The Murder of the Human Terrain System

How the academic Left shut down a crucial U.S. military program.

The Human Terrain System (HTS) was a unique army program designed to have anthropologists and other social scientists assist the military in understanding local populations. Human Terrain Teams were deployed to conduct cultural research and advise commanders on how to use this knowledge to better understand the local culture. HTS was created at the height of the counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and became active in 2007 embedding five-person teams with Army combat brigades. The program utilized a methodology referred to as ‘Cultural Intelligence’ that takes into consideration the problem of Western interpretations of foreign cultures. The goal of the HTS program was to promote an increased understanding of the civilian population and enhanced operational effectiveness by supporting communications and interactions with locals, incorporating knowledge about tribal traditions in conflict resolution and providing situational awareness to the military. Two weeks ago the Army confirmed that it shut down the Human Terrain System program on September 30, 2014. USA Today reported that HTS spent $726 million from 2007 to 2014 in Iraq and Afghanistan and was plagued by fraud and racial and sexual harassment, implying those were the reasons that the Army ‘quietly killed’ the program. The Human Terrain System was not quietly killed it was murdered by the academic left long before the army ended the program.

From the very inception of the program anthropologists began actively undermining it. Their professed argument was that it was a violation of their disciplines ethical standards. In actuality the idea of embedding scholars with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan did not conform to their anti-American anti-military ideals. Liberal anthropology professors claimed that their methods of research were exploited and abused by their application in Human Terrain Teams. They refer to this as militarizing or weaponizing anthropology. Similar to Liberal professors in other departments who have garnered attention for their anti-American views, a group of professors created ‘The Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA)’ founded by past and present leaders of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The NCA’s stated goal is to promote an ethical anthropology. Filled with self-righteousness and a sense of importance they wrote a letter to congress “to halt further appropriations to the HTS program, to cancel plans for expansion of the program, and to carefully consider alternative courses of action for securing peace in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond.”

The letter which appears on their website argues that HTS is unethical for anthropologists and other social scientists, that it is an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise, it is dangerous and reckless, a waste of taxpayers’ money and likens anthropologists to medical doctors who are ethically bound to do no harm. Instead of applauding this distinctive program that views cultures from the locals point of view, leftist anthropologists argued that the information gathered was being used to exploit instead of aid locals. This perspective derives from the same anti-American, post-colonial Marxist philosophies infecting the entire university system. In his book ‘Weaponizing Anthropology’ David Price, one of the leading anti-American anthropologists argued that culturally informed counterinsurgency presents ethical, political, and theoretical problems for anthropology.

Following in the footsteps of the godfather of postcolonial theory, Edward Said, Price described the political problem as using anthropology to support neo-colonial projects of conquest, occupation and domination. In his book he also warned that some anthropologists may be fooled when they see Americans building schools and hospitals for the people they are oppressing. Not surprising, The Network of Concerned Anthropologists (NCA) did not have an explanation for maintaining their ethical relativist positions on issues such as women being honor killed, Christians being tortured, children sold into slavery and the dozens of other human rights abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their focus was on demonizing the American military that attempted to bring freedom and democracy to men, women and children who are oppressed by the Taliban not U.S. soldiers.

At the 2007 annual conference of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Executive Board issued an official statement on how the Human Terrain System (HTS) violates the AAA Code of Ethics which mandates that anthropologists do no harm to their research subjects. AAA members were thrilled when Zenia Helbig, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Virginia was fired from the program in August 2007 after four months of training. Ms. Helbig did not understand why a joke she made during a casual night out with the team prompted an investigation of her allegiance to the U.S. She said, “‘Okay, if we invade Iran, that’s where I draw the line, hop the border, and switch sides.’” She also stated that her firing was ‘a ludicrous overreaction to a casual piece of hyperbole.’ Helbig was recruited for the program because she was proficient in language skills including Russian, Farsi, French, and Ukrainian. This bright woman seemed to have trouble comprehending why joking about being a traitor and the fact that she had traveled to Iran for conferences in 2004 and 2006 provoked suspicions. One of the actual problems with having civilian academics work with the military is that they do not understand basic security protocols.

Being fired from the HTS program made her the darling of the academic left. Her story was written up in The Chronicle of Higher Education and she was invited to speak at the 2007 AAA Conference, the same conference where the AAA officially went on record against the HTS program. To the horror of the AAA during her lecture Helbig defended the HTS program stating that problems with the program were the result of “inept management and execution at every level” and not ethics. When members realized that she was not the Anti-HTS poster child they had hoped for, she was attacked professionally and personally during the question segment. The so-called learned anthropologists weren’t satisfied until they brought her to tears. Helbig was publicly shamed for not towing the AAA party line.

These same alleged scholars had no qualms exploiting the deaths of their fellow social scientists who were killed serving their country. Between May 2008 and January 2009 three embedded social scientists assigned to Human Terrain Teams were killed in theaters of war. In May 2008 Michael Bhatia who was assigned to HTT AF1 was killed along with two other soldiers by an IED in Khost, Afghanistan.  On June 24, 2008 Nicole Suveges, a member of HTTIZ3 was killed along with 11 others soldiers when a bomb exploded at the District Council Building in Sadr City, Iraq. On November 4, 2008 HTS member Paula Loyd was fatally injured. Paula Loyd, 36, was doused with gasoline disguised in a jar of cooking oil and lit on fire by an Afghan national while she was surveying the village of Chehel Gazi with a US Army platoon. Immediately after the attack Don Ayala, the leader of Loyd’s Human Terrain Team shot Abdul Salam in the head after learning of the severity of Loyd’s injuries killing him instantly. Paula Loyd who had severe burns over 60 percent of her body died two months later from her wounds. In February 2009 Ayala pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia and was sentenced to five years’ probation and a fine. Instead of acknowledging the heroism and bravery of the social scientists who gave their lives for their country, a foreign concept to academics sitting comfortably in their ivory tower, they exploited their deaths as an excuse to support their position against the program.

These so-called concerned anthropologists have not posted any tributes to their colleagues. Instead they insulted their memories by using their deaths to criticize the HTS program. One was even more concerned with the man who burned Paula Loyd alive. Maximilian C. Forte, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Concordia University in Quebec, wrote on his website, Zero Anthropology (formerly Open Anthropology), “Salam got murdered in his own country by foreign occupiers,“.. “Try, just as an experiment, to see things from that angle for a moment.” These are the opinions of the so called ethical anthropologists. They do not just voice their concerns; in their mean-spiritedness and elitist positions they accuse members of the HTS of “prostituting science”, presiding over the “militarization of anthropology,” and killers for hire. It wasn’t enough to denigrate the reputations of their colleagues who chose to serve their country.

The American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) formally blacklisted anthropologists from participation in any endeavor by the U. S. Army to understand the human terrain. The AAA “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.”  They refuse to acknowledge the irony of imposing their political views, based on relativist and ethical arguments, while they demonize honorable soldiers who are attempting to understand the intricacies of the local culture to prevent human rights abuses. These professors want it both ways, multiculturalism and respect for ethnic diversity in every field of academia, but not when it has groundbreaking military applications. By threatening the careers of HTS anthropologists they helped the program fail. Anthropologists have now joined the tenured ranks of other misguided professors indoctrinated in postcolonial Anti-American ideologies. They have replaced intellectual inquiry with political activism that vehemently demonizes the military regardless of programs like the Human Terrain System that promoted cultural understanding.