Military Culture, Causation, and Human Terrain

Tony Waters, a Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico and a blogger at, has written up an interesting piece on the human terrain issue. In a 15 May blog post, he suggested the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System needs "an experimental control." Waters doesn’t pass judgment on the role of social science in war (not the way others have, in any case), except to generally laud military interest in better understanding context and culture. Instead, citing Col. Martin Sweitzer’s 23 April testimony "before two House Armed Service Committee Subcommittees", he writes:

The first thing that struck me was the language of the military sub-culture. Much of what Colonel Schweitzer writes is an attempt to force what he and his HTT observe into pre-existing ways the military defines social situation. The terminology is replete with references to the military sub-culture, and their views of Afghanistan as being the focus of first security concerns, rather than issues of human relationships, power, kinship, ritual, etc., and other issues social scientists usually think about first.

Waters’ analysis of the military’s own culture, as opposed to the cultural terrain in which it operates, raises an interesting point on distinct military uses of social science. I’m told, for example, that the US Marine Corps doesn’t really buy into the Army’s human terrain system concept, which may or may not be attributable to the Corps’ expeditionary nature. Instead, it employs social scientists to look within – to better know it’s own organizational culture, to better understand its ability to learn and adapt. I don’t know if Army does the same, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t.

Waters makes a couple of additional and important observations. The first is lexical:

But, the oddest terminology for me was his frequent reference to “kinetic operations” which by and large goes undefined, except to note that HTT cultural knowledge means that you have fewer of them. (I think that kinetic operations though has something to do with a type of search and seizure action that the military orders on its own criteria, and then conducts).

The second is epistemological:

But, the biggest question I had after reading Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony was whether the HTS concept worked or not. Despite the fact that he is speaking to Congress as an advocate for a program which celebrates the use of social science, the data he presented were only anecdotal, and do not reflect systematic evaluation. It may well be that the decline in the number of “kinetic operations” is due to HTS. But, as they say in research methods classes, “correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” Meaning, that just because two things happen at the same time, one does not necessarily cause the other. The classic example illustrating this principle is that you may eat carrots at dawn, and two hours later see more clearly, but it does not necessarily follow that the carrots cause improved eye sight. In the case of a reduced need for kinetic operations, the causes for that over the last year might have included bad weather, poor crops, good intelligence, bad intelligence, new commanders, a switch in Taliban strategy, switch in American strategy, etc. etc. The point being that just because the number of kinetic operations declined, it does not follow that it was caused by HTS.

Waters’ interpretation of "kinetic" isn’t incorrect, really, but it is far from accurate. "Kinetic" operations are operations in which force is applied – read the application or threat of lethal measures to effect an outcome (or achieve the objective, in military parlance).  I differ with Waters’ approach to causation in this case, and with the need for measures of effectiveness that stems from it. No one’s claiming that human terrain mapping, or any other knowledge feed, causes a reduction in requirements for/application of military measures. The pathway is more variegated and attenuated than that.

Advisors of any kind provide specialized subject-matter-expertise that fills a gap in Command-level decision-making processes.  Leaders involved in complex crisis situations who are better informed about things like culture and context (among a myriad of other issues), are less likely to misinterpret local conditions. Being able to discern threats from non-threats is critical in such fluid and dynamic operating environments, and broadens a soldier’s options to include non-kinetic measures.

So the causal relation is operationalized through a chain of influence – which arguably starts with objective criteria and measures, but ends with an inherently subjective, though better informed, application of human judgment on the selection of appropriate approaches, methods, and resources. Can this be measured or quantified? The mad scientists would have us think so. But bean counting gives us body counts, not strategy. Or didn’t we learn that lesson?

H/T to Tim.

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One thought on “Military Culture, Causation, and Human Terrain

  1. Hi Mike: Thanks for the clarification on the meaning of “kinetic activities.” In general I agree with your assessment that no one measure determines “success” or “failure” of a particular program. Causality in the social world is as you say complex, and the choice of measures, etc., are inevitably embedded in the definitions and values. Those of us in academia have the luxury (and responsibility) to question the underlying assumptions behind real world situations, and you raise this point well in your response to my posting. I hope that the importance of questioning the nature and meanings of success and failure is communicated by the HTS people on the ground. However Col. Schweitzer is working in a bureaucratic world, in which the pressure is always to evaluate success or failure, and justify short term program effectiveness. This happens in a political context in which goals and values may change quickly. Given this real world demand, how success or failure is “operationalized” is important, particularly because nuance cannot always be recognized. Colonel Schweitzer implicitly does this in his Congressional testimony when he correlates the arrival of HTS teams with the decline in the number of kinetic activities. In my mind, the question is how effectively does this measure the effectiveness of HTS? As I wrote in the post, I am not sure that the question is answered as well as it could be by the techniques described by Col. Schweitzer to Congress. I would hope that the HTS social scientists are already raising similar questions (and in the context of the points that you raise in your post) with army officers like Colonel Schweitzer. Having said that, I doubt that kinetic activities as you define them are the best measure of HTS success or failure. As you point out, there may be many reason that commanders decide to order such actions, only some of which are related to cultural analysis such as that provided by HTS. This does not mean that HTS is effective or not, only that I cannot tell given the type of testimony published to the web by Colonel Schweitzer.Tony Waters

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