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HTS and military targeting?

29 August, 2008

There’s an article by Steve Featherstone about the Human Terrain System (HTS) in the September issue of Harpers magazine, entitled “Human Quicksand.” (The Harpers link requires a subscription to access, but the entire article is available at this website — however, the link might not last since Harpers has insisted that the website “cease and desist” from violating copyright.)

In July 2007, Featherstone joined the first ever Human Terrain Team (HTT) in Khost province, Afghanistan. These days, in the face of an anthropology backlash, spokespeople for and leaders of HTS like Montgomery McFate are downplaying the anthropological component of it and emphasizing instead that HTTs are led by social scientists of all stripes. But back at that time, HTS was strongly linked with anthropology and this particular HTT had an anthropologist (who is only given a first name, Tracy). This anthropologist also had a military background as one of the first female helicopter pilots in the 82nd Airborne, and that’s the brigade that this HTT was attached to — a savvy choice for a new “proof-of-concept” program that was still being regarded skeptically by many in the military who didn’t see what anthropology had to offer them. Here was a social scientist who wasn’t just some ivory tower egghead — she was one of the military’s own.

Featherstone is an embedded journalist: embedded with a Human Terrain Team. The HTS leadership carefully manage the program’s public image. Me, for example, I’ve received e-mail introductions to several HTT members for the article I’m writing for Weghat Nazar magazine, and lots of people involved with HTTs have cheerfully volunteered themselves for an interview, but nobody will do it without Laurie Adler’s permission. (Adler is the PR person for HTS.) I don’t know if HTS leadership negotiated control over what Featherstone could write in return for giving him access to this HTT, or if Featherstone is just personally won over by the team. (I can believe that it might be the latter — I’ve interviewed someone on that first HTT, and he’s a hell of a nice guy.) Either way, the first half of Featherstone’s article more or less reads like the embedded journalism puff piece I expected it to be.

But there’s a startling moment about two-thirds into the article that provides some provocative material that will surely fire up anthropological debate about the ethics of HTS, and about whether HTS enables the “military kill chain.”

Let me step back for a minute. As I’m sure all Culture Matters readers know, the ethics of HTS have been debated fiercely by anthropologists. The AAA Executive Board’s statement expressing “disapproval” of HTS is partly grounded in concern that information obtained by Human Terrain Teams might be used to target people:

4. As members of HTS teams, anthropologists provide information and counsel to U.S. military field commanders. This poses a risk that information provided by HTS anthropologists could be used to make decisions about identifying and selecting specific populations as targets of U.S. military operations either in the short or long term. Any such use of fieldwork-derived information would violate the stipulations in the AAA Code of Ethics that those studied not be harmed (section III A, 1).

HTT members, even those who are not anthropologists, are well aware of this. I’ve interviewed a few HTT members (including one of the guys who was on that first HTT in Afghanistan), and they’re all quick to tell me: “We don’t target people.” The point was made again and again by multiple people, preemptively, before I could even bring it up.

But Featherstone’s article suggests that HTS data IS used for military targeting. The link is not as direct as HTT members telling their Brigade Commander who to assassinate, but there’s definitely a link.

Here’s the section of the article that I’m talking about. Featherstone follows an HTT member on his rounds to meet locals and ask them what their needs are and what the U.S. military can do for them. They meet with an Afghani doctor. The doctor reports that he’s been targeted by the Taliban. He gets threatening messages, the gate of his compound has been bombed, and his home has been set on fire. He’s weary. He urges the US forces to go in and kill the bad guys. The HTT member who is interviewing the doctor tells him that it’s important to reconcile, not to keep fighting, if Aghanistan is even to be united. The doctor keeps insisting: they don’t want reconciliation. The guys who have been threatening him need to be killed. The HTT guy keeps insisting that the key is reconciliation. The meeting is portrayed as frustrating for both sides. IN the end, the HTT guy gives the doctor five televisions before leaving.

Later, the doctor’s problems are discussed with the entire HTT. After the meeting breaks up, Featherstone is alone with Fondacaro, and they discuss what to the journalist seems to be a hopeless situation. Featherstone says,

I told him about the doctor and Tracy’s take on his situation. It seemed hopeless, I said. No amount of cultural analysis was going to help the doctor. Fondacaro agreed. Security was a fundamental need, he said, like food and shelter. Without it, people like the doctor had been forced to make compromises, and all of our American platitudes and encouragement “didn’t mean shit.” Fondacaro leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. But we could look at the doctor’s predicament as an opportunity, he said. Everybody in the village knew the guy was getting night letters. If we “nailed” the Taliban one night, that would send a clear message.

“Who’s the audience? The people. If I demonstrate success in protecting this guy’s life against a known threat, and I win . . . ” Fondacaro paused and looked over his shoulder at the empty room. “Audience, what do you think? Everybody’s holding up nines: 9.5, 9.8. It’s simply a decision that’s got to be made.”

