Army Takes Human Terrain To Heart

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Kansas City Star
October 14, 2008
Pg. 1
By Lee Hill Kavanaugh, The Kansas City Star
Cleo Caban, 28, of New York takes a deep breath and walks a few steps into the Leavenworth County register of deeds. Then he stops, whispering: “What do I ask?”
“You’ll know. Just talk to her,” says Tom Bevier, 57, from North Carolina.
The two are on a mission, a practice run for the work they’ll soon be doing in Iraq.
“Hi. We’re new to the area, and we’re also going to be deploying soon. Do you mind if we talk a little?” Caban asks the clerk behind the counter.
And before long, the clerk, Melissa Peters of Lansing, is chattering away.
She tells them who are the major families who have lived longest in the area, where the locals go for fun, how the mortgage crisis is affecting Leavenworth, historical places that are no more, which schools she believes are best and perceptions of the police.
Caban, an Arabic linguist, casts a few glances at Bevier, a former Special Forces soldier who is smiling wide. These are good details for their mission — really good stuff.
The clerk never knew she was talking to a team from the Army’s Human Terrain System.
The two-year-old Human Terrain program isn’t very high tech. Instead, its heart is old-fashioned talking, combining information from conversations and academic expertise to sort the material in databases.
Plowing the human terrain means understanding people by learning about their tribes and clans, the local taboos, the special celebrations. Figuring out how to avoid angering them because we misunderstood them in the first place, says Rick Swisher, a Human Terrain instructor and a member of the first team into Afghanistan.
For example, how many times has a wedding in Iraq — where men fire guns into the air in celebration — been perceived as sniper fire by the military? Lots, he says. The whole point is to look for nonlethal solutions.
“Every time we pull the trigger, we’ve failed.”
Twenty-six teams of from five to nine people are in Iraq and Afghanistan now, working with Army brigades. More classes are training for staggered deployments next year, studying everything from combat first aid to “windshield ethnology” (observing groups from inside a vehicle) to the rise and fall of different cultures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Classes are taught by military and academics.
Within the next few years, the number of Human Terrain teams will double around the world, deploying into Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Word about the Army’s program is spreading, says Lt. George Mace of Lenexa. He was on the first Human Terrain team to Iraq and now is a spokesman for the program.
“The institutional knowledge that the teams are bringing to the units is a jumpstart to what’s happening in an area,” Mace says. “Other services are noticing and asking us now if they can join the teams too. We are looking to open this up.”
The Pentagon believes the program is the key to countering insurgents wherever they emerge in the world.
And it all starts in the basement of a strip mall in downtown Leavenworth.
• • •
Behind the Delaware Landing Mall, two double doors lead to stairs to the basement where a coffee pot brews nearly all day long. Here, several large classrooms can seat 30-40 students. More classes are held across the street in a Kansas City Kansas Community College building.
Every new group begins its four months of training with one day listening to former team members talk about their experiences.
One of those instructors is Swisher, who was a Special Forces soldier for 27 years. No touchy-feely stuff for him, he says, with regard to the enemy.
But everything changed when the Army turned to new ways of fighting an insurgency.
Counterinsurgency approaches call for getting to know a foreign people not as “bad guys” but as people with a culture thousands of years older than Americans’, building relationships with them and finding out what they need.
“We’ve always said, ‘Winning hearts and minds,’ but I like to say, ‘Understanding hearts and minds.’ And let them (the people in Iraq and Afghanistan) define it, too, not us.”
Definitely a new way of fighting the war, he says, “but also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Classes prepare for their deployments by learning about the histories and customs of the countries they’ll be working in for a year. Students learn marketing techniques and how to observe people like a social scientist, when to pull back because something’s not right, and knowing clearly what roles Human Terrain teams play if they witness something nefarious.
Many here have seen war already. They’re either in the military or are veterans. The younger faces, mostly women, are graduate students with master’s or doctorate degrees in the social sciences.
The program mostly wants anthropologists, but it also includes historians, psychologists, political scientists, linguists and journalists. Human Terrain program managers recruit nationwide, looking for people with the right combination of education and personality.
The money is pretty good: For academics, the pay begins at $100,000 a year, with some making double that for hazardous duty. Of course, they don’t get weekends or holidays off. The job is seven days a week, sometimes 24 hours at a time, and the program requires a one-year commitment.
The skill sets in each team are varied. Military members plan missions, provide security and help bridge the gap between civilians and military. Military members make less, based on their pay grade. But they aren’t required to serve a year on a team.
Not everyone will leave the relative safety of a base. Some members stay behind to analyze and catalog information from the field reports. Still others will work in the “reachback center” in Leavenworth, taking computer reports from Afghanistan and transferring the information into hundreds of categories such as economic issues, agricultural production, public communications, social structures and key regional personalities. An additional 20 researchers in Oyster Point, Va., do the same thing with information from Iraq.
The information is archived in a database available to other Human Terrain teams and brigades. All but a few of the reports also are available online to scholars, college students and nongovernmental organizations.
The goal is to make sure that what the teams and the troops learn is not lost when they rotate home.
• • •
Controversies swirl about the program.
Some concerns come from the academic world. Other criticisms come from skeptical service members.
Some have called Human Terrain teams too liberal, too naive. Others fear the program will be used for intelligence purposes. Some worry they’ll ignore ethical guidelines that anthropologists vow to maintain.
But Human Terrain members say they are neither naive, nor working as intelligence agents.
They know that in Iraq or Afghanistan, they can be hit just as hard as any other military unit. Two members have died already. Teams must be just as vigilant about security as any other military unit, but still do their research, Swisher says.
He warns the classes again and again that when they are briefing their commanders in the field, they must be vigilant against telling them what they should do.
“There’s a line there, and you cannot cross it,” he cautions. “If you do, you’ve just made yourself a target.”
Some anthropologists worried about the program have used words like “targeting” and “mission creep.” They fear repeating history. In World War II, some anthropologists spied for the military. In Vietnam, some anthropologists helped target 26,000 people, later killed, as possible Viet Cong.
To keep this from happening again, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists formed last year and asked their peers to sign a pledge that they would not participate in the program.
Cheryl White, 35, who has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Florida, shakes her head at the controversy.
She acknowledges that it did cause her to wrestle with whether to join the Human Terrain program.
She feels good about her choice now. She will be deployed next year.
“I see this as applied anthropology. It’s what I believe in.
“… This is my chance to make the world a better place.”