Small Wars Journal

The Third Order Effect: Understanding the Risks to Academia from Engaging with the SOF Enterprise

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 8:17pm

The Third Order Effect: Understanding the Risks to Academia from Engaging with the SOF Enterprise

Thomas Briggs


There has been a great deal written on the pros and cons of what is now called the Human Domain, but what in the most recent wars was called the Human Terrain System (HTS). On the face of it, the majority of the discussions appear to have been by academics detailing its dangers and failures, or with members of the military lauding its promise and success. Reading through the relevant literature from both sides provides an example of two competing arguments with an absence of legitimate debate. The arguments of the academics are perceived by the military as political diatribes, while academics generally see arguments in support of HTS as lacking in critical assessment. There’s little exchange of ideas or acknowledgment of the validity of portions of either argument.

Understanding the values of the people of a given nation and their underlying cultural needs, concerns …etc. is clearly critical to the future of American foreign policy. By extension, this need to understand the cultures that they interact with is also vital to the military at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. ADM McRaven, former commanding officer of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), identified the Human Domain as crucial to the national mission and to the strategic vision of special operations forces (SOF). “While special operations forces are comfortable in the realms of traditional warfare, the human domain is perhaps more important … The human domain encompasses the totality of the physical, cultural and social environments that influence human behavior...”1

However, though a core competency of the SOF enterprise, the Human Domain in its broadest sense is too complex a problem set within a given region to be addressed solely by organic SOF resources. The number of SOF operators and enablers available at any given time to the various combatant commands is a finite resource. As with the former Human Terrain System (HTS), it is inevitable that SOCOM will seek to partner with academic institutions in order to gain access to skill sets and resources that are unavailable within the current force structure. Whether directly or indirectly, SOCOM will have to engage subject matter experts in academia to obtain cultural information, engineering studies, agricultural studies …etc.

Members of the military and SOF community have in many instances dismissed academic opposition and criticism as simple liberal rejection of the military. However true this may be anecdotally, it’s inconsistent with the SOF mission to avoid considering the opposition’s argument. There are in fact a number of legitimate arguments to be made by academics against engagement with SOF that it would be prudent for the community to consider. As the SOF community as a whole seeks to engage academic institutions and individuals in partnerships and collaboration, it would be helpful to understand the risks that they perceive. In much the same way that the SOF community has become adept at interacting with other cultures abroad, it may be helpful to become better at interacting with those at home.  

Risk to Organizational Reputation

Reputational risk has become one of the driving factors in decision making in institutions of higher education. The risk averse culture that pervades many corporate institutions has also infected academic institutions. This can manifest in a reluctance to engage in research in unstable regions of the world or to engage in activities that would harm the institution’s reputation. Reputational risk in this context can take three forms:

  • Risk to the recruitment of international students
  • Risk to the recruitment of high quality researchers
  • Risk to funding

The first of these is somewhat self-explanatory in that if a student is injured or killed abroad while engaged in university business, this can have a negative effect on student recruitment. There are few parents that would support their child attending a university that has a reputation for international incidents. This is one of many reasons that universities across the nation are developing risk management processes to identify and control risks associated with international travel.

However, the recruitment of international students is different in perspective. There is little danger to an international student in coming to the US, yet our security infrastructure can make it difficult to attend US institutions of higher education. As Lee notes, “Although the global demand for international higher education is anticipated to increase … political, economic and social factors contribute to some uncertainty about the future destination trends for international students.”2 The US, as viewed by potential students through al Jazeera and other international media outlets, can seem a police state of sorts. If a US university is seen to partner with the SOF enterprise, then they risk being identified by potential students as collaborators with the police state. At some point institutions in Europe and Asia are made more attractive propositions as a result.

