Article — From the September 2008 issue

Human Quicksand

For the U.S. Army, a Crash Course in Cultural Studies

In July of last year I was stranded for a week at a military base in Kuwait, waiting for a flight to Kabul. I was traveling with four members of a new U.S. Army unit called the Human Terrain Team (HTT). One morning the team sat at a long table in the mess hall. It was already 120 degrees outside, and there was no compelling reason to leave the air-conditioning. Our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until that night.

As the team picked over the remains of breakfast, the members debated what their unit insignia, which they would wear on their uniform sleeve, should look like. Someone suggested a Pegasus. Symbolically, the Pegasus had resonance in the West but not in the East, replied Steve Fondacaro, the team’s program manager. He nominated a spider, since spiders were more evocative of the HTT’s mission: helping the Army negotiate the complex web of social and cultural networks in which it has been entangled for the past six years. Plus, spiders had positive connotations in the Arab world, he said. Then someone pointed out that spiders didn’t play well to a Western audience. They were creepy. People were afraid of spiders.

“What about a skull?” I asked. “With flames shooting out of its eye sockets.”

No one said anything. Fondacaro, a retired colonel with a compact, muscular build, pursed his lips as if he were seriously weighing the possibility.

“Or how about this,” he said. He bent over his meal tray and extended his arms outward, his thick fingers brushing against my shoulder. Then he began to sway from side to side. “A skeleton surfing on a wave of human bodies,” he said. “All the bodies of all the people that the United States Army has ever subjugated throughout history.”

“No, no,” the psychological operations (psyop) sergeant said. “A skeleton sitting on a throne of skulls.”

The conversation devolved into thematic variations on skeletons, skulls, and corpses until the joke played itself out. Crude as it was, the humor underscored the team’s unfamiliar new role in an American foreign policy that has focused far too much on destruction and not nearly enough on reconstruction.

Reconstruction is not, of course, what militaries are designed to do; and yet the traditional instruments for reconstruction and diplomacy—the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—have been relegated to bit parts in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This situation reflects the Bush Administration’s avowed disdain for “nation-building” and its reliance on military action to achieve foreign-policy objectives, but it also continues a much larger trend. Civilian agencies responsible for foreign policy have been atrophying since the end of the Cold War, and the “global war on terror” threatens simply to make them irrelevant. Over the past few years the Department of Defense has become one of the largest foreign assistance agencies in the federal government; as if to highlight the State Department’s anemia, the Pentagon has even funded development of the Civilian Reserve Corps, a sort of National Guard for the State Department, from its own budget. In a speech last fall, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out that his department spends more on health insurance than the State Department spends on foreign affairs, and made an unusual pitch for a “dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security”—even though Gates, since taking over from Donald Rumsfeld, has expanded the Pentagon’s authority over aid programs traditionally managed by USAID and the State Department, such as training and equipping the armed forces of other countries.

This militarization of American foreign policy has not been some ad hoc response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. It began long before, and indeed it represents a fundamental realignment in how America deals with the rest of the world. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reveal how unprepared the military has been for its expanded mission, but the State Department has not reasserted itself in response: under Condoleezza Rice, the department has instead reoriented itself toward “transformational diplomacy,” a term she coined in a 2006 speech that outlined her vision of a department “that not only reports about the world as it is but seeks to change the world itself.” In practical terms this means that the State Department is fixated on tracking and eliminating terrorist networks. No one could deny that this should be a top priority of our foreign policy. The problem is that the “global war on terror” is our foreign policy.

It has been left to the military itself to muddle through the weaknesses in its own approach. “Culture” has become the latest buzzword in military circles—in the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, “cultural awareness” is placed on a par with “kinetic effects,” i.e., those produced by bullets and bombs, as tools for winning “this long war.” The Human Terrain Teams are the vanguard in amassing this arsenal of awareness. Their mission is to learn something, finally, about the people whom the U.S. military has committed itself to defend or to kill.

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Steve Featherstone’s last article for Harper’s Magazine , “The Coming Robot Army,” appeared in the February 2007 issue.

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October 2019