The Cultural Turn Had Taken Hold

28MAR2011. Once the bulk of training on personnel matters had come to an end, and the process of transitioning from a contractor to a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) was made clear, we were ready to delve into a nuanced understanding of the research program that would lead us downrange (military slang for being deployed overseas…most likely in a war zone).

Before I accepted the position, I did my own research online; Googling the program to assess what others had to say (I’m a researcher…it’s instinctual). I came across articles that painted the program as a disaster and others that were either neutral or complimentary. One article that stands out discussed the pay of those deployed prior to 2009. Apparently, these folks were pulling close to $300,000 per year and some were upset that their salaries were being slashed (the program at that time didn’t include transitioning to a DAC position. These people were contractors, and in general, contractors make more than government civilians, so the salaries weren’t exorbitant given the position and location).

Still, it was a lot of money and nothing close to what I was being offered (but no complaints here!). Plus, there were hazard and hardship pay increases once you deployed (not bad at all). And this wasn’t unique to our research program, military personnel and contractors who deploy receive pay differentials; it’s to be expected when you’re putting your life on the line and working in hazardous environments.

The online articles that were most disheartening were the ones about researchers who were killed while deployed – all in 2008: two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. This triggered my initial anxiety and panic about dying in a war zone. As tragic as the deaths were, there were no other researchers killed…there were injuries (physical and psychological) but no official numbers.

The research program I was a part of was known as the Human Terrain System (HTS), a U.S. Army support program that was implemented under Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), tracing its inception to a research paper that was critical of anthropology for conducting armchair analysis and moving far away from its warfighting roots. Some anthropologists didn’t see it that way.

(Anthropology had in fact also moved away from its “native” roots. The discipline was accused of doing more harm than good through ethnographic accounts that situated the “other” through an orientalist lens: a dichotomized framework of “us” and “them.” The discipline – as the anthropologist Dr. Laura Nader, one of my advisors at Berkeley, made clear – engaged in a lot of navel-gazing, and has since tried to do better. My anthropology mentor, Dr. James Freeman, held similar views, always instructing us to ask “From whose perspective?”)

In 2005, HTS was a pilot project developed within the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Ft. Leavenworth, with the first team deploying to Afghanistan in early 2007. The project leaders were skeptical of its “catastrophic success” but the Army’s cultural shift toward winning the hearts and minds of the local people resulted in a $40 million allocation by late 2007. In 2010, it became a permanent Army program, lasting until 2014.

There were research teams sent to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). And as with most pilot projects that are scaled too quickly, what started off as a great idea experienced a lot of growing pains during implementation (the Army refers to the push for a rapid expansion of a program as building a plane in flight).

The concept wasn’t new per se, some viewed HTS as an extension of the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) program instituted by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. And just like with the CORDS, HTS was met with a lot of criticism, especially from the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

When I started training, I reached out to some of my anthropologist friends to gauge their views on the program, and to see if any of them might be interested in joining the program. All of them were quick to turn me down, highlighting the fact that it was the kiss of death for an anthropologist looking to secure a tenured position at a university. A handful of other academics stopped speaking to me altogether once they learned that I was a part of HTS. They couldn’t understand why I’d support the war effort, which to me, sounded too simplistic of a view. People have a right to their anti-war stances, but it’s not as simple as WAR IS BAD and PEACE IS GOOD.

Some people found it pretty ironic that a Berkeley Ph.D. was now a part of a military program. The stereotype, of course, is that all Berkeley-ites are hippies that oppose war, wear Birkenstocks, and sing “Kumbaya” while seated in a circle around a fire. I got a lot of chuckles from fellow grunts when they’d learn where I’d gone to school. But do you know that UC Berkeley’s Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) dates back to 1870? (*mic drop*) I wasn’t bothered by the teasing, I laughed along with them (funny shit, I tell ya).

By the time I was recruited for the program, they were sending Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) only to Afghanistan, which was fine because if given a choice, I’m not sure I would’ve deployed to Iraq. Then again, most of the people who joined HTS didn’t have the ethnic background or language skills (if you had these, it was a bonus). Was it the money? The altruistic drive to help? What motivated people to put their lives at risk?

For me, it was THAT opportunity to go back and do some good (and I’d be lying if I said the money wasn’t a factor. It was but it wasn’t the most important thing.) During my first trip to Afghanistan in May 2002, where I went with a handful of ex-pats to do some humanitarian work through Global Exchange, there were plenty of opportunities to stay and work.

There was so much money being thrown at the problem (Afghanistan), and so many ways to become a part of the solution (non-government organizations, private initiatives, public, etc.), it would’ve been easy to stay and make tons of money. But I was intent on starting my Ph.D. and completing it. So I made the conscious decision NOT to stay, knowing that I’d return. I just didn’t know when or in what capacity and this opportunity – the one with HTS – was it.

The HTS website has been taken down (not sure when it became obsolete since the program ended in 2014), but there are plenty of articles and books about the program, some that sing its praises and others that have nothing good to say. Here’s an account by an anthropologist who wasn’t fond of the program. And whatever the views, I’d come to learn that painting it with a broad brush as a failed program wasn’t entirely accurate. I’d also learn that once deployed, each team operated quite independently and the success or failure of the team had a lot to do with factors beyond what was taking place at the mothership (headquarters in Ft. Leavenworth). My experience, for the most part, was positive.

