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Does the Human Domain Matter?
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.
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.
[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, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2013/02/20/human-domain-enters-future-army-war-plans.html, Military.com, 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, http://www.tradoc.army.mil/stlp/docs/Pubs/140325%20Institutionalizing%20Human%20Domain.pdf
[v] Broze, Derrick, ‘Mastering the Human Domain’: What’s at Stake with Jade Helm 15, 23 July 2015. http://www.mintpressnews.com/mastering-the-human-domain-whats-at-stake-with-jade-helm-15/207845/,
[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, http://fifthdomain.com/2017/01/22/narrative-cyberspace-and-the-21st-century-art-of-war/
[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.”