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My Human Terrain, Part One: Me and Mitzy Carlough

By John Dolan , written on August 3, 2015

From The War Desk

Editor's Note: Earlier this summer, the US Army ended its Human Terrain System program, which had been touted as The Next Big Thing in counterinsurgency warfare — the soft power solution to intractable insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The basic idea in Human Terrain System was to use American social studies PhDs to collect granular information from villagers in conflict zones, and use the data to map and understand local relationships. The glossy magazine media ate it up—in 2006, George Packer wrote a gushing New Yorker feature on the Human Terrain System program and its quirky co-inventor, Montgomery McFate (aka, Mitzy Carlough):

For five years, McFate later told me, she has been making it her “evangelical mission” to get the Department of Defense to understand the importance of “cultural knowledge.” McFate is forty years old, with hair cut stylishly short and an air of humorous cool. When I asked why a social scientist would want to help the war effort, she replied, only half joking, “Because I’m engaged in a massive act of rebellion against my hippie parents.”

After September 11th, McFate said, she became “passionate about one issue: the government’s need to actually understand its adversaries,” in the same way that the United States came to understand—and thereby undermine—the Soviet Union. If, as Kilcullen and Crumpton maintain, the battlefield in the global counterinsurgency is intimately local, then the American government needs what McFate calls a “granular” knowledge of the social terrains on which it is competing. 

Other gushing profiles on McFate and her Human Terrain System program followed—two in WIRED, by Nina Burleigh and Noel Schachtam; another by Spencer Ackerman; named “Brave Thinker” in the Atlantic Monthly... and then the program started to unravel, and the people behind it — Montgomery McFate, and her superior, David Kilcullen — vanished from the press reports. Three quarters of a billion dollars—and a handful of PhD’s gruesome deaths—later, the Human Terrain boondoggle has been terminated, amid allegations of corruption, fraud and harassment."

So who is Montgomery McFate, the celebrated “Brave Thinker” behind the most touted counterinsurgency program of the 21st century? John "The War Nerd" Dolan knew her well. -- Mark Ames

* * * *

This is a tough one to write. I’m still not sure I should be writing it at all. But it explains why I can write the war stuff, and it’s also my first honest account of the one time I intersected some major history, albeit by proxy, or rather “protégée”. 

In September 2014, the U.S. Army shut down its “Human Terrain System.” Somebody sent me an email, with the ironic title, “News about ‘Doctor Montgomery McFate.” That was her name at the time. 

When I knew her, she was Mitzy, not Montgomery. Mitzy Carlough. She was a transfer to UC Berkeley from Marin Community College. She took my Rhetoric 30 class, and a shine to me, in that order. One thing led to another, and she moved into my studio apartment on Dwight Way. I even got the electricity turned on for her. It’d been off for more than a year, not because I couldn’t pay it or liked living with candles. 

Chronic Fatigue, protracted depression, five or six other undiagnosed illnesses, and a schedule that had me teaching eight courses a year for less than half what ladder faculty got (their teaching load for a year was three courses). With no power at home, I used to spend every evening, until midnight or so, at the office, just reading or typing. Mitzy found me there; she had an amazing ability to find me wherever I was, a sure sign (as I learned years later) that someone likes you. 

And when they don’t like you anymore, they can’t remember your name, let alone find you by affect-telepathy. That stage came later, and I ended up airbrushed out of the biography of Doctor Montgomery McFate. But in those early days, she was wonderful to me. That hadn’t happened before. I’d had a disheartening series of anemic writing-workshop relationships, the kind where two needy, passive, selfish people whine about who gets to be the object of pity on this particular day, along with a few agonizing falls for cold, accomplished heartbreakers who dropped me when they realized I wasn’t going to be a famous poet after all. 

Then Mitzy. I remember one time, I was typing at the office at night and she brought me a plastic bag of Chamomile blossoms, for tea. It looked like discarded daisies and smelled like compost, but she came to my office, through several locked doors, to give it to me because she heard it was good for Chronic Fatigue. It wasn’t, but she was. I felt like a fresher corpse than I had been for some time. 

