Home > COIN, Doctrine, Socio-Cultural Systems, Systems Thinking > Human Terrain….Again

Human Terrain….Again

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

image There is an article in the November-December 2010 edition of Military Review entitled Controlling the Human High Ground: Identifying Cultural Opportunities for Insurgency.  Needless to say, I’m disappointed we continue to dwell on this idea of “Human Terrain.”  As I wrote a few weeks ago, humans are not terrain.  Humans aren’t even like terrain.  Why we use the metaphor of “terrain” to describe human beings is beyond me.

Some might wonder why I am so intent to writing about this subject.  How we model things is important.  Here is an excerpt from a paper entitled On the Mismatch Between Systems and Their Models by Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi:

There is a very serious mismatch between most social systems and the models of them that are in
Barry M. Richmond, creator of the Systems Dynamics model and I-think language makes it clear
that systems and the models of them in use are not the same. According to him “the way we think
is outdated.” He goes on to define thinking as:

consisting of two activities: constructing mental models, and then simulating them
in order to draw conclusions and make decisions. The mental model is a “selective
abstraction” of reality that we create and carry around in our head. As big as some
of our heads get, we still can’t fit reality in there. Therefore all mental model are
simplifications. They necessarily omit many aspects of the realities they

To think about anything requires an image or a concept of it, a model. To think about something
as complex as a social system we use models of similar, simpler, and/or more familiar systems.
Unfortunately, as social systems become increasingly more complex, simpler mental models of
them do not reflect their emerging properties.

In short, this is what is happening with human terrain.  We are using a simple model (terrain) to imagine or conceptualize a much more complex system (human social/cultural groups).  As a result, we draw bad conclusions about the nature of the system.  This new article from Military Review is a perfect example.  The model of “terrain” has erroneously led the author to believe that humans, like terrain, can be “controlled.”  Humans are independent beings capable of making choices.  While humans can certainly be influenced, they can never be controlled. 

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