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When the Eggheads Went to War

by Vanessa M. Gezari
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Massoud Hossaini—AFP

Massoud Hossaini—AFP

An innovative program sought to transform the U.S. Army from within. Then reality intervened.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 2007, a team of civilians with a rare set of specialized skills joined a brigade of the 82nd airborne division deployed to eastern Afghanistan. the civilian team’s leader was a former special forces officer; he was accompanied by a west point graduate who had studied anthropology and described herself as a “high-risk ethnographer.” she asked reporters to identify her only as Tracy.

Tracy and her colleagues were part of the Human Terrain System, a project whose creators saw themselves as a band of progressive upstarts seeking to transform the Army from within. The program’s goal was to draw on the tools of anthropology to help U.S. soldiers better understand Afghanistan.

Known as AF1, Tracy’s group was the first Human Terrain Team to deploy in the field—and it quickly made an impact. In one community, Tracy pointed out that the Haqqani network, an anti-American group of insurgents, was gaining strength because an uncommonly large number of Afghan widows depended on their sons for support. With few jobs available, many young men were forced to join the insurgency to earn money. On the advice of the Human Terrain Team, soldiers started a job-training program that put the widows to work and cut the insurgents’ supply of recruits. The Human Terrain Team even convinced the Army to refurbish a mosque on the American base—a project that was credited with cutting insurgent rocket attacks.

Not all of Tracy’s insights led to perfect results, but on the whole the experiment appeared to be a major success. Tracy was “taking the population and dissecting it,” an officer who worked with her told The Christian Science Monitor; she was giving soldiers “data points” that helped them resolve local disputes and identify problems before they turned violent. Col. Martin Schweitzer, the commander of the brigade with which Tracy had deployed, would become one of the Human Terrain System’s biggest supporters. He believed that Tracy and her team had made U.S. soldiers and Afghans safer while speeding the work of connecting Afghans to their government. When Schweitzer had arrived in Khost, only 19 of 86 districts supported the U.S.-backed Afghan government. By the end of his deployment, he estimated that 72 of them did. He credited Tracy and her team with reducing his unit’s combat operations in the province by 60 percent to 70 percent.

In attributing a measure of his brigade’s success to the work of the Human Terrain Team, Schweitzer helped lay the groundwork for the project’s extraordinarily rapid growth. By the fall of 2007, the Department of Defense had authorized a $40 million expansion of the Human Terrain System that would more than quintuple the projected number of teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Human Terrain System owed its creation to many different people, but one of the key players was a renegade anthropologist named Montgomery McFate. McFate was the product of contradictions: California beatnik counterculture, a familial fascination with the primitive “other,” and a quiet but persistent strain of military DNA that was as mainline American as it got. Born in 1966 to a mother who made and sold faux ethnographic artifacts and a father who was a former Marine, she had grown up on a barge in a radical, chaotic houseboat community in Richardson Bay, near San Francisco. The writer Cintra Wilson, McFate’s oldest and closest friend, described the houseboat communities of their childhood as a “social experiment.” “We were essentially raised by pirates,” Wilson told me.

McFate eventually attended community college, then Berkeley, then Yale, where she got her Ph.D. in anthropology. But even before she finished her dissertation, she had grown tired of anthropology. “I wanted to do something in the world, not just write about it,” she told me. She went to Harvard Law School, where she met the young Army officer who would become her husband when he visited for a weekend. They moved to Germany, where he was stationed, before relocating to Washington, D.C. McFate took a contract job with the CIA, traveling to Europe to conduct research. She was not a clandestine agent, but neither did she tell her interview subjects that she worked for an intelligence agency. She moved on to the RAND Corporation, and in 2003, to the Office of Naval Research, which had supported the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict half a century earlier. By this time, McFate had started to wonder in earnest how anthropology might contribute to the needs of a military she had grown to respect.

The Human Terrain System had been sold to the Army as a means of providing cultural knowledge to battlefield commander. But as I watched the trainees interview residents near the Kansas-Missouri border, it became clear that whatever information they would be providing did not stem from any special knowledge of Iraqi or Afghan culture.