She believed in a lot of things besides Chamomile. Past lives, talking to the dead. None of them made any sense, but they were aspects of affection, and at first they warmed me like a fire out on the Patagonian plains. All that Marin-girl crazy stuff I’d only seen in parody seemed fine now that it was a context for somebody actually liking me. She’d inherited some money from her mother on the houseboat, and wanted to go to Bolivia with me on her mother’s money. That was a new one to me.

Not that every aspect of her Queen-of-the-Punks Marin county culture was so easy to handle. She had a habit of ignoring me for minutes at a time, then coming back to say she’d been talking to Matthew or Simon. Those were her last two boyfriends, and they were both dead. Anyone who was anyone was dead, in Mitzy’s view; sometimes I’d catch her looking at me, wondering what was keeping me. 

I knew that necrophiliac stuff from the Irish nationalism in which I’d been steeping from birth. But I felt a certain snobby wariness about this Marin County punk version of it. How many martyrs did Marin County have? OD’s didn’t count, IMHO. And I’d never seen punks do any real fighting. Noise and spit, but nothing serious, nothing worthy of comparison to Padraig Pearse whistling a happy tune on his way to the pockmarked wall.

At the time, Mitzy couldn’t have named the Six Counties if you’d held her feet to a fire, but in the US academic world, such deficiencies are utterly trivial, and within a few years, she would be the Harvard anthropologist, leapfrogging a Ph.D. thesis on Northern Ireland into the leadership of the HTS. But back then, her dead were Marin boys who swallowed $600 worth of speed or found other ways of joining the illustrious departed.  

We’d both been Punks, we were both a little crazy, neither of us fit very well among reasonable people, and if you used a carefully calibrated common denominator, we were a perfect fit. But we’d come to our death cults by very different routes, which could lead to awkward moments, like the time Mitzy introduced me to her best friend, a middle-aged prostitute with the loudest voice I’ve ever heard. Without realizing it, I was a very prim middle-class prig, and I had a lot of trouble coming up with a response when the friend, showing me a photo of her daughter, roared, “Isn’t she gorgeous? People just see’er and they wanna lick her cunt!”

That was the surviving daughter. The other, Mitzy’s best friend, died. They were all dead, her father, her mother, and this friend, the prostitute’s daughter, of some horrible tropical disease contracted when her mother brought home a monkey. Then the conversations, out of nowhere while we were driving around Berkeley, with the dead friend, or one of the dead boyfriends. 

I see now that it made a lot of sense to me, in a way the sane career trajectories of most UCB people didn’t. She just wanted a family, but when I took her to see mine, it didn’t go well. This conservative-Catholic stuff is all very cute as local color, but when you bring home somebody with a lot of bondage chrome clinking and glittering among the black, it doesn’t really go over very well. And that hurt her. 

Still, she tried with me for a long time, longer than anybody else had.  Once she stayed in the Rhetoric Department office with me all weekend, helping me type a handbook I’d promised to ghost-write for an old fart with tenure. She stayed in that hot, airless room, clacking at 1980s electric typewriters, two days in a row, just to help me with my corrupt and boring chore. 

“Yeah, demolition work, I can put you together some packages, you know? Do a lot of damage. I’ve had all kinds of experience, plastics, the whole deal…”

My sad guess was that anyone who was that nice to me was doomed. But I was wrong; she was the one who made it. All this time, she’d been learning from me -- academic manners, literature, Irish history and above all caution where it counted (and caution was the biggest lesson by far at Berkeley). She also had some huge advantages over me. She had the social skills you pick up if you survive a houseboat childhood, and an only child/orphan’s urge to join, to belong, to find a gang. She picked up jargon and gestures very quickly, and began to be talked about as having big potential by the besotted dweebs over in the Anthro Department.

My potential was an object of sad shakes of the head among my advisors. My Ph.D. was already getting moldy. Every November, I typed out a hundred letters of application on those rotten electric typewriters in the department office. Every December, I flew to wherever the wretched MLA hiring-hall convention was, to go through the two or three interviews I got with those letters. Every Christmas, I choked my fat fool neck into a St. Vincent’s suit and tried to sound like a good colleague for a hotel-room full of bored, tenured assholes. 

And every spring, the rejection letters would trickle in, at their leisure. Every year, fatter and crazier, no longer that poet who might go places but that sad case in the office at the end of the hall. 