On the one hand, it’s clear that the HTT is working hard to improve the local situation and determined to avoid violence. The HTT member says “reconciliation” under the doctor is exasperated. Yet from there, the head of the HTS makes a decision to target people. To nail the Taliban. We don’t know what it means to “nail” the Taliban, but it sure sounds like “kinetic” (that’s military lingo for deadly) force might be involved. The HTT hasn’t told him to. But he takes the information that the HTT has gathered and appears to make that decision.

–L.L. Wynn

38 Comments leave one →
  1. steve permalink
    29 August, 2008 11:10 pm

    LL Wynn, you might want to read the article again with more care. There are so many reading comprehension errors in your analysis, which is a term I use rather generously, that I won’t bother to point them out.

    I’m interested, however, in your claim that the article is the “puff piece [you] expected it to be.” Can you show us where in the article we can find puffery about the HTS program?

    And no, I had to clear nothing through Laurie Adler or anyone. No journalist would accept that.

  2. qualintitative permalink
    30 August, 2008 5:05 am

    Seriously? You think the work that the HTT did helped identify the Taliban as a target? I think you are looking for something that is not there. Can’t you see that Fondacaro is speaking hypothetically and the ‘we’ and ‘I’ comes from his point of view as a retired colonel thinking about a security issue from a military point of view? I’m pretty sure he is not suddenly directing the members of the HTT to “nail” the Taliban. Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but I thought the point of that passage was to put the HTT and cultural analysis in context: it can’t solve all problems, including this doctor’s.

  3. Gonzo permalink
    30 August, 2008 1:19 pm

    Hi, Lisa. I read that article a couple of days ago and came away with a different understanding. To be sure, I think that the HTS does affect the “military kill chain.” But nothing I read in the article led me to believe that it “enables” the kill chain. I think the HTS impacts the kill chain in that it provides information to commanders that enhances their understanding of the environment their in. This way they are able to make more informed decisions when they conduct their operations. But this is a very indirect way to influence the so-called kill chain.

    I also think that, in your last paragraph, you are making a pretty significant assumption that the HTS leader has the authority to make “kinetic” targeting decisions. I would be very surprised if that is the case. When I read the passage you highlighted in your post, I understood it to mean that Fondacaro thought that the 82nd commander should target the Taliban that was harassing the doctor (“It’s simply a decision that’s got to be made.”). Maybe lay down some ambush or something since they knew they were giving out “night letters.” In my reading it wasn’t clear that the HTS program manager had made a decision to do that targeting. I don’t think he or the HTT would even have such a capability. In short, I thought Fondacaro was engaging in battlefield punditry, if you will. I would bet, thought, that he would probably advice whomever was the military commander that, if they wanted to score some points with the population in that particular village, they should target the Taliban harassing the doctor.

    Also, one point of correction. The military unit that went out to visit the doctor was not the HTT. The article explicitly says that it was a Provincial Reconstruction Team, which is a completely different beast than the HTT.

    As always, thanks for your post.

  4. steve permalink
    30 August, 2008 1:41 pm

    Gonzo, qaulintitative – precisely, couldn’t have said it better. You’re both right on all counts.

  5. 31 August, 2008 10:51 am

    Steve, you’re right. I was careless and rude. I meant to write that the first half of the piece seemed to fulfill my expectations of an embedded journalist puff piece — i.e. something that is uncritically sympathetic to one group and can’t step outside of the US military womb to consider other angles. But then it shifts to describing the encounter with the doctor in a way that allows us to see something other than the triumphant narrative of success. In the end, your article provided some important material to use in debating the ethics of HTS and that’s good journalism. So I humbly apologize.

    Gonzo, thanks for correcting me about the fact that the ensign interviewing the doctor was part of a PRT, not an HTT. And both Gonzo and Qualintative make a good point that Fondacaro isn’t the one issuing the orders to target anyone. As I understand it, HTS is contracted work and only has the ability to inform and advise, not order.

    In the article, most everyone comes off as a bunch of well-meaning do-gooders who are resisting hot-headed suggestions that they take revenge for someone or other. “Reconciliation,” the ensign keeps repeating.

    But even acknowledging all those things — an HTT leader who can only recommend but can’t implement whatever kinetic strategies he is fantasizing about, and a military unit that appears determined to act as peacemaker — I think this article still gives us a glimpse into the kinds of possibilities that we might see in other HTT situations: information that comes from an HTT could be used to inform military targeting. I’m not even saying whether that’s right or wrong. People can draw their own opinions about that, and we can entertain the possibility that HTT info might be used to kill some really nasty people before they can do something really awful. But either way, it does provide an example that we can use to debate the AAA’s concern that anthropologists might gather information from informants that might later be used for military targeting. It seems to me that this article pushes that debate into new territory: not WHETHER it might happen, but what it means WHEN it DOES happen.

  6. Gonzo permalink
    31 August, 2008 12:20 pm


    Like I said, there’s no doubt in my mind that the HTS is designed to inform military decision making. Anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish. Now, it’s obvious that it does not directly affect targeting in the sense that HTTs direct kinetic attacks or successfully advise, with precision, who to kill. I think people who think that are equally foolish. But like I said in my comment, cultural understanding is another data point provided to the commander. It’s the commander’s job to fit that data point with military intelligence and whatever other data points he may have available to him when making a military decision. I’m on the side that hopes that such information will result in less bloodshed of innocents in the battlefield.