She began a concerted networking campaign. During a conversation with the commander of the Marine Corps War-fighting Laboratory, McFate suggested that cultural misunderstandings had caused difficulties for Marines in Iraq. “I don’t have any facts about that,” she recalled the general telling her. “I’d like you to do a study.” She started interviewing Marines, and later soldiers and sailors, returning from Iraq. Somewhere along the way, she heard the name of a Pentagon science adviser and wrote it down, but she never got around to calling him. One day, out of nowhere, he called her. Could she come to the Pentagon?

The adviser’s name was Hriar Cabayan. He was one of the Pentagon’s biggest brains, and he was looking for an anthropologist to help him solve a critical problem. It was 2004, and buried bombs were killing 100 American soldiers a week in Iraq. But the Army knew almost nothing about who was planting the bombs, and why. Most soldiers spoke no Arabic. Whatever knowledge they gained about tribal and familial relations, economic behavior, and cultural nuances during their deployments was lost when they left and the next unit arrived. Cabayan recruited McFate to help him build an ethnographic database that could be loaded onto a laptop and used by soldiers in the field. It would later be called Cultural Preparation of the Environment, and it was an open-source intelligence tool designed to reduce violence by understanding the sea in which the enemy swam.

But McFate would soon advocate going a step further and sending civilian social scientists into the field with soldiers—the idea that eventually became the Human Terrain System. She was not the concept’s only supporter; indeed, it’s hard to attribute the idea to one person. A young Army Reserve captain named Don Smith, who would become the Human Terrain System’s first program manager, told me he came up with the idea at his kitchen table. Steve Fondacaro, an iconoclastic, wiry, 30-year veteran of the military who would succeed Smith as the program’s leader, said he was the one who pushed to send social scientists into conflict zones with soldiers.

At the time, the idea of installing a team of cultural experts in a military unit resonated within an Army that was doing some serious soul-searching. Thanks in part to Gen. David Petraeus, the Army was rethinking how to fight insurgencies—and arriving at the conclusion that a more thoughtful approach was needed in dealing with local populations. “Not understanding the human terrain has the same effect on your operations that not understanding the physical terrain has on conventional military operations,” Petraeus would later tell me. “If you don’t really appreciate the physical terrain and its impact on your operations, you don’t succeed. If you don’t understand the human terrain in the conduct of population-centric counterinsurgency operations, you don’t succeed.”

But while the use of anthropology made sense to some in the military, it deeply disturbed many anthropologists. Beginning in 2007, a small group of anthropologists carried on a vigorous, public argument with McFate and other champions of anthropology as a tool for counterinsurgency. McFate’s critics advanced three main arguments: first, that deploying social scientists to war zones, particularly to gather military intelligence, could endanger the people being studied and lead all anthropologists to be viewed as spies; second, that anthropology is not predictive and does not yield the kind of data useful for military operations; and third, that, on principle, anthropology should not be used to subjugate unruly people while expanding American power.

Indeed, many anthropologists remembered how anthropology had been used as a tool of imperialism in the 1800s and early 1900s. “Of all the modern social sciences, anthropology is the one historically most closely tied to colonialism,” Edward Said once wrote, “since it has often been the case that since the mid-nineteenth century anthropologists and ethnologists were also advisors to colonial rulers on the manners and mores of the native people to be ruled.”

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n February 2009, I flew to Leavenworth, Kansas, to learn how the Human Terrain System prepared field team members for deployment to a war zone. The training at that time consisted of four to five months of classroom work that included basic social science and research methods, military rank structure, and courses on culture and history tailored to Iraq or Afghanistan. There was also a period of several weeks known as “immersion,” when trainees bound for Afghanistan spent time at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, studying Dari and talking with Afghan-Americans, while those headed for Iraq undertook a special course at the University of Kansas.

My minder during my weeklong visit was Maj. Robert Holbert, an Army reservist and former high-school social-studies teacher who had served on the first Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan, and who embodied the offbeat, left-leaning vibe the program sought to project. A convert to Islam with a shaved head, Holbert drove a Saab and listened to the Sex Pistols.

Human Terrain System training took place in the basement of a brick mini-mall in downtown Leavenworth called the Landing. The old federal prison and the sprawling Army garrison that anchor the town lie about a mile to the northwest. Fort Leavenworth is home to midcareer master’s programs for officers; it is where the Army contemplates its past and tries to get ahead of its future. The Human Terrain System laid claim to this spirit of military intellectualism, but if the rolling lawns of the base conjured a gracious university, the Landing had the dismal, downtrodden feel of an underfunded community college.