Nobody would publish my poetry. (Actual quote: “Dolan lacks the joy in life that makes a real poet.”) Nobody would publish my Sade book. (Actual quote: “This is not critique, this is diatribe!”) My job was a pity fuck, albeit a very profitable one for the department. And sooner or later, it would end, and so would I.

Grad school in the 1980s was a good place for joiners, blank pages eager to be printed, but a very bad place for anybody with their own take. The profession was dying from the bottom up, and when it came to new hires, departments had their pick and, as my advisor once told me, staring very earnestly at me, “John…Nobody wants trouble.”

Mitzy and I were still cohabiting, of sorts, but our graphs were the classic X, mine down and hers up. She was learning, taking cool classes in cooler departments than Rhetoric, coming home with lots of jargon. I despised jargon, and didn’t listen. My goal was to do things that no one wanted, offend everyone, and be loved for it.

That made for a narrowing range of options. None, really, until I found Irish Northern Aid. Where do vengeance and justice overlap? For me, that Venn Diagram meant Sinn Fein. So I went looking for the Bay Area branch, and after many a dead end, I found Irish Northern Aid, a handful of weirdos who met every week in the upstairs room over Ireland’s 32 out on Geary Boulevard. 

Mitzy was gone when I joined them. In fact, that was why I joined them. Mitzy had found new friends while I was sinking into misery. She traipsed off to Europe with them just in time for the Spring rejection season, the seventh year in a row I found I wouldn’t be getting a job. And my Great Dane died, and Mitzy stopped answering my calls. So I stopped eating or sleeping or feeling anything but terror. 

That’s how one returns to the elder gods, the ones worshipped at Ireland’s 32

The people who gathered there every week were happy to have me, if no one else was. New recruits were rare enough, let alone Berkeley “professors” (I was a mere lecturer, but you can’t explain the hierarchy to civvies). So I joined the amazing faces gathered around that big table upstairs, while schmaltzy rebel songs wafted up from the bar. 

There was Jane Pratt, a Quaker, earnest and plain, who was eager to explain she had no Irish blood at all and was doing this for some other reason, something like justice (though she was also, queasily enough, President of the local U2 fan club). There were the Malley brothers, three bruisers from Kerry who scrounged a living as illegal house painters, wore military parkas, and dropped a lot of hints about their connections. There was Gerry, the permanently angry Belfast tyke who was more Republican than any of us, in the grotesque sense that he was both a physical-force revolutionary when we were talking about the Six Counties and an enthusiastic supporter of President George Bush, Sr. And there were other, more drab creatures, washed into this eddy by family pressures or sheer boredom. Or, in god knows how many cases, a nice Federal snitch stipend. 

To me, at that time—two hours sleep a night if I was lucky, terror of the sort where you actually watch the second hand in its grudging circuit and wonder, “How will I make it til it hits the top again?,” -- to me Irish Northern Aid was a kind of salvation. I zoomed down to the art-supply store near campus, bought black fabric paint, and painted “Victory to the IRA” in all caps on a bedsheet, which was soon tacked up on my window overlooking Dwight Way. Hey, the Berkeley traffic planners had diverted all the traffic in town past my apartment; may as well get some mileage out of it. Some of the doctors had said that might be why I had Chronic Fatigue, but it was rent-controlled and I wasn’t giving it up, any more than we were giving up the Six Counties. 

And I studied like a druid. One thing I can do, I can soak up data like a rain toad can absorb moisture through the sand. Oh, there was a lot I already knew; the Dolans were always serious about this, only came over in the twentieth century, supposedly because they’d been involved with the IRB in Cavan. I knew all the songs before I ever went to those meetings at Ireland’s 32. But now I really opened my veins to the struggle. Within a few months, I could beat the Malley brothers, all three of those guys, on IRA trivia quizzes. The biggest one, who claimed to have been the amateur heavyweight champ of Ireland, looked almost exactly like Obelix, and the littlest one made a very good Asterix. Michael, the middle, the dangerous one, was a compromise between the two Gaulish cartoon characters, but with mean, smart eyes. 