  7. steve permalink
    31 August, 2008 12:39 pm

    Llwynn, thanks, I appreciate the clarifications. At the very least, I like that people are discussing the article. I expected the anthro community to be interested in the subject, although I knew before the article was published that there was going to be some disappointment that I didn’t echo the criticisms that have been levied against the HTS program by impassioned anthros. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m not ignorant of these criticisms; they simply weren’t in the scope of this article. What’s more, the criticisms have been debated in fine detail elsewhere in the national media. Anything I might have done on the subject would merely have been repetition.

    That said, it’s interesting that you point to the moment in the article that describes the exchange between the Afghan doctor and the ensign from the PRT. To me, this moment gets to the heart of things. Not quite for the reasons you suggest, which tend to focus on the rather narrow issue of targeting, but rather for the tragic miscommunication that seems to inform nearly all the conversations that I was a part of between Afghans and Americans.

    I don’t think you have to infer that HTTs “could be used to inform military targeting”. Col. Schweitzer stated this quite matter-of-factly when I spoke to him. To paraphrase him, he said that in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, he probably would’ve used the HTT to kill people. That simple. However, Schweitzer admits that this would have been a misuse of the HTT. The military is only now beginning to understand that killing people isn’t always the best way to solve problems, to put it mildly. HTTs are supposed to help brigade commanders avoid killing. But it would be naive to think that HTTs are some kind of pacifist cell operating within the body of the brigade.

    I’m glad that you think the article offers a glimpse into what HTTs actually do, because that was one of my primary aims. Furthermore, I’m heartened to hear that you believe the article pushes the debate, such as it is, into new territory. I prefer to raise as many questions as I attempt to answer when I write about any subject, which is an approach that doesn’t always lead to the most satisfying of conclusion for some readers.

  8. Gonzo permalink
    31 August, 2008 2:25 pm

    Steve, I think you hit the nail on head with this comment: …the tragic miscommunication that seems to inform nearly all the conversations…. .

    I think that the HTS is a significant US Army effort to improve this communications shortfall, but it is, alas, not enough. The military problem is that, in counterinsurgency and stability operations, the tactical level of warfare is often as strategic as are the other levels. This is highlighted by the PRT episode in the article. The HTS is employed at the the tactical level, but the program is so small that, whatever benefits it can provide to military leaders on the ground, there are dozens of other units that don’t have the luxury of HTS support. So, miscommunication will be an enduring feature with, as you note, tragic consequences. This is a shame.

    that counterinsurgency and stability operations are

  9. steve permalink
    1 September, 2008 12:24 am

    G – To add to your point, the HTT in Khost had never worked with the Khost PRT, even though their respective bases are within two miles of one another. This may have changed since I left, but I found this fact remarkable. PRTs go out in the field almost every day because their work is tied to ongoing reconstruction projects. Combat elements typically do not go into the field unless they’re part of a specific operation. It seems that HTTs and PRTs would make an ideal match, since the security footprint of a PRT element is smaller and therefore less intimidating.

    Tragic miscommunication is indeed an enduring feature of the Afghan/U.S. relationship as it exists on the individual level, soldier to citizen. The U.S. military is a hammer that is trying to perform like a scalpel. It’s just the wrong instrument for the job. It’s too late to start over, obviously, but we don’t have to continue whacking at the patient with a hammer.

  10. Gonzo permalink
    1 September, 2008 11:43 am

    Steve, fascinating fact about the PRT/HTT relationship (or lack thereof). I hadn’t quite thought about it, but now that you mention it….

    The PRT is not a US Army program. It’s a USG program–DoD and DoS, largely. HTS is exclusively US Army. This may explain the lack of a PRT/HTT relationship (assuming what you observed in Khost is true for the rest of Afghanistan and in Iraq as well).

    Also, while both the PRT and the HTS were born of the need to conduct counterinsurgency, they have different purposes. To use your scalpel analogy, the PRT already has an edge. It is the right type of tool for the job. The HTS is supposed to create such an edge from combat forces. Or at least that’s what it seems like.

  11. steve permalink
    1 September, 2008 10:33 pm

    G – The HTT I visited in Khost did, however, work with the Ghazni PRT in a neighboring province during a previous op. I wouldn’t doubt that HTTs try to work with PRTs whenever possible because PRTs have all the carrots whereas the combat elements carry mostly sticks (although combat commanders do have CERP funds they can use at their discretion). While PRTs are structured jointly as you say, the military really is in the lead role since the BCT commander in the AO has the last word on any PRT activities. I might be wrong. Some folks I talked to remain skeptical about PRTs because they’re not Afghan-oriented enough, and their activities could be seen as undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan gov’t. For instance, PRT commanders can decide to build a school in a village when the village might need irrigation canals more. There’s no overall guidance or vision on projects from province to province, certainly not the kind of guidance the HTTs feel they offer to the combat elements.

