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Recentering Civilians

In 2007, the U.S. military invested in its most costly social science endeavor to date: the Human Terrain System (HTS). HTS cost the Pentagon $750 million and deployed 31 “Human Terrain Teams” into war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq before the Obama administration discontinued its funding in 2014. HTS sought to create a social understanding of a war zone’s local “human terrain” by employing social scientists to gain intel on local customs, traditions, social, and cultural norms. In this regard, HTS hoped to assist American troops in developing more contextually-attuned approaches to local interventions, thus easing cross-cultural tensions.

The program was not without controversy, however, and it quickly gained the staunch disapproval of groups such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA). But while HTS certainly presented ethical quandaries regarding the use of anthropological methods in combat, one of its core intentions—to improve cultural understanding—holds great value. This is especially true in the context of current U.S. interventionism and relations to local noncombatants. These individuals bear the largest burdens of war but are consistently ignored in considerations of American foreign policy. Though HTS is no more, it can be used as a future framework. To be effective, it must move away from sending anthropologists directly into war, and should instead consist of expert-guided training to provide forces with cultural competence and sensitivity to civilian life. 

HTS may have been the most recent attempt of the U.S. military to employ anthropological expertise in combat, but it is certainly not the first time that social scientists have found themselves entangled in war. Before World War I, the British Empire used anthropologists to develop strategies for quelling anti-colonial uprisings in potential insurgent states. Similarly, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reliance upon advice from anthropologist Ruth Benedict played a major role in developing his World War II strategy towards Japan. In more recent history, the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies have relied upon a comprehensive understanding of the socio-cultural landscapes of other nations, a “population-centric” approach that aims to address root social and political determinants of conflicts and tensions, especially concerning the so-called “war on terror.”

This history of social science involvement in military strategy makes the Pentagon’s discontinuation of HTS all the more curious. In 2014, to justify the sudden demise of HTS, Army officials publicly disseminated a report arguing that ground troops no longer required the help of civilian anthropologists. Outside observers, however, argued that the program ceased due to various major administrative and organizational failures. Investigations yielded suspicion that the program was built upon many concealed and persistent instances of fraud, ranging from fake time sheets to claims of sexual harassment. Questions also arose about new hirees’ qualifications and the origins of the operations’ funds.

Most importantly, the HTS raised various ethical and moral concerns from its very conception. From its outset in 2007, the AAA expressed opposition to HTS, claiming that promoting the introduction of anthropologists in war zones violated its code of ethics. Collecting sensitive data about locals for the U.S. government presented a murky dilemma with regard to transparency, intention, and complacency. 

This quandary highlights the tension between idealism and pragmatism in military operations. Though the righteousness of American military activity can and should be called into question, the modern context and deep entrenchment of U.S. forces in combat worldwide represent a web of relations that is not easily discarded. The employment of anthropological methods in military strategy has traditionally been preoccupied with entrapping enemy combatants, but critics have overlooked the enormous potential of cultural competency skills to mediate and improve engagement with civilians. The inclusion of social science in military training, then, serves not to exacerbate conflict but to mitigate collateral damage. While HTS was somewhat shrouded in mystery, one of its purported values was to strive towards cultural attunement. This is a necessary goal when members of different cultures live side by side and face power imbalances—for example, armed foreigners over vulnerable locals, combatants over civilians. In short: If we’re there anyway, why not do as little harm as possible? When we live and work alongside ordinary people, these neighbors deserve our respect. We can employ social science to soften the effects of military occupation and violence that cannot be dissipated simplistically or immediately.

Less-than-stellar attempts to train U.S. military members in the language of cultural competence have been made in the recent past. Fort Irwin, a U.S. army base in the Mojave Desert, is meant to serve as a recreation of the Afghan village Ertebat Shar. Actors are hired to play fake habitants and insurgents within the 1,000-square mile locale. Notably, the “town” Ertebat Shar is simulated to primarily both civilians and combatants, yet it—and most COIN operations—was created with the foremost intention of manipulating civilian trust and compliance through cultural competency. These processes regretfully failed to privilege civilian needs—a woeful and morally-hazardous error.

The Geneva Conventions, colloquially referred to as the “laws of war,” focus on the protection of civilians who may or may not be targeted in military action with the goal of “humanizing war.” The conventions, ratified by 196 states including the U.S., emphasize the relationship between combatants and noncombatants in warfare and stress the important concepts of discrimination and proportionality. Discrimination refers to the duty of militaries to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants, while proportionality is concerned with minimizing civilian collateral damage. Violence, however, remains rampant, particularly as warfare becomes increasingly untraditional. Culturally-sensitive, civilian-oriented approaches offer a potential form of redress.

This is especially important as nations such as the U.S. immerse themselves into gray zones of warfare. There are numerous recent interventions emblematic of this trend, such as a 2017 U.S.-led campaign in Raqqa, Syria against the Islamic State, which left 1,600 civilians dead. Although leading U.S. officers and commanders touted the exactitude of their precision strikes, and claimed that they prioritized civilian protection, observers tell a different story. Amnesty International emphasizes that such strikes inflict mass harm, lack precise discernment between civilians and combatants, and do not follow principles of discrimination and proportionality. These haphazard actions disregard civilian presence and emphasize how respect and dignity towards these local non-combatants are often not among the U.S. military’s priorities, thus rendering them war crimes.

The U.S. is not a party to the Rome Statute, meaning that its citizens cannot appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) or be tried for war crimes. Still, the U.S. should adhere to the Geneva Conventions as part of re-establishing and mending ties with civilians, which are, at best, extremely frayed. Social science can get us there.

Advocating for comprehensive cultural knowledge within the ranks of the U.S. military feels like a murky line to cross given the potential ethical quandaries that may arise. Though warfare and violence should already function as a last resort, it is imperative that civilians be respected if they are caught therein. Re-imagining a military strategy which adopts cultural competency training to promote increased understanding and empathy towards locals may seem like an idealistic hope. Yet, this strategy will prove necessary in imbuing respect and care in combatant-civilian relations. After all, civilians did not choose to find themselves in crossfire.

Illustration by Vienna Gambol ’20

About the Author

Madeline Noh '22 is a Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Madeline can be reached at