Landpower leaders stress need to understand human domain in warfare 

Otto Kreisher

Leaders of the Army, the Marine Corps and the Special Operations Command joined in explaining their commitment to developing and engraining in the U.S. national security establishment the importance of strategic land power to meet future security challenges.    

The leaders also emphasized the need to preserve the hard-learned lessons from 12 years of unconventional land conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan about the importance of understanding and controlling the human dimension of warfare.

“We’ve learned some hard lessons over the last 12 years. We went to war without understanding the human domain. We don’t want to make that mistake again,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said at an Oct. 23 forum on Strategic Land Power at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition at the Washington Convention Center.

Odierno was joined by Gen. John Paxton, the assistant Marine Corps Commandant, and Navy Adm. William McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, in a panel moderated by Gen. Robert Cone, commanding general of the Army Training and Doctrine Command.

In opening the forum, Cone said the panel was part of the joint effort to “see if we can capture some of the lessons on strategic land power” learned in the 12 years of conflict.

“Certainly the human factor is a major element of that,” Cone said. “The critical point here has to be the linkage between the human factors and strategic outcome.”

Cone noted that on May 5, Odierno, Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps Commandant and McRaven signed a white paper committing to the strategic land power concept.

All four of the senior leaders protested the tendency of many defense analysts to argue that technology would be the solution to most military conflicts, a theme that Odierno has been particularly adamant about.

Cone used the example of the “shock and awe” strategy proposed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq in which precision air strikes and other high-tech systems would result in a quick capitulation of the Iraqi forces.

U.S. forces “executed a brilliant campaign. We achieve all of the objectives, except one – capitulation,” he said. That was a reminder that “at the end of the day, war is a human clash of wills...We should have had a much deeper understanding of this.”

He noted how much later the services began to learn the importance of culture and the tribal structure.

Odierno said he “absolutely reject[s] that concept” that technology can achieve everything although he agreed “that technological advances can support us in attaining our goals.”

“It’s people who make decisions,” he said. “You have to be able to compel people... Ultimately it requires interaction on the ground.”

The Army chief said his view of land power involved the intersection of three factors – the need to be able to control the physical terrain, the human terrain and the cyber domain.

He stressed the need to develop tactics and doctrine to coordinate the conventional and special operations forces and, he noted, “it requires a civil-military solution,” involving the whole of government.

But, he emphasized, “the human interaction in a complex environment is key to our future... It requires a joint force that is skilled in understanding” the social and cultural elements of conflict.

Paxton continued the theme, noting that “we have spent the last 12 years working primarily in ungoverned spaces, trying to work out the human dimension,” including the impact of unemployment and poverty. That was necessary because “some of those ungoverned spaces became launching sites for actions against our values, our way of life,” Paxton added.

The key to the future, he said, was “how do you capture that” and apply it to training and doctrine.

 McRaven noted that special operations forces (SOF) did not control terrain, but can support the land forces in that. But the human domain is the main focus of SOF, both in working with partners and allies and in preparing the ground for major actions.

“I’m excited about drafting a strategic land power doctrine that recognizes the importance of that human terrain,” he said.

All of the leaders acknowledged they will have to deal with shrinking budgets and force structures and stressed the need to incorporate the lessons they have learned about the value of the human element into their training to ensure those lessons are not lost in the future.

They also cited the need to expand operations with foreign militaries to continue learning how to operate in the human domain with different cultures.

McRaven noted the challenge of dealing with the rapid growth in social media and mobile devices. He recalled how they tried to counter the enemy’s use of cell phones by shutting down the network, immediately angering all the friendly Iraqis they were trying to win over.