Lentis/Human Terrain System: Military Meets Cultural Mindfulness


The Human Terrain System (HTS) was a United States Army program designed to prepare soldiers for the modern battlefield using anthropological research. In 2005, two papers published by anthropologist Montgomery McFate highlighted the need for cultural and sociological understanding in modern warfare: "None of the elements of U.S. national power—diplomatic, military, intelligence, or economic—explicitly take adversary culture into account in the formation or execution of policy"[1]. Through HTS, anthropologists would be embedded in military units to learn more about the local populations of the areas of Iraq and Afhganistan where US-led coalition forces were operating. HTS team members would accompany soldiers into the field and report any useful findings to military commanders to take into account when making tactical decisions. HTS was pushed from a pilot to a full fledged project under the guidance of Army Colonel (ret.) Steve Fondacaro [2]. As the program gained traction through 2006, Dr. Jacob Kipp and his colleagues outlined an official statement and protocol for HTS [3]. With mounting financial costs, debate over the effectiveness of the program, the ethical ambiguity of the anthropological fieldwork, and the very public death of multiple HTS anthropologists, the program was abandoned in 2014.

The Human Terrain System embodies how conflicting internal agendas limit a program's effectiveness. This article addresses the conflicts at the core of the Human Terrain System, including a struggle between the goals of military decision making and anthropological study, the ethical concerns of military sponsored anthropological fieldwork, and the effects of failing to fully remove one's personal values and motives from one's research. The presentation of the deaths of HTS anthropologists in the article highlights the fragile nature of implementing a program such as HTS in the midst of the sociological and cultural complexities that it set out to comprehend.

The Costs and Conflicts of HTSEdit


The American Anthropological Association Statement of Ethics dictates that "Anthropologists must often make difficult decisions among competing ethical obligations while recognizing their obligation to do no harm. Anthropologists must not agree to conditions which inappropriately change the purpose, focus, or intended outcomes of their research."[4]. As a member of the armed forces, the HTS anthropologist must wrestle with the idea that his research may lead to direct or retaliatory use of force against his research subjects. By aligning oneself with the agenda of the armed forces, one could argue that the HTS anthropologist has agreed to terms that may skew the objective nature of his research.

The definition of HTS varied between the internal ideological sects of the program. Anthropologists viewed HTS as an opportunity to expand the knowledge base and minimize the loss of life. Contrarily, many military commanders such as Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Wilcox, viewed the HTS program as a means to "enable the entire Kill Chain for the Global War on Terror"[5]. This distinct difference in opinion birthed an equally polarized set of beliefs regarding the optimal utilization of the system; some believed HTS should serve to keep soldiers safe, while others found it a novel way to discover and exploit the cultural intricacies of the local population for tactical gain.

The Human Terrain System attempted to rewire the binary mindset of the traditionally trained American enlisted man. In contrast to the "black and white," "friend or foe" view of the local population, the Human Terrain System introduced a spectrum of cooperation that incorporated the more accurate but often ambiguous gray area between allied and opposing local beliefs.

Critics of the Human Terrain System frequently commented that commanders underutilized the anthropological portions of the program, relegating it to a form of surface level intelligence gathering rather than a tool for cultural analysis[6]. Cases where the military used the gathered information to "better target [their] opponents," exploited the locals who spoke about their culture in confidence to US anthropologists[7]. If the goal of the Human Terrain System was to reduce loss of life on both sides of the war and to make US military expeditions more efficient, then the misuse of anthropological resources could be viewed as a primary cause for the deterioration of the program.


In June of 2006, the Human Terrain System began as a $40 million dollar program [8]. In 2010, after 4 years of alleged successes (ignoring the deaths of anthropologists and the Army commanders who didn't utilize the system), the HTS budget was increased to $150 million dollars per year to expand the number of teams in the field. When the program was shut down in 2014, taxpayers had put $750 million dollars into HTS [9].


