James Der Derian

‘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.’

-October 8, 2009

David Udris &
Michael Udris

The film, for us, has become a very American document in so much as it has become an ethnography of American military training, self perception, and of the way that we make war. We have not ventured to Afghanistan or Iraq looking for an authoritative voice, a ‘native’ speaker to rebut an ethno-imperialism or neo-colonialism, but rather, our fieldwork is done in the United States: in Kansas City M.O., Quantico V.A., Providence, R.I., and Twenty -Nine Palms C.A.; in conversation with ourselves. How is this engagement with the ‘other’ being framed, and in that frame can we glimpse a reflected image of ourselves. This is the Human Terrain we set out to explore.

To no doubt, for many there will be the hubris of empire, for others, the transformation of the discipline of an engaged anthropology, or perhaps, for a few more, a reform movement within the military away from strong traditions of kinetic warfare. For us, presenting such prisms from our faceted object, full of contradictions and disparate readings, has become the work of our ethnographic practice, and, in this context, the work of the film.

We approached the project thinking through the lens of a new generation of academics, intellectuals and politicians seemingly preoccupied with doomsday scenarios and exceptional circumstances, eschewing caution and perhaps the law in favor of engagement. We ended the last century with ‘bombs for peace’ only to begin the new one with ‘pre-emptive war’, and now, seemingly, perpetual war. What might the future look like as culture and most basic human connection, become part of one frightening teleology, war. Traditionally emblematic of cultural savvy and of operating behind enemy lines have been the Special Operations Forces, and, in this world of asymmetric warfare, there has been a renewed importance of the methodologies of Special Operations Forces throughout the military. As Stuart Koehl, in the Weekly Standard, writes: ‘we may be approaching an era when the military will say, “We are all Special Operators, now”.’

When Michael Bhatia, our friend and colleague is killed while serving as a member of a Human Terrain Team in Khost, Afghanistan our prism shifts yet again. Unfortunately, as we cannot divine the future, nor can we discern with any certainty Michael Bhatia’s intentions in the past. Throughout our process of making the film many would speak of him and just as many for him. To add another voice to that list one might add that, perhaps, Michael himself was not sure of his intentions and motivations, and that perhaps he, without the benefit of hindsight, was, as most of us are moving through life, conflicted, and in the end, did not ‘know’.

Into this not knowing comes listening, which is not waiting. It is an engagement with listening to this national dialogue about war and an effort to try and document some of this conversation. Is this a different game? Is it time to change the rules? In terms of counterinsurgency doctrine, are we taking the gloves off or putting them on, and in that argument have we lost sight of the fact that we are talking of war? We were struck by reflections of Raymond Aron on the Algerian War, “torture—and lies—[are] the accompaniment of war…. What needed to be done was end the war.” In the end, it may not be that easy to parse the good from the bad, and war, no matter the metrics, is never a solution but more an accelerator, voracious in its heinous appetite for both geographic and human terrain. And so, in the end, we have ended up making a film, a document, fueled by good deeds and dirty hands in a world without innocence.