‘Human Terrain’ is an expose of the U.S. effort to enlist America’s best and the brightest in a global struggle for the hearts and minds of its enemies. After winning the short battle of ‘shock and awe’ in Iraq, but losing the long war to bring democracy and peace to the Middle East, the U.S. military began a controversial program to ‘operationalize’ culture as an instrument of irregular warfare. With the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ that produced hi-tech, low-casualty victories in Panama, Bosnia, and Kosovo tarnished by long and costly counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army and Marine Corps enlist anthropologists, political scientists, historians, and other academics in ‘Human Terrain Systems’ for the global war on terror.
Embedding with Marines as they go through ‘cultural sensitivity’ wargames in mock Iraqi towns in the Mojave Desert, gaining rare access to urban warfare training at Quantico, Virginia, and following human terrain trainees at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, filmmakers James Der Derian, David Udris and Michael Udris track this major shift in U.S. military policy as it ripples through American universities and civil society. Simultaneously a road-trip into the heart of the war machine and a critical investigation of academic collaboration with the military, ‘Human Terrain’ traces a new ‘revolution in military affairs’ after U.S. policies based on virtual technologies and virtuous ideologies fail to create peace, and foot soldiers are left to clean up the mess.
Two stories intersect in the film, one political, the other personal. The first explores the efforts of U.S. policymakers and the military to understand ‘why they hate us’. Creating a controversial new program, ‘Human Terrain Systems’, the military makes cultural awareness a key element of its counterinsurgency strategy. Designed to embed social scientists with combat troops, the program swiftly comes under attack by many academic critics who consider it a misguided and unethical effort to gather intelligence and to target potential enemies as well as an assault on the treasured independence of social science scholarship.
The other story is of a brilliant young scholar who leaves the university to join a Human Terrain team. After graduating from Brown University magna cum laude, working as a humanitarian activist in Western Sahara, Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan, and winning a Marshall Scholarship to study international relations at Oxford, Michael Bhatia returns to Brown University to conduct research on military cultural awareness and act as a consultant for the film. A year later he decides, fitfully, to embed as a Human Terrain member with the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan. On May 7, 2008, en route to mediate an intertribal dispute, his humvee hit a roadside bomb and Bhatia was killed along with two other soldiers.
We set out in this film asking what happens when war becomes academic, but were forced by cruel happenstance to ask why an academic chooses to go to war. We searched in the shadows cast by a dying empire and the death of a friend for new answers, and found only more questions.