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Military psychology and the Human Terrain System with US Army

Discussion in 'Psychology [Psy.D. / Ph.D.]' started by BAL, Jan 21, 2012.

  1. BAL

    BAL 2+ Year Member

    Jan 21, 2012
    Perhaps there is someone out there well versed in military psychology who may be able to give me some insight on this:

    <br><br>I would like to specialize in military psychology have come across an opportunity to work for the U.S. Army's Human Terrain System - an operation that conducts social research side by side with the military and local communities on their deployments (ie. Afghanistan).

    <br><br>Now, I've done some investigating and found that there is a lot of criticism from professional organizations such as the American Anthropology Association, American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association as to the ethical nature of the social research being done over there. (ie. not obtaining informed consent etc.).

    I realize that there are plenty of other ways to get involved with the military, but I'm attracted to the non-traditional nature of this field work and feel that this research position may really set me apart from other PhD applicants when I choose to apply. <br><br>Given my career goals of becoming a military psychologist, this opportunity sounds incredible, HOWEVER, I am reluctant to do anything that may "blacklist" me in the eyes of the APA for the future.

    Is there anyone out there who knows anything about HTS and can possibly shed some light on this for me?

    <br><br>Thank you!!
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  3. kingchri


    Jan 21, 2012
    BAL, email me and I can either call or email you whatever you want to know about HTS.

    Christopher King, PhD
    Director, Social Science Directorate
    Human Terrain System
    [email protected]
    (c) 757-746-2124
  4. boredinkunar


    Jan 22, 2012

    It's probably cool to get an email from the head social scientist of the program, but as a former employee, I'd warn you against even considering HTS. This has nothing to do with ethics - you're probably like me and others, and willing to "push the envelope" and make tough ethics calls in order to serve your country. That's not the real problem I think you'll encounter with HTS on your resume. Ignore the whole ethics brouhaha.

    You'll find that the bigger issue is that HTS simply isn't very good. It's actually very bad. The quality of both your peers and especially your superiors will be generally poor. The quality of your products even more so. I still encounter Human Terrain Teams on a frequent basis as I travel around Afghanistan for my current job, and they're almost universally derided or ignored by the units they support.

    There are some people in the program who are awesome. A tiny minority even stay on beyond their first tour (I know Dr. King is respected). But it's very clear to me that the best people are usually those in their 20s and 30s who've served multiple tours in Afghanistan as soldiers outside the wire (combat arms, civil affairs, human intelligence, psychological operations). These guys know a good deal about Afghanistan already, and the best ones have the continued motivation and common sense to make them assets to their units. Their ability, crucially, is based on military experience and nothing to do with HTS (which teaches incredibly little about Afghanistan during training). But these dudes are at the bottom of the totem pole, and usually leave very quickly. That leaves a lot of detritus.

    Social scientists (people with MAs and PhDs) are largely second tier in terms of quality. They've gotten better - there are far fewer crazy social scientists - but that's somehow also meant fewer and fewer people with relevant backgrounds. You get a bunch of young thrusters who are trying to make a career, but these often don't know what they're doing in terms of Afghanistan. Some adapt, despite HTS. But I've never heard of anyone getting into a decently-ranked PhD program afterwards. Then the social scientist cohort seems to jump 20-30 years to people close to retirement, who really don't know what they're doing either, and often bring with them physical frailty and an arrogance that comes from age rather than experience. It's highly demoralizing, and you can't expect much of positive mentoring relationship.

    But your biggest problem will be the Team Leaders. It's extraordinary how few have relevant experience, how many are low quality, and how little is done about the many bad apples. They are required to be military, but very few have served in the past ten years. Those that have usually did so in an unrelated role, with limited contact with the Afghan/Iraqi population. Most are there for one reason: they couldn't get promoted in the military and now want to cash in on the war before the money goes away. The amount of ego at that level is skull crushing, and these guys are the primary reason why teams often (usually?) fail to offer anything useful, and why so many people leave.

    It's a miserable environment. Press reporting about HTS has died down, because the internal ongoings have become less salacious and sensational. But that doesn't mean things have got better. What critics like John Stanton used to write is about 60% true, and is still laughed about internally by people who see the same problems at their teams today. Sadly - because the Army really needs this knowledge and HTS doesn't even come close to providing it, I can almost guarantee you will be miserable, unless you're willing to drink the Kool-Aid and pretend things are alright. Which brings me to scholarship. Because there'll be no room for cognitive dissonance once you actually apply to PhD programs.

