A response to “Defining The Human Terrain – Revealing Core Patterns.”  

What is the “human terrain”? As Pat notes in his article, although the word has been thrown about for the past few years, it has not been clearly defined. A recent thesis written at the Naval Postgraduate School puts the matter plainly:

The term “human terrain” encompasses a wide variety of concepts and meanings.  It came  into widespread use following the events of September 11th as a catch all phrase to describe the human dimension of the operational environment, including groups’ and individuals’ feelings and inclinations. However, as a stand alone term, human terrain has not been officially defined by the DoD. Although its use is widely prevalent, human terrain is currently an imprecise term, which is vague and nebulous.

Human terrain implies two specific requirements based upon its name. First, the activity, action, behavior, or trait originates from an individual human or a group of humans. Secondly, the trait must be tied to a geographic location. These traits may be an observable action as well as cognitive (examples: identity, motivation, values) or not readily observable (examples: family affiliations, language, education level).

(E. B. Eldridge and A. J. Neboshynsky, “Quantifying the Human Terrain” [Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2008], 18-19.)

Our military forces have excelled at defining, categorizing, reading, navigating, and maneuvering the physical terrain. We’ve incorporated aspects of the physical terrain into every element of our military training. We have done this both because we operate in physical environments, and because we know that whoever controls the ground has a critical advantage in any conflict. Our Marines and soldiers, enlisted and officers, are trained in land navigation and map reading. Our leaders are able to conduct detailed assessments of the terrain in order to plan operations. We can easily categorize the accessibility of a piece of terrain by a quick look at a map, and can identify key terrain without much effort.

Unfortunately, we have neglected a critical piece of our operations, the human terrain. Since Sept. 11th, our military has been in a scramble to understand one of the most basic elements of human life—people. As the authors of the aforementioned thesis describe, the human terrain is basically a look at human activity and interaction within a particular geographic environment. But even this definition is almost too broad to be useful. One of the issues is that the human terrain, like the physical terrain, can be viewed from various perspectives. A pilot sees the ground differently than a rifleman. A squad leader sees an area different than a company commander. The same is true for the human terrain. A Marine rifleman sees the populace and their activity different than does a Psyops officer. However, while physical terrain is described using common terminology, which every military person should know, the human terrain has not been given the same common language. This is unfortunate because a lack of a common “human terrain” lexicon slows down communication, causes misunderstanding, and keeps our forces from effectively collaborating. The Six-Domains of Combat Profiling (Biometrics, Kinesics, Proxemics, Geographics, Iconography, and Atmospherics) provide the terminology which all levels of operators can use to speak about the human terrain. As Pat argues, the Six Domains provide our military forces with the ability to easily quantify the human terrain, and enables cross-communication. We encourage soldiers, Marines, commanders, and everyone operating overseas to make the Six Domains “household” terminology. Not only will doing so help communication, but will also begin to build a Combat Profiling mindset among everyone in the military. This will enable proactive thinking and the type of situational awareness necessary in the types of irregular warfare our military fights in the modern era.

This article has become part of an e-book that can be downloaded here