Understanding the Human Terrain in Warfare: A Clash of Moralities

Human Terrain Systems (HTS)—initiated as a proof of concept program in 2007 to help the U. S. Army better understand the people, cultures, and, in general, the operating environment in their counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan—is far from perfect.  Proof of concept programs are, by their very nature, cutting edge experiments funded by the U. S. Army in an endeavor to enhance the efficiency and morality of the warfare they are charged with conducting.  So, it skirts the edge of ludicrousness to assume that these programs will come out of the box perfect. And, the need to understand the human terrain is just as pressing for the just and efficient prosecution of warfare, whether or not the HTS program designed to glean this information is as perfect as critics allege it should be.

Even if these critics are correct and we go so far as to accept all of the allegations leveled against the HTS program as true, killing the program without immediately replacing it with a similar program would be morally wrong.  The reason it is wrong is simple.  Failure to allow the U. S. Army the greatest chance to understand the human environment they are operating in will result in more collateral damage, not less as so many American anthropologists have argued. Furthermore, it will lessen the chances of success in any military operation carried out by U. S. and coalition partner forces.  Worse still, denying American forces as accurate a portrayal of the human terrain as possible denies them the right to act as moral warriors, for they will be less able, perhaps unable, to discern who are friends, foes, and innocent bystanders.  Further, despite the vociferous outrage from the anthropological field, led by Hugh Gusterson, David Price, Marshall Sahlins, and Roberto Gonzalez, denying the U. S. Army the ability to understand the human terrain will result in more cultural destruction because the Army will be operating largely blind in non-western foreign cultures.  The U. S. Army becomes less of a precision instrument and more of a bull in a china shop under such circumstances.

It is ironic too, that many of the criticisms leveled by Hugh Gusterson, Roberto Gonzalez, and others against the U. S. Army’s attempt to use anthropologists and other social scientists to understand better the local people and culture equates HTS to the alleged hit squads they claim the U. S. Army operated in Vietnam, as the mission of HTS is quite the opposite.  The main goal of HTS is to ensure that no one, especially innocent civilians, is unjustly targeted because of a lack of understanding of the local culture and populace.  In fact, it is hoped that a greater understanding of the local culture might lead to a situation where violence can be avoided in many situations altogether.

The baggage these and other anthropologists carry from their “Vietnam experience” and their general loathing and distrust of both the U. S. Army and the U. S. government is coloring perceptions of the positive impact anthropologists and other social scientists can have in lessening the violent impact of war.

Anthropologists attempt to claim the high ground by arguing that individual anthropologists and the field as a whole will be tarnished if its members collude with the U. S. military in any combat environment.  This appeal to morality denies that there is an equally, if not greater, appeal to morality that can be made by the soldiers themselves who wish to conduct themselves as moral warriors.  Despite what Hollywood portrays, almost every soldier in the U.S. Army would rather die than kill an innocent civilian.  However, denying the soldier the ability to understand the intricacies of the local culture and the people in his or her area of operations increases the possibility that just such a tragedy will occur.  In the end, the leadership of the field of anthropology does not have a monopoly on moral arguments regarding the use of anthropologists in warfare.

What is most disconcerting is to see the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) leadership use the bully pulpit to threaten and coerce anthropologists away from participation in any endeavor by the U. S. Army to understand the human terrain.  The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, founded by past and present leaders of AAA, has garnered over 1000 signatures from “concerned” anthropologists condemning the HTS program.  Whether or not these signatures represent willing participants or not is in some question as the AAA, influenced by these same critics of HTS, passed bylaws indicating that any anthropologist who worked in a combat zone for the U. S. Army would be summarily expunged from the field and denied any chance at a career in academics.  These actions are particularly ironic as anthropology, which this author believes to be an important academic endeavor, is dying.  Just as a lucrative and important practical purpose for anthropologists is divined and a massive opportunity is offered, the leadership, colored by their own left-leaning, anti-war bias,[1] turns its back on this opportunity and figures out a way to coerce most of the anthropologists in the field with them.

In the end, the anthropologists do not have the high ground and at best there is a clash of moralities between the anthropological community and the moral warrior.  The prediction by Hugh Gusterson that HTS would have a hard time finding qualified anthropologists as time passed is coming true.  When the leadership in a field threatens careers if one does anything to help the U. S. Army better understand cultures and peoples in order to conduct the most precise, effective, and moral warfare it is no wonder that few anthropologists find the fortitude to cross the party line.  But in the final analysis, the people whom the leaders in anthropology so vociferously claim they wish to protect will surely suffer mightily if their criticisms of HTS win the day.

Dan G. Cox is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the author of Terrorism, Instability, and Democracy in Asia and Africa. His work has appeared in The Journal of Peace Research, Parameters, The International Journal of Public Opinion Research and Congress and the Presidency, Joint Force Quarterly, Terrorism Monitor, and Small Wars Journal. His current research interests are identity/human terrain and conflict, armed nation-building, counterinsurgency (especially the indirect approach), terrorism, strategy and military planning, operational art, and futures. He is also the author of the blog, Blast Shields Up!

