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“Effective war-fighting depends,” wrote the anthropologist Montgomery McFate in her 1994 doctoral dissertation on British counterinsurgency in Northern Ireland, “at the most basic level, on the ability to cope effectively with disorder.” The U.S. government’s controversial effort to harness the social sciences in support of its counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in an initiative known as the Human Terrain System, was one of the most ambitious and innovative efforts of the post-9/11 era to help warfighters make sense of conflict’s inherent chaos.
Human Terrain Teams, which blended civilian academics with military personnel, were intended to help soldiers better understand the battlefield. Attached to front-line military units, teams would provide information on the cultures, customs, and practices of local communities—otherwise known as the “Human Terrain” of the battlefield. The program marked a significant wartime experiment for the U.S. Army: More than 1,000 personnel were deployed during its duration, from 2007 to 2014 at a total cost of nearly $750 million, making the Human Terrain System the largest investment in a single social science project in U.S. government history.
And yet for all of its promise, the Human Terrain System failed to deliver. The program sought to make the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan smarter, more culturally astute, and more self-aware—but what resulted was a clash of cultures, ideologies, and egos that contributed to the end of the Human Terrain System in September 2014.
Several recent books shed light on what went wrong, what didn’t, and what lessons the program has for future initiatives. In Social Science Goes to War, edited by U.S. Naval War College professor Montgomery McFate and Temple University professor Janice H. Laurence, case studies document the Human Terrain System’s ethical, organizational, and personnel challenges as well as insights and recollections of former team members. Human Terrain Teams: An Organizational Innovation for Sociocultural Knowledge in Irregular Warfare, by experts Christopher J. Lamb, James Douglas Orton, Michael C. Davies, and Theodore T. Pikulsky, provides a meticulous examination of the program during its early days, as well as a detailed explanation of variable team performance in the fieldess insights and recollections of former team. The Tender Soldier documents the journalist and author Vanessa Gezari’s firsthand account shadowing a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan and recounts the earlier death of a social scientist in the program. Lastly, in The Death of the Mehdi Army, Middle East specialist Nicholas Krohley provides a glimpse at what might be the first of many books to come from program veterans, who gained unparalleled access to conduct field research in the middle of a war zone. Pulled together, these books document the demise of a good idea—one that was severely impacted in its initial stages by rapid expansion of the number of teams placed in the field.
In 2006, the United States was mired in insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq that threatened to unravel the progress Washington had made in both campaigns. As such, the Army needed new solutions to turn the tides on both fronts. One such solution was the Human Terrain System, which was championed by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. The program would integrate social scientists—anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists—in teams led by former or reservist military personnel as contractors. The embedded academics would provide information that helped soldiers and their leaders to better understand local communities and cultural practices, helping them to combat insurgents on an ideological level as well as a physical one.
In Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, McFate calls the Human Terrain Program “ambitious, dangerous, and quixotic.” In addition to the program’s size, it had the major task of bridging a divide that had developed between military and academic culture. McFate describes the “broad moat” between the two professions that developed during the Korean and Vietnam wars, to which many in the academic community had been opposed, and had only deepened since. To be successful, the Human Terrain System would have to overcome deep divisions in the “worldview, work habits, ethics, and epistemological frameworks” of soldiers and scholars.
Blending civilians into military units would provide the Army with unique challenges as well, as few researchers would be natural fits within the professional cultures and sub-cultures of the U.S. armed forces. There was, as RAND Corporation anthropologist Kathleen Reedy notes, an “unspoken requirement” for social scientists to rethink their approaches to research, problem-solving, and implementation to better fit army culture and values. Failure to do so could mean that their research would be dismissed or misunderstood, undermining the program’s purpose.
But despite the challenges, the Army forged on. Initial plans called for five teams to be created within the program’s first two years. The surge in Iraq was well underway, and a desire to provide troops with nuanced understanding of local communities made the Human Terrain System appear all the more crucial. Managing expectations was a challenge from the program’s onset, and was made no better by the circumstances on the ground during its rollout. Finding success under these conditions would prove challenging, if not impossible.
The Human Terrain System was ultimately a victim of its own success. Instead of creating five teams over two years, the mandate mutated into more than 20 teams. And so, many ill-equipped teams were put into theater where only a few could have reasonably completed these “ambiguous and dangerous” missions.
For all of the upfront work that went into developing the Human Terrain System, the initiative was unable to comprehensively deliver the intelligence and information anticipated. In Human Terrain Teams, the authors provide a comprehensive overview of how at the organizational level “honest differences” between the Training and Doctrine Command and the Human Terrain System amid “political pressure” for management changes beset the program, its problems amplified most egregiously by contracting and hiring missteps.
