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Human Terrain
War Becomes Academic

Examines and questions the US military's new counterinsurgency initiative, 'Human Terrain Systems', under which social scientists are embedded with combat troops.

A printer-friendly version of this page 84 minutes
SDH Captioned>>

Directed by James Der Derian, David Udris and Michael Udris
Camera/Editing: David Udris, Michael Udris
Executive Producer: James Der Derian
Produced by Udris Film and Oxyopia Productions in collaboration with The Global Media Project with support from The Carnegie Corporation of New York and by The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University

"Raise[s] questions--not only about HTT but about war as a tool of international engagement." Catherine Besteman, Professor & Chair, Department of Anthropology, Colby College
[Note: Community screenings of HUMAN TERRAIN can be booked at Bullfrog Communities.]

Note: There are two versions of this program on the same DVD: 84-minutes and 57-minutes.

Human Terrain is two stories in one. The first exposes a new Pentagon effort to enlist the best and the brightest in a struggle for hearts and minds. Facing long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military initiates `Human Terrain Systems', a controversial program that seeks to make cultural awareness the centerpiece of the new counterinsurgency strategy. Designed to embed social scientists with combat troops, the program swiftly comes under attack as a misguided and unethical effort to gather intelligence and target enemies. Gaining rare access to wargames in the Mojave Desert and training exercises at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth, Human Terrain takes the viewer into the heart of the war machine and a shadowy collaboration between American academics and the military.

The other story is about a brilliant young scholar who leaves the university to join a Human Terrain team. After working as a humanitarian activist in the Western Sahara, Balkans, East Timor and elsewhere, and winning a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford, Michael Bhatia returns to Brown University to take up a visiting fellowship. In the course of conducting research on military cultural awareness, he is recruited by the Human Terrain program and eventually embeds with the 82nd Airborne in eastern Afghanistan. On the way to mediate an intertribal dispute, Bhatia is killed when his humvee hits a roadside bomb.

War becomes academic, academics go to war, and the personal tragically merges with the political, raising new questions about the ethics, effectiveness, and high costs of counterinsurgency.

Grade Level: 10-12, College, Adults
US Release Date: 2010     Copyright Date: 2010
DVD ISBN: 1-59458-972-0

"Human Terrain presents viewers with a curious axiom: the idea that 'empathy has become the new key weapon of war'...[The film] is well suited to conveying the layered ambiguity of the issue...Much of Human Terrain's strength, in this sense, lies in showing more than telling, and some of the most memorable moments are when the film's subjects' own words bring nuanced but striking contradictions to the surface...Anthropology, after all, is about knowing and dignifying the other, while war, in its essence, is about annihilating the other without question. Anthropology is curious and descriptive, while war is decisive and instrumental. Anthropology asks questions, war gets things done, often bloodily."
Kenneth MacLeish, Anthropology Now

"Human Terrain is a richly detailed, complicated, and probing investigation of debates surrounding an important subject--the U.S. military's attempts to recruit anthropologists and other social scientists to support counterinsurgency operations in what are increasingly being seen as failing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The film offers nuanced analysis of the ethical, political, and strategic issues involved from key actors in the debates, as well as a behind-the-scenes view of how social science is contributing to counterinsurgency and occupation."
David Vine, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, American University, co-Author with the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society

"Human Terrain is useful for stimulating classroom discussion about the tension between the goals of war and understanding other cultures. Students looking for a deeper understanding will appreciate that the film presents multiple perspectives on the controversial Human Terrain System (HTS) program. In particular, the footage from Afghanistan and the personal story of HTS participant Michael Bhatia provided them with sharp insight into what the program entails, its challenges and its costs."
Dr. Misha Klein, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma

"Human Terrain collapses the barrier between academic and political worlds, revealing an unexpected and controversial role for the 'ivory tower' in the real world of 21st century counterinsurgency. Through the compelling and ultimately tragic story of late anthropologist Michael Bhatia's service with NATO forces in Afghanistan, the film portrays contending sides of a searing ethical dilemma of contemporary scholarship, in depth, nuance and with integrity."
Ned Lazarus, Visiting Professor, The Conflict Resolution Program, Georgetown University