  12. joneilortiz permalink
    4 September, 2008 11:39 am

    Every time this issue comes up, the same apologist defense arises: HTS “anthropologists” aren’t “directly” killing anyone; they’re merely providing information and intelligence to those who do. This is an insult to common sense definitions of “participation”. HTS anthropologists are embedded in an occupying army; they inform military units; they are on the ground with soldiers; they are in some cases even former soldiers. They are involved in every sense of the term and contribute “directly” to the occupation. It’s not like we’re talking about some factory worker in Dayton who makes shoelaces sold to the Army (which would be quite indirect); we’re talking about a “specialist” working in, for, and through a military occupying unit. It doesn’t matter at what point in the “chain” these so-called anthropologists make their appearance when the whole chain itself is criminal. Likewise, the verdict does not change if it’s the doctor or some alleged terrorist that’s killed, or if someone other than the author of the HTS report calls the shots, or if any of many “inappropriate” actions are taken on its authority. The nitpicky debates over what HTS actions are considered “direct” are moot and disingenuous. Reading some of the comments, one gets the impression that should an HTS “anthropologist” get caught pulling the trigger, someone would pop up and argue that at least they didn’t load it.

  13. Steve permalink
    5 September, 2008 2:47 am

    Joneilortiz – I agree with you. Debating the exact level of HTT participation in the “kill chain” is moot. However, it seems to be the point most at issue for professional anthropologists.

  14. Gonzo permalink
    6 September, 2008 5:54 am

    I think there are two worries. The kill chain worry is one of them. The other, as Lisa pointed out in a previous comment to me in a different post, has something to do with perceptions of the legality of war. I would add that tied to that is some notion that working with the military is assisting some sort of repression or evil occupation. Different strokes for different folks.

  15. Steve permalink
    6 September, 2008 6:34 am

    Gonzo – Yes, you’re right about that. Of course, the question of the ‘legality’ of the war is the bigger of the two issues. I mean, if you think the war is illegal, then the HTT’s contribution to the war, whatever that looks like, is also illegal. Not much to debate after that.

  16. Gonzo permalink
    7 September, 2008 8:31 am

    True. Must be nice to live in such a black and white world.

  17. joneilortiz permalink
    8 September, 2008 9:34 am

    Well, Gonzo, just because this particular issue – the illegality of the occupation – is “black and white”, it doesn’t really follow that the world itself is “black and white”. And if the occupation is in fact clearly illegal (as it is), why would that make the world “nice to live in”? Needless to say, your snide little response is revealing … It’s just the kind of thing the more imperial-minded folks like to say to paint oppositional positions “simple-minded” and “unrealistic”. “How can you be against the whole thing?” is always the question, as if to even discuss or judge the validity of a war one can only disagree on tactics and never the mission. By that logic, there has never been a bad war, and if there was, whoever might have opposed it in toto, must have been idealistic, foolish, and wasting everyone’s time.

    And that’s just it, the condemning of the occupation neither closes the chapter nor ends the discussion. On the contrary, it’s the point of departure for much more pressing questions: for example, if any alliance with the US military is violent and by definition colonial, what, then, is the proper (or ideal) role for an anthropologist on this unavoidable subject?

    Further, if you are an anthropologist who opposes the occupation (and resists the discipline’s appropriation by the military), are you then obligated to support the insurgency? I mean, if the occupation is illegal, shouldn’t anthropologists be working with the Iraqi people and not the occupiers, the insurgents and not the military (if with anyone at all)? Is it logically sensical to oppose the war and ‘not’ support its resistance? Why is debate over anthropologists’ involvement with this war limited to talk of the military? Why not theorize or discuss how anthropologists might help those they admit are under attack? Why, once again, are Iraqis invisible in this discussion?

  18. Steve permalink
    8 September, 2008 9:51 am

    joneilortiz – Some really great questions there! I’ve often asked myself some of the same things. Indeed, how would anthros help ordinary Iraqis right now? And I mean directly, not holding conferences in western countries. How would anthros even choose who among Iraqi subcultures — Shiite, Sunni, marsh Arab, Kurd, etc, — gets helped in conditions that approach civil war? It would be difficult, to say the least, that a Western anthro could work safely in a place like Iraq for very long. Maybe an Arabic anthro would have better luck, I don’t know. Are there any anthros doing work in Iraq right now? Or in 2006? How about Afghanistan?

  19. Gonzo permalink
    9 September, 2008 12:12 pm


    Yes, excellent questions! Also, yes, mine’s was a snide remark, but I really do think that logic of “if it’s illegal then it’s wrong to help the military” is, in your words, simpleminded because that simplistic rationale is so overreaching that it precludes debate on the more ethically complicated aspects of working with the military, such as informing military decisions in order to reduce innocents being hurt (which I think is a valid cause). It also ignores the stated objectives of the occupation of Afghanistan, particularly, and in Iraq as well. Plainly, that legality rationale I think is a cop out. It’s an easy way out from having to confront significant moral dilemas that lie underneath a decision to work with the military.

