As budgets tighten and the wars wind down, the Army is struggling to institutionalize the hard-won cultural skills it learned in Afghanistan and Iraq — and to make the case for their continued relevance and resourcing to an administration whose new strategic guidance swears off counterinsurgency.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey himself recently touted the importance of “the science of human relationships” as essential far beyond Afghanistan. The Army, Dempsey’s own service, has already begun to “align” specific brigades with specific regions they might operate, starting with Africa, so they can bone up on the local culture, language, and politics before they deploy, in an effort to replicate the pre-deployment training now done for Afghanistan for other parts of the world. But to secure funding for such efforts in the long term, the Army needs to enshrine them in joint doctrine.
At the heart of the Army’s evolving argument is a concept so new it hasn’t got an official name. “What we’re working to avoid is getting trapped into a title,” said Col. Robert Simpson of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), in an interview with Breaking Defense, though the leading proposed term is “human domain.” What’s essential, Simpson said, is “to make sure that we get into our doctrine, into our thinking in terms of the joint force and policymakers, that the purpose of any military operation is to affect human behavior.” But current planning processes fixate on physical factors. What’s necessary is a sophisticated cultural, sociological, and psychological understanding, he went on, of “what are our opponents wiling to fight and die for” — and how to convince them to give up.
“It’s not just COIN [counterinsurgency],” Simpson went on. “To take the extreme example, we dropped the atom bombs not to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki but to compel the Japanese people to surrender. That was purely a decision based on an intent to control behavior.”
That may seem a cold-blooded way to talk about such lethal violence. It’s uncontroversial nowadays to tout the importance of understanding and influencing foreign cultures in so-called “low-intensity” conflicts to “win hearts and minds.” It’s another matter to talk about high-intensity warfare as simply a way “to affect human behavior.”
“To think of war as a bargaining process is uncongenial to some of us. Bargaining with violence smacks of extortion,” wrote Thomas Schelling, one of the most influential political scientists of the Cold War, in his landmark 1966 book about superpower conflict in the shadow of nuclear weapons, Arms and Influence. “[But] coercion is the business of war.”
Schelling was hardly the first to have this thought. It goes back to Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with an admixture of other means” (often shortened to “war is politics by other means”) and to Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know your enemy and know yourself.” But it’s a new insight for the US military, whose closest approach to Sun Tzu has traditionally been to “know your enemy’s technology and know your own.”
Since Ulysses S. Grant in 1864, the mainstream American way of war has relied on concentrating superior firepower, logistics, and technology against enemy forces and grinding them down. That worked brilliantly in World War II, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq; it worked less well in Korea and backfired disastrously in Vietnam. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army (and Marines) slowly learned to navigate a complex landscape of enemies, neutrals, and factions capable of changing from one to another, as in the famous “Anbar Awakening” movement where Sunni Arab insurgents turned against al-Qaeda.
Iraqi sheikhs and Afghan elders didn’t have to read a political scientist like Schelling to know that violence can be negotiating tactic. But US military doctrine, planning, and budgeting processes fixate on the material aspects of war — building weapons, locating targets, deploying forces, amassing supplies — and not on whether all this effort would actually convince an enemy to give up, or better yet switch sides. That’s something the Army now seeks to change.
“Over the last 12 years or so, [we] realized that we were not including the whole picture,” said one Army officer who fought in Iraq. “Yeah, sometimes we had civilians on the battlefield,” he said, “but we didn’t deal with them in any professional manner: [We'd] throw MREs [rations] at these guys and make sure they have a tent, and then the kill the enemy army.”
The Army is exploring how it might make use of civilians and neutrals in future “hybrid” conflicts that combine Taliban-style guerrilla fighters with nation-state-style weapons. The most recent annual wargame at the Army War College, for example, featured a new twist in the computer model. As simulated US and hostile forces hunted each other on the electronic map, their odds of spotting their opponent were affected by the political and ethnic leanings of local villages: A Muslim village helped militants detect US forces nearby, a Christian village helped the Americans.
During the wargame, senior officers and civilians convened to discuss the concepts it was testing, including the new emphasis on cultural factors. “Using human relations as an amplifier [for military operations] — I found that really interesting,” retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales told Breaking Defense afterwards. Scales has written on the need for cultural knowledge and argued social scientists will be as critical to future wars as nuclear physicists were to World War II, but, he said, “I had not seen this before” as a factor in Army wargames.
What to call this concept is an open question. Many in the Army advocate the term “human domain” — which would explicitly and formally put it on par with the other “domains” officially enshrined in joint doctrine: air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace. “If we put it on par with the other domains we’ll be forced to resource it, we’ll be forced to train it,” said one Army officer. Politically, however, convincing the other services to go along would be an uphill battle. Intellectually, separating out cultural and psychological factors as their own “domain” ignores how they are fundamental to all human conflict.
Whatever it’s finally called, getting joint blessing for the importance of such human factors would help the Army make its case for funding in hard budgetary times. Better understanding of cultural, sociological, and psychological issues helps use materiel better, Simpson said — it can’t substitute for it. “We still need the equipment,” he said. “We still have to dominate the physical environment as well.” And that takes money that will be increasingly hard to get.