For more on this topic see Dan G. Cox’s forthcoming article, “Human Terrain Systems and the Moral Prosecution of Warfare,” in the Autumn 2011 edition of Parameters due out sometime in the Spring of 2012. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of the U. S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.

[1] These are Hugh Gusterson’s words, not mine.  See Hugh Gusterson, “When Professors Go To War: Why the Ivory Tower and the Pentagon Don’t Mix,” Foreign Policy, online edition, (21 July 2008), http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2008/07/20/when_professors_go_to_war (accessed 29 July 2011).

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  • Hugh Gusterson

    This article contains some bizarre claims.  I’m struck in particular by this claim: “Whether or not these signatures represent willing participants or not is in some question as the AAA, influenced by these same critics of HTS, passed bylaws indicating that any anthropologist who worked in a combat zone for the U. S. Army would be summarily expunged from the field and denied any chance at a career in academics.”
    The AAA has not passed any by-laws on this issue.  (It passed a resolution, but that is very different, since a resolution is an expression of collective opinion without binding force).  Nor has AAA said that any anthropologist working for the U.S. military in a combat zone (or any other context) would be “expunged from the field.”  Indeed, we have repeatedly affirmed the principle that, unlike other professional associations, the AAA does not censure or expel members, no matter what they have done.  You can loot an archaeological site, endanger the lives of human subjects, and the AAA still will not formally expel you.  As for human terrain team social scientists, while most anthropologists disapprove of what they do, they have been offered fora at the annual meetings to talk about what they do and discuss it with their critics.  That’s a far cry from expungement.
    As the saying goes, you are welcome to your own opinions, but not your own facts.  If this is the best defense of HTS the U.S. army can come up with, well, that’s pretty sad.

  • social science student

    To be fair, Dr. Gusterson, a simple Google search reveals that a number of anthropologists have avoided the human terrian project, at the very least, for fear of being blackballed.  The AAA may not expunge anyone from the field, but surely a network of, say, concerned anthropologists just might be involved in decisions on hiring, promotion, and tenure.  It’s not entirely out of line to speculate that, while the AAA may not sanction such an approach, members of your field could use their positions to blackball someone who has worked in the field.

    There’s a reason that BAE Systems and the military couldn’t find enough anthropologists to fill positions on human terrain teams when, after all, they were being offered exorbitant salaries virtually unheard of anywhere else.  My own research shows that critics of HTS were upset that BAE was hiring under-qualified people to join the teams.  I think I can infer from Dr. Cox’s article above, that his point is that your field’s attempt to claim the moral high ground is endangering the people you claim to protect, because anthropologists could not or would not participate in the project.  Regardless of why they wouldn’t participate, failing to do so forced defense contractors to hire someone–even if that individual had no reason being in theater.  Thus, local populations may have been endangered vis-a-vis your failure to support the program.

    Dr. Cox is right, that the program itself is a moral necessity.  Even if HTS is flawed, something must be done to help the military understand culture.

    You know, there’s an old adage–it’s fairly ridiculous, but it makes sense here.  The NRA has a million members.  If anti-gun advocates, or pro-arms regulation advocates were serious about challenging the NRA, they’d join, and show up at the next annual meeting with two million new members.  In a 2-1 vote, they could completely undermine the NRA’s mission.

    Perhaps, anthropologists should have joined the program to help address its flaws from within.  Doing so could have yielded a better, stronger, more effective, safer program today.

    Of course, the military did make one mistake.  They were so hung up on recruiting anthropologists, that they ignored other social scientists (historians, political scientists, linguists, religious studies scholars, sociologists, etc.) that could have been just as effective as anthropologists–more so given the result of your field–in improving the U.S. military’s understanding of the human terrain. 

  • Anne Thropologist

    This article is hogwash.  As Prof. Gusterson points out, Cox makes up the “facts” to suit his argument and obviously Cox knows nothing about anthropology or the clear reaons why HTS will never be able to recruit real anthropologists.  How much of my tax dollars are being wasted on this sort of propagnda?  This is shoddy work that would not cut it in real academic circules but is the state of the art for military publcations, if Cox passed off this garbage in a real academic department he’d be scolded, but in military circles he will be rewarded.

  • Phil Carlson

    Exactly where does anonymous criticism fall on the scale of academic credibility, Anne Thropologist?

  • social science student

    It’s ironic that political science and international relations have been among the last of the social sciences to grasp the importance of identity, culture, and religion in the world.  Yet, here is a political scientist/international relations scholar–Cox–who is advocating a greater understanding of culture in the military, whilst anthropologists–who’ve studies culture all along–are lambasting his work as part of a military propaganda campaign.

