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Academics in Foxholes

The Life and Death of the Human Terrain System

U.S. special forces soldiers discuss beside a map at their base in Helmand, Afghanistan September 28, 2015.  Omar Sobhani / Reuters

“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

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