Mapping the Human Terrain and Developing Kill Chains:Social Science in Service to Capitalism

Author’s Note:  The appearance of General Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published recently for the US book trade by the University of Chicago Press, has created a stir because of charges of pilfered scholarship, damage to the reputation of UC, and the role of anthropologist Montgomery McFate in writing the book.  The mission of social science in the war on Iraq deserves a closer examination.

Kill Chains

Kill Chain is a military term that refers to the surveillance of suspected insurgent populations, the identification and targeting of specific individuals or groups, and the killing of those people.  This strategy of targeted killing for political ends, enhanced by the latest technology, is being utilized openly by the US military against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and covertly against other people resisting US domination around the world.  Although the term Kill Chain has a distinctly contemporary ring to it, preemptive killing is a nasty practice that dates back to the beginnings of imperialism.

The problem has always been who to kill.

Among the earliest surveillance agents of capitalism were the willing missionaries who accompanied the British Empire to the far ends of the earth and the US Army across the American West and Pacific Ocean.  These missionaries’ direct observations on the culture and social structure of indigenous people were shared with colonial administrators and military commanders who selected defiant and rebellious local leaders and tribal councils for political or military action.  Not infrequently, those fingered by the missionaries were individuals or groups who resisted religious conversion.

Trained anthropologists soon replaced the missionaries and produced more systematic and reliable information, and few formidable indigenous groups in any territory coveted by expanding capitalism escaped anthropological scrutiny and reporting.  The establishment of anthropology institutes in the Western world such as the International African Institute and the 19th century American School of Anthropology corresponded to colonial expansion.

The military/political application of early anthropology proved helpful in conquering and maintaining control over native people who tried to resist foreign domination, and the mission of social science in military service to capitalism has continued up to the present day.

Hearts and Minds

US capitalism took the practice of co-opting social science to new heights during the war on Vietnam.  A veritable army of US social scientists was employed in the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the heroic people of Vietnam who had thrown off the yokes of Japanese and French imperialism and were determined to resist US domination.  In addition to contributing to the general cultural war against this Third World nation, US anthropologists and sociologists helped design Kill Chains in preparation for “Operation Phoenix,” an assassination operation that, according to the US Department of Defense, led directly to the murder of 26,369 resistors and the detention without trial of an additional 33,358.

Kill Chains were referred to as hit lists or blacklists back then.  Since the phrase Hearts and Minds has fallen into political disrepute in the aftermath of the war on Vietnam, a new name for “neutralization” operations has been adopted by the military and embraced by currently engaged social scientists:

Mapping Human Terrain

Social scientists currently involved in the military applications of the project called Mapping Human Terrain (MAP-HT) are essentially doing the same things that their predecessors did with the added advantages of the latest surveillance and data processing technology available.   (For an in-depth discussion of the current military applications of the project, go to the Dartmouth Laboratory for Human Terrain at

Close and continuous observation of subject populations, both rural and urban, via digital cameras staged on the ground and mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), rapid target identification through computer recognition systems, and advanced communications technology have allowed both embedded and distant social scientists to expand their role in establishing and accelerating Kill Chains.  Laptop computers have replaced notebooks and pencils but the mission remains the same.

The current glorification of the warrior-anthropologists as representatives of a kinder alternative to “shock and awe” in US occupied nations is a thin veil for their role in the repression of legitimate insurgency.  In the final analysis, MAP-HT is nothing more than the latest configuration of social science in service to rapacious US capitalism that is bent on expropriating the resources of the world without regard to human costs.  There is no moral difference between the social scientist who targets the individual or group in the Kill Chain and the soldier who pushes the button or pulls the trigger.


“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.  It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.”
                                                 Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848

Richard D. Vogel is a political reporter who monitors the effects of globalization on working people and their communities.  Other works include: “The NAFTA Corridors: Offshoring U.S. Transportation Jobs to Mexico”; “Transient Servitude: The U.S. Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers”; and “The Fight of Our Lives: The War of Attrition against U.S. Labor.”  Contact:

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