At the team level, academics were often unable to convey their findings in a timely, digestible format for their military colleagues. In many cases, their inclination toward methodical and thorough research lost out to PowerPoint-style presentations, easily digested intelligence, and condensed bulletins that required little in-depth reading. This demand cut against the grain of how all but a few academics are taught to convey information, creating a communication rift just as large as the existing cultural chasm between the social scientists and soldiers. McFate argues in her book that properly communicated, granular research could have helped Army leaders break away from the “cult of major combat operations,” in which soldiers are taught to concentrate on top-line issues at the expense of original, dynamic thinking.
Social scientists also bemoaned the lack of access they had to local communities, making interviews all but impossible. In many cases, academics were shielded from the populations they were tasked with understanding and were confined to bases during periods of intense fighting. The need for U.S. forces to keep travel plans opaque and unpredictable made conducting valuable research extremely difficult—social scientists found themselves unable to prepare research before traveling to undisclosed locations, and conversations with local populations became too dangerous for the Army to tolerate. And even if the social scientists were able to put together information before a mission, the rapid tempo of operations limited their ability to influence planning. This often resulted in superficial analysis that lacked the depth necessary to help brigade leaders make decisions.
At the team level, academics were often unable to convey their findings in a timely, digestible format for their military colleagues.
But for all of the external problems encountered by Human Terrain Teams, there were plenty of internal obstacles as well. The program’s hiring practices faced widespread criticism from former personnel. The result of these off-kilter hiring policies, as Gezari notes in The Tender Soldier, were field teams obviously unable to complete their missions. In addition, many teams were divided by egos, personality clashes, and insecurities: Gezari notes that two social scientists with clashing philosophies displayed open animosity toward each other, impacting their team’s work as a result.
Human Terrain Teams were also mandated to overlap two brigade deployments in order to boost institutional memory for incoming units during handovers. As units transitioned, they took with them the higher staff that had institutional knowledge, leaving new units to re-learn processes over the course of their deployment. Human Terrain Teams were designed to offset this problem by remaining in theater. Instead, this design forced program members to relearn customs and traditions from idiosyncratic brigade staff as well as forge new relationships with key personnel. Each handover made Human Terrain Teams re-learn staff priorities, regain trust, and spend time understanding how to communicate effectively with their new officers.
Instead of learning about the local customs and cultures of Iraqi and Afghan populations, many Human Terrain Teams spent their time studying their ostensible customer, the U.S. military. One member of a Human Terrain Team in Kandahar told Gezari that he did not truly live in Afghanistan, but rather that he lived on an U.S. base and only visited Afghanistan occasionally. In Social Science Goes to War, RAND Corporation analyst Ted Callahan calls Afghanistan’s Forward Operating Base Salerno a “study in excess” where nothing was sourced locally, and an estimated 30,000 plastic bottles were discarded and burnt each day. Despite the country being landlocked, Callahan notes that the weekly “surf and turf” night in the base’s mess hall provided him with more seafood than he had ever had before in his life.
In such a situation, the primary role of social scientists on Human Terrain Teams became teaching soldiers why they should carry out certain behaviors or actions, rather than influencing what their orders should have been in the first place. Also in Social Science Goes to War, Vanderbilt University sociologist Katherine Blue Carroll recalls, “The brigade did not need help with what to do, but they needed help in better understanding why they had to do it.” Teams were often able to provide lessons on simple cultural awareness, but failed to work on more profound objectives such as allowing the military to gain the loyalty of local populations, or to dissuade Iraqis from supporting insurgents.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED
The Human Terrain System has left two important legacies. It provided an immense amount of human capital to the Department of Defense in the form of a young generation of military-oriented researchers with a first-hand experience of war. It also generated important questions about the role of anthropologists within military operations, and has given the discipline much to consider about the state of its research. Krohley’s The Death of the Mehdi Army offers evidence of both. Through his study of the Mehdi Army’s campaign, he provides clear evidence that it was entirely possible to conduct rigorous and operationally relevant field research in the midst of active combat. Through the book’s extensive footnotes and appendix, he also lays out an actionable social science blueprint for the future conduct of similar efforts where the “level of detail and the depth of local specificity required to engage meaningfully with debates over specific concerns” will continue to “[make] first-hand investigations necessary.”
These four books substantially enhance what is known about the Human Terrain System, and provide a post-mortem on what went wrong and what worked when social science went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Individually, each book provides previously unseen fragments of the program. Together, they highlight emerging themes that are vital to understanding the social dimensions of war and the lesson that conflict seldom occurs in a military vacuum. As social scientists call for greater policy relevance in their research, the U.S. government finds itself engaged widely in the world. These two fields could learn much from one another, bringing an expectation of future conciliation between the academic and military cultures, rather than confrontation.