Human Terrain Systems

For several years now, the US Army has been embedding small “Human Terrain Teams” at the brigade/regiment level. Each Human Terrain Team comprises two anthropologists and three military personnel. According to the Wikipedia article on Human Terrain System (HTS)

[the team] includes a team leader who advises the commander and represents the population at unit planning, a research manager, a cultural anthropolgist/sociologist who conducts ethnographic/social science research, another social scientist who conducts research and runs focus groups with the locals, and an analyst/debreifer from coalition elements. The teams are fully integrated into unit staffs, providing advice on how to interact productively with the local population and represent the “human terrain” in planning, preparation, execution and assessment of operations.

Not surprisingly, anthropologists are aghast. For example, according to the Wikipedia article

HTS is controversial amongst professional anthropologists, many of whom perceive it as an attempt to “weaponize” anthropology.

The American Anthropological Association has published a statement opposing the Human Terrain System.  They denounced the program in October 2007, concerned it could lead to compromise of ethics, disgrace to anthropology as an academic discipline, and the endangerment of research subjects. Some academics denounce the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain, fearing HTS could cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence-gatherers for the US military.

Well, we surely wouldn’t want to use knowledge to our advantage during international struggles, would we?  And this knowledge couldn’t be used in ways to actually reduce the likelihood that innocent civilians are killed or injured, could it? This may be proof, if any were needed, that anthropology is not, in fact, science (or at least nothing like a pure science). Practitioners of science would never object to pragmatic application.

In the first week of this year, Paula Loyd died of injuries suffered in Afghanistan at the hands of Abdul Salam while serving on a Human Terrain Team. The circumstances of her injuries, and the immediate aftermath, have led to an interesting, but little publicized, debate.

According to the Boston Globe’s Anthropologist’s war death reverberates

Paula Loyd, a Wellesley-educated researcher, began interviewing villagers about the price of cooking fuel – a key indicator of whether insurgents had hijacked supply lines.

As part of a new military program that uses social scientists to improve the troops’ understanding of the local population, Loyd began interviewing a gregarious stranger who approached her with a jug of cooking fuel in his hands. He talked for 15 minutes, thanking her profusely in English. But just as her guards motioned it was time to leave, he lit his jug on fire and engulfed the 36-year-old Loyd in flames.

Minutes later, her fellow researcher shot and killed the man, adding a violent coda to a case that has already increased debate about the worsening conditions in Afghanistan and the military’s attempt to use social science to cure insurgency.

The “fellow researcher” is Don Michael Ayala of New Orleans. According to reports, after setting Ms. Loyd on fire, Salam ran about 50 years toward Ayala, a contractor. Salam was subdued by Ayala using plastic restraints. A short time later, another member of the team approached Ayala and reported the nature and extent of Ms. Loyd’s injuries. Ayala then shot Salam in the head. Ayala has pleaded guilty to second degree murder. He is scheduled for sentencing on May 8th in federal court in Alexandria Virginia.

One line of debate takes up the extent to which Salam’s treatment of Loyd reflects Afghan men’s treatment of women, generally. Was Loyd being treated the way other women in Afghanistan are treated, or was she treated the way any member of an occupying force would be treated? For thoughtful discussion from an anthropologists point of view, see Max Forte’s Open Anthropology. Look for posts tagged with “Paula Loyd”. However, this article in the Seoul Times describes Loyd’s experience as

a fate that all too often befalls Afghani women who show signs of independence—an insult to many Afghani males.

So there is at least some question as to the true motivation of Salam and the lessons pertaining to Afghan society that one may draw from the attack.

One recurring theme in Forte’s blog is that if you think that Salam received sufficient due process and paid for his actions, the same would be true if you switched Salam with Loyd. Loyd was the occupying force, after all. If you find this of interest, please see Forte’s extensive writing.

This leads to another line of debate, which addresses the question of which character most adequately serves as a metaphor for the entire Afghanistan War.

  • Is it an enraged Salam, who lashes out, perhaps at a moment of insanity, at the occupier?
  • Is it Loyd, who represents naivete and the lost opportunity to connect with Afghan civilians?
  • Or is it Ayala, who administers sure and swift justice against enemies of the United States?

Which is it?

Ayala and Loyd

Ayala and Loyd

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