Small Wars Journal

Does the Human Domain Matter?

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 1:12am

Does the Human Domain Matter?

Patricia DeGennaro

Understanding and engaging in the human domain is essential if you are trying to change, inform or shape human behavior. In this context, the Secretary of Defense reminds us that, “We must recognize that the essential ‘key terrain’ is the will of a host nation’s population…[This] permits us to gain the trust of skeptical populations, thus frustrating the enemy’s efforts.” The world’s populations are becoming more interactive which can potentially help or harm international security. With ever increasing information mediums and venues, previously unconnected persons can connect and act in seconds. Interaction between people ignited the Arab Spring, allowed the Islamic State (IS) to boost recruiting efforts worldwide, and sparked further fragmentation in Iraq after the U.S. intervention. These emerging human geography trends, responses to social and cultural grievances, adversarial patterns, and diverse community reactions continue to cause problems for U.S. forces and mission success. Knowing the human domain,[i] therefore, gives commanders the ability to see, sense, anticipate, and maneuver through the complexity of peoples.

"The rising velocity of human interaction makes influencing human behavior the centerpiece of military strategy by recognizing the physical, cognitive and social influences on a civilian population targeted by an insurgency,” said Lieutenant General (LTG) Keith Walker, former director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.[ii] Other Generals including the current Secretary of Defense, Gen (ret) James Mattis and National Security Advisor, LTG (ret) Michael Flynn agree that human response, activities, and mental states of mind directly impact how individuals, groups and populations respond to messaging, provocation, or intervention. “Though sociocultural analysis has come to the fore with recent counter-insurgency experience, its relevance extends far beyond these operations. Indeed, its relevance may be greater in the future security environment than in contemporary operations. America’s security environment faces a diverse set of challenges, all of which are shaped by sociocultural dynamics.” are Flynn’s exact words.[iii]

The question for the military then becomes: how does the military evolve to effectively engage the expansive human domain. The military, with emphasis on the Army and the Marines, is tasked with the ongoing responsibility to interact with people. They are our disaster, humanitarian, and ground forces. The first U.S. responders and are often the first to interact with the humans in theater. Therefore they must directly engage and interact, often in a non-lethal manner, with people – friend or foe.

The military continues to grapple with this people to people or “human domain” [iv] concept. It often views it as touchy feely, so to speak. However that is a fundamental and very dangerous, misconception. Understanding others, socially, physiologically and culturally only improves one’s ability to maneuver in the narrative, cognitive or, all inclusively, the human space. The military, more specifically, must understand how to work with others to avoid, mitigate or end violence. Learning these skills can prove vital during the full range of military operations. They are also skills that can be used to assess vast networks in the threat, neutral, and friendly, physical, technological and informational environments. 

Repeatedly military leaders refer to the nexus of power and human interaction. Yet, real time analysis of the human aspect of the terrain remains a box to be checked in the larger strategic mission and not properly thought out. Often, planners do not even mention that people exist in theater. I have participated in many scenario planning and war gaming exercises where commanders and planners allow tanks to roll over mobs fleeing violence, ignore groups looking for relief after disasters, and dismiss host country nationals, leaders, international forces and populations alike, leaving them out of mission planning, analysis and maneuvers - often at their peril.

The Department of Defense sought to address this gap in 2013 in response to the necessity of the human domain in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. forces scrambled to staff Human Terrain Teams and Provincial Reconstruction Teams with scholars and country experts to help them understand people, culture and customs in order to achieve goals at both the tactical and strategic level. Commanding Generals like Raymond Odierno (ret.), David Petraeus (ret.) and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s reiterated the need to understand these social science challenges for mission success.

Throughout Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata’s tenure leading the joint forces against IS, he warned that “we need to know how they think,” and even now, he remains convinced that if we do not understand what moves the people the battle will not be easily won. Even in the U.S., the military’s inability to understand the mood of the people led to a widespread conspiracy-like misunderstanding due to an exercise called Jade Helm.[v] The non-transparency of the exercise percolated those age old claims that “the government is coming to get you.” These thoughts, of course, were unwarranted. But, as long as the government is seen as not being able to understand the basic sociological balance in the minds of society these suspicions will remain.

