A view from 2 months in Iraq with a Human Terrain Team

I have been in Iraq as an anthropologist with a Human Terrain Team for a bit over two months now. The best description is that it’s like, well everything in life. I get excited about the work, I get discouraged. I feel like I am doing things that can have long term value and I wonder what the hell I’m doing in this screwed up place. I have learned that the backs of my ears may never be clean again, the ex-pat life agrees with me, I miss beer and sushi, and now I know what it feels like to take pictures of young men that die two days later.

Depending on the day you ask me, I will say that the problems with the entire HTS program are so insurmountable it should be started over from scratch, and on others, I see progress. We focus on being as much help as we can to our brigade in their efforts to help improve living and security conditions for local people as best we can. We often feel like we do this in spite of our bosses back in the states. How many times have we all said that our lives would be better if “the man” would just get out of the way and let us work? (I wonder how far up the food chain this feeling goes? Do Vice-Presidents feel like that about Presidents?) I go from wanting to quit to wanting to stay here for at least a year because there always seem to be another interesting project we can do.

In others words, it’s a job just like jobs everywhere.

The reality is that we do operate with almost 100% independence from the mothership back in Ft. Leavenworth. We want to focus on the work here, they want us to focus on the work here and that seems to suit everyone. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of problems in the program, including hiring practices, but I simply don’t think a blog is the appropriate place to air them. I mean really, would you blog about every bit of dirty laundry in your academic department or office? It’s frankly a disservice to everyone.

And no, I am not feeling any more charitable towards the vocal minority in anthropology or the co-called “Network of Concerned Anthropologists” (for my money, I am not sure who they are showing concern towards, god knows it’s not the people of Iraq, I don’t even think it’s for anthropology). Spend a few months over here and get some real data people, but alas getting actual data might not support your preconceived notions. There really needs to be a new category for your kind of anthropologist. I mean, “Social” may well still apply, but heavens knows using the title “Scientist” is a privilege you have long since lost.

What’s it like. The Army has been helpful, hospitable, arranged about any kind of fieldwork we wish to do. It should be no surprise that they were polite and helpful, but deeply skeptical over any really value we might add other that eating the food in the Dining Facility (DFAC). But now we have gotten a seat at the table so to speak, people request our assistance on various topics and generally we are little happy worker bees.

Looking at the AAA controversy after two months actually in the field makes some of the issues laughable. This idea that Human Terrain Teams are involved in gathering intelligence for example (we’ll, ignore for the moment the error of jargon people make, you don’t “gather” intelligence). I have seen this written about as if there are people in trench coats and dark glasses hovering by the HTT door just dying for a chance to peek at our work! Lord what a load of nonsense. I don’t know how many times this can be said, no… we don’t, ever. They don’t even want us too. Why, because it’s not our jobs, and they have professionals for that. It really is that simple, sorry to burst your conspiracy bubbles. We look at people in transition from jobs in one sector to another, how effective governance is in areas, issues of economy. The meetings I sit in are about building schools, putting in water purification facilities, trying to help local governments get more support for their communities from the Iraq national government, understanding complex issues related to agriculture and the economy. Hate to break it to you, but any anthropologist involved with development work would be pretty at home here.

I think what has stuck me the most since I have been here are the relationships that the military have built with their Iraqi counterparts helping them creating their own local governmental structures. Most of these young women and men have been trained to lead tanks and infantry companies. They showed up in Iraq and someone told them to establish security in an area and help the local population create an effective structure for representation to the provincial and national level. I have done part of my fieldwork in these meetings all over our area of the country. It’s amazing and impressive. They have made it happen with no training little support. Its fragile, rough, does not work always the way it should, but it’s indeed on the way. These military people figured out how to make it happen simply because they had no other choice but to try. They have all told me they wish anthropologists and governmental experts had been there to help them 12 months ago. Sorry, I have to say, that’s apparently not an ethical activity according to the Anthropology Association.

I’ll admit, I don’t hide my contempt for the stance of the AAA when I talk to people over here because its so poorly informed. I see a lot of people doing a lot of things to make the world better here. They are trying, failing a lot, succeeding sometimes and often doing it on native wit and common sense. Why? Because unlike many anthropologists, they chose to try, instead of complaining about the sorry state of the world. Fortunately there ARE anthropologists that do chose to try in whatever country they are in or whatever cause they support. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to the AAA or NCA that those people that chose to try are rarely going to be sway by me or them. They long ago found the value of action.

