With hardly a peep, the Army recently closed the book on the controversial Human Terrain System. HTS provided commanders with anthropologists, psychologists, and other social scientists to conduct field research with the purpose of generating a higher (and more accurate) level of socio-cultural awareness in the battlespace. Regardless of ongoing criticism from the academic community, some friction with supported commands, and attacks from politicians, several independent studies demonstrated ways in which these Human Terrain teams were valuable in Iraq and Afghanistan, with 95 percent of surveyed commanders identifying the program as actionable and useful.
There’s no question that HTS had room for improvement. What government program doesn’t? However, given the nature of 21st-century conflicts, the valuable lessons learned in COIN, and the embarrassing incompetence exemplified by the Army’s recent cultural-awareness debacle, what’s clear is that the Army needs more social scientists, not fewer.
Fortunately, nodding to recommendations by the National Defense University, the special operations community, with its focus on irregular and unconventional warfare, is finding a way to integrate Human Terrain activities into operations. In fact, this scholarly capability first existed within USASOC long before the advent of HTS. Organized within PSYOP is the Cultural Intelligence Element, formerly known as the Strategic Studies Detachment. Within each regional PSYOP battalion the CIE is staffed by area experts and social science PhDs. This is not to say the CIE hasn’t faced problems within USASOC. Sometimes kinetic-minded commanders simply don’t understand the need for such non-lethal assets, and sophisticated human-oriented programs tend to be first on the budgetary chopping block.
Despite the internal challenges of developing quality Human Terrain assets and the resistance they occasionally meet externally, it would be naive to imagine that (perhaps in the very near future) conventional forces won’t have a need for advanced socio-cultural understanding. Breaking things and killing people doesn’t win complex conflicts. No matter how much we wish we did, we don’t get to dictate the nature of our wars. Acknowledging this reality, much thought has been devoted to ensuring that human-terrain capabilities emerge more effectively in the future. In considering that, as well as USSOCOM’s immediate needs, there are a few points that have yet to be addressed.
Integrating civilian scholars
Civilian scholars are not troops. Uniformed service members spend years learning to function as teams and to fulfill the responsibilities of well-established roles within those teams. When a Civil Affairs team gets a new NCO, that team adapts rapidly and continues its mission. Team building for civilians is a far more arduous process. Corporations spend millions of dollars a year on team-building efforts. There’s a reason for that. Teams of Human Terrain scientists need to have clearly identified roles and responsibilities, and their hierarchy should replicate an academic research team, not a military one. These teams need time to train together if they are expected to function effectively.
Commanders are not academics. Although the number of soldier-scholars is growing, the majority of battle-space owners don’t have graduate academic training. The highest echelons of command recognize that BSOs need sophisticated socio-cultural understanding, but when an academic presents that information in a scholarly format, there is a very good chance it will be marginalized or even ignored. Complicated information cannot be distilled into simple slides and bullet points. In complex conflicts, commanders and staff officers must learn to read and comprehend academic material. At the same time, social scientists need to learn to distill information as efficiently as possible.
Maneuver commanders generally want to kill the enemy and move on. Human Terrain teams want to be valued by the commanders for whom they work. Consequently, it sometimes happens that members of HTTs ignore their core mission and get seduced by the sexiness of meat eaters and snake eaters. This is not a problem unique to HTS. It is also common among enablers such as PSYOP and Civil Affairs. This problem manifests due to the culture of combat arms, which privileges combat over other considerations. Human Terrain assets need powerful barriers, including legal obstacles, to prevent this counterproductive tendency, as well as to be fully immersed and completely supported in the milieu of the non-lethal enabler.
These issues, along with several other concerns, including a lack of weapons training, combat survivability, first aid, and other training-oriented challenges, could be largely ameliorated through avoiding a future cold-start. One low-cost, low-footprint solution would be to bridge the gap between the SOF capability and the conventional force using an already existing link between the two—PSYOP and Civil Affairs. The CIE model should be expanded from the regional PSYOP BNs to the tactical BNs, out to Civil Affairs, and into the reserve.
A functional Cultural Intelligence element in every CA and PSYOP BN would give maneuver commanders access to social scientists steeped in non-lethal operations who also have significant experience in supporting military elements. Reserve CIE civilians would bring their expertise to the reserve units, drilling alongside their uniformed colleagues while maintaining their civilian positions in academia. Teams would have time to work together, train, qualify on weapons systems, participate regularly in CTCs, and become more effective DA (or DoD) civilians while simultaneously improving the capabilities of the reserve units they join.
This article was written with the invaluable contribution of Dr. Richard Boone, a retired LTC and psychologist who served as a Human Terrain social scientist after retiring from uniformed service.