Despite the lesson that understanding social sciences and the human domain is critically important, the military often underestimates its value. The “big” Army continues to discuss options such as elevating the importance of human engagement in operational planning, with great internal pushback. U.S. Special Forces Command, the Marine Corps, Army Special Forces, Asymmetric Warfare Group and some others understand that human engagement in theater is crucial though, it is often recognized as a problem that falls to them. All too often their findings are not passed to commanders or planners or, even worse, their findings fall on deaf ears. This puts our forces at a disadvantage.

Unlike most countries, the U.S. is isolated by two vast oceans and two friendly neighbors. American culture is exported however others are encouraged to leave their language and culture at the U.S. border upon entrance. Other than food, most Americans have little reason other than choice to be exposed to the vast and interesting sphere of human difference.

The military, however, has active duty forces stationed in or deployed to nearly 150 countries. Many also travel internationally for reasons that are not limited to but include disaster relief, capacity building, regional exercises and stability operations. Our forces cannot afford to be culturally illiterate.

As the world becomes smaller, the operating environment more crowded and human interaction more dynamic - pre, during or post conflict – humans and their social interactions must continually be taken into consideration especially if one is going to physically intervene.  During combat operations, military intervention has the potential to cause staggering numbers of human casualties, devastating psychological and social trauma, and a far reaching destruction of infrastructure that deprives people of their most basic needs (shelter, food, and water).  All of which can summarily invoke fear, desperation, detestation and other negative responses often leading to an equally brutal backlash that troops might not see coming. These human effects can be mitigated or eliminated if forces would take the time to study the human domain. Counterattack or cooperation can make or break mission success and, if human social capital is used effectively, one can actually produce a positive response, preferably without firing a shot.

The necessity of understanding the human domain continues to permeate military thought. Most recently, the U.S. joint military forces released a Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations (JC-HAMO).[vi] The focus of this document is literally the human. Usually, when planning for military maneuvers, geographical, political, geospatial and other non-human factors trump any consideration for how intervention will, could or should engage and/or influence the population. Governments rarely consider how intervention will affect populations, but military commanders implementing a predominantly lethal intervention do not have that luxury – they must care. JC-HAMO “recognizes the centrality of human will in war and provides a framework that integrates with the Commander’s Decision Cycle, enabling the Joint Force to influence a range of relevant actors.”[vii]

JC-HAMO identifies the following four imperatives that are instrumental to inculcating in the Joint Force an updated mindset and approach to operations:

Identify the range of relevant actors and their associated social, cultural, political, economic, and organizational networks.

Evaluate relevant actor behavior in context.

Anticipate relevant actor decision making.

Influence the will and decisions of relevant actors (“influence” is the act or power to produce a desired outcome on a target audience [friendly, neutral or threat] or entity.[viii]) [ix]

Now it is time for the joint staff to inculcate within the Joint Force the ability to plan for human aspects of military operations.

States like Iran, Russia and China, and non-state actors like IS and Al-Qaeda, take humans social sciences very seriously, especially in the information environment. They develop highly coordinated initiatives to motivate audiences, advance agendas and engage adversaries.[x]

“The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness,” wrote Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov in his now infamous article speaking about Russian warfare.[xi] If this is true, and so far it seems to be panning out quite literally, the U.S. military must get much more serious about studying, engaging, and maneuvering in the human domain.

End Notes

[i] The Human Domain is often referred to as the Human Terrain. For the purposes of this paper, Human Domain will be used.

[ii] Sisk, Richard, ‘Human Domain’ Enters Future Army War Plans,,, 20 February 2013.

[iii] LTG Michael Flynn (ret.), Preface to Operational Relevance of Behavioral Social Science to DOD MissionsMarch 2013.

[iv] See:, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 19 June 2012; Odierno, Amos, & McRaven, Strategic Landowner Task Force White Paper, Strategic Landpower: Winning the Clash of Wills, 2013; Jobe, Nicole, Institutionalizing the Human Domain: Being Penny Wise and Pound Wise, 1 January 2014,

[v] Broze, Derrick, ‘Mastering the Human Domain’: What’s at Stake with Jade Helm 15, 23 July 2015.,

[vi] The Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations (JC-HAMO) describes how the Joint Force will enhance operations by impacting the will and influencing the decision making of relevant actors in the environment, shaping their behavior, both active and passive, in a manner that is consistent with U.S. objectives. Human aspects are the interactions among humans and between humans and the environment that influence decisions. To be effective at these interactions, the Joint Force must analyze and understand the social, cultural, physical, informational, and psychological elements that influence behavior.