Look, the debate about the legitimacy of invading another country ends when the first bomb gets dropped. At that moment it becomes a historical discussion to be wrangled over by others. There is no “way back” machine, and we have to deal with the world as it is today. I am of the opinion that we broke it in a lot of ways, and I see no moral high ground in turning our backs on the country after we have done that.

8 thoughts on “A view from 2 months in Iraq with a Human Terrain Team

  1. This sounds like you are doing some really cool work for the cause of freedom and enduring liberty. I have some harsh and bogus university debts and I heard that I can make over $200,000 tax free with Human Terrain if I stay abroad. That kind of dough would be righteous and when McCain beats Obama next month I’m sure our occupation of liberation will be funded for a dozen more years. Can you tell me how I can cash in on some of this liberty?

  2. Good Heavens, liberty and enduring freedom? That’s what I am responsible for fixing? I am way, way underpaid if that’s the case. I’m going to be happy if the crops come up without problem, the cholera epidemic does not spread, and in our spare time try to find ways to get people to stop blowing each other up.

    Look, legitimate questions don’t have to be cloaked in childish phrases, well one is legitimate, the other is a sign of poor self-esteem. 1) Some people get unreasonably resentful over the fact that some anthropologists in this world make more than $100k a year. My current base pay with the HTS is LESS than what I made in the US, but I was an anthropologist that did corporate consulting, worked hard and made a successful career of it. I think academics are horribly underpaid in many cases. I’ve never understood this feeling that anthropologists should not be well compensated myself, but there you go. The other is 2) How do people feel about their livelihoods being directly connected to working in conflict zones. That’s an issue I personally don’t have a problem with, but is indeed worthy of discussion. In that regard you can be an arms dealer or working for the UN, either way you are still earning your living in places of suffering if you want to take the argument from a strictly how do you make your income basis. It think that our own Tony Waters here at ethnography.com is much better suited to answer this issue as he has done related research.

    But here are the nuts and bolts of this tax free income deal and none of this has ANYTHING to do with HTS policy, it’s just a fact of life if you are an overseas contractor. Any U.S. citizen that lives and works overseas for 335 days out of 365 (I think, give or take) and does not reside in the US for more that 30 days during that time (see how the math work out?), is eligible for a refund of the taxes they have paid to the IRS provided you file the paperwork. In other words, I am still getting the same healthy bite out of my paycheck you are (well, if you work), I pay into social security, insurance, etc. If you don’t like the tax code, call your congressman.

    BUT, the question is are you interested in doing this for a year? I’ve only been here two months and I miss my family, my life, my care, flush toilets, decent food, not having to wear body armor. There are more than a few people that call quits at the end of their 6 or 9 month contacts because they simply don’t like the life. Also, most people working over here (soldiers, State Department, USAID, contractors) receive hazard / hardship duty pay that is a percentage of the base salary. This again is a common and legitimate goverment and corporate practice to (hopefully) induce and retain qualified people to give up their lives to do the work. Hey, I am not going to deny it, the money is excellent IF: you survive (yes, social scientists have been killed in this program), don’t get shot (ditto this program), don’t get recalled because your brigade is closing up shop (we aren’t here forever we hope), you don’t mind being on call 24/7 356 days a year (sorry no weekends or holidays), conforming to a number of military regulations, don’t mind missing your family for a year, and knowing that you have to go back out and do the job even though at IED blew up a convey and killed someone last week on the very same route you have to go down today. So, yes. Get through all of that for a year and the money can be tax free if you file your paperwork for a refund.

    Ethnography.com, for all your tax planning needs.

  3. Actually, your criticisms of Human Terrain are pretty much in line with some of those of those Network of Concerned Anthropologists people: they don’t think it really accomplishes much. How Arabic did you speak before you went? How many years have you spent living in the Middle East?

  4. Here is a new piece by John Stanton on Human Terrain, I see what you meant in your above slam that “the problems with the entire HTS program are so insurmountable it should be started over from scratch”

    Stanton’s piece is at: http://cryptome.org/hts-madness.htm Here are a few clips:

    “Led by a wildly unpopular program manager (Steve Fondacaro) and a detached social science advisor (Mrs. Montgomery McFate Sapone), the HTS program continues to unravel. Program morale is at its lowest point in the short and controversial life of the program. Sources predict that more civilian HTT team members and soldiers will be killed/wounded because of lousy management practices and zero program oversight by upper echelon commanders/civilians. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Patreaus are also responsible for this dark state of affairs. In placing a recycled concept miles ahead of proper foundation and structure, they have compromised warfighters-in-theater, destroyed lives, and created a get-rich program for the most mercenary of HTS personnel and private contractors looking for lucrative employment.”


