Small Wars Journal

When the Eggheads Went to War

Sat, 08/17/2013 - 11:51am

When the Eggheads Went to War by Vanessa M. Gezari, Newsweek.

In 2007, a team of civilians with a rare set of specialized skills joined a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to eastern Afghanistan. The civilian team’s leader was a former Special Forces officer; he was accompanied by a West Point graduate who had studied anthropology and described herself as a “high-risk ethnographer.” She asked reporters to identify her only as Tracy.

Tracy and her colleagues were part of the Human Terrain System, a project whose creators saw themselves as a band of progressive upstarts seeking to transform the Army from within. The program’s goal was to draw on the tools of anthropology to help U.S. soldiers better understand Afghanistan…

Read on.


I have a politically incorrect mindset (partially influenced by the Marine Corps) that employs “black and white” binary logic to most problems. To me everyone in theater is either an asset or a liability. This applies to HTTs as well.

I was with HTS for a very short period last year. I won’t go into details about my employer, but let’s just say I transferred in-theater to another contract so that I could sleep better at night. In his thick Texan dialect I still hear my old supervisor’s daily zealous remark “I’m a war-profiteer” ringing in my ears. Having worked for CGI Federal in the past, I’d like to think that the contracts for HTS are in much more competent hands now, I’m not sure if that is the case.

In my short tenure with Human Terrain Systems, I gained a great appreciation for what the program was designed to deliver and even now I promote the discipline. With that said, it did not take long for me to realize that the program was not meeting its goal. First of all, I’m not sure what the goal was. The current Human Terrain Systems mission statement, which may have been refined since I worked there, reads:
<blockquote>The Human Terrain System develops, trains, and integrates a social science based research and analysis capability to support operationally relevant decision-making, to develop a knowledge base, and to enable sociocultural understanding across the operational environment. </blockquote>
At least during my time there, HTTs, the HTATs, and maybe even the RRC had no recognizable measurements of effectiveness. Enabling sociocultural understanding is a moving target at best, but I suppose that is good for business. Conversely, during my one day tour of the RRC, it seemed like the work being done there was very good support to theater-level planning.
The HTT as planned and executed is a flawed concept. The idea that a team can be attached to brigade-level staff and at the same time make it outside the wire enough to know what they’re talking about is not realistic. Even when HTTs can hitch a ride out, the sample of the population they’re exposed to is too small to obtain broader generalizations.

Often times the final (highly-anticipated) end-result of weeks’ worth of work is not actually relevant to the BSO or adjacent units. While there are many good papers that cover topics like the Kuchi’s migratory patterns and economic significance of bazaars, there are some really awkward papers that cover things like the effects of moon phases on people or how Muslims of various regions view dogs. Even when good valuable information was generated it was not always presented or packaged in a way that made its relevance apparent. When competing for the commander or staff’s attention its hard to win against the plethora of intel flowing in daily. This does not lend to the primarily civilian program’s team dynamic.
<blockquote>“They have a hard time, any of these guys, distinguishing sociocultural information from intel,” Lacy told me. “To them, it’s all the same stuff, and in a way, it is. Quite frankly, intelligence, by doctrine, is not supposed to be just classified stuff.”</blockquote>
What they need and what they want are often different things. I think there is a major intel gap when it comes to the human geography of a battlespace. Human Geography differs from Human Terrain as it is more of the “what and where” of people. What we have termed Human Terrain answers more of the “how and why”. The problem is that you cannot answer how and why without first understanding the who and where.

The knowledge management piece of HTS sought to maintain the sociocultural knowledge that each unit gained so that it was not lost when that unit left country. I don’t know how they expected to do this when most of the teams were on four month rotations with minimal turnover. Furthermore, Map-HT, the software for cataloging human terrain information, was archaic and problematic. Although technically part of DCGS, Map-HT was not compatible with any of the major databases used in theater.

Also I might be stirring the pot, but in my opinion (for what it’s worth), TRADOC was not the best choice for HTS.

In the future I would recommend that human terrain be viewed as a discipline along the spectrum of civil-affairs and intelligence. Much of its methodologies can be derived from anthropology and social sciences, but human terrain collection must be a core competency for anyone who interacts with the population often. I’m not sure if it is still used, but the Army once used the term “every soldier a sensor”. I see the future of human terrain refocused on training and preparing our active-duty military. Let’s be honest, the best thing for our country is to enable those uniform rather than seek possible contracts.