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.