07 December 2012

Brian Ferguson: "Plowing the Human Terrain: Toward Global Ethnographic Surveillance"

Posted by AJP member Max Forte:

This and the next post feature two chapters by Brian Ferguson dealing with the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System, and broader issues of militarization, global surveillance, and cultural counterinsurgency that arise. One of the chapters was nearing publication, but the very sad passing of our friend and colleague, Neil L. Whitehead, this past March has apparently hindered one of the projects. Both papers are published here with the expressed permission of Brian Ferguson. I am also using the opportunity to draw attention to some key passages.

Ferguson, R. Brian. (2011). "Plowing the Human Terrain: Toward Global Ethnographic Surveillance." In Laura A. McNamara and Robert A. Rubinstein (eds.), Dangerous Liaisons: Anthropologists and the National Security State (pp. 101-126). Santa Fe: SAR Press. 


Brian Ferguson begins by accepting that "those who advocate or sign up for the HTS have good intentions," though he is more generous than I am in making such a generalization. Ferguson adds that, "they hope to use ethnographic understanding to save lives and lessen the destruction of war." However, as he argues in this chapter, "the information they gather in the field also can be used to help identify enemies for 'kinetic' targeting, the application of military force. That is why participation in Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) crosses the ethical line" (p. 101). The issue of lethal targeting, and specifically of supplying the kind of information that can be used to sort out who the enemy is and thus to refine targeting, has been a persistent and controversial point in the debates around HTS. This raises two problems: 1) by focusing on issues of lethal targeting, HTS advocates have tended to narrow their responses to this issue, thereby dismissing any discussion of the many other ways that their work broadly serves the interests of U.S. imperial domination; and, 2) much of the evidence supplied to sustain the targeting argument tends to be circumstantial and suggestive. However, I think the focus in Ferguson's chapter is a valid one, and I believe he has done the best job yet of making a convincing argument. Few writers, however, remind readers that a formal war crime was also committed by a Human Terrain Team, when Don Ayala executed a detainee, one of the most glaring examples of the lethal side of HTS. Ferguson at least supplies information that shows that violence was always a latent capacity of HTS, to the extent that many of its team members carried weapons. More broadly however, Ferguson argues that, "Anthropologists must not help militaries figure out whom to kill. More than that, the HTS folds into a projected worldwide monitoring of indigenous peoples for security threats by the Department of Defense (DoD). Anthropologists should not do that either" (p. 101).


Among the passages that struck me was the one in which Ferguson explains that if HTS "were anything but a Pentagon program, it would be dead by now":
"three team members killed in the line of duty, one convicted of manslaughter, one under investigation for espionage, loud whistle-blowing about incompetence in multiple areas, inadequate training, unacceptable scholarly and anthropological standards, unclear and unworkable chains of command, intractable personality collisions from top to bottom, sudden changes in management and training locations, inability to recruit competent social scientists, appointment of unqualified personnel and cronies, an investigative finding of sexual harassment and creating an intolerable work atmosphere, abrupt pay cuts midstream followed by resignation of many civilian employees, and so on" (p. 102).

The Humanitarian and the Military Faces of HTS

Ferguson points out how the idealistic vision of "war without blood" is one that, "appeals to humanitarian sentiments," however, "that goal is conspicuously absent in articles written for military audiences. In those writings the point is that anthropology can help our side fight smarter and prevail" (p. 104). Thus, "HTS has two faces--one for the military and one for the public. The public relations campaign has been remarkably successful, but available facts do not support this claim of harm reduction" (p. 104). Ferguson goes in detail through the available accounts that provide evidence, both direct and suggestive, that Human Terrain Teams either explicitly or indirectly provide tactical information that could be used for lethal targeting purposes, even specifying individuals by name or position in a village as being a likely threat to U.S. forces. In addition, HTTs provided the kinds of measures needed for profiling whole segments of local populations as likely insurgents, would be insurgents, or supporters of insurgency. By zeroing in on HTS claims that they help soldiers avoid misunderstandings, to understand that not all locals are enemies, Ferguson rightly asks:  "But how can one better understand who is not the enemy without better understanding who is the enemy?" (p. 117). In other instances he finds that, "the mapper of human terrains is directly charged with identifying 'significant persons of influence' in a mission area and their connections to 'threat organizations'" (p. 118).

Military officers themselves have also written against "sugarcoating what these teams do," about how cultural information is inextricably tied to the intelligence process and to sorting out the local population to determine potential enemies (pp. 118-119). As Ferguson unveils, "whether HTTs are used for lethal targeting depends on the intentions of the commander" (p. 119), and as one HTS supporter, Col. Martin Schweitzer remarked, if he had an HTT during his first tour of duty, "I would've used it to have a better understanding of the population so I could eliminate them. You can do that with the HTT, but that doesn't win the fight" (p. 119).

"Anthropology" Does Not Make War or Domination "Better"

While Ferguson says that "an anthropologized Department of Defense might well mean less blundering around, less shooting and bombing" (even though he himself has found to evidence to warrant such a claim)," he notes that "a well-run imperium always finds ways to reduce the bloodshed," and that therefore there is at least nothing remarkable about the claims that U.S. military and political leaders are looking for "humane" ways to fight war. This is now a routine part of their sales pitch. Ferguson makes the interesting point that "increased power means decreased use of force," though this opens up debates on how that power is attained and maintained, and the very conception of power that he is using (apparently non-coercive) is also open to debate. Ferguson's basic argument here is that "if HTS works as its proponents say it does, it could be an important tool in strengthening US hegemony":
"However chimerical the vision of global ethnographic surveillance may be, the capacity the HTS is helping to build cannot be seen as being in the interests of the indigenous peoples of the world--the people to whom anthropology is most responsible--unless their interests coincide with incorporation into a neoliberal US empire" (p. 126)
Many thanks to Brian for circulating these papers for wider distribution and discussion.
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