[vii] Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations (JC-HAMO), 19 October 2016, General Paul J. Selva, USAF, Forward to JC-HAMO), p.i.

[viii] JP 3-13, Information Operations, 27 November 2012, I-3, incorporating Change 1, 20 November 2014, defines “influence” as “the act or power to produce a desired outcome or end on a TA (target audience).”

[ix] Joint Concept for Human Aspects of Military Operations (JC-HAMO), 19 October 2016, General Paul J. Selva, USAF, Forward to JC-HAMO), p.2.

[x] Williams, Brad D., Narratice, Cyberspace and the 21st Century Art of War, 22 January 2017,

[xi] Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russian General Staff, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight: New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying out Combat Operations” in Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier (VPK) (Military-Industrial Courier), 26 February 2013. Gerasimov’s “nonmilitary means” included “broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other nonmilitary measures – applied with the protest potential of the population.”


About the Author(s)

Patricia “Tricia” DeGennaro is an Adjunct Professor of International Security at New York University and a U.S. Army Contractor with Threat Tec, LLC. in support of the TRADOC G27 Operational Environment Training Support Center. Ms. DeGennaro has an MBA from George Washington University and an MPA in international security from Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Her expertise is focused on geopolitics of the Middle East, North Africa and near Asia regions.


Wars have always been fought over things humans wanted; this was simply less obvious when there were fewer humans whose opinons mattered. In a monarchical war of old, the human domain was limited to the kings, potential successors, and a few trusted advisers. Today, some autocrats may still have such power that only their opinion matters, or perhaps a relatively small group of aristocrats or tribal elders hold dominant power, or perhaps the society is so disorganized that every single person must be influenced independently. Understanding what people want is no more important than it ever was, although it is much more complicated today.

That all being said, the favored tactic of leadership decapitation should be reconsidered: a leader, no matter how odious, is a single point for negotiation (or surrender), while a leaderless mob is guaranteed to be a mess.

BEGIN QUOTE (from the article above)

The question for the military then becomes: How does the military evolve to effectively engage the expansive human domain?


I suggest that we expound upon this quote a little; this, so as to provide a proper understanding of what, re: the human domain, U.S./Western militaries are actually up against today. Here goes:


The question for the military then becomes: how do U.S./Western militaries evolve -- to effectively engage the expansive human domain -- this, given that:

a. U.S./Western militaries are burdened today by the fact that the local populations know, without any doubt, that the purpose of the U.S./the West -- and their militarires -- is to transform the natives' states, societies and civilizations more along our, alien and profane, modern western political, economic, social and value lines. Whereas,

b. Our opponents' militaries (a) are not burdened by such a negative stigma and difficult requirement and, indeed, (b) are able to exploit same; this, by (c) stating that they (our opponents) are actually the champions of more traditional ways of life, more tradition ways of governance and more tradition values, attitudes and beliefs. (Candidate Trump, for example, operating very effectively in this exact such "human domain" manner recently?)


Thus, re: the "human domain," I believe we must decide whether we wish to fish or cut bait:

a. If we wish to develop and maintain excellent, long-term relationships with other countries and other peoples, then I think we may have to abandon our determination to "transform" their states, societies and civilizations; this, more along our, often alien and profane, modern western lines.

b. If, however, we believe that it is more important to undermine, eliminate and replace (with our models) these natives' current ways of life, their current ways of governance and their current values, attitudes and beliefs; then I believe we must realize that we will not be able to develop, and/or maintain, excellent, long-term relationships with the natives as we attempt to do this. Such an idea, on its very face, would seem ludicrous.

Summing up:

The title question of this article is: "Does the Human Domain Matter?"

The first sentence of the article answers this question: "Understanding and engaging in the human domain is essential -- if you are trying to change, inform or shape human behavior."

