language. I recall when I was reading Marcus Luttrell's account in "Lone Survivor" my surprise that although he spent many chapters discussing in detail the intense physical and combat training required to become a Navy SEAL, he did not seem to have been equipped with even the most basic foreign language skills. You can't win anyone's heart or mind if you can speak with them.

I'm pretty sure that during the Vietnam war, the Army's special forces (Green Berets) were required to speak at least basic Vietnamese.


As I understand it, this reflects a major change in US Special Forces policy and doctrine over the past 30-40 years. The old-style Special Forces, like the Green Berets described by mule98J, operated far forward in theaters of war for long deployments, often training and organizing local forces -- what the DoD calls "unconventional warfare."

The new-style Special Forces specialize in missions like "counter-terrorism" and "hostage rescue" or, more recently, targeted killing. Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 (formed 1980 in response to the Iran hostage crisis) are both designed along this model. The bin Laden killing, that Somalian pirate thing, and the targeted killing "night raids" in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere typify this role.

Some units I think are kind of transitioning between the old and new models.

Anyway I am far from an expert on this but there is a good slice of history in Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars.
posted by grobstein at 10:03 AM on August 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Scahill, whose prose turns increasingly purple as the movie progresses (“Like a flywheel, the Global War on Terror was spinning out of control,” he narrates at one point), argues that Obama has in essence created a monster—a secret military force, with billions of dollars at its disposal but hardly any public accountability, that can project itself around the world and perpetrate terrible violence in sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States.

“We have created one hell of a hammer,” a confidential source, obscured in shadows with his voice altered, tells Scahill during a Deep Throat–ish encounter. “And for the rest of our generation ... this force will be continually searching for a nail.”
Dirty Wars .

Also, I really, REALLY hate the fact that the term "targeted killing" is replacing "asassination".

Because when you pick out a particular person, hunt them down, & kill them by surprise, that's an asassination.

And right now, at this very minute, US Military asassins are hammer-in-hand, waiting to get their list of who dies this week, and where.

And so it will be when that American baby that was just born a few minutes ago turns 18.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:17 PM on August 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


Anyway I am far from an expert on this but there is a good slice of history in Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars.

For clarity, I'm referring to the book rather than the accompanying documentary project. The subject matter is basically the same but the book has much more detail.
posted by grobstein at 2:42 PM on August 23, 2015


"The thing is -- war is bad. And the fix for that is not -- we have this sensitive new way of doing war! and it employs humanities graduates! And it's equally not, we have this super-safe new way of doing war where our pilots never have to leave their air-conditioned trailers in Colorado, or Florida. I mean, these things have their virtues. But the trap is, either way you're killing people, driving them from their homes, destroying their ways of life. "

So, on the issue of military force, I'm outside the MeFi mainstream; closer to the Mainstream mainstream. I can recognize that sometimes it's necessary, and because of how costly it is, any group that uses force has an obligation to minimize the "collateral damage," as horrible an understatement as that is.

From that perspective, I can totally support a military intelligence program that's basically doing research to promote cultural competency in troops. Having those skills makes us so much less likely to waste blood and treasure, to treat military force like a Civil War doctor treated a bone saw.

But the problem I have with it is twofold:

First, the use of cultural competency training doesn't ensure that the overall policy objectives of military force are either legitimate or realistic. No matter how many interpreters and cultural anthropologists we sent over, the invasion of Iraq was still going to be an illegal foray into destabilizing adventurism. I could even recognize the goal of removing Hussein as a legitimate policy interest, but the invasion was always going to be a failure because it was a pulp novel fantasy of suede-boot cowboys.

Secondly, the reach and timing of the research is exactly wrong — to be effective, this sort of research has to be done well before any planned use of force, and should be explicitly considered by policymakers in deciding whether or not to use force. By the time we had invaded Afghanistan, something that was a much more legitimate policy decision than Iraq, we should have already known the public attitudes and players much more comprehensively than we did. I can recognize that there's a difficulty in getting the level of necessary access — it's not like the Taliban was living up to its name in granting scholarly visas — but a good deal of the mistakes that we made were pretty predictable on the basis of publicly-known intelligence alone. If there had been funding for this sort of research anywhere near, say, the cost of 10 Tomahawk missiles, we could have avoided a lot of the mistakes that we made that ended up costing us much more in money and lives than those missiles. Trying to do this research after we've already invaded on the basis of these alliances is like leaving the proverbial barn door open and checking whether the horses are gone in the morning.
posted by klangklangston at 2:45 PM on August 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


From that perspective, I can totally support a military intelligence program that's basically doing research to promote cultural competency in troops.

When I read the human terrain systems critiques the impression I get is it has very little to do with sensitivity training for the combat troops and very much to do with using social network graphs to build hit lists.
posted by bukvich at 4:39 PM on August 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


As a tangent, yesterday I fell down the wikipedia hole into Bleeding Kansas, and was struck by just how much the guerilla/COIN fights today look the same, especially with using state sanction to settle family beefs.
posted by klangklangston at 11:32 AM on August 24, 2015


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