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Video: Human Terrain. . . War becomes academic

With a hat tip to Ben Turner for bringing this to my attention . . . .

International relations theorists James Der Derian has recently co-directed a new film entitled Human Terrain. From the film’s website, Dr. Der Derian explains the evolution of the film:



‘All men dream, but not equally.  Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.’

T.E. Lawrence

As the wars worsened in Iraq and then Afghanistan, we set out to make a film that would answer the question everyone was asking: ‘Why do they hate us?’ We wished to expose the illusions of empire, how dreams of democracy, peace, and easy victory mutated into a nightmare of insurgency, corruption, and cycles of greater violence.  We conducted archival research, embedded with Marines as they went through ‘cultural awareness training’ in the Mojave Desert, interviewed the key players as well as most vocal critics.  However, our original intentions as well as moral fixities were undone when Michael Bhatia, a colleague, collaborator, and friend, was killed in Afghanistan while we were making the film.  As the controversies over the role of the US in the Middle East and of academics in the American military effort heated up, converged, and got very personal, the once clear lines between night and day, right and wrong, vain gestures and necessary dangers began to blur.  After the film was done, no owl of wisdom flew at dusk, no dove of peace emerged.  We searched in the shadows cast by a dying empire and the death of a friend for new answers and found only more questions.

Just as it had been for Bhatia, the quote from Lawrence of Arabia became our talisman in this long journey. He had the phrase framed, together with the famous image of Lawrence of Arabia in the robes and keffiyeh of the Bedouin, hanging on the wall of his dorm room at Brown University, next to a flag of the United Nations.   Four years later and after he had made humanitarian trips to Western Sahara, Kosovo, and East Timor, graduated magna cum laude from Brown, and won a Marshall Scholarship to study international relations at Oxford University, Bhatia gifted the montage as a kind of homage, to his teacher, mentor, and fellow activist, Jarat Chopra.   Without Chopra and Bhatia, there would have been no film to be unmade.

The backstory is fairly straight-forward.  Midway through his graduate studies Bhatia returned to Brown to collaborate on our new Military Cultural Awareness Project, set up by a small group of like-minded anthropologists and international relations experts to research how the Pentagon was creating new doctrines, strategies, and organizations to help return some symmetry to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.   A key element was the recruitment of American social scientists to better understand the cultural ‘other’.   During this period Bhatia continued to work on his doctoral dissertation while traveling back and forth to academic and military conferences on the topics of cultural sensitivity, awareness, and competence.  He would always return with a wealth of information for the project and our film.

Unbeknownst to us, Bhatia was also being aggressively pursued by the military for his considerable expertise on humanitarian intervention, peacekeeping, and, given his numerous research trips to the region, Afghanistan.  The triangulation between academic researchers and filmmakers (‘us’), the military and civilian defense experts (‘them’), and the ‘indigenous’ subjects of our inquiry (‘the others’) began to shift, and the lines between what is known in anthropological parlance as ‘investigator’ and ‘informant’ began to blur.   Based on innate asymmetries of power and knowledge, this relationship is always open to misinterpretations, misapprehensions, and, to put it bluntly, mistakes. But something more was at work.  Looking back, I found echoes of an ethnographic predicament that Clifford Geertz identified early in his career as an anthropologist.  The relationship between investigator and informant often rests on a ‘set of partial fictions half seen-through’; and, says Geertz, ‘so long as they remain only partial fictions (thus partial truths) and but half seen-through (thus half-obscured), the relationship progresses well enough.’  In other words, progress, at least by the measure of any scientific standard, is largely illusory, an effect of what Geertz calls ‘anthropological irony’.

I can only speak for myself, but as our film ‘progressed’ I think this ironic function took hold, distancing us – intellectually, morally, emotionally – from what happened next.   Michael’s fellowship at Brown was coming to an end and was not likely to be renewed.  There was no other academic job on the horizon.  However, Bhatia, an Eagle Scout who had spent long periods in other war-torn regions like West Africa, East Timor, and Kosovo, had other skills as well a sense of adventure that set him apart from many of his academic peers.  Moreover, the dissertation would benefit from further field research in Afghanistan.  For one of these, for all of these reasons, Bhatia decided – fitfully, ironically, and, ultimately, tragically – to leave the ivory tower to join a new Pentagon program, the Human Terrain System.