    But I think the issues and dilemas ignored by the legality debate are related to the complex issues that your questions get to. I’m with you on that and with Steve because I’ve also thought about those same questions (including the question of the relevance of anthropology in public policy) and came up with my own uncomfortable answers.

  20. joneilortiz permalink
    10 September, 2008 5:02 am

    I’m glad you find the questions I conclude with relevant and pressing. And I do leave open the possibility of a more humanitarian American military (and there certainly have been past instances where this was the case), but, again, this is not the case *now*, which is, frankly, all that matters.

    You are right, in a sense, that this position is simple, but this is only because the moral bankruptcy of the occupation is itself simple. (It’s not like you’d call a mathematician simple-minded if you gave him or her a simple problem.)

    I mean, by your logic, the more horrible a military force is – which, for me, would demand just as absolute an opposition to that force – the more one ought to help them, because, as you said, a full rejection would “preclude debate” and in these instances involvement is all the more crucial. So, what you seem to be saying is that debate, in no circumstances, should ever be foreclosed, even though, obviously, the most horrible acts would, by definition, demand just that!

    So, if my position is so simple-minded, then perhaps you should explain what your criteria would be for *not* getting involved with an occupying force. At what point would you “preclude debate”? What kinds of horrors are you holding out for before you throw in the towel?

    That being said, isn’t your position the one that’s a cop out, technically speaking? When you say that anthropologists could help out by “informing military decisions in order to reduce innocents being hurt”, aren’t you really just failing to understand the horror of the occupation, as directly caused by the US military, or at least deeming it besides the point? (If the military is so nice and good, how come Iraqis think otherwise?) I mean, wouldn’t opposition to the occupation, and the more difficult questions that would then arise, be the *only* way to confront the moral dilemmas of this war? Your position, on the other hand, by definition conceals all of these issues as ‘marginal’ and ‘extraneous’ to the theoretically (but in no way actually) humanitarian mission. You may even admit there are ethical problems with the occupation, but at some point you, and those who hold your position, manage to look past them and jump right back in.

    No matter how you qualify your position or refer vaguely to how “complicated” it all is, this remains the essential point: all of the horrors of the two occupations, and the global extra-legal prison system supporting it, must be excusable and acceptable to the anthropologist who decides to work with the military.

  21. Steve permalink
    10 September, 2008 6:50 am

    Hi J. – I don’t want to dismiss the finer points you make in the above post in response to Gonzo, but can you give me some concrete examples of how someone with your position on the war might “do” anthropology in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that help the people that live there? I’m not an anthropologist, as is obvious. Maybe there is no way to work in these places without compromising oneself ethically. Basically, I’d like to know how anthropologists who are opposed to other anthros working for the military might themselves work in conflict zones. What would that work look like? How would it help ordinary Iraqis/Afghans? How would it further the discipline?

  22. Gonzo permalink
    10 September, 2008 1:26 pm

    J–Great points and your criticism of my position is fair and well taken. I will try to answer your questions.

    So, if my position is so simple-minded, then perhaps you should explain what your criteria would be for *not* getting involved with an occupying force. At what point would you “preclude debate”? What kinds of horrors are you holding out for before you throw in the towel?

    I would not get involved with an occupying force if its purpose –for lack of a better phrase (sorry, it’s late after a long day and I’m too tired to think but simply)–was to do bad things. I do not think that is the case with the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Iraq it is my view that the US military wants to create enough stability, train enough Iraqi military forces, and push enough political compromise so they can leave without the country falling apart and leaving a void for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda to fill. I can support those objectives. In Afghanistan, they want to defeat the Taliban. Another worthy objective in my book. To that, I add that I think the military has only recently realized the complexity of the environment in both Iraq and Afghanistan and they are trying mightily to improve the way they occupy in order achieve their objectives more quickly and to reduce civilian casualties, collateral damage, and unnecessary deaths. I can support that as well. So I made a personal judgment that the occupations are not to do bad things (though I disapprove of the policy that got the military involved in the first place). In my book, bad things–reasons not to work with the military–would be if their purpose was to occupy a country in order to subjugate it and colonize it a la Great Brittan or France or the US in the Philippines. Or if it’s purpose was to ethnically cleanse such as the Serbian military during the Bosnia an Kosovo conflicts or the US during the Indian Wars.

    …aren’t you really just failing to understand the horror of the occupation, as directly caused by the US military, or at least deeming it besides the point? (If the military is so nice and good, how come Iraqis think otherwise?)

    Maybe I am failing to understand, but I don’t think so. I spent four months in Iraq in 2004 and that experience–particularly a car bombing incident in the building where I worked–has fully brought to the fore of my thinking the horror of that war and the ravages to the civilian population caused by stupid US policy, a frustratingly slow-to-understand US military but, more importantly, the jihadist operations that were more prevalent at that time than they are now. I also don’t think I ever said that the military is “so nice and good.” That is an absolutely ridiculous position and I would never say anything like that.

    I mean, wouldn’t opposition to the occupation, and the more difficult questions that would then arise, be the *only* way to confront the moral dilemmas of this war? Your position, on the other hand, by definition conceals all of these issues as ‘marginal’ and ‘extraneous’ to the theoretically (but in no way actually) humanitarian mission.

