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?

“Victory is defined as capturing the psycho-cultural high ground, as a consequence of this, empathy is the new key weapon of war,” said Michael Bhatia, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, and the central character of the film. As the pinnacle human casualty of the HTS, Bhatia was a social scientist who joined the project in Afghanistan in 2007 and was killed by an IED the following year while on assignment in the Afghan province of Khost. Bhatia was a shining scholar and a careful thinker.

«America is training for a type of Arabic culture that doesn’t really exist»

In the film, his emails to his mentor and friend, Jarat Chopra, former director of Brown’s International Relations Program, show a mindful social scientist who was consistently reassuring himself and his colleague of his position and intentions amongst the HTS team, while remaining open to inquiries, thoughts and criticisms. And there is, as the film shows, a panorama of opinions and judgments concerning an academic’s place within the battlefield.
anthropologists are drawn to the Other, explains Hugh Gusterson, Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University, because they want to understand and respect the dignity of another way of life. But once cultural knowledge becomes commodified and objectified, it becomes a way of manipulating the Other.

There is a difference between culture experienced and culture learned at a distance. As Gusterson sees it, America is training for a type of Arabic culture that doesn’t really exist. How arrogant to assume that one can empathize with a war-torn family by waving hello, growing facial hair, or playing a HTS video game in which points are scored according to how well one negotiates a forced entry into an Arabic home? Not long after its launch, the HTS came under attack by academic critics who consider it misguided and unethical due to its operationalization of culture. A “more humane approach to war” is in itself an oxymoronic, yet seductive, idea. Catherine Lutz, with the Department of Anthropology at the Watson Institute, says the question should not be how to make war more humane, but rather less likely. And therein lies another layer of the film Human Terrain – even if culture can be learned, is it necessary when fighting a war? the idea of a kinder, gentler soldier defies the very nature of one. Michael Ritz, Senior Interrogator for the U.S. Army, says the nature of a soldier lies in black and white reasoning, as empathy tends to distort decision-making. So the notion that empathetic people with PhDs and cultural awareness will create a better war is a little self-righteous on part of the U.S. military.

Getting the enemy to ‘like you more’ or ‘hate you less’ does not necessarily come with understanding the enemy; it comes by getting out of their country. American militants who assume they can think through their enemy’s point of view will not change the economic situation in Afghanistan. Poor civilians are often forced to take bribes from the insurgency, a situation that will not be improved no matter how culturally aware the U.S. military might be. Perhaps the crucial step missing from the Human Terrain System is the part of role-playing Americans. If U.S. soldiers roleplayed being citizens of a country occupied by Islam, perhaps empathy would stretch a little further.

 


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Melanie Sevcenko
Sevcenco currently lives in Berlin, where she works as a freelance writer, and for several documentary film initiatives.