    “Many in the HTS program predict more deaths will occur because Human Terrain Team (HTT) members are poorly prepared for an insurgency environment and no one is providing a risk analysis for deployed members. One source indicated that a social scientist stationed with the US Marines in Al Anbar is “chasing IED’s” while another went out on a shopping adventure days after arriving in-theater. The social scientist, who has a Masters degree in communications, boasted in a blog about an escape from danger in Iraq by speeding recklessly through the streets of Baghdad while blaring music from a car. Another social scientist commented, “we are all islands of autonomy … doing what we want.” ”


    “Harsher comments were reserved for Fondacaro. Sources likened him to a madman. “He is sending neophytes into theater and they will get killed.” BAE Systems has relinquished control of its employees and leaves them at the mercy of Fondacaro who is referred to as an “idiot” and “the worse program manager the US Army has ever seen”, said sources. Training is a waste of time, money and resources, they say. Sources say that both Michael Bhatia and Nicole Seveges– HTT social scientists tragically killed while deployed—rarely showed up to training. Program participants in Bhatia’s class said they are not even sure what training he attended or which training cycle he was in. “Fondacaro was in a rush to get a “warm body” into theater, so Michael was sent in prematurely,” said a source.”


    “In the midst of this turmoil, BAE Systems has made a Pontius Pilate economic decision that the profits to be taken from the HTS funding trough are worth the daily troubles. According to sources, BAE Systems’ vice president, Steve Braun, who oversees the HTS contract, speaks with Fondacaro almost daily. People working in Fondacaro’s office at Oyster Point, Virginia, have heard him yelling and ranting at Braun like a “madman.” Fondacaro dictates to BAE Systems whom he wants hired/fired from the HTS program, forcing them to comply or they risk losing the contract. “If Fondacaro wants to priority-hire a felon or manic depressant, then so be it. The value of the contract is lucrative enough BAE Systems will provide that service, according to a program participant.””

    The thing is, this isn’t as crappy as “any job” this sounds horrible, and Steve Fondacaro sounds like a bloody arse. What a bloody mess.

  5. There is quite a difference between what Mark writes, and what “Headphones Screaming” posted. Frankly, I find it hard to reconcile the two, and come down more on Mark’s side. Mark seems to say that HTS is pretty much on its own, without interference from the US–and suffering form really clunky sort of start up stuff that many programs funded by the US in a war zone do.
    Headphones Screaming goes for character attacks at the expense of evidence and reason. Ok, so Steve Braun yells at someone in Virginia. How does this lead to cost overruns and mismanagement in Iraq?

    Mark has been there only two months. Let’s just thank him for the commentary, and look forward to further comments from his time there.

  6. I just wanted to address the portion from Stanton’s article regarding Michael Bhatia and Nicole Suveges. While I cannot speak about Nicole’s training and expertise, I can speak on Michael Bhatia’s. I resent Stanton’s use of Michael — painting him as some greenhorn — in an attempt to paint a picture that he was inexperienced and pushed out the door, simply a warm body meant to fill a position, and that somehow his death can be directly attributed to a poor jugdment call by management. Michael was a well trained social scientist with extensive experience in war-torn countries, to include Afghanistan — it wasn’t his first rodeo in country. Whoever Stanton’s source was either didn’t know Michael very well, or Stanton failed to mention Michael’s experience in Afghanistan in poor attempt to stregthen his argument against the program, which I admit has its flaws.

    There are cowboys in the program — who by the way are escorted by armed persons, social scientist who decide that they are going to do what they want and who don’t understand the real dangers involved in operating in a war zone. Let me say, Michael was not one of those people, and from what I know of Nicole, niether was she. Each time HTS members roll out on a mission they are attached to a armed military unit which provides security. But anyone who operates in a war zone understands, bad things can happen, and unfortunately they do happen, even to U.S. civilians attached the military. Why doesn’t Stanton mention the State Department employee that was killed in the Suveges incident? Not to mention the numberous Iraqis that were killed too? — Along with the injured Army personnel that were present?

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