Similarly, researchers with exceptional credentials can only be recruited to institutions that are perceived to have the highest standards. Given the dramatic deaths of several graduate and post-doctoral students in Afghanistan while engaged in HTS,3 there is a great deal of skepticism among researchers about engaging in its newest iteration. Additionally, the lack of critical assessment or peer review of the products developed by the HTS system suggests a laissez faire approach to the social sciences. These issues may be addressed as the Human Domain concept moves to doctrine within SOF. However, currently any university that actively and openly promotes engaging with the SOF enterprise in the Human Domain risks alienating the best researchers.

Additionally, as might be supposed, the highest quality researchers bring in the most grant money to the institution. Though it’s not widely known outside of academia, institutions of higher education can retain in excess of 40% of grant funding as overhead fees. This adds a significant amount of discretionary funding to a university and represents a weighted scale to the arguments of these researchers. Therefore, there is a financial incentive for any university to cater to the needs, perceptions and values of researchers and to avoid alienating them.

Risk to Individual Reputation

Expanding on the concept of peer review, an academic succeeds professionally by publishing research. In order to gain tenure at a university, they need to spend five to seven years devoting their lives to writing grants, conducting research and publishing in increasingly more prominent peer reviewed journals. This cycle repeats itself even after achieving tenure albeit at a less hectic pace, but the phrase “publish or perish” is still true at all levels of academia.

Peer review and the critical assessment of all facets of a research project are the driving principles that form the foundation of a university. Doctoral candidates defend their dissertations, rather than submitting them or presenting them. Research is submitted for publication and review by subject matter experts (peers). The problem for many academics when presented with much of the work done by HTS practitioners is that it did not meet an appropriate level of scrutiny and critical assessment.4, 5 One of the unclassified documents that stand out was a treatise on “Pashtun Sexuality”.6 Though the conclusions of the author(s) may be accurate, they are based on anecdote and subjective assessment, rather than empirical data.

The SOF community needs to engage with the brightest and best researchers available in order to develop a cadre of true subject matter experts. Unfortunately, there are few tenured researchers that would risk their professional reputations by becoming affiliated with an initiative that produces information that is not subject to critical assessment. They would risk being thought of as dilatants in their discipline. There are certainly well-educated, non-tenured members of the academic community that would engage in the Human Domain. However, that’s not what the SOF enterprise needs.

Risk to Collaboration with International Partners

The greatest areas of expansion for universities are through research agreements with foreign institutions. Therefore, international partnerships are becoming increasingly important to institutions of higher education. As Altbach and Knight note, “Traditional nonprofit universities also entered the international market. Their main motivations for internationalization, notes a recent survey, are not financial. Instead, they wish to enhance research and knowledge capacity and to increase cultural understanding. Many universities are located in countries where governments cut public funding and encouraged international ventures—Australia and the United Kingdom, for example. Most initiatives—including branch campuses, franchised degree programs, and partnerships with local institutions—are focused on developing and middle-income countries...”7

However, both individually and institutionally, overt partnership with the SOF enterprise can adversely affect these international partnerships. Specifically, if a university is overtly partnering with the SOF community on the Human Domain, then the institution and every researcher affiliated with it can be perceived as collaborators with the US security infrastructure. For individual researchers, David Price makes this observation in the Nation that, “… many anthropologists work in remote settings controlled by hostile governments or guerilla forces. Suspicions that one is a US intelligence agent, whether valid or not, could have fatal consequences.”8


Clearly the academic community has reasons to avoid partnership with the SOF community: risk to institutional reputation, risk to individual reputation and risk to international partnerships. However, many of these can represent opportunities as well, which can be exploited to their advantage. Additionally, where legitimate issues have been identified, then there has to be some action taken that addresses the issue. There are therefore, two key points that can be addressed in order to make the Human Domain more palatable to the academic community:

  • Legitimatize the research
  • Protect the research subjects

The study of cultures has to be more than just a doctrinal process created by the Department of Defense. One of the criticisms of the former HTS was its lack of appropriate oversight. In academia, research involving human subjects is highly regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services.9 These regulations require the formation of an Institutional Review Board (IRB) whose sole purpose is to ensure the ethical treatment of the human subjects of the research study. The creation of a similar concept in the SOF community that reviews potential research before it starts would add legitimacy to the process in the eyes of academics.