    In terms of building a track record as a research psychologist, you will find yourself after HTS with very flimsy research that doesn't withstand much scrutiny. This will be as much due to the war environment as the poor quality of HTS. But these excuses won't matter if you're competing against peers who spent their time doing serious scholarship in proper conditions. It might be tempting to think that the Army would cut you some slack if you applied to be a research psychologist with them later on (after getting that PhD somehow), but you'll still be competing against people with heavy research backgrounds (after all, a stable job like that is quite coveted in the psych world, so competition can be quite decent). Adventures are all fine and good, but they have to be coupled with serious scholarship.

    Have a look at published articles by HTS people. Most of them are about HTS itself, not Afghans. That's a reflection of the sad thing about HTS - the internal workings of the organization ultimately overshadow and outmuscle any attempts to do serious scholarship focused on target populations. Try to find HTS articles that are about Afghans.

    When a prospective advisor asks you for your recent research after leaving HTS, you might have to say "sorry, it's classified". That might make you breathe a sigh of relief, but advisors don't just take your word for it that you did great work. Or, if you do get to show her some papers, she'll almost certainly respond: "those are some incredibly sweeping conclusions based on minimal data". Because that's what HTS is paid to do. But that's for the military. That's not what academia wants. They need depth to justify conclusions. An advisor would probably even be worried that you'd be unable to cast off the methodological shortcuts that you get used to using at HTS.

    Finally, don't be taken in by the mystique that HTS is trying to build as a burgeoning intelligence organization. Yes, what they do is classified (as are flight times and a million other mundane things). They might even tempt you with "you might work with Special Operations Forces". I am with SOF on the ground in Afghanistan right now (it's past midnight, so sorry about typos), and rarely are people here impressed by the "value added" offered by a lot of the HTS guys the Special Operations Task Force encounters. And those HTS guys are hand-picked. If they had to work with your average Human Terrain Team, HTS would quickly be kicked out of the SOF world for good.

    So, all in all, I heartily recommend you forget about HTS. And this has nothing to do with ideology. I hope that my post has made a decent case that this is everything to do with quality, and that quality (of research) will be very important to prospective PhD programs. Of course someone like the social science director of HTS will vehemently disagree, so I recommend you reach out wherever you can to speak to as many ex-HTS people as possible. Because HTS is bad quality and known for such, that will be reflected back on you when people see HTS on your resume. That's not an ethical or an ideological problem. It's a problem of competence.

    If you want to have some patriotic adventures before your PhD, I suggest you consider any of the civil affairs fields of each military branch. The Army has the largest Civil Affairs contingent, and the opportunities to do cool stuff all over the world in the reserves are very, very abundant. Many assignments across all civil affairs are very unusual and not what you'd expect from uniformed service. You could do that and still either do a research-intensive day job and/or start on your PhD. Plus, you'd get leadership opportunities that you'd never get in HTS. Civil Affairs is a very human -centric, empathy-heavy career field, and I think it would be very rewarding to almost any burgeoning psychologist. And it would look great on your resume.
  5. Rivi

    Rivi 7+ Year Member

    Jan 29, 2009
    Thank you for taking the time to post this!

    What do you see as a better use of social scientists in these conflicts, counter-insurgencies, etc. ?
  6. boredinkunar


    Jan 22, 2012
    No problem. I'm bored and stuck on a FOB for a few days.

    I'd say the HTS concept isn't too far off the mark. It's the execution that fails miserably. And that organization is emphatically not going to improve, because it is in a quality death spiral: the best people leave, the worst people stay -- and the worst people are mostly recruited at the top, with no promotion chances for those at the bottom because of a nod-to-my-retiree-friends requirement that Team Leaders be of a certain retired rank (I've never met a battlespace owner who cared about the Team Leader's former rank except in a negative way, because so many are arrogant/defensive about it*). So, once again, forget about HTS. Others and I believed we could change the organization from the inside. It won't happen. Nor will a decent alternative spring up anytime soon (unless you're willing to throw your hat in with civilian intelligence agencies -- not a bad job choice at all, if they ever do decide to move away from drone strikes and more towards people skills again).

    In terms of better use of social scientists, then, I'd say stick with academia, but focus your research away from the esoteric and more towards the relevant. There are a lot of little "human terrain" organizations out there now, staffed by contractors, usually overpaid and under qualified. I can't think of a single useful article I've read on Afghanistan written by these people. What I do see endlessly cited are books and articles by serious academics and analysts such as Afghan Analysts Network. These independent guys have a far, far deeper and useful understanding of Afghanistan, and their products are far more useful to commanders (kind of ironic, right?).