"Presenting an even overview of the controversy about Human Terrain Teams in the US, the film provokes and engages rather than taking sides. U.S. military officials explaining their views about the goals and the importance of Human Terrain Teams are juxtaposed with live footage from HTT trainings; interviews with academic experts on security who contest the military perspective are interwoven with commentary from the academics who created the program; and the tragic story of one HTT member provides the film's narrative backbone. The point of the film is to raise questions--not only about HTT but about war as a tool of international engagement--rather than to preach conclusions."
Catherine Besteman, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Colby College, a Founding Member, Network of Concerned Anthropologists

"Absolutely worth seeing, very informative...We hear the staff members' and military leaders' rhetoric justifying the need for a program that equips the military to respond to conflicts that increasingly require understanding the human, as well as geographic, terrain...We see the training and deployment of young marines...We see social scientists being trained and performing in the field. And we hear, loud and clear, critics, some of them members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, pointing out the flawed ethics in the Human Terrain System's ideology...A hard-hitting and moving analysis of this highly controversial program, including the ideas and assumptions behind it."
Jean Jackson, Professor of Anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Founding Member, Network of Concerned Anthropologists

"The HTS project is controversial and has been publicly debated since its inception...This film dives headlong into this debate without taking sides...We see the military not as a killing machine of government but as people who are trying to do what they think is right within their cultural norms and as a group that deeply cares for what they do and for those who join their cause. We see academics not as disconnected objective bystanders but as people who are passionate about their profession, engaged in a complex culture of academics and in the society in which they live."
Keith W. Ray, Current Anthropology

"Human Terrain avoids providing readymade answers...Rather, it invites viewers to make up their own minds...[and] allows us to think these major dilemmas through for ourselves...A compelling account of the current relations between socio-cultural knowledge and politico-military power and will be of interest not only to scholars and students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, but also to a much wider general audience."
Markus Kienscherf, 49th Parallel Journal

"An informative take on a phenomenon that's been largely overlooked by documentarians...Recommended."
Video Librarian

"A vivid, harrowing documentary...Human Terrain examines the fallout of blurring the line between academia and combat, giving the viewer access to wargames in the Mojave Desert and training exercises at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth...An extraordinary examination of the costs, ethics, and effectiveness of this program, and an absolutely invaluable addition to military, social science, public and college library DVD shelves."
The Midwest Book Review

"It is very welcome to see a film exploring the issue in a serious and objective manner...Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic is a valuable piece of filmmaking, and I applaud its production so soon after the implementation of the program. Anthropologists should watch and discuss it...Knowing your enemy is not a new goal in war, and as long as anthropology is or has a kind of knowledge, it will be called upon repeatedly to provide or obtain that knowledge by and for its political masters. There are obvious reasons to embrace and resist this call, and anthropologists individually and as a profession will need to struggle with it for many years to come...Suitable for high school and for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of war, applied anthropology, and U.S. military studies, as well as general audiences."
Jack David Eller, Community College of Denver, Anthropology Review Database

"The documentary carefully and objectively outlines Human Terrain Systems (HTS), an initiative designed by the military to better understand native populations in hopes of reducing casualties on both sides...Highly recommended for ethics and social sciences courses, Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic illuminates the debate over whether noble intention can be reconciled with the brutality of urban warfare."
Douglas Reed, Ouachita Baptist University, Educational Media Reviews Online

Select your institution type

DVDs include public performance rights.

DVD Features
Includes 84-minute and 57-minute versions, both with scene selection and SDH captions for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Plus extras.

Host a community screening
The film's website
Excellent 17-page teacher's guide

Awards and Festivals
Audience Award, Festival dei Popoli
Hot Docs, Canadian International Documentary Film Festival
Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival
Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Interactive Media Festival
American Sociological Association's Annual Meeting Film/Video Screenings
Dok Leipzig
MountainFilm, Telluride
Bergen International Film Festival
CHP:DOX Copenhagen International Film Festival
Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, Czech Republic
Millennium International Documentary Film Festival, Brussels
Cambridge Film Festival, UK
Wisconsin Film Festival
Western Psychological Association Film Festival

American Studies
Asian Studies
Foreign Policy

Global Issues
Human Rights
Islamic Studies
Middle Eastern Studies
National Security
War and Peace

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"An absolutely fascinating look at the ever changing landscape of war...Riveting--my interest level was captured from the beginning and it never wandered. Perhaps it is because of the fact that we are still at war, or perhaps it is because the flow of information from the military regarding the situation in the middle east has been restrictive at best, this documentary has a very timely feeling to it. Highly Recommended."
Panic Manual

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