Additionally, the products of studies created under the Human Domain have to be subject to critical assessment. Whether this is through academic publications or through unclassified military platforms is irrelevant. There has to be a method that allows practitioners of cultural studies, both within the military and academia, to review studies prior to their release. Peer-review will not only validate the study and its conclusions, but provide commanders quantifiable data from which to make decisions.

The Human Domain currently has no such review mechanisms in place, or if they do they have not been communicated to the academic community. However, if the SOF enterprise truly wants to engage serious researchers then review is necessary. Whether that review is provided through an existing academic institution, the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) or through an office within SOCOM, means less than the fact that transparent review is taking place.

The SOF community may or may not choose to engage with the academic community. However, cooperation between the two communities has the potential to be mutually beneficial, if there can be accommodations made. As White-Spunner noted for efforts in Afghanistan, “The end result of all this is a disunity of effort and breakdown within the lines of operation we are trying to progress.”10

End Notes

1.  Charles Roulo, “McRaven: Success in Human Domain Fundamentals in Special Ops,” American Forces Press, 05 June 2013, accessed 14 March 2015,

2.  Jenny Lee, “International students’ experiences and attitudes at a US host institution: Self-reports and future recommendations,” Journal of Research in International Education 9, no. 1 (2010): 67.

2.  Sharon Weinberger, “Human Terrain Hits Rocky Ground,” Nature 465, no. 24 (June 2010): 993.

3.  Robert Albro, “Writing Culture Doctrine: Public Anthropology, Military Policy, and World Making,” Perspectives on Politics 8, no. 4 (December 2010): 1089 - 1090.

4.  Maximillian Forte, “The End of Debates About the Human Terrain System,” Zero Anthropology (2013), accessed 16 March 2015,

5.  AnnaMaria Cardinalli, “Pashtun Sexuality,” Human Terrain Team (HTT) AF-6 (2009), accessed 18 March 2015,

6.  Philip Altbach and Jane Knight, “The Internationalization of Higher Education: Motivation and Realities,” Journal of Studies in International Education (Fall/Winter 2007): 292.

7.  David Price, “Anthropologists as Spies,” The Nation, 20 November 2000, accessed 16 May 2015,

8.  Title 45, Part 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 July 2009).

9.  Barney White-Spunner, “How Academia and the Military can Work Together,” in Cultural Heritage, Ethics and the Military, ed. Peter Stone, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2011), 82.

Reference List

Albro, Robert. “Writing Culture Doctrine: Public Anthropology, Military Policy, and World Making.” Perspectives on Politics 8, no. 4 (December 2010): 1087 – 1093.

Altbach, Philip and Jane Knight. “The Internationalization of Higher Education: Motivation and Realities.” Journal of Studies in International Education (Fall/Winter 2007): 290 - 305.

Bateman, Robert. “The Army and Academic Culture.” Academic Questions 21 (2008): pp. 62–78.

Briggs, Thomas. “Naw Bahar District 2010-11: A Case Study of Counterinsurgency

Conducted by Naval Special Warfare in Afghanistan.” Small Wars and Insurgencies 25, no. 1 (2014): 122-136.

Cardinalli, AnnaMaria. “Pashtun Sexuality.” Human Terrain Team (HTT) AF-6, (2009). Accessed 18 March 2015.

Davies, Michael. “The Truth About Human Terrain Teams: An Evidence-Based Response to Gian Gentile.” E-International Relations: Accessed 04 April 2015.

Forte, Maximillian. “The End of Debates About the Human Terrain System.” Zero Anthropology (2013): Accessed 16 March 2015.