To say that the struggle, as we called it, meant more to me than my own life is putting it mildly. Lots of things, almost everything, meant more to me than my own life. But the struggle meant more to me than big things, like the survival of the Kakapo. Or bringing back the Mammoths. That’s how much it meant.

In the meantime, though, I was losing it, and had to go stay at my brother’s for a while. When I came back, thin and crazy, Mitzy called me. She was back from Europe, and I glommed onto her in a grim, desperate embrace that had very little to do with affection. 

She could see that; by the time she was 13 she knew more about this relationship shit than I ever would. But there was one thing I could offer her: Irish Northern Aid. I knew she’d like it. It had everything. After all, punk was never enough. Those stories about the Circle Jerks going home to have pancakes with their moms, there was always those wimpy, embarrassing truths to deal with, that we were all unarmed and harmless. And unjustified, unpersecuted. Here was the real thing, arms and justice behind them.

She took to it. More to the point, they took to her in a way they never did to me. The first time I brought her to a meeting upstairs at Ireland’s 32, all three Malley brothers had their eyes, a total of six ox-like pupils, glued to Mitzy. 

All I asked was to give her that, Thai food and the rent and go about my business. Which at that moment was doing up a lot of speed so I could spend every waking hour outside my job publicizing Bernadette MacAliskey’s visit to UC Berkeley. 

To get the speed, I committed an unpardonable mistake. On the way to our weekly meeting at Ireland’s 32, I dropped Mitzy off at a friend’s place in the Mission with money to buy two grams. But I never should have done that; you never combine two kinds of behavior that might interest the authorities. Halfway through the meeting, I had to go out to my Hyundai to get some pamphlets I’d designed for the upcoming St Patrick’s Day parade, to show the group. And on the way out, I was eyeballed by a skinny, mean guy who followed me to the car. I mean followed me about two paces back, no finesse at all. It froze the ol’ blood, because I was carrying those two grams in my pocket. Arrested for IRA stuff? Great, glorious! Arrested for two grams of speed… not so great. 

I went to the car, with my shadow still eyeballing me, then turned around and led him down a side street, turned around and walked back. He froze, staring at me, but let me go past him. I went upstairs, put the baggie in my mouth, and spent the rest of the meeting listening to my heart pound. 

It made sense they’d be watching. Not that we were serious enough to merit it, but the Feds took us insanely seriously, just like they did the Palestinian support groups. You could buy Israel a nuke and your local congressman would happily pose for a shot with the two of you grinning over the 10-megaton contribution to “The Middle East’s Only Democracy”, but if you tried to help Palestinian widows or send Sinn Fein one penny for campaign posters, you could be in serious trouble. A couple of years before I joined up, Chris Reid, a Silicon Valley engineer, got more than three years in federal prison for talking about avionics with somebody who allegedly had “IRA ties.”

That, of course, made no impression on me. I spent 20 hours a day working on the pamphlets we were going to distribute for the parade.  The top had a headline, “Ireland: Not Just A Pretty Place,” and the margins were all horror photos from the Six Counties, kids with faces broken by rubber bullets, dead women killed by real ones. 

Not one of my cool, radical Berkeley friends came to help us hand out those pamphlets at the parade. Only a friend from mainland China, who must have thought Northern Ireland the silliest cause around. This guy grew up playing “double dare ya” in the streets of a Chinese city as worker militias shot it out with Red Guards, but there he was, five feet nothing, all loyalty, helping me pass out those leaflets on the streets of SF to crowds of drunk idiots. 

When the parade wound up at City Hall, I met the only Fed I’m sure of. Oh, half of our little group was probably fed, but I don’t know for certain. This guy, I knew. We all knew. He was baaaaaad at it. You think these Feds will have a minimal competence or something. Nope. 

There we were, dispersing, triumphant (by our modest terms); flyers all handed out, some praise from the few Irish Americans not stupid enough to vote GOP…and here comes this huge, buffed, nervous weirdo in Doc Martins and a bomber jacket. Head quasi-shaved. Walks right up to me and introduces himself, talking very fast and nervous: “Hey how ya doin’ I’m Shaun Kelly, hey, hi, lissen, I’m from the Irish-American Skinhead Front…”

At this point, me, the three Malley brothers, and assorted lesser fry are all gaping at this absurdity with open jaws. He couldn’t be real. 