    So it comes down to this: I oppose the policy but I don’t believe the military is an evil force doing evil things and that as such it should be opposed whole cloth. I think the military is trying to do the right things as I described above but it is lacking the tools to do so effectively. And also, I am an American and for a variety of personal reasons, I feel tugs of obligation to help my country in a time of need (which is how I ended up in Iraq). So my moral dilemma is different from yours and I don’t have the luxury of simply opposing the occupation and calling it a day.

    As for the “humanitarian mission” bit, anyone who thinks the military is engaged in a “humanitarian” effort in Iraq and Afghanistan is severely deluded. They are counterinsurgencies. Not humanitarian missions. It is warfare, not food distribution.

    No matter how you qualify your position or refer vaguely to how “complicated” it all is…

    When I say it is “complicated,” I mean in a personal sense. When one’s morals and allegiances are fighting with each other in one’s heart and head. That eternal internal conflict. Lisa’s post referred to targeting of human beings and the kill chain. Some people may not care where they fall in that chain, others may. All those are personal choices that are complicated to make. The view from 20,000 miles, lacking in texture and nuance, is more simple. Some have that luxury. Others, we don’t.

    …this remains the essential point: all of the horrors of the two occupations, and the global extra-legal prison system supporting it, must be excusable and acceptable to the anthropologist who decides to work with the military.

    Clearly, I disagree. This is what I mean by the 20,000 mile view lacking in texture and nuance. If that is how you want to approach it, that is your choice. Personally, I believe that is very absolutist and full of contradictions (some of which you pointed out in your earlier comment). I don’t accept or excuse the horrors–in the rawest sense of the word–I witnessed when an SUV loaded with artillery shells plowed into the crowd outside of my building, or the general devastation, fear, and insecurity that I saw and experienced. I don’t accept the policies that resulted in that or in the extra-legal prison systems you mention. I can oppose those policies and still support the military effort because those policies have changed or will change and the missions have changed and the objectives have changed and there are people on both sides thrown into a horrible situation and if I can help extricate them from that situation then, for me, that’s the essential point.

  23. joneilortiz permalink
    11 September, 2008 7:56 am

    Though the two are literally functionally the same, every apologist of the occupation will at one point or another fall back on the ‘intention’ vs ‘side-effect’ argument. At which point, we should ask: for *whom* is this distinction so important? I mean, if *your* family was killed by the US military, to what extent would it matter if the immediate cause was torture, a ‘smart bomb’, economic sanctions, or lack of basic medical treatment? Even if there actually *is* a difference, how rhetorically important should this difference be made to seem?

    And just what kind of sign of intention are you holding out for? What, short of a military spokesperson coming on the news and admitting they’ve colonized Iraq, would satisfy you? Perhaps it makes more sense to simply look for signs *of* colonization. The big ones, for me, are:

    1) the installation of permanent military bases
    2) the erecting of a puppet government to maintain indefinite American hegemony
    3) the selling off of natural resources to American and foreign corporations
    4) the strategically unnecessary destruction of the nation’s infrastructure in the first days of the invasion
    5) the transfer of the cost of reconstruction to, ironically, the Iraqi people
    6) the near-complete lack of medical and reconstructive functions within the military itself
    7) the deferal of juridical institutions to an unaccountable foreign prison camp system

    I just don’t see how you can look at the occupation and *not* see an explicit colonial endeavor. I mean, come on, take a look at that list! (Just this week Shell took a big piece of the pie.) Do you *really* think the US government is on a mission to help the Iraqi people, then *or* now? And you can’t just blame it on “stupidity” or say “the mission has changed; it’s more ethical now”.

    Likewise, would you really say that any of these strategies are ‘unintended’ or an ‘accident’, a mere case of ‘mismanagement’?

    Which brings me to my next point: the counterinsurgency. I’m glad you pointed out how much these operations are a priority for the military. This is entirely true. The military is concerned with little else. Sure, they carry out *some* medical and reconstructive efforts – and I don’t doubt the sincerity of many working on the ground – but, as became clear during the invasion itself, re-building the nation was not much of a concern. (Why would it be? They were there to destroy it, literally.)

    I could go on and on about the counterinsurgency operations but frankly this isn’t the place (and I’ve already laid this all out on Savage Minds for Laura MacNamara), so I will merely point out that – and I would be happy to share these documents – said strategies *explicitly* focus on ‘breaking the will of the people’. These reports elaborate, in lucid detail, the kinds of strategies required (and implemented) to collectively torture a population into submission (-from curfews, to random seizures, to house sweeps, to cordoning-off neighborhoods, to large round-ups, etc). These manuals cite Patai liberally – anthropology has always already been involved – and openly discuss the best ways to exploit ‘the natural humiliation of the Arab’. Many also make use of British reports from the previous occupation, elaborating on how they might be improved or adjusted to present circumstances (so if you don’t think this situation is like the British occupation, well, even the US military would disagree).