Gonzalez, Roberto. “Human Terrain: Past, Present and Future Applications.” Anthropology Today 24, no. 1 (February 2008): 21 – 26.

Lamb, Christopher and James Orton and Michael Davies and Theodore Pikulsky. “The Way Ahead for Human Terrain Teams.” Joint Forces Quarterly 70, 3rd quarter (2013): 21 – 29.

Lee, Jenny. “International students’ experiences and attitudes at a US host institution: Self-reports and future recommendations.” Journal of Research in International Education 9, no. 1 (2010): 66–84.

Price, David. “Anthropologists as Spies,” The Nation (20 November 2000): Accessed 16 May 2015.

Roulo, Charles. “McRaven: Success in Human Domain Fundamentals in Special Ops.” American Forces Press, 05 June 2013. Accessed 14 March 2015.

Tetlock, Philip. “Theory-Driven Reasoning about Plausible Pasts and Probable Futures in World Politics: Are We Prisoners of Our Preconceptions?” American Journal of Political Science 43, no. 2 (April 1999): 335 – 366.

Weinberger, Sharon. “Human Terrain Hits Rocky Ground.” Nature 465, 24 (June 2010): 993.

White-Spunner, Barney. “How Academia and the Military can Work Together.” In Cultural Heritage, Ethics and the Military, edited by Peter Stone, 79-85. Woodbridge: Boydell Press: 2011.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Briggs is the Director of Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Central Florida. He has held similar positions at the City University of New York, Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and the American Museum of Natural History. He is a Chief Petty Officer and reservist in the US Navy, in addition to being a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.


Bill C.

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 11:40am

Given that much of what our military forces -- and indeed our "whole of government" attributes -- are involved in today could be placed under the heading of "development," then the following item, which addresses many of the issues re: anthropology and development, might prove interesting to our readers:

If one were to doubt that the term and idea of "development" are not central to this debate, then one might wish to note, for example, that:

a. Diplomacy, Development and Defense (or diplomacy and defense in the service of development?) form the core "for promoting and protecting U.S. national security interests abroad."…

b. And that Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the current President of Afghanistan, is a development specialist and, interestingly enough, also an anthropologist (by education).

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 9:54pm

Risk to Academia from SOF? Wow. I believe the opposite is the real risk.

More accurately, God save SOF from academia. The past 15 years have been a barrage of "experts" from academia and the results are not good. Not their fault. One will write a book about SOF, and then we will bring them in and hang on their every word based on that narrow "experience."

As to human domain, most are mired in the tactics of culture. Absolutely vital area of study and expertise to refine and implement tactics that will actually produce the desired effect. But the area the "experts" refuse to acknowledge is the universal effects of nature, and how it is in understanding the critical aspects of human nature in these internal conflicts is how we find the strategic framework that has been glaringly and tragically missing from the post 9/11 response.

Our human cultural sins are many, but can be excused as learning human culture of specific areas requires an investment in time that is very difficult to predict and create. But our sins in not grasping the critical aspects of human nature are unforgivable as they can be studied and understood in much less time consuming ways. But we do not recognize and value that study. But SOF is no danger to academia.


Tue, 06/30/2015 - 4:47pm

I was a card holding member of the American Anthropological Association while running my scouts around Baghdad when the AAA went on the offensive against the HTS program. The community's opposition to the mil-academic partnership was ideological through and through. The extent to which such a collaboration could harm "academic integrity" has never been established. The NGO world may have a claim to neutrality, but the academic community forgets that it is part of the resource base of our society. That they do not exist outside and apart from it. If such an argument were to hold water then the physics community should have been in the gutter post-Manhattan Project.

I am a big fan of both the military and of my academic world. But they are part of the same social fabric. A Papuan tribal community isn't going to check an academic's CV before "trusting" them. Neither will anyone else. It's an irrational fear. The extent to which such a thing can be a problem can come without any actual facts. Meaning, if someone like Iran decided to mess with American interests by proscribing American academics, then they certainly don't need the pretext the AAA feared. Again, because the academe is PART of our society and civilization.

