Skip to content

More on HTS

3 December, 2008

It’s a pity that the month that Culture Matters won the Savage Minds blog award, we’ve been really slow. It’s the end of the semester right before everyone disappears for the summer, and I assume that everyone is either swamped with marking or making exciting travel plans. I have a huge backlog of work and e-mails to answer so I probably shouldn’t be taking the time to post something, but I couldn’t resist because I keep getting distracted from grading by a couple of Wired articles on the Human Terrain System.

We already reported on news coverage of the attack on a Human Terrain Team member, Paula Lloyd, who was set on fire in Afghanistan by a man she was interviewing. Another Human Terrain Team member, Dan Ayala, then reportedly shot her attacker in the head after the attacker was disarmed and fully restrained. Ayala has since been charged with second degree murder and subsequently released on bail and is back in the U.S. (Open Anthropology has a list of links covering the story.)

Of course the attack and the revenge killing raise to a whole new level the debate about the ethics of putting social scientists in the middle of a war, and though I didn’t attend the AAA meetings this year in San Francisco, my sources tell me that this was hotly debated (see Inside Higher Ed for coverage). But all of this has been amply reported on elsewhere, so I didn’t think we needed to write more about it, until a friend and colleague based at SOAS in London sent me to have a look at the comments that have been posted to the Wired articles.

The first is an article by Noah Shachtman reporting on the charges against Ayala. What’s been distracting me from work is the comments that readers posted following the article. If you don’t get sick reading them, it’s actually fascinating to observe how misogyny and homophobia blend seamlessly with the ostensibly “anthropological” statements about local culture.


“You invade and occupy a country, you better not send girlies with a psych degree to chat with locals”


“Afgan is an Islam [sic] country. The dumb-asses let a woman walk around like she owns the f***ing place and interrogate locals. There is no wonder the locals got so pissed off and set her on fire. She shouldn’t have been there in the 1st place. Stupid anthropologist [sic] got what is deserved.”

Homophobia: Shachtman and John Stanton, who has been writing a series of articles critical of HTS, are described as “blow buddies” by one commenter.

Cultural awareness: Many commentators express the view that Ayala’s reaction was culturally appropriate because

“Violence is the only thing people in that region understand.”

My favorite “cultural awareness” genre of comment, though (because I’m writing about stereotypes about Middle Easterners and camels), are the ones that suggest that this isn’t a matter of Geneva Conventions at all — it can just be reconciled by paying the dead man’s family some camels:

“But seriously, local customs would dictate he [Ayala] give the guy’s family some camels or cows and it’s done. So if the point of his team was to work within the local cultural framework, that is the appropriate response. Not an arrest and trial for murder. So lets embrace the local customs, raise some money, and buy some livestock.”

There are actually several comments that more thoughtfully reflect on legal codes that authorize or forbid different kinds of killing during war, but the overwhelming tenor of the articles is one of celebration that the Afghani who set Lloyd on fire was killed. It makes me wonder about the blood-thirstiness of Americans. It’s one thing to understand how a distraught man might kill after seeing his colleague set on fire, and it’s quite another to heroize that.

In other HTS news (they haven’t been getting much good press lately), Wired is also reporting that a Human Terrain contractor has been indicted as a Saddam-era spy.  There’s another series of comments ranging from the thoughtful to the bizarre, and one of the choicest in the “bizarre” category is this one:

“I blame the American Anthropology Association for all the dead and wounded HTS employees, for Ayala’s Human Terrain Murder, and for Montgomery McFate’s hiring of a one of Saddam Husein’s spies. Damn these anthropologists, if they would rise to the call of their patriotic duty and join this program like McFate wanted them to, there wouldn’t be a need to hire people like Issam Hamama or that woman who got set on fire after not realizing the problems with a woman approaching a man on the street (with a gas can) for an interview; anthropologists also wouldn’t have gotten into situations with the IEDs that killed those other HTS members because they’d have a clue about what’s what. Instead, now that the AAA has forbid its members to join McFate’s HTS, they have to hire people with no real experience in the area or whose experience includes spying for Saddam.”

I suppose it’s flattering that “Dr Darpa” (as s/he signs off) thinks that we anthropologists know everything, but it also seems rather cruel to suggest that intelligent social scientists and military personnel are getting killed because they’re not anthropologists so they don’t “have a clue about what’s what”!!

–L.L. Wynn

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Third Tone Devil permalink
    3 December, 2008 7:27 pm

    Lisa, are there any explanations so far as to why Paula Lloyd was in fact set on fire? I am sure there are, but I would appreciate if you could post some links.

  2. Michael permalink
    3 December, 2008 10:40 pm

    Paula Lloyd was set afire because a common tactic used by extreme Islamic fundamentalists is to make examples out of women who enjoy ANY kind of liberty (not wearing a head scarf, pursuing an education, teaching, being involved in any type of employment or just about any activity outside the home, etc.) She was a “target of opportunity” and was attacked for the reasons stated.

  3. 4 December, 2008 8:39 am

    Michael, could you tell us how you know the motivations of the dead man? Why is this about “liberty” and not about Paula Lloyd being perceived as part of an occupying military force? Or on the other hand, how can you be sure that it’s about an ideology and not just the act of an insane man?

    TTD, there are LOTS of explanations circulating in the comments of those posts that I wrote about, but as far as I can tell, none that go beyond speculation. Is there any convincing way to explain a dead man’s motivation for attempted murder? In the absence of any convincing explanations, the speculation itself are cultural texts. An American might say that it’s about liberty because that’s been a dominant narrative to justify the U.S. invasion from the beginning. I wonder how an Afghan would explain it? The Taliban originally claimed that Lloyd was set on fire by a child while she was participating in a search of a village. Other sources said that she was interviewing Salam about the price of gasoline.

    Open Anthropology has a bunch of links, and if you want to read the affidavit in Ayala’s indictment, it’s been posted online here:

  4. Scott permalink
    4 December, 2008 10:45 am

    Lisa, for what it’s worth,’s comments are pretty consistently st00pid. Right down there with YouTube comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: