documentary film : The Human Terrain in the War on Terror

How a documentary film about the transformation of America’s way of making war came to reflect the 'Battle of the Carls'.

James Der Derian
Aufstandsbekämpfung. Training für Iraker – eine Szene aus dem Dokumentarfilm „Human Terrain“ . Foto: promo
Aufstandsbekämpfung. Training für Iraker – eine Szene aus dem Dokumentarfilm „Human Terrain“ . Foto: promo

"The decisive terrain is the human terrain. "

– First directive of the "Counterinsurgency Guidance," issued August 1, 2010 by General David H. Petraeus, Commander, ISAF/USF-Afghanistan

"What is the film about?" This was the dread question, whether earnestly voiced by film-festival audiences searching for the meaning of our documentary, Human Terrain, or skeptically posed by potential buyers grasping for the soundbite that would fill the theaters. Even when asked out of politeness, I would tend toward defensive retort – "You tell me" – or pseudo-existential tautology – "It is what it is." If that failed to satisfy, I would deflect: "It's Avatar without the blue creatures and about 299.9 million dollars."

There were several reasons for the evasions, probably none of them wholly plausible. But two weighed heaviest. First, this was a film written, directed, shot, and produced from differing perspectives by a team of filmmakers — Michael and David Udris, my co-conspirators, graduated from the first and probably last Department of Semiotics – who held along with Barthes, Foucault, and other post-philosophy philosophers that not only was the author dead, but any director claiming the prerogative to restore a single meaning to a work of art, was the walking dead.

The other reason was more personal than philosophical, delivered by what Edmund Burke called the "empire of circumstance." More powerful than any worldly empire, it trumped all intentions, good, bad, or directorial.

The film we first intended to make was about the transformation of America's way of making war. After the "Mission Accomplished" banner came down and "shock and awe" proved to be a flash in the pan, facing long and failing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon set out a new counterinsurgency strategy (COINS). First conceived by General Petraeus and other COINSinistas at Fort Leavenworth's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the intent was to shift from a strategy of killing enemy and capturing terrain to winning hearts and minds.

At the core of COINS was the "Human Terrain System" (HTS), created in 2006 as a TRADOC "proof-of-concept" program. Its primary mission was to offer "socio-cultural expertise to US command personnel" that would reduce casualties on both sides of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was to be accomplished – believe it or not – by embedding academics, primarily social scientists, with forward-based combat troops. With a miniscule annual budget ($40 million) and small footprint (21 five-member teams in Iraq, four in Afghanistan), HTS nevertheless became the high-profile, civil-affairs face of COINS. Just as swiftly, the program and its two charismatic leaders, Steve Fondacaro (retired colonel, Special Forces) and Montgomery McFate (ex-punk rocker, Anthropology Ph.d.) came under attack. Leading the charge was the field of anthropology, once known as the "handmaiden of colonialism," now determined to preserve the treasured independence of academic scholarship and to prevent culture from becoming "weaponized." Credible accounts of the actual operations and impact of HTS got lost in the cut-and thrust of a growing controversy. In effect, HTS became the "MacGuffin" of COINS, the Hitchcockian device that was driving the plot towards a final shoot-out between the military and academics.

But the empire of circumstance intervened, in the form and ultimate misfortune of Michael Vinay Bhatia. A brilliant young scholar from Brown University who graduated magna cum laude, worked as a humanitarian activist in Western Sahara, Kosovo, East Timor, and Afghanistan, and won a Marshall Scholarship to pursue a doctoral degree at Oxford, Bhatia returned to Brown midway through his graduate studies to join our new project on the Pentagon's effort to make culture the killer variable of counterinsurgency. Bhatia traveled back and forth to academic and military conferences on cultural sensitivity, competence, and awareness.

Unbeknownst to us, he was also being pursued by the military for his considerable expertise on humanitarian intervention, combatant motivations, and military-civilian affairs. When Bhatia's fellowship at Brown came to an end, with no other academic options on the horizon, he decided to take a leave from the ivory tower and to apply his knowledge to the "real world."

In the fall of 2007, after a few months of training at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Benning, Bhatia embedded with the 82nd Airborne as a member of Human Terrain Team One in eastern Afghanistan. As part of the film, we made plans for a video-skyped interview with Bhatia. It was not to be. En route to mediate an intertribal dispute, Bhatia was killed along with two other soldiers when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb. The field report shows up, terse and matter-of-fact on Wikileaks:

May 7, 2008, 8:24 a.m.






2 X US KIA. 1x US CIV KIA. 2 x US




However, there was no closure on May 8, 2008. As the first civilian casualty of a controversial program, his death was very much a public event. Major newspapers covered his funeral, which was filled with family and academic colleagues as well as with members of the HTS, the 82nd and 101st Airborne. At a ceremony following the funeral, the director of HTS presented Bhatia's mother and father with the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom, "in honor of his heroism and selfless service beyond the call of duty." His death became the subject of magazine articles, blogs, and then, after extensive conversations with his friends and family, of a documentary that we had begun as one story and suddenly had become another.

There can be no final answer to the question of what the film is ‘about’.  But I realize now that it is not about one country, one war or one person but of how no intention, be it imperial or authorial, is a match against the force of circumstance.  While at the American Academy in Berlin I intend to map this clash of empires, as one declines and the other ascends, aided by two of the greatest German navigators of physical and psychological terrains.  The book I shall write about the film is to be a ‘Battle of the Carls’:  Carl von Clausewitz, who declared ‘War is a realm of chance’; and Carl Jung, who countered, ‘There are no accidents’. 

James Der Derian is Professor of International Studies at Brown University.

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