The SOF community must build those relationships to gain access to the knowledge base therein. But that access, quite frankly, should be presumed. Academic resistance is more akin to anti-war activism than genuine, or at least borne out, fear of loss of impartiality. More to the point, if one's research isn't funded by the DOD, then one's research should and for all intents and purposes can be unimpeachable on account of such an association in other projects.

SOF, and DOD in general, needs to figure out how to manage this message through a strategic angle rather than a tactical one, which is where I think we went so terribly wrong. Strategically, the acadame's expertise and value is part of making American policy more effective and more humane. The tactical message of gaining "atmospherics" or some such, was always going to cause unease. More to the point, I think tactically the HTTs were not an added value. When I escorted HTTs through my Troop sector I rarely got the sense that they knew why they were doing what they were doing. Without their integration into our force design, training, and planning they were always going to be what they became, aimless "off the shelf" capabilities that no one knew what to do with.


Wed, 07/01/2015 - 9:07am

In reply to by Sparapet

Sparapet: Your thoughts/anecdotes are disheartening, but not particularly surprising to anyone who's been around Big Army (the anti-intellectualism of which has been <A HREF="">disc… here at SWJ</A> previously). Anyone who's seen more than a couple of my comments here at SWJ knows that I'm constantly harping on the culture of strategic illiteracy that pervades Big Army, to include the general officer corps. That strategic illiteracy impacts the Army's ability to stitch tactical capabilities and accomplishments together to achieve operational success, and it's been quite obvious in recent years that there's a fundamental breakdown in America's efforts to consolidate operational success into strategic victory. (My impression is that the Air Force is worse in that regard, and the Navy/Marine Corps team is considerably better, but the latter has less capacity to influence the overall military enterprise than does the Army.) Your anecdotes about the HTS and your own efforts in Iraq reflect that. If we can't even get brigade and division staffs to understand the basic intricacies of their own profession of arms, it should be no surprise that something as seemingly ancillary as cultural proficiency would be neglected or even derided. Big Army's culture of "kill people, break stuff, and let some State Department dweebs sort the rest out" must be converted into a culture of "we must figure out what victory looks like, then fight and/or work smart to achieve it". However, moves like the dissolution of the HTS because the Army thinks that it "no longer had a need for the advice of civilian anthropologists" suggest that such a culture change may be a proverbial moon shot.


Tue, 06/30/2015 - 4:56pm

In reply to by thedrosophil

I think your point on the journeyman approach, at least tactically, is worth serious consideration. Anecdotaly, I was an Anthro major from the #1 (at the time) Anthro program in the country with a focus on the middle east and an Armor officer running around the Euphrates country side and Baghdad. In a couple of months I was able to construct a tribal affiliation map based on some targeted interviews in my AO that the continuity book I received at the start of the deployment couldn't even touch. That said, no one in my chain cared that I could construct a history of Mesopotamia from ancient Sumer to the present from memory. Nothing in our squadron or brigade planning cared about tribes and society beyond the tangential connection to extremist organizations e.g. the Mufargi support AQI, therefore find leader and KLE to death...the end. The crucial take away from me was that even armed with knowledge we didn't have the planners and leaders that could apply that knowledge in any meaningful number. In other words, it wasn't the access to the knowledge that was the problem, but the education and training in applying it. That is an Army problem, not an academe-to-mil interaction problem.

Needless to say, none of my tribal maps made it into the continuity book for follow on forces as the people coordinating them didn't know what to do with it and I wasn't involved in creating it.


Tue, 06/30/2015 - 3:31pm

An interesting article, though I have a few concerns.

