There’s a lot of talk, in all branches of the military and the defense/firearms industry, about situational awareness, and appropriately so.  If you don’t know what’s going on around you, you can’t react appropriately to an emergency.  But there are elements of situational awareness that haven’t been cultivated, especially in the military, to the detriment of both troops and operations.

While SF (Special Forces) are schooled from the beginning to immerse themselves in the target culture, as their primary mission is to work with and among the local populace, most of the rest of the Army and Marine Corps doesn’t get a lot of the background material on their AO and the people in it.  While the usual country briefs are given, and the guides and smart cards, very few know the actual ethnic, sectarian, and cultural dynamics of the area they are moving through.  This can be just as dangerous as staring at the ground while the bad guys are digging in an IED 300 yards away.

In 2005, my platoon was in a small village south of the Euphrates called Biziabiz.  Amid the cache sweeps and presence patrols, we learned from some of the farmers that the tribe on the other side of the Euphrates was anti-American, and that they were “bad people.”  The bridge just around the south bend of the river had been blown out a couple years before, and the farmers at Biziabiz didn’t want it rebuilt because it kept the other tribe away.  Not long after, we started taking small arms fire from across the river.

Now, how much the locals in Biziabiz sided with us because they genuinely liked Americans and had hopes for the new Iraqi government, and how much they did so because the tribe on the other side of the river openly hated us, is open to debate.  But that tribal rivalry could have been an effective tool for our operational goals, had we stuck around rather than staying for two weeks and leaving.  However, we didn’t know about it until we were on the ground, and it never entered into the possibilities in the planning phase.

Getting higher headquarters to push this kind of information, or even seek it out, is going to be difficult at best.  There was a story about an officer assigned to mentoring duties with the ANA, who openly treated his Afghan counterpart like a child.  It turned out the Afghan colonel had been fighting the Soviets, then the warlords, then the Taliban.  The man had been in combat for the better part of 30 years.  But the American officer didn’t have the situational awareness to appreciate that fact, and likely lost a great deal of face with the men he was supposed to be mentoring and training because of his presumptions.

You have to be aware of activity and terrain when you are outside the wire.  On the unconventional battlefield we find ourselves engaged on, the human terrain is just as important as the terrain of the physical landscape.  If you know the human terrain, you can know much better what you’re looking at, and be better at differentiating the hostile from the friendly.

Unfortunately, this appears to be a lesson that has been not so much brain-dumped but bypassed.

Unconventional Warfare and Situational Awareness

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This article previously published on SOFREP 12.27.2013