    There is simply no way you could read these reports and mistake the military for a democracy-spreading-but-stupid organization. The ‘culture manuals’ they train soldiers with should be on anthropology syllabi. The racism, amongst other things, is explicit; nothing is dressed-up for the press. Which raises the original question: are these the kinds of operations anthropologists should be helping? Do the anthropologists, or the soldiers for that matter, even know what kind of project they are ultimately contributing to?

    And yet, are these strategies not clearly ‘intentional’ and directed, at so many levels (if not at *every* level)? Although, how much should it matter if we were to hypothetically conclude, after much semantic struggle, that they aren’t intentional? (Intention is after all a hazy concept.) I mean, wouldn’t that kind of criteria naively ignore some of the more systematic, anonymous mechanisms of horror made so famous in the last century? In fact, isn’t it often precisely because of the intention alibi that the worst horrors are executed?

    Your claim that the US wants stability is for similar reasons moot. Didn’t the British want stability in India? Didn’t the US want stability in the Philippines? What occupying force *doesn’t* want stability? Why would that kind of objective imply some kind of ethical hope? Your other two apologies are just as formulaic. All one in your position has to do these days is reference a slightly worse crime against humanity and you’re off the hook. “At least we’re not quite as bad as the Nazis!” “At least we didn’t carry out the ethnic cleansing ourselves!” (It was only a foreseen and acceptable consequence?)

    Your last, and most disingenuous point, is your four-month stay in Iraq; which, it seems, grants you instant authority, deeming any dissenting positions a “luxury”. Well, it would seem to me that your worldly travels to an occupying zone, to write a book that ends up justifying it, is also a kind of luxury. For that matter, what would you make of the many who have also visited Iraq – or, worse, live there under awful circumstances – but hold *my* position? Though you might think that having been there grants you some kind of unmediated access to the reality of the war, don’t forget that the people *causing* all the carnage, the most deluded of all, have front row seats.

    [I do appreciate your responses, however; and I’m not as averse to your position as I might seem. Feel free to have the last word btw. Don’t think I can keep this up! (I’d also like to respond to Steve and brainstorm alternatives to working with the military.) Thanks, Gonzo! It’s been a pleasure.]

  24. Steve permalink
    11 September, 2008 12:07 pm

    These are the kinds of discussions I’d hoped to contribute to with my article, although I understand people have been thoughtfully debating these issues long before I wrote about HTS, and there’s a more at stake than my own personal edification. Much to think about…. looking forward to hearing more.

  25. joneilortiz permalink
    11 September, 2008 12:28 pm

    My opposition to anthropologists working with the US military has been criticized (here and elsewhere) as lacking “nuance” and “practicality”. These charges would perhaps be more justified if there were not, in fact, other groups through which anthropologists could gain access to Iraqis’ experience of the occupation, their environment, and their culture.

    And let’s be honest. It’s not like a bunch of anthropologists sat around brainstorming how they could reach Iraqis and all they could come up with was the US military. On the contrary, it was the US military that did the brainstorming, about how to get the best “actionable intelligence” out of Iraqis, and what *they* came up with was an embedded pseudo-anthropologist network. So we shouldn’t be surprised if, when asking the question from the right angle, we come up with more than a single institution – the very institution, mind you, that Iraqis are least likely to trust.

    I mean, if you wanted to know what Iraqis think about their current situation, why would you embed yourself in the very organization that produced this situation? The fact that this even needs to be pointed-out is testament to how successfully the military has controlled the posing of this question.

    So, if an anthropologist wants to work with Iraqis, who should she/he work with? Well, if I had to guess, there are thousands of organizations – NGOs, religious organizations, local community groups – that one could attach themselves to. According to a recent AlterNet article, the “NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI), an independent initiative launched by a group of NGOs in Baghdad in April 2003, now comprises a network of about 80 international NGOs and 200 Iraqi NGOs.” If you wanted to find a way to gain access to Iraqi communities, that list might be a good place to start. NoMoreVictims is supposed to be a well-connected, legitimate organization – and I can’t see how an anthropologist’s life would be more at risk with them than with the US military.

    While NGOs in Iraq have apparently lost much of their initial trust, this can hardly compare to the trust-status of the occupiers themselves. So, if you want to save Iraqi lives – which is what HTS supporters may genuinely think they’re doing – why take a risk trusting the group that’s endangered the very lives it now purports to want to save?

    I’m sure *some* good could be done through the military, but we still have to ask why, so far, that’s the only option on the table. The answer, in my opinion, is obvious: HTS has very little to do with anthropology and much more to do with the occupation. At this point, the only reason an anthropologist should be embedded in the military is to study, well, the military, or HTS itself.

    I don’t see how anyone could read the suggestions above and think them less “practical” than working for HTS. If helping/understanding Iraqis is your goal, these alternatives could just as well be *much* more practical and, if I had to guess, trust would be easier to gain. And yet … I don’t think I’ve seen these suggestions raised in the debate, though I could be wrong. Why is that? Perhaps if the technical questions that should follow – e.g. *which* groups are open to this arrangement, not to mention all the logistical questions – were discussed more, other anthropological possibilities in Iraq would end up competing with HTS.