The program’s administrators had told me that the most interesting part of the training cycle would be the final week, when proto-Human Terrain Team members took part in a practical exercise to test what they had learned. The exercise was called Weston Resolve, named for the town of Weston, Missouri, near Leavenworth, where some of it took place. The Human Terrain System’s press handler, former Army intelligence officer Lt. George Mace—a veteran of the first Human Terrain Team to deploy in Iraq—described Weston Resolve to me as “a practicum in doing ethnography in any kind of village.”

The exercise was an elaborate game that began with the imagined secession from the United States of a big swath of territory between the Dakotas and Missouri. In keeping with this fictional turn of events, separatist groups and criminal elements were supposedly making trouble in eastern Kansas, burglarizing a pharmacy in Leavenworth, among other misdeeds. The U.S. government feared that crime syndicates and terrorists would commandeer this unstable new quadrant of the heartland for their own ends, and they sought to bring the revolt under control. The trainees’ job was to figure out as unobtrusively as possible what kind of people lived along the Kansas-Missouri border and to gather information about their customs, values, and beliefs.

The exercise began early on an icy morning in a parking lot a few blocks from the Landing. I followed the trainees around as they interviewed a young woman making smoothies at a local gym, a man on an exercise bike, mall walkers, college students, and people eating lunch at the food court on the nearby military base. The trainees asked people about their greatest successes and failures, whether it was appropriate in their culture for a little girl to talk to an older man she didn’t know, and what they had worried about most in the last month.

“I’ve lived in Leavenworth my whole life and it’s very trashy,” the girl behind the smoothie counter told them. “That’s my personal opinion.”

“What’s the most offensive thing you’ve seen someone do in public?” one of the trainees asked.

“Shoot someone,” the girl said.

“What’s the worst thing a friend can do?”

“Go behind my back and cheat with my boyfriend that I’d had for two years.”

The Human Terrain System had been sold to the Army as a means of providing cultural knowledge to battlefield commander. But as I watched the trainees interview residents near the Kansas-Missouri border, it became clear that whatever information they would be providing did not stem from any special knowledge of Iraqi or Afghan culture. Instead of offering cultural expertise, the Human Terrain System was training recruits to parachute into places they’d never been, gather information as quickly as possible, and translate it into something that might be useful to a military commander. One of the few Human Terrain social scientists I met with relevant experience, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology who had done his dissertation fieldwork in Afghanistan, would describe his Human Terrain work as “windshield ethnography.”

Thrown together at the Landing were former intelligence officers, defense-industry contractors, social scientists of various and often conflicting persuasions, military reservists, and immigrants with language skills. Teammates often shared little beyond a very general understanding of what they were doing and why. In the words of one former Human Terrain Team member, they specialized in “that touchy-feely thing that no one understood.” Some thought they were part of a humanitarian aid mission. Others thought they were there to tell the commander why local people supported the insurgency. Still others saw it as a chance to play spy. I had expected to find wide-eyed hopefulness and team spirit. Instead—perhaps because three Human Terrain Team members had recently been killed in the field—the place had a tense, fevered quality.

From the program’s beginning until at least late 2010, Human Terrain Team members got no operational security training, no survival skills beyond a brief medical course, no firearms training. “As a member of a 5-person HTS team, you will be safely attached to a brigade combat team,” read a cheerful 2008 recruitment brochure from BAE Systems, the big defense contractor that hired Human Terrain Team members during that period. But what could being “safely attached” to a United States military unit in Afghanistan possibly mean? Some military units gave their Human Terrain Team members guns, but often the civilians had little or no idea how to use them.

On my first morning in Kansas, the cultural anthropologist in the group I was observing told me he didn’t want anyone to know who he was. When I reminded him that I was a reporter and pointed out that the information he had already given me—including his surname and the name of a university where he had taught—would likely identify him, he grew agitated. “I’m an anthropologist,” he told me. “I have a lot of anthropologist friends, and I don’t want to get a bunch of emails telling me I’m the scum of the earth for joining this program.”

Adapted from Gezari’s The Tender Soldier (Simon & Schuster, 2013). From our Aug. 30, 2013, issue. For a longer excerpt, click here.

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