Human Terrain is two stories in one. The first exposes the U.S. effort to enlist the best and the brightest of American universities in a struggle for the hearts and minds of its enemies. Facing long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military adopts a controversial new program, ‘Human Terrain Systems’, to make cultural awareness a key element of its counterinsurgency strategy. The other story is about a brilliant young scholar who leaves the university to join a Human Terrain team.

There is culture by doing and there is culture by learning. This is the fundamental crossroad between the U.S. military and a pool of social scientists that have been called upon to assist troops in better understanding their enemy. In the documentary, Human Terrain, filmmakers David and Michael Udris, and James Der Derian, follow the controversial training and subsequent outcomes of the U.S. military’s 40-milliondollar project, the Human Terrain
System (HTS), which embeds anthropologists and social scientists among troops to gather information about the culture and social structures of occupied countries.

With this intelligence, the U.S. military creates mock Iraqi villages – ‘urban operations training environments’ – in the Mojave Desert where soldiers must navigate the psycho-cultural terrain of actual Iraqis who are hired as role-players to create real-time, high-pressure scenarios for the troops, with the goal of improving their units’ operational effectiveness.

At the end of decades of failed war games, the HTS was designed as an alternative tactic to fight counterinsurgency in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed that tactical cultural awareness was essential to the battle, assumingly giving war a ‘humanist touch’ which could prompt a change of opinion towards Americans in the minds of Islamic countries.
it sounded like a good idea to begin with. And that’s how Udris and Der Derian introduce their objective rendering of arguments between anthropologists, authors, military personnel and program managers of the HTS, which ensues over the duration of the film, inter-cut with access inside the program’s training ground. In the beginning, we see eager soldiers and their articulate commanding generals, painting a portrait of a U.S. military that wants to lower the number of war casualties and understand the Arabic world.

The film’s discourse soon turns critical when philosophical and moral dilemmas arise surrounding the idea of academics training professional killers on how to be kinder. And for what purpose? To benignly destabilize their enemy? Today’s wars are not fought like they used to be. From chemistry to physics to the age of cold hard information, the American war has taken a new form. Once, evading national capitals was the approach to getting your enemy to surrender. Nowadays, American battles are “wars on terror,” which work to push out terrorists and turning them over to local authority. This happens under the banner of “promoting democracy” by advising the occupation on how to run their government, their military and their police force. With imposing forms of governance comes the crossing into cultural territory. Know thy enemy, right? Because how can a military, according to the United States, negotiate the situation with their enemy, its authorities and civilians, if it does not understand the way they think, feel and run their family homes?

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