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

Academics in Foxholes

The Life and Death of the Human Terrain System

“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 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.

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