Home > COIN, Culture, Doctrine, Socio-Cultural Systems > Human Terrain: Are We too Stupid for Big Words like Anthropology?

Human Terrain: Are We too Stupid for Big Words like Anthropology?

an·thro·pol·o·gy (ăn’thrə-pŏl’ə-jē) n.

The scientific study of the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans.
[Source: http://www.answers.com/topic/anthropology]

I’ll confess:  This is a rant.  I hate the term “Human Terrain.”  If you are unfamiliar with this term, it refers to a U.S. Army program which uses social science and social scientists to help commanders understand the social dynamics of local populations.  This kind of understanding is particularly valuable when conducting counterinsurgency operations because winning the support of the local population is the most important objective.  This is in contrast to more conventional warfare in which seizing (actual) terrain is the more important objective.

I can only assume the Army uses this phrase to help the cognitively challenged segments of the officer corps who might look at you with a blank stare if you used the word Anthropology, or the words Social Science, or similar phrases.  “You see, CPT Schmedlab, we used to seize key terrain, but now the people are the terrain, get it?”

My problem with this term is twofold.  First, it assumes the majority of officers are absolute idiots who can’t understand a concept unless one can relate it to something familiar in existing military jargon.  If this is the case, the Army needs to reassess the quality of the officers it is recruiting.  Second, the term itself is misleading.  Humans are not terrain.  They are not even like terrain.

Terrain is static.  It doesn’t move.  It doesn’t have families or choices or feelings or culture.  Humans, on the other hand, have all these things and more.  Human socio-cultural systems are incredibly complex, which is why we need to increase our institutional knowledge of social sciences.  Comparing social systems to dirt and rocks, to use some jargon, “ain’t gettin’ it.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Army has done this.  I remember “Non-Lethal Fires.”  WHAT?!  The only way fires can be non-lethal is if you miss your target.  Of course, this was intended to convey information operations intended to influence certain actors within the populace.  Actually, the term is still floating around.  I guess we can now fire some non-lethal fires into some human terrain.  Or, we could just say “influence the local populace.”

In short, humans are not rocks.  But whoever came up with the term “Human Terrain” most certainly is…

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  1. October 9, 2014 at 12:45 pm

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  1. October 18, 2010 at 11:46 am
  2. November 8, 2010 at 4:26 am

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