In theory the Human Terrain System would enable the military to better understand the cultures and to capture the hearts and minds of the local populace; in practice it meant embedding social scientists and anthropologists with combat troops.  Critics swiftly claimed it was just new wine in an old bottle, a revival of discredited Vietnam ‘pacification’ programs designed to abet intelligence gathering and to target enemy combatants.  Human Terrain was ‘weaponizing’ culture as well as implicating the treasured independence of social science scholarship.  Not so, said the Pentagon; Human Terrain was lowering casualty rates on both sides of the conflict and increasing trust and stability in the tribal communities.

As the controversy increased stateside, we stayed in contact by email with Bhatia as he made his way through training and on to Afghanistan.  We worked on getting clearance for a skyped video interview when he was posted with a Human Terrain Team to Forward Operating Base Salerno, located in the Khost Province of Afghanistan.  It never happened.  On May 8, 2008 Michael’s mother called to tell us the terrible news.  The day before a small convoy of 101st Airborne soldiers and a Human Terrain Team left base to mediate an inter-tribal dispute.   High on a mountain road the lead humvee hit a roadside bomb.  Bhatia and two soldiers were killed; two other soldiers lost their legs.

After the funeral and much grieving came the soul-searching.  What did it all mean spilled over into harsher questions of who was to blame.  The first civilian casualty of a highly controversial military program, Michael became a public figure, with all sides swift to attach their own interpretations upon his death.  After extensive and often rending conversations with his family, we decided that we could not make the film without having Michael’s story be part of it.   To the extent it was humanly possible – and humanely necessary – we wanted to provide all parties to Michael’s life and death the opportunity to tell their side of that story.  We went to the family, back to the military, and interviewed the supporters as well as critics of Human Terrain.

The film greatly benefited from the willingness of Michael’s many friends, colleagues, and comrades in the field to talk to us.   It would not have been possible without the remarkable and often selfless assistance of his family, which has entailed difficult moments for everyone involved.   When Michael’s mother first took us upstairs to his childhood bedroom in Massachusetts, his clothes and personal effects were still in the duffel bag given to him by his uncle, a Vietnam veteran.  His Eagle Scout award sat on a low table; on the dresser his military ID, a set of keys, and a beat-up Jukebox MP3 player, grains of Afghan sand still lodged in its leather case. The Jukebox was filled with Michael’s published writings, his unfinished Oxford dissertation on the Mujahideen, interviews with Afghan soldiers, policemen, and tribal leaders, stunning photographs of Afghans at work, worship, and war, unclassified intelligence reports, and, of course, music, mostly spare Afghan folk. However, the first song that appeared on Michael’s playlist was by an indie band from Montreal, Wolf Parade’s haunting, ‘You Are A Runner And I Am My Father’s Son’.  On the drive back to Providence I heard dreams of night and day colliding and felt Michael’s death as the world’s loss:

‘I got a number on me/Won’t make it through the high noon sun
I am my father’s son/His bed is made
I was a hero/Early in the morning
I ain’t no hero/In the night.’

From the trailer and this description, it looks to be a very powerful film– especially for academics.

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One Comment

  • Doug Orton says:

    Dear Dr. Arend,

    We have launched a study of the Human Terrain System here at Institute for National Strategic Studies and the story is extraordinarily rich in conundrums.

    I wonder if somebody at Georgetown might be running a small research laboratory that perhaps could harness the energy of some doctoral students on this topic. I have become a bit of a detail-addict on the study, but that is not sustainable.

    A very bright masters student from Virginia Tech named Jill Page is writing her thesis on the story, but I think that she will run out of time, and only focus on the Afghanistan side of the story.

    With Petraeus taking his toolkit to Afghanistan, and the Human Terrain System being such a high-visibility tool in that kit, I suspect that more attention will focus on the HTS in the fall semester.

    Doug Orton

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.