He seemed to notice it wasn’t going over too well, and started play-punching me in the gut, stopping just a millimeter or two of my ample belly. He went on, “Yeah, we stand for, you know, ethnic rights, white ethnics, losing jobs fire-fighting, that kind of thing…”

He talked like my cousins from Jersey City, but with an obvious difference: They were trying not to talk like that so they could get a job; he was trying to talk like that because that was his job.

We stared some more; he threw a few more jabs at my belly. That didn’t worry me; I remembered the demo where the middle Malley brother, not even the big one, got jumped by two shore-leave squaddies. That ended very quickly, and in our favor, to put it mildly. So I wasn’t in any danger. I was just fascinated that this lummox thought any of us were buying his schtick. 

He reacted to our blank faces by amping up his sell: “Yeah, you know, I just got out of the Navy…”

I felt like the Bene Gesserit mother in Dune, whispering to herself, “Here it comes.”

And it did. He went on, loudly but with a lot of cheesy winks and stage whispers, “Yeah, I did a lot of demolition work, you know…” Wink, wink, wink. We stayed deadpan. Nobody could dead a pan like those Malleys, in their parkas, their Asterix drooping mustaches.

“Yeah, demolition work, I can put you together some packages, you know? Do a lot of damage. I’ve had all kinds of experience, plastics, the whole deal…”

About then, a wobble of drunks crashed in to harass Mitzy’s friend who’d been handing out posters with us, yelling at her, “Not just a pretty face, huh?” Another yelled something about Reagan being the greatest president in history. 

We turned around, they saw the Malleys, the shouts died away and when we looked back, our friend who would one day collect a federal pension was nowhere to be seen, all 250 government-gym pounds of him. And it was time to celebrate. 

We went back to Ireland’s 32, to the ground floor bar this time, in triumph. There were girls doing that stiff-arm Celtic stuff, a fire in the fireplace, we were welcome. A happy time. My Chinese friend had ditched us at the first BART station, his duty done, but we were all together, Mitzy’s dreg-friends mixing easily with what might be called the Military Wing of the group, the Malleys. 

But we were all cagey with each other. The middle Malley came up behind me as I was watching the dancers and murmured, “What’d ya think of that guy at the parade?” I said, “Either he’s crazy or he’s a plant.” The Malleys nodded and never mentioned the subject again. There was either a lot more or a lot less to them than met the eye. Over time, I’ve leaned toward “less.” 

After the little victory with my parade pamphlets came another chance to grow the movement after all those dormant decades. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, maybe the smartest, toughest figure to come out of the whole mess, was coming to the Bay Area. What, the group wondered to itself, were we going to do? I piped up with an offer: As a UC Berkeley lecturer, I could rent a lecture room on campus—promised them with no basis, actually, because as a lowly lecturer, and a fat slob to boot, I counted for zero at Berkeley. 

Ever grovel to a famous Historian of Science to ask if she’ll give you Dwinelle 145 (seating capacity 288 persons) for a speech by a woman who once punched the British Secretary of State in the face? It’s not much fun. There’s cool-radical, and then there’s me with the IRA posters in my office and too-fast babble and history of non-publication. 

I booked that hall with my own money, the last $500 I had, and spent amphetamine weeks plastering Berkeley with posters advertising Bernadette’s visit. It worked. We filled that hall, the one and only time an Irish Republican speaker has filled a room that size in Berkeley. But by the time Bernadette showed up, I was so speed-tired I couldn’t introduce her. 

I met her on Bancroft, a small woman limping a little, as you do after being shot to pieces by a UDA hit squad working with SAS handlers. I tried to find some energy for the big moment, but my voice was gone, my mind was gone. I begged Mitzy to introduce Bernadette.

She did. In fact, she was great. How she did it, I don’t know; Mitzy still couldn’t have found Cookstown on a map, for all my fevered tutoring. But that was her magic, the same one she was to work at Yale and on the big-money boys in the DoD. 