    I should also add that a lot of the need for "understanding cultures" in the military is actually based on the inability to understand people, period, or rather our (the military's) unwillingness to obey the Golden Rule. So much of what we do in Afghanistan to anger the local population would just as much anger any American, European or Japanese person. Yet, because we don't want to change our behavior too much, we look for social scientists to validate what we do by finding justifications/"loopholes" in the local culture that somehow allow us to continue raiding houses at night without pissing people off. So, do keep that in mind if you truly want to influence what the military does.

    So, the first thing I'd suggest is stay the hell away from Afghanistan. We're at the tail end of this war, and it's become mostly about making a quick last buck for contractors. Especially "Big Army" is driven by a lot of pressures that make it very hard for commanders to make truly reasonable decisions. Right now, it's all about short-term results due to political timelines. Social science just doesn't fit into that -- for many, this isn't as much a war as an industry.

    Wait until about 2020 for the military system to rearrange itself (yep, as in all social science, there are never quick and easy routes; nor should there be).
    In the meantime, if you're not willing to consider active involvement in foreign affairs through military service/State Department/Peace Corps/NGO work, etc, focus on rigorous scholarship.
    This could be internally focused -- for example, if you're interested in military psychology, work on projects with members of Div 19 of the APA. If you're looking at broader conflict analysis, there are plenty of highly reputable academic departments that specialize in this, especially on the East Coast.

    If you're looking to become a Subject Matter Expert on the conflict zones of tomorrow, good luck. Pick one country or region, but remember that there's a roll of the dice involved -- on September 10, 2001, we didn't know we'd be invading Afghanistan. Also remember that a lot of the countries at the top of our list, e.g. Yemen, are now practically inaccessible to academics. And without years of on-the-ground experience, you'll be a hollow "expert". That's why I'd recommend some of the smaller West African countries and other places that are more permissible, but still are at risk of instability without attracting too much scholarship from lots of academics. But, to be frank, do you really want to study a country just in case you can get rich and famous off of it going to hell?

    So, all in all, I'd recommend considering either a few years in practice, before returning to academia, or immediately pursing a traditional academic career at a university or think tank. Please, please, please ignore all the pseudo-academic, high-paying contractor-staffed places that have sprung up for second-rate academics to feed the military a load of drivel about conflict, counterinsurgencies and foreign cultures. Besides, many of these guys won't last past the military and Afghan drawdown.

    As a litmus test to validate what I just argued, I suggest you look at the backgrounds of the people who have been the widest-read and listened-to on conflict in the past ten years. People like John Nagl and David Kilcullen within the military. And everyone from David Ucko, to Antonio Giustozzi to Thomas Barfield on the academic side. These guys tended to be first-class academics or soldiers first and, if they ever did work for the government in an academic capacity, contractors later on.
    Then, go on linkedin and google to find the backgrounds of social scientists who work for HTS and similar. Look for relevant scholarship, and even relevant degrees and dissertations. You'll find very little. In fact, I can't find any. Now, those guys might say, "oh, I do great research, but it's classified". That's horse****. HTS has been trying for years to get proper papers into academic publications in order to prove that it has actual quality and purpose. They still can't find any. That's all you need to know right there.

    The bottom line is that the "bandwagoners" are trying to insert themselves into the defense world first, and then may or may not come up with some relevant research. The truly influential people focused on rigorous scholarship first and foremost, and then some of them ended up working for the military in an academic capacity.

    My last tip would be to look at the military's academic institutions, from West Point to the Naval Postgraduate School. These are genuine academic institutions that foster genuine research. As a rule, if you're trying to spot them, they have existed far longer than since 2001. Yes, they employ some dubious "experts" at time, but I expect that to die down a little as Afghanistan/Iraq winds down and these institutions stop grasping for "anyone" who might have relevant knowledge. If you want a true intersection of military/conflict and social science, then look for employment there. As to how you get there? Serious scholarship and a degree from a well-regarded university. There are no shortcuts.

    *Here's how bad HTS is at social science: they don't realize that kinship is based on a hierarchy of shared experiences, rather than rank. A battalion commander will much more likely see eye-to-eye with a Sergeant with combat experience, than a retired Lieutenant Colonel/Team Leader who's never seen combat.
  7. Tiny Dancer

    Tiny Dancer

    Apr 23, 2012
    I believe I can answer any question about the Human Terrain System you may have. As arecent "insider" I have extensive insight on the operations, training, andleadership structure of the Human Terrain System, as well as the advantages anddisadvantages of serving a "tour." In the interest of full disclosure, my experience with HTS was not a good one. This does not mean that I don't believe in the overall concept of the program&#8230;providing sociocultural relevant research information to a Brigade Combat Team commander and his staff, to enhance or facilitate their decision making and courses of action. I feel that the program has deteriorated into a cash cow for contractors and third-tier academics, is a sanctuary for senior officers and NCO's too dangerous to allow around real soldiers and an embarrassment for the Army, which has allowed the program to morph into a $227million behemoth too big to fail.