  26. 12 September, 2008 10:43 pm


    I understand you’re not going to reply so, I guess, thanks for the last word.

    Let me start where you left off. It’s unfortunate you think that I’m being disingenuous by bringing up my experience in Iraq. I brought it up specifically in a context you created when you implied I was “failing to understand the horror of the occupation.” I wanted to show that I did not fail to understand; that I knew from first hand experience and that experience is a defining event that shaped my point of view on this issue. But mine’s is just one point of view, as is yours. I don’t pretend to think my experience gives me any authority over dissenting opinions on this issue (I don’t know where you got that from, it certainly didn’t come from me). I was only trying to explain my point of view just as you explain yours. Don’t ask the question if you are not going to like the answer.

    It seems to me that there is no universal truth to this issue. Organizations like the AAA, the US Government, or whoever else cares to, can harp all they want about legality/illegality, justness/unjustness, or un-imperialism/imperialism, but unless we are automatons devoid of agency we will all have to make our own decisions based on our analysis of events and the influence of our perceptions and experiences.

    I respect your interpretation of US actions in Iraq. Many serious people have expressed similar concerns. I happen to disagree with it but its clear to me that we filter the situation in Iraq, and thus the purpose of HTS, through different paradigms. Suffice to say that I don’t see the situation you describe as colonialism—a term that conjures images that are just not congruent, form my perspective, of US objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan. To wit, your seven signs of colonialism I think are very misplaced and, as with most things in this debate, open to interpretation.

    But to answer your question (Do you *really* think the US government is on a mission to help the Iraqi people, then *or* now?), yes and no. I think the US government may have at one point believed they were helping the Iraqi people, but not now. Now they are just helping the Iraqi government and military maintain some semblance of stability which, by the way, benefits the people. But if the US had never invaded in the first place, there wouldn’t be instability plaguing the country. But this is irrelevant to the HTS. The HTS is not, per se, designed to help the Iraqi people. It is designed to help the US Army. If it works, it should result in fewer Iraqi and US casualties (at a minimum) and set the conditions for a quicker withdrawal of US forces (optimally).

    Finally, your comments on counterinsurgency are illuminating because they get to something that I think plagues dialogue: misinterpretations. Or, more precisely, having different definitions for key concepts such as counterinsurgency. Your description of counterinsurgency is something that I do not recognize from my experience and reading of the subject. Yet, I suspect that there are many people who, when they hear “counterinsurgency” they think, in your words, “breaking the will of the people” and “torture a population into submission.” I would offer that if you were to ask any military professional their definition of counterinsurgency and ask the same of, say, a professional anthropologist, you would immediately see disconnects. Could it be possible, AAA politics and professional ethical concerns aside, that much of this “controversy” is rooted in different interpretations of concepts like counterinsurgency and, hence, the purpose of the HTS? This impacts even your thoughts on working with NGOs instead of the military because I would bet a paycheck that the military would like nothing more than to have more effective NGOs working in Iraq.

  27. Gonzo permalink
    12 September, 2008 11:38 pm

    Crap. GS is me, Gonzo. Not sure how that happened…. Sorry if any confusion.

  28. Steve permalink
    13 September, 2008 1:54 am

    Joneilortiz – do you have a link to your Savage Minds comments? I can’t seem to find them (although there are plenty of posts from McNamara)

  29. Dylan permalink
    13 September, 2008 6:36 am

    Joneilortiz nails it on the head. Thank you for putting that together so eloquently made your points easy to follow. Different paradigms!

  30. Steve permalink
    13 September, 2008 8:14 am

    Dylan you still owe me an explanation of your description of my article as “apologist”. I’m waay-tinngg…

  31. Dylan permalink
    15 September, 2008 1:30 am

    yeah sorry about that. still havent got a hard copy of the article it seems to have been lifted from our library.

  32. Steve permalink
    16 September, 2008 1:01 am

    D – email me: featherock AT yahoo DOT com

  33. joneilortiz permalink
    19 September, 2008 1:59 am

    Steve, here’s a link to the Savage Minds post with the comments in question, under the name “icmole”:

    There may be comments on other posts by LM, but this one, from what I recall, has the bulk of the material on the use of anthropological texts in counterinsurgency operations.

    -Apologies for the late response. Was just hit directly by Hurricane Ike here in Houston; power was out for 5 days!

  34. Steve permalink
    20 September, 2008 3:25 am

    Thanks much, J. Good luck with drying out. It’s cold and dry up here in Central NY.

  35. Third Tone Devil permalink
    20 September, 2008 9:46 pm

    Hmm, this exchange probably breaks the record for informativeness (and length) on CM. Hope lots of people have read it. I am glad we’ve become a serious forum for debate. Thanks from Singapore.

  36. Steve permalink
    2 October, 2008 1:12 am

    One thing I find compelling, Joneilortiz, is your suggestion that anthros find ways to assist insurgents. I think you mentioned that in the Savage Minds debate. What do you mean by this?


  1. Wednesday Round Up #27 « Neuroanthropology
  2. Iraq, occupation, culture and the military: brief roundup « Culture Matters

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