Belmont Club

Inhuman terrain

The Human Terrain System “is a United States Army program which embeds anthropologists with combat brigades (currently in Iraq and Afghanistan) to help tacticians in the field understand local cultures … The goal of the HTS is to give commanders insight into the population and it’s culture in order to enhance operational effectiveness, and reduce military and civilian conflict.” Social scientists who have participated in the program have sometimes been accused by their colleagues of cooperating with the enemy, meaning the US military.


The American Anthropological Association has published a statement opposing the Human Terrain System. They denounced the program in October 2007, concerned it could lead to compromise of ethics, disgrace to anthropology as an academic discipline, and the endangerment of research subjects. Some academics denounce the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain, fearing HTT could cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence-gatherers for the US military.

A recent incident in Afghanistan illustrates the tangle of values involved in the program. A human terrain contractor, who once worked as a bodyguard for VIPs, shot and killed an Afghan after the Afghan burned an American woman worker over 60% of her body. The net result is the ex-bodyguard was charged with murder as this article in Wired describes.

On November 4th, Ayala was on a foot patrol in the village of Chehel Gazni, about 40 miles outside of Kandahar. He was accompanying social scientist Paula Loyd, who was interviewing locals. Three local interpreters, and a platoon of U.S. soldiers from C company, 2-2 Infantry Battalion, rounded out the group.

Loyd approached Abdul Salam, who was carrying a fuel jug. They began talking about the price of gas. Suddenly, the man doused Lloyd in a flammable liquid and set her on fire. She suffered second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body. …

“Ayala drew his pistol but did not fire at Salam. Ayala instead extended his arm, causing Salam to run into his arm and fall to the ground. Ayala attempted to restrain Salam and was assisted by soldiers from the platoon who responded to the scene. Salam was restrained with plastic restraints (also called “flexcuffs” or “zipcuffs”), around his wrists, which were behind his back.” …

“After about ten minutes, a soldier approached the location where Ayalahad Salam detained and informed the personnel in the area that Loyd was burned badly. Ayala pushed his pistol against Salam’s head and shot Salam, killing him instantly.”


The article goes on to ask why a non-anthropologist like Ayala should be included in the team and whether the Army wasn’t using unqualified social scientists as part of their human terrain research teams.

Inside the military, there was been intense criticism of BAE’s hiring and training practices. Researchers have been hired who have never even visited -– much less studied –- the areas in which they’re supposed to serve as experts. Social scientists have been thrown off of their teams, and even sent home early from Iraq. Qualified candidates were booted out of the program, for flimsy reasons.

Civilian academics, on the other hand, have blasted the program for putting both researchers and research subjects at risk. There’s also grave concern that the anthropological data being gathered by the program could be used for bombs-and-bullets military targeting, rather than non-violent conflict resolution.

The gulf between military and academic cultures may be so large that the only way to bridge the divide is to train military men as social scientists (like David Kilcullen) or turn academics into soldiers (like TE Lawrence). This may take a long time to produce results but it may be better than trying to contract people who are determined to remain outsiders or who must remain outsiders in order to retain academic viability as students of human terrain.

Here’s director Howard Hawks commenting on the difference between academic and military viewpoints in 1951.


[youtube xUMJS_CJEcA]

Join the conversation as a VIP Member