    If you get through the training, an ad-hoc patchwork of badly developed curriculum, warstories, and specious assessment techniques, you will be well paid. Starting salaries range from the low $80's to well into $100,000. After being recruited by a private contractor (CGI), you will enter training at Fort Leavenworth Kansas for approximately eleven weeks, be sworn in as a Department of Army Civilian, and then go to Fort Polk for another ten weeks of training. After training at Fort Polk, you will have the option of taking a short vacation, and then deploy directly to Afghanistan for nine months. After six months deployment overseas, you can extend your tour, you can apply for an instructor position at Fort Leavenworth,or you can go home for a little while, and apply for another tour. Because the conflict is winding down in Afghanistan, subsequent tours will be tenuous, and because team productivity has dropped precipitously in the past two years, I anticipatea rapid demobilization of deployed teams in the late fall or early spring of 2013. Since you are a temporarye mployee, retention beyond four years is not possible, and transferring to another GS position is also impossible. If you "bank" your compensatory time,overtime, and other benefits, you can do very well for only nine month's work. Although there have been fatalities and injuries, they were the exception andnot the rule, so it is very unlikely you will be exposed to any real combat or danger.

    From a career perspective, I don't think the program can help or hurt you. You won't learn anything about research methodology, because the methodologies being usedto gather research are totally unrecognizable by any academic standard, and was cobbled together by people with absolutely no experience in teaching research,education, or curriculum development. As a member of one of thirty-one HTSteams currently deployed in Afghanistan, you will pretty much pick up a mediocre project already in progress, or work on some issue that has no sociocultural relevance. The BCT commander gets to check the block justifying your presence in his area of operations, and everyone is happy.

    In short, if you want to make a lot of money in a very short period of time, can keep your mouth shut, and want to feel that you contributed to the war on terrorism, HTS might be for you, and I don't mean this in a cynical way. What you won't do, is provide any more insight on the Afghan people that hasn't been uncovered inalmost ten years there, you won't be recognized as having contributed to the BCT commander or his staff in any significant way, and you will be made aware daily of the growing American impatience for any continued involvement inAfghanistan, and how soon the axe will fall on your little boondoggle.

    Finally, I'm afraid that I have to agree with the earlier poster, who states the program is poorly managed. At one time, the program was administered by four very senior military officers, all the same rank. There are some good team leaders, but most of them range from bad to very bad. Almost all were former reservists or National Guardsmen who were selling insurance or used cars only a few months ago, and now have a chance to hobnob with real soldiers. Don't get me started on the "social scientists." While the title sounds impressive, the fact is that there are 17 social science disciplines, depending on whom you ask. I've personally met or corresponded with about 12 who have significant academic training, experience and research in Sociology and Anthropology, or research in any field, outside of graduate school. The bulk of the remainder are BS artists one step ahead of debtor's prison. The key weakness of deployed teams is team dynamics, of just simply getting along with one another. The research produced by the deployed teams resembles high school term papers, complete with elementary level statistical analysis, and has little operational or sociocultural relevance. In short, far better products can be produced with far fewer people and better oversight. To say this publicly, is to risk censure and dismissal from the program. This is why the Social Science Director prefers to answer questions off-line.

    As for your career track, I'm not certain about what you want to do. The military does have Psychologists, but generally they are in a clinical setting. The Veteran's Administration also has a high demand for clinical and counseling psychologists. Unless you work with the Army Research Institute, I can't think of any organization or institution within the Army, where you will work outside a clinical setting. Applying for an internship or practicum will be problematic, because you have to be "sponsored" by the clinical psychology department of your school. If you are smart enough to snag one of these, your time might be better spent in a large community mental health facility.

    Good Luck!
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2012
  8. Tiny Dancer

    Tiny Dancer

    Apr 23, 2012
    Personally, I see no significant added value using social scientists in military operations, other than helping soldiers deal with the stress of deployments, danger, and PTSD. The research says the closer to the "front" soldiers receive "treatment" the sooner their recovery. What commanders need, are regional and local subject matter experts, and linguists.
  9. kingchri


    Jan 21, 2012
    Actually, I prefer to answer off-line because I can answer questions over the phone a lot faster than typing them. Also, hey-sayers will most likely contort whatever I say in a manner to fit their own agenda. This is probably why a lot of people who post negative comments remain anonymous.

    Dr King

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