Nicole SuvegesEdit

Nicole Suveges, a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University studying political science and international relations and an ex Army reservist, joined BAE Systems to be involved in the HTS program. She had previously been a civilian contractor for the military in Iraq in 2006, where she gained information to write her dissertation, "Markets & Mullahs: Global Networks, Transnational Ideas and the Deep Play of Political Culture". She was deployed to Iraq in April 2008. [10] In June of 2008, Suveges was one of 12 killed in a bombing in Baghdad, Iraq. As the second social scientist killed in less than two months, this raised concern about HTS. The leaders placed anthropologists with troops in an attempt to lower violence against the US military. Instead, this resulted in the deaths of these anthropologists. [11]

Michael BhatiaEdit

Michael Bhatia was a doctoral candidate who studied politics and international relations at Oxford University. His research and dissertation, titled "The Mujahideen: A Study of Combatant Motives in Afghanistan, 1978-2005," made him uniquely qualified for the HTS program. Bhatia commented that while many expected HTS to fail in combining anthropology and the military, he joined to prove these critics wrong; his goal was to save lives and increase awareness of the culture he devoted so much of his academic career to. Bhatia was expecting to be involved at a research level, not at a combat level. He wrote, "I am already preparing for both the real and ethical minefields," when leaving for Afghanistan to start the HTS program. He had been to Afghanistan multiple times for research and knew the country better than most. After he was selected for the program, he worked with many troops in the field. Both infantryman and HTS anthropologists alike said he was "brilliant." [12] In Salerno, Afghanistan, in May 2008, he was riding in a vehicle with US Marines when an IED exploded, killing him and two American soldiers[13].[14]. His death spawned an emotional documentary about HTS, "Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic," telling the history of HTS and how Bhatia died to the masses. The movie was made in 2010, four years before the program was ended. [15]

Paula LoydEdit

In November of 2008, Paula Loyd was with a convoy going through the village of Chehel Gazi, Afghanistan, where she was doused in gasoline and lit on fire by a local man she had been conversing with. Two soldiers grabbed her and rolled her around in a sewage ditch, trying to put the fire out. A contractor on her team, Don Ayala, chased the man down, and when he was told how badly Loyd was injured, he pulled out his sidearm and executed her attacker. Loyd's death in January of 2009, 2 months after the incident, and the trial of Ayala were the incidents that brought the HTS system into the light of the mainstream media. In 2009, Ayala pleaded guilty to manslaughter but was given a reduced sentence of a fine and probation due to the circumstances surrounding Ayala's actions.[16]

Participant or ResearcherEdit

Anthropology is a science founded in objective distance. Researchers must study their subjects without imparting set personal motives, biases, or agendas to obtain the most accurate results. In contrast, a military is a direct participant in whatever conflict it is engaged in. Participants act to fulfill agendas, and either consciously or unconsciously the actions taken towards those agendas skew the objectivity of any scientific study. A Human Terrain System scientist therefore finds himself in a conflict at the core of his mission. As both a member of a military team and an academic team, his goals directly oppose one another. Though HTS was successful to an extent, the brief story of the program suggests that in trying to do both anthropological research and tactical assessment through intelligence gathering, it ultimately failed to properly do either. Speaking to the Anthropological Association committee about the tactical side of HTS, Michael Bhatia stated: "If you are involved, to what extent can you dictate the freedom or an ability not to provide information, or is that just naive?" Anthropologist Tracy St. Benoit replied to Bhatia by saying Afghan civilians "are going to look at you differently than they did before. You're now in a uniform and that carries symbolism. That lets the other person know you're not neutral anymore. You've declared a side." [17]


HTS sought to save lives by studying lives. The program aimed to unite the depth and wealth of knowledge of academic anthropology with the resources, reach, and power of the US Armed Forces. Though pure in intent, the program found itself conflicted in its execution. Just as commanders faced the dilemma of determining the intention of members of the local population, members of the local population were forced to determine whether HTS anthropologists were intervening to study, learn, and negotiate, or to gather intelligence that may bring harm or attract the unwanted attention of hostile forces. Anthropologists had to address the ethical predicament of aiding their military or keeping the confidence they gained with the local population. Ultimately, the financial expense and public loss of life drove Congress to end the program in 2014.

