Human Terrain System: Too Little, Too Late, and So What?

Ok, Mark Dawson finally wrote often enough about the Human Terrain System for me to investigate what this military program actually is. I have some sympathy for the idea of using anthropology in the military because I have seen too many anthropologically incorrect lieutenants proclaiming to the press something along the lines of “You gotta be here to understand the bad guys. All the bad guys understand is strength/power/force/money. It is just their culture. And you never show weakness, or they will kill you. It’s that simple…” I have always been disappointed that the military encourages press representatives to mouth such simplistic rot, and that the press uncritically reports such uninformed ‘anthropological’ opinion. I also have an enduring wish that every soldier in Iraq would be exposed to a good course in anthropological theory in which the nature of military culture, American culture, Iraqi culture, and insurgency would be discussed. In this respect, I agree with the military that they would be much more effective if they were better aware of the “human terrain.”

So finally, as Mark suggested in his last post, I typed in Human Terrain System (HTS) and had a look at some of the top seven or eight hits. Judging by what the military writes about the program, I have some good news for those concerned about the ethics of HTS: It will not make much difference one way or the other. Everything I know about the nature of culture, and the nature of bureaucratic organizations (like the army), tells me this ain’t gonna work. No matter how well qualified the anthropologist might be—and in Markus Griffin it looks like they have a good one—the amount of resources, the nature of the military, and the nature of anthropology mitigates against even the most minimal goals of the project being successful.

The Human Terrain System involves assigning five-member teams of culturally sensitive people to a brigade headquarters. Three of these five are military people, and two can be civilians. Five teams were assigned in 2006 to test the idea. They report directly to the commander of a brigade (typically a brigadier general). Currently, with the surge, there are about twenty brigades in Iraq. Depending on their responsibilities, each brigade has somewhere between 2000 and 5000 soldiers who are roughly the same age as many of my undergraduates at Chico State. Since each HTS team includes only two anthropologists, that makes twelve anthropologists among tens of thousands of soldiers whose primary training is in logistics, weaponry, discipline, combat, and the other things that make an army go.

Just how little will be accomplished by HTS can be seen by looking at how anthropologists do what they do in the university. University classes are typically 45 hours in a semester, and the professor has the power to assign reading designed to get a student to think anthropologically. Typical sections are from 25-40 students. And for some (not all) students, this makes them more culturally sensitive, and able to think past the cultural over-generalizations of my hypothetical lieutenant about good guys and bad guys in an insurgency. In contrast, all the HTS team is likely to get is a weekly consultation and memo to a busy brigadier general. Such consultation will have little effect on our lieutenant briefing the press who will continue to get anthropological wisdom from the military’s own sub-culture. It will do even less for the thousands of enlisted men and officers in the brigade who man road blocks, protect convoys, search houses, patrol, and engage cross-culturally (and sometimes violently) with the Iraqi people. These interactions will be the source of the military’s folk anthropologies as they are now, not the under-staffed and isolated HTS teams at brigade headquarters.

Also unrealistic is the job description for the HTS anthropologists. According to the military, the civilian anthropologists hired will be the Indiana Jones of Cultural Anthropology. They will have an advanced degree, speak the local language, have lived in the local culture, published about the local culture, and be ready to embed themselves in the military. They will be able to use the instant high tech access to other specialists in Washington and the United States, presumably in order to fill in the blanks in their Kurdish-English dictionary (apparently this is more reliable than asking the Kurdish cook next door). This is in addition to the implied requirements that they pass the military security clearance, walk away from their job and family for a year, and be among the 30 or 31% of the American public who are sympathetic to the Bush Administration’s goals in Iraq. I got some bad news for the military. Indiana Jones is a movie character, and most cultural anthropologists are not that versatile. It takes at least a year of full cultural immersion to master an exotic language for street use (or as HTS describes it “field research”), and little such systematic immersion has been possible in Iraq since, hmm, let’s see…sometime before the coup of 1968, or maybe 1980 when the war with Iran began?

To bring an anthropological perspective to the military is going to take much more than the Human Terrain System. Generating a culturally-competent military is not about adding one more technical unit called “human terrain system” to deal with a system called “culture.” Culture is not reducible to a bureaucratic unit in the same way as logistics, mechanics, weaponry, prisons, and so forth. But this is how the army and its HTS program treats culture. Rather a culturally-competent military implies a new type of soldier who understands that power and legitimacy are not solely dependent on weaponry. Such soldiers would also need to understand that Iraq is not neatly divided into good guys and bad guys, and that cultural sensitivity is more than a public relations exercise. Bringing this to the military will involve much more than the occasional roving anthropologist reporting to a brigadier general.


The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century at

AAA resolution of October 31, 2007 about the Human Terrain System

Anthropologist Marcus Griffin’s blog from Iraq