<BLOCKQUOTE>"The SOF community needs to engage with the brightest and best researchers available in order to develop a cadre of true subject matter experts. Unfortunately, there are few tenured researchers that would risk their professional reputations by becoming affiliated with an initiative that produces information that is not subject to critical assessment."</BLOCKQUOTE>

I'm not convinced that the SOF community, or the military in general, requires the assistance of the "brightest and best". There seems to be <A HREF="">some concensus</A> that the HTS would have benefited from recruiting personnel with bachelor's degrees in anthropology or other social sciences, rather than going after postgraduates and career social scientists in academia. If a particular academic is a subject matter expert in a particular region - e.g., a specialist in the study of Tajiks being recruited to serve on an HTS in northeastern Afghanistan - I can see the author's point. However, I think a good case can be made for taking a journeyman social scientist (e.g., a recent graduate), training them in a codified Army doctrine for HTS operations, and sending them to do this sort of work. I'm not convinced that there's value added, for SOF or anyone else, by striving to get the "brightest and best" when young go-getters may be able to get similar results without some of the baggage of having been socialized into academia.

<BLOCKQUOTE>"They would risk being thought of as dilatants in their discipline. There are certainly well-educated, non-tenured members of the academic community that would engage in the Human Domain. However, that’s not what the SOF enterprise needs."</BLOCKQUOTE>

Continuing on this theme, it seems that the author fails to acknowledge the difference between what career social science academics are prepared to provide, versus what the military enterprise needs. Having studied in close proximity to career anthropology academics, I can report that they're actually rather proud of the fact that they're doing obscure research with zero practical application. By contrast, the military enterprise is looking for people who are prepared to produce data - human intelligence, if we're calling a spade a spade - to assist them in the achievement of practical objectives. To reiterate, I'm not confident that such objectives are best achieved through the rigorous recruitment of the "brightest and best" career social scientists, who are neither experienced nor particularly interested in producing social science products of any practical value. I believe it was Major Ben Connable (USMC), in his <A HREF="">2009 essay on the HTS</A>, who somewhat credibly suggested that the HTS was a surge capability that needed to have its operational lessons codified into doctrine and turned into a persistent military capability staffed by military personnel. I believe that this is one function that might be better served by the independence that comes from employing contractors, but I concur with Major Connable's suggestion that persistently employing career academics may not be the most effective manner of staffing the program, either logistically or operationally.

Finally, while I agree with the author's assertion that SOF practitioners should exercise the portion of their skill set that allows them to digest foreign cultures to meet academics halfway, applying the same expectation to academics is probably a bridge too far. I am not confident that introducing a peer review or other quality control measures to legitimize the HTS products as academic research, and introducing measures to protect the research subjects (which, let's face it, may very well be impossible under the circumstances), will assuage career academics' concerns. Those concerns as listed by the author are understandable and, to some degree, legitimate; but let us not forget that many of the academics in question are simply dedicated leftists, and that many of them use the concerns outlined therein as a veneer for an overarching disdain for the military or for American values in general. Drawing from accepted COIN doctrine, the author seems to suggest that peer review and anonymization measures, coupled with the doubling or trebling of their salaries in academia, would serve as a significant enticement to abandon their recalcitrance and collaborate. I remain unconvinced.

Of course, this may all be moot, as the Facebook post I linked to earlier cites <A HREF="… article</A> announcing the end of the HTS. According to the article:

<BLOCKQUOTE>HTS, which spent at least $726 million from 2007 to 2014 in Iraq and Afghanistan, was killed last fall, Gregory Mueller, an Army spokesman, said in an email. Commanders in Afghanistan, where the U.S. combat mission ended last year, no longer had a need for the advice of civilian anthropologists.

"The HTS program ended on September 30, 2014, as there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater," Mueller said in a statement.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I would quibble with the wording, as this was not an end to the need for advice from civilian anthropologists, but rather, a failure of the commanders in Afghanistan or Stateside to recognize that need. Yet another example of a potentially game-changing capability that's found a premature grave because it involved telling Big Army something they didn't want to hear.