Future ResearchEdit

Moving forward, a group may wish to compare the academic works of some of the HTS anthropologists before their time in the Human Terrain System versus their fieldwork during and after their time with the military. Michael Bhatia visited Afghanistan several times before returning as a part of the Human Terrain System: Were his perspective, his recorded interactions, and the nature of his subject's responses different upon his return because he wore a military uniform and was accompanied by military personnel? Was he biased knowing his work was not strictly for academic exploration, but an informative report for military commanders to form tactical decisions? Future groups may explore the evolution of military and anthropological interdisciplinary programs such as CORDS, another Vietnam-era program called the Phoenix Program, HTS, and potentially an investigation done by USA TODAY[18] that suggests the US Army had started a new project, The Global Cultural Knowledge Network, which allegedly continues where HTS left off. Finally, groups may wish to conduct an exploration of the military, educational, and ethnic background of the Human Terrain System founders and participants.


  1. McFate, Montgomery (2005). "Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of their Curious Relationship" https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/345e/ddd85a7709fc7fc5fddeb93457bc3a51209c.pdf
  2. Gonzalez, Roberto (February 2008). "Human Terrain: Past, Present and Future Applications". Anthropology Today. 24 (1): 21–26. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8322.2008.00561.x/epdf
  3. Kipp, Jacob; Lester Grau; Karl Prinslow; Don Smith (October 2006). "The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century". Defense Technology Information Center (DTIC).
  4. American Anthropological Association (2012). "Ethics Blog" http://ethics.americananthro.org/ethics-statement-1-do-no-harm/
  5. Wilcox, John (2007). "Precision Engagement- Strategic Context for the Long War" [PowerPoint slide] https://sites.google.com/site/concernedanthropologists/humanterrainmapping%22enablestheentirekill
  6. Vanden Brook, Tom (2013). "System failure: anthropologists on the battlefield" https://www.usatoday.com/story/nation/2013/08/11/human-terrain-system-afghanistan-war-anthropologists/2640297/
  7. Der Derian, J., Udris, M., & Udris, D. (Directors). (2010). Human Terrain [Motion picture on DVD]. USA.
  8. Glenn, David. "Former Human Terrain System Participant Describes Program in Disarray" https://www.chronicle.com/article/Former-Human-Terrain-System/285
  9. Gonzalez, Roberto. "The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System" https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/06/29/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-human-terrain-system/
  10. Wiggins, Ovetta "Johns Hopkins Grad Student Dies in Iraq" http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/26/AR2008062603604.html
  11. Shachtman, Noah (2008). "2nd 'Human Terrain' Social Scientist slain in 7 weeks" https://www.wired.com/2008/06/second/
  12. Associated Press (2009). "One man's odyessy from campus to combat" http://www.nbcnews.com/id/29581224/ns/us_news-education/t/one-mans-odyssey-campus-combat/#.Wi3dE1SpnOQ
  13. "Michael Bhatia" https://www.theglobalist.com/contributors/michael-bhatia/
  14. Hall, Megan "Academic embedded with U.S. Army Killed by IED" https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91004878
  15. Der Derian, James; Udris, David; Udris, Michael "Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic"
  16. Associated Press (2009). "American gets probation in revenge killing" http://www.nbcnews.com/id/30645926/ns/world_news-south_and_central_asia/t/american-gets-probation-revenge-killing/
  17. Geller, Adam "One man's odyssey from campus to combat" http://www.foxnews.com/printer_friendly_wires/2009Mar07/0,4675,AMostDangerousManI,00.html
  18. Vanden Brook, Tom (2016). "725M program Army 'killed' found alive, growing". https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/03/09/army-misled-congress-and-public-program/81531280/