Based on my notes for that day in training (28MAR2011), we were just starting to do a deep dive on HTS. As an organization supporting the U.S. military, the program recruited, trained, deployed, and supported a dedicated embedded social science capability. Its vision statement was to “provide decision-makers with socio-cultural understanding to enhance achievement of desired outcomes across the spectrum of conflict.” This refers to the phasing construct of military operations.

For example, it starts with Phase 0 (shaping), then Phase I (deter), Phase II (seize initiative), Phase III (dominate), and Phase IV (stabilize); then back to Phase 0 and so forth, if necessary. (See, I told you the Army has lots of SOPs.) This phasing construct also depends on the type of operation employed, and was utilized in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So for those who know little about military operations, there’s always a plan – whether things go according to plan is another topic all its own. HTS was involved in Phases 0, I and IV, and definitely not in II and III.

With the military’s cultural turn – as evidenced by the creation of the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency (COIN) Field Manual 3-24 (also known as the Petraeus Doctrine) – the focus had shifted to public diplomacy via military means. The HTS program was to provide the U.S. military with teams of researchers who could help commanders and their units better understand the sociocultural landscape to facilitate the winning of hearts and minds. As one of the trainers said during a lecture: “We must understand culture from an institutional perspective, which the Army has just recognized.”

The HTS team, as the trainer continued, enables leaders to visualize the environment from an indigenous perspective. In using the social science tool-kit, we were to provide operationally-relevant socio-cultural understanding in support of a commander’s decisions. Each team, it was recognized, would have a unique set of researchers and each operational environment (OE) would have a unique set of operational concerns. This seemed pretty obvious but thank God it was highlighted and harped on throughout training.

The most crucial point that we, as a nation, missed entirely (and I’m not alone in this assessment), is that we didn’t take the time to understand Afghanistan. We didn’t do our homework (except the Special Forces community…they get it…that’s what they do). Yes, each HTS team would contend with OE-specific issues, but the fact that the country is an amalgam of tribes and identifies along ethnic lines without a solid national identity was what we missed or failed to recognize completely (except the Special Forces community…). Our hubris got the better of us and 18 years in, we’re still trying to define what “winning” means and trying our best to get the hell out.

There’s a reason Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires (ask the British…they can tell you all about their failed excursions); because while small battles have been won, no empire has successfully conquered this land of disparate tribes that have never (nor will ever be IMHO) governed by a national government perched in its capital (Kabul). So when the U.S. realized that kinetic activity (active fighting) alone wasn’t successful, COIN was implemented (something I’ll expand on in later posts).

I tried to remain engaged in the trainer’s lecture, but these recurring thoughts flooded my mind. On many occasions, I wanted to raise these issues, but I didn’t think the trainer would appreciate it (he didn’t seem very receptive to the Socratic method of teaching), and I didn’t want to come across as a know-it-all or ruffle any feathers by giving someone who was reading his lecture from Powerpoint slides a reason to kick me out of the program. I, by no means, was an expert on the U.S.’s Afghanistan war strategy (or strategies since there ended up being more than one…), but I did know more than the average person. And I would’ve appreciated some honest discussions about how the war in Afghanistan was going (maybe this was going to happen later during training).

We were also told NOT to ever say that we “collect” information because this was an intelligence function, and provided the HTS critics ample fodder to accuse it of engaging in interrogation techniques. So we had to say that we were “gathering” information, and hunting for the right questions to ask. As a researcher, I get it, semantics are important and the terms you use in research must be operationally-defined so there’s no confusion.

The social science tool-kit included subject and research methods experts, research generalists and cultural analysts. HTS products included field reports, assessments, analytical reports, cultural maps, surveys, and cultural briefings. We were given a research template to utilize that was similar to what’s used in academic research, except that in a war zone, the recommendations are time-sensitive, actionable, and operationally-relevant, whereas in the academic world, they’re much more theoretical. The HTS research framework utilized the military decision-making process (MDMP), a process of comparing and analyzing various courses of action (COAs) to make informed decisions and coordinate plans and orders.

HTS teams, again, were geographically-oriented and sustained by staggered, individual member replacement unless more than one person was needed on a team. Teams consisted of about 5-7 individuals. In addition to the HTTs, there was a Research Reachback Center (RRC) located at the mothership in Ft. Leavenworth, which provided research capabilities to deployed researchers. The RRC employed analysts and served as a resource hub. In-country, there was the Social Science Research and Analysis (SSRA) unit that conducted country-wide surveys, and in some ways, stood apart from HTTs.  

Teams existed at various military echelons. HTTs operated at Brigade and lower military echelons (Battalion, Company, Platoon), and Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTATs) operated at higher military echelons (Corps, Division). Towards the end of schoolhouse training, you were told to submit a list of your top-three preferences in terms of geographic location (province) and type of team (HTT, HTAT), and include the reasons why you thought you’d be effective in those preferred locales. There were no guarantees that you’d end up where you wanted because a lot of it was determined by need.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted. It was our initial exposure to a lot of substantive information about HTS, the teams, the research process, etc. And aside from wanting to grab a quick bite and rush back to my hotel room to work on personnel-related matters (formatting my resume, filling out my time card, etc.), it was also the first official day of classes for my students. So I had to check in to see how many people had enrolled and how many were on the waitlists (it was going to be a long night).

Before we were excused for the day, the trainer ended his lecture with a quote from Captain J.L. Picard, commander of the Starfleet from Star Trek: “Study [their] art, history, and philosophy, then you will learn something” (exactly!).