As to this, might we add also however -- given our opponents' ability to exploit our such (unpopular?) attempts to change, inform or shape human behavior -- that the "human domain" likewise matters to those attempting to "resist," "thwart" and/or "throw monkey wrenches" into one's such "transformative" attempts?

(Such as, for example, Candidate Trump, who was able to exploit the "establishment" Republican and Democrats' continuing efforts to advance globalism/globalization/the global economy; this, at the expense of the more traditional ways of life, the more traditional ways of governance and the more traditional values, etc. of, yes, even the U.S./the West itself? )

Bottom Line:

The "human domain," thus, to be understood today more in terms of this "attempting transformation/ modernization" versus "resisting transformation/modernization" context? (Which has now hit us directly in the heart, soul and belly here at home also?)


Thu, 02/23/2017 - 11:10pm

In reply to by Thomas Doherty

I am generally sympathetic to the arguments that human domain proponents make in support of it being a domain proper. I do think the elevation to full fledged doctrinal domain and the (invariable) assertion that SOF be the proponent force to be a bridge too far. I think this for three major reasons (and tons of minor ones).
1. The "classic" domains - land, sea, air - all imply specialization. In other words, they are the first tear differentiation in manning, equipping, and training a force. Want to fly while doing war-stuff? well, that means x, y, z distinct capability. The forces that are designated to a domain become accountable for dominance in that domain. The problem with "humans" is that they are a core and indivisible part of the land domain, seeing as how humans are neither avian nor aquatic nor ethereal. The Army is our land component and it is charged with controlling land. Controlling land is 100% about controlling the humans on that land, be they organized as a conventional force, irregular force, rabble, or not yet organized to resist. A tactical or operational Army formation can no more delegate "human issues" to SOF than an ABCT can delegate fires to an independent formation, echelons removed, doing its own "fires" thing. Thus, human aspects of military operations are a core competency of the land component.
2. The idea that SOF is a domain-level force implies that SOF is ready for service component status. I think this implication is what drives so much enthusiasm for the idea in the SOF community. As a member of this community, I do take issue with that. SOF can be a proponent of tactics in the human side of things, but it cannot be the "owner" of it in an accountable sense that the Army owns land or Air Force owns sky in a campaign. If we tried this we would quickly wind up with a SOF community that is larger and more generalized, approaching the look and feel of the conventional community...which makes not a lick of sense.
3. Without growing to be everywhere to own the human side of things from village level to country level, SOF will never have the breadth to be operationally or tactically effective everywhere that US forces interact with humans. SOF's role, therefore, is primarily strategic: reconnaissance, sabotage, direct action, insurrection, advisory. Once SOF gets too deep into the operational weeds or even touches the tactical ones for other formations it becomes the conventional army minus the mechanized/fires depth or manpower footprint. It's pointless.
The Human Aspects of Military Operations are as fundamental to the land domain as the "logistic aspects of military operations" unless the piece of terrain is a deserted island or Antarctica (in that case, we might need the Penguin Aspects doctrine :)).

Thomas Doherty

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 1:51pm

I have argued that the Human Domain should be elevated to the level of a Warfighting Domain on this sight.…
Additionally, to get to your point about reports either not being sent or being ignored, I have personal experience sending up/ accounting for reports and can verify that the reports do go up. The military has a long proud history of ignoring the ‘ground pounder’ we can look to pre-Tet Offensive reports as an example. As a result, I also argued the Human Domain ‘Subject Matter Experts’ (SMEs) such as ARSOF but especially Special Forces (SF) be the proponent for a Human Warfighting Domain. Currently the best-trained force for operating within the human domain is always in a support role. This is a limiting factor when decisions are made. It is analogous to an HBCT commander needing to receive SF approval prior to conducting mechanized force on force operations.


Thu, 02/23/2017 - 12:30pm

No doubt, "knowing your enemy and knowing oneself" is indispensable to prevail in an always, and perhaps increasingly, dangerous world. But the social sciences, however unquestionably useful, are no substitute for person-to-person interaction, ongoing relationships that build trust, and immersing oneself in another culture - including music, literature, and the arts. This is not to imply that soldiers, or even their generals, should become Renaissance people. But it does remind us that "the human domain" is exponentially more complicated than the nonhuman variety. The more we can do to learn about the mind and the heart, others' no less than our own, the more likely we are to influence them.