I visited the Centre for Defence and Security Studies (CDSS)at Massey University a week or so ago. The nice people there loaned me a copy of Roberto J. Gonzalez’ American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and The Human Terrain so that I might gain a better understanding of those who oppose Human Terrain Systems (HTS). Gonzalez (RJG) is one of the main opponents of HTS and the application of social science techniques in counterinsurgency campaigns.
I started to read this book, The Little Orange Book, at Massey while I was waiting for a meeting to wrap up (not one that I was in!). It’s only 130 pages and I managed to chew through 80-odd then. I use the term ‘chew through’ deliberately as some of the first three chapters was pretty difficult to digest. It’s published by Prickly Paradigm Press which claims to give “…serious authors free rein to say what’s right and what’s wrong about their disciplines and about the world, including what’s never been said before…” The result, certainly in this case, is not as the Prickly Paradigm website claims “…intellectuals unbound, writing unconstrained and creative texts about meaningful matters...” This Little Orange Book, is more a soapbox for a rambling rant than a considered exposition of RJG’s professional or intellectual opinion.
There are many logical disconnects and inconsistencies in the first three chapters and I think that some rigorous external editing could have helped make this flow and read much better. Part of the problem is that RJG does really define his objections to HTS until the last few pages of the book, forcing the increasingly frustrated reader to wonder ‘where’s this guy coming from?’.
It was a week later that I took a deep breath and dove into the second half of the book. Chapter 4 is certainly a step up from the previous chapters, possibly because I found myself in broad agreement that the US DoD is in cloud-cuckoo-wonderland in its desire for a technologically brilliant system that will take in all the relevant information and punch out all the answers for the complex environment. Maybe it will – someday – but only once a person gets off their butt, gets their boots dirty and figures out what the questions are.
Such a system might have been possible in the heyday of the Cold War when the moving parts were mainly based on platforms with easily quantifiable measurables – had the necessary computing power been available. In fact, had this system been available to Cold Warriors, it probably would have foreseen the Soviet invasion of Iceland that so surprised Pentagon planners when Tom Clancy and Larry Bond released Red Storm Rising in 1986. But the Cold War is over and, as Michael Scheiern identified in 2005, we have now shifted from platform-based tracking to tracking individuals. Not only has the number of trackable entities increased by a factor of hundreds but the individual ‘measurability’ of each entity has increased by a similar amount, and the entities lack the centralised direction inherent in platform-based conflict.
This is not to say, though, the social sciences, anthropology and HTS’ don’t have a role to play in the complex contemporary environment – anything but. What it does mean is that we will have to accept and take risk, develop and rely upon judgement to employ and apply this information. It also means that we need to evolve away from thinking of complex intelligence as being predictive in nature as it may have been around the Fulda Gap. In their place we must develop more responsive intelligence systems support responses to the largely unpredictable activities that erupt across the operating environment.
Organisations like the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit are founded upon a blend of the principles and practices of social sciences and this responsive philosophy. Rarely if ever will the BAU predict the first in a series of attacks, although once on the trail of a specific adversary will often very rapidly develop accurate profiles of that adversary, be it an individual or group. Yes, I watch Bones too and am well aware of the timeless struggle between the forces of anthropology and psychology to prove which isn’t merely pseudo-science. This is a false distinction and both disciplines must work together, focusing on individuals AND groups in order to provide a commander with employable insights.
Herein lies the problem with This Little Orange Book. RJG is so intent on ring-fencing social sciences that he can not see that no science or discipline can usually function in isolation. He is so fixated on HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan that he forgets that social sciences are subject to (potential) abuse across society every day: as I remarked at Massey after reading the first half of this book, it would be interesting to compare the outputs of the schools of marketing, politics and anthropology at Massey and see whether they are more alike than different.
RJG states again and again that the deployment of HTS to support military operations breaches various understood ‘contracts’ in that social science should do no harm. He totally misses the point that, regardless of how or why these wars started, HTS might actually be doing more good than harm in adding elements of precision, if not perfection, to campaigns where blunt force may be one of the few viable options.
It is not until the Chapter Five that the readers finds the real reasons for this. RJG is making a standing on moral principle – he’s up on a political soapbox to attack the American Empire which he sees as an evil bent on taking over the world. If the evilly bad American Empire was not involved in its evil wars in the Middle East , RJG would be quite happy for social sciences to feed the same predictive machine he denounced in Chapter Four – which would of course only be used for good.
It’s ironic that an ardent proponent of social science is intent upon suborning these tools that focus upon ‘the people’ to the same technological philosophy that drove the platform focussed Cold War. Conceptually this evolved into the Powell doctrine that built upon the false lessons of the 1991 Gulf War and culminated in the ‘shock and awe’ campaigns that failed to produce the goods in Kosovo, Serbia or Iraq. RJG’s campaigns against HTS has driven the Government to seek more technical solutions towards understanding the contemporary environment and to steer away from the blindingly obvious truth.
That truth is that it’s all about people and that includes people doing (at least some of) the collection and people applying judgement to that information, raw and processed, to develop useful (timely, relevant) information. An example is the enhanced Video Text & Audio Processing (eViTAP) tool that was successfully trialed on CWID in 2007. Evitap is a very sharp tool that processes video, audio and digital files for predetermined cues that have been identified (by a person) as potential indicators of an impending incident. When those cues are identified, a person is notified in order to make a decision on actions that may or may not be taken.
Where is all goes wrong is that we have become so fixated on the technology providing the answers that we have stopped teaching people to think critically, to apply professional judgement, make a decision and run with it. By using This Little Orange Book as a soapbox for a raving rant (or ranting rave) instead of coherent consideration of the issues, RJG has actually scored more points for the technocrats and undermined his beloved social science…