The group loved what she did that night. It turned out I couldn’t get my $500 back, because that wouldn’t be right, but Mitzy was the darling of our little cabal. While I sulked over the $500, or rather being screwed by the last allies I thought I had in the world, Mitzy charmed the pants off those little rebels. She had the gift. It’s a street-kid thing; if you survive, you’re lightyears ahead of the Milhouse types, the ones who swarm in every grad school. And she’d survived.

When the earthquake came, Mitzy and I were hosting an Irish Northern Aid meeting in our shared flat on 59th Street, off Telegraph. Separate bedrooms by that time. The three Malleys were sitting on all the handcrafted furniture Mitzy brought with her from the beatnik death-world of her parents, those hulking thugs perched awkwardly on all the craftsy trash she brought from the houseboat. Then the earth moved. 

I chortled, because she already liked the Malleys too much and I knew that as foreigners, they wouldn’t be calm in a quake. I chortled until things started falling, and on principle, continued to chortle even when the goofy wooden owl-lamp, a sacred relic of some houseboat junkie, started to fall. Mitzy grabbed it in mid-air—reflexes!—and ran for the back door. The Malleys followed soon after, like a comic strip of huge boots shoving for first through the door. I stayed 30 seconds, laughing loudly, to make my point, that I had nothing to lose. Then I ran out too. 

The Malleys were impressed, for once, by my lack of fear. They went to see if their apartment was on fire, and Mitzy and I got in her new cool American car and drove toward the columns of smoke, down by the bridge. The freeway had pancaked at commute hour, and there was a cardboard sign, “Morgue.” The World Series was on fire in San Francisco, we heard on the radio. It was some consolation, better than nothing, but she took the lamp and ran. I was the last out and it didn’t seem to concern her at all, next to that stupid beatnik lamp, like something from summer school. Her and the Malley brothers laughing out in that stamp-sized yard. 

I started to wonder about the terms of our arrangement, but it didn’t occur to me until I saw her off to grad school at Yale that we’d been living on my salary, while her mother’s money was invested at interest. First time that occurred to me was six months after she left, when I noticed there was a positive balance in my account. Couldn’t figure that out til I started pondering the variables and realized that I wasn’t bribing Mitzy to spend time with me at restaurants and movies. That was where the surplus came from.

By that time, she was so far above me it was only with a sort of queenly condescension that we met at all. She used names I didn’t get; one that I remember is “Jean-Paul Gaultier,” who was a big, sexualized referent in her new world, though I still don’t really get what he does, or did.

She shared sexually-charged theory jargon with her too-cool friends, and drove a hip American sedan from the old days. That was what cool people were driving then; don’t ask me why. 

Last time I went out with her and her friends, I piled into the back seat with her allegedly tough punk friend Corr, while she and Sharon the film-maker took the front. Sharon was going to film some crack dealers for her Patty Hearst movie (which got her into NYU film school and so must be considered a successful film).

We drove past that scary M&M bottleshop on the corner. Bunch of crack dealers standing around, staring us down while Sharon the idiot shoves her giant movie camera out the passenger window at them. Mitzy and Sharon are both excited; Corr the allegedly violent punk is a pallid zombie next to me on the back seat. We drive past again, and one of the apprentice dealers mimes throwing a rock at us. A courtesy, in context; a way of saying, “Please don’t drive by us again! That camera of yours causes us a certain anxiety.”

So Sharon says, “Turn here, I want to get a close-up!” At this point, the spirit moves me to say, “Ummm, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” But my role is set; I’m a has-been, and Sharon snorts, “Fffff! This isn’t even a bad neighborhood.” It looked bad enough to me, but I was used to being wrong about everything, so we turned left onto a side street, then left again, and again. Which brought us up to the corner, where we sat behind a slow old truck full of salvage junk. There was a stop sign, and the truck was giving it a good long think before committing to a turn. 

Long enough for the dozen or so apprentice dealers standing out on San Pablo to take a good long gander at us. One of the more observant ones shouted “That’s the bitch with the camera,” and the whole mob swarmed us. No hesitation, that’s the key difference between pros and amateurs. No time at all passed between that shout and their descent on us. Sharon got the worst of it. Some of them yanked her hair, others went for her fancy new camera. But she paid for that camera, and went into a fetal crunch to save it as the punches rained down on her...

Part Two: “Which way to the bombs?”