    That anthropologists apparently claim a monopoly on the study of culture reinforces my earlier point that the military’s real mistake with the human terrain program was its early attempts to recruit exclusively among them.  Religious studies scholars, historians, area studies experts, political scientists, international relations experts, sociologists, and others would be equally capable of service the human terrain systems project.

  • Tom Alexander Jr.

    War is a human endeavor. Anthropologist, who are willing to come down from their Ivory Tower, would well endeavor to support our nation and we, the men and women of the Profession of Arms, by lending their expertise to help prevent and if need be win our nation’s wars. Those who will not come down from their Ivory Tower should withhold their opinions, unless they have been in harm’s way on the battlefield and gathered empirical evidence to support their opinions. I support Dr. Cox’s argument fully.

  • Mark Rogers, Psy.D., M.A., M.S.

    Seriously Gusterson and Thropologist. You NEED to get over yourselves. Your branding reminds me of what Edward de Bono argues, “The only truth in perception is the ‘truth’ of belief systems.” Consequentially, as Lawrence E. Sullivan contends, “The world of all appearances, then, is woven on the loom of perceptions.”
     When did “Anthropology” become the self-appointed, self-righteous be-all and end-all to “callin’ the brand”? Used to be in the day, each brand on livestock was “by necessity different than all the others and often conveys the character of the owner.” These brands had a language all their own. This language followed certain rules where “callin’ the brand” was acquired when ranchers and their underlings developed the ability to read these symbols. Slicks (unbranded animals) soon learn one way or another how to survive many cattle branding traditions and techniques. You all have advanced degrees, and are paid to “publish or perish,” so you probably got here before I quote it: “Trust your neighbors but brand your stock.”
    You’re offensive to me because (a) your massive “dumbing down or dumbing up” insolent generalizations directed toward the human terrain system (HTS) as a slick needing to be “branded” and (b) I really expected more from you and your cohorts who branded themselves with the Ph.D. on their hide; and more importantly, your mental models. You really must read, Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology, by Eviatar Zerubavel to understand why I am calling you, “The emperor who has no clothes.”
    It’s sad really, but you remind me that we think both as individuals and as human beings, as Zerubavel contends, where “what goes on inside our heads is also affected by the particular ‘thought communities’ to which we happen to belong.” The “mindscapes” you commonly share amongst you and more importantly your leadership and underlings “are not universal” and as Zerubavel reminds us in Social Mindscapes, “also implies that they are neither naturally nor logically inevitable. Indeed, they are quite often utterly conventional.”
    Gusterson, here’s my take on your assertion that “this article contains some bizarre claims.” Seriously? You want to go there? Of course the AAA has NOT passed any by-laws on this issue. They do not need to. I know EXACTLY how this works. It’s simple. In academia and scholar-practitioner or practitioner-scholar “thought communities” it’s called “callin’ the brand.” Or maybe I might even call it that ad nauseam phrase I am SO sick and tired of hearing, and seeing the destructive wake it leaves moving through the water in our thought communities and mindscapes. You know what I am referring to, right? Well then, let me help you out. It’s “politically correct.”
    Gusterson you need to wake up. Do you really think its mission critical or operationally relevant to have solely “anthropologists” or their “thought communities” or their “mindscapes” in areas of operations (AOs) or win our nation’s wars? Seriously? Using some of my psychobabble here that is narcissistic and probably histrionic too. I can think of no better retort than “The world of all appearances, then, is woven on the loom of perceptions.” But in hindsight, there is another more important one: “The emperor has no clothes.”
    Why? Because as Tom Alexander Jr. argues, “Those who will not come down from their Ivory Tower should withhold their opinions, unless they have been in harm’s way on the battlefield and gathered empirical evidence to support their opinions.”
    If you want to live in a bubble of “publish or perish,” fine. But don’t insult Tom Alexander Jr. and other commanders like him, and more importantly, the score of young women and men in uniform OCONUS who have put their lives at risk, who ARE day in and day out in austere and hazardous AOs, and even paid the ultimate price for you to remain safely in your bubble.
    Have you stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them? Have you plied your tradecraft and your streetcraft OCONUS lending “your” expertise in harm’s way on the battlefield? Then WHERE is your gathered empirical evidence to support your operational calculus that equates HTS to the alleged hit squads you and your colleagues claim the U.S. Army operated in Vietnam? I remind you once again, “The emperor has no clothes.”

  • Stephen McGlinchey

    If any of the people here would like to write a companion piece to this going into their disagreements in more detail – we welcome response submissions to articles and you can find out how/format etc.. on the writing guide linked up in the header bar at the top of the page

  • Luke M. Herrington

    Agreed.  Please check out the author guidelines as Steve suggested.  If you would like to know more about the COIN/Human Terrain series e-IR is currently commissioning, you may contact me for further details.

    Luke M. Herrington
    Commissioning Editor 

  • Luke H.

    You can view Dan Cox’s ‘Parameters’ article at:


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