GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

2.5 Evolution of the Inclusion of Cultural Geography in Military Geography and Intelligence


The geographic discipline has always had a nexus in military and intelligence operations. The use of maps and cartography to understand the landscape and devise effective military strategies in operations has been employed since at least the 1870s (Forsyth, 2019). Cartography was not the only aspect of the discipline that governments found useful in their endeavors: they also relied upon the discipline’s ability to provide spatial context to political and economic issues, which have their basis in cultural geography (Forsyth, 2019).

After the quantitative revolution of the 1950s, the 1960s saw the geographic discipline take a more humanistic approach, distancing itself from the military nexus and focusing more heavily on social issues (Forsyth, 2019; Rech et al., 2015). This was accompanied by a methodological shift in which human geographers, concerned with positivism’s tendency to dehumanize its subject in an era of increasing civil unrest, turned away from quantitative methods and toward social theory and phenomenology as lenses with which to approach their research. This is not to say that social science was not still incorporated into intelligence; however, it was not as prevalent or overt. Intelligence and military failures, such as those from the Vietnam War (1955-1975), also helped demonstrate the need for better and more comprehensive sociocultural understandings of the places where military and intelligence actions were taking place. While there are multiple aspects that led to the ultimate failure of the Vietnam War, the lack of sociocultural understanding played a significant role. For example, in 1962, US forces began relocating South Vietnamese families from their homes into “strategic hamlets” where they were kept under the control of US forces to prevent the Vietcong from hiding amongst them (British Broadcasting Company, n.d.). This however, removed these people from their ancestral lands, and demonstrated a lack of sociocultural understanding on the part of US forces about the importance of those lands to the rural populations in South Vietnam and perhaps even led to mistrust between the US forces and the local population.

The military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s has also helped to reinvigorate the relationship between human geography and military-intelligence contexts (Rech et al., 2015). In 2006, Lieutenant General David Petraeus specifically referenced the need for human geographical considerations in military and intelligence operations when he provided 14 observations from Iraq. Almost every one of these observations has a cultural geographic nexus; however, observation nine, “Cultural awareness is a force multiplier,” is the most overt (Petraeus, 2006). Petraeus makes the key observation that, without knowledge and understanding of the people, their culture, and their history, any operations will be difficult, if not impossible. These 2006 observations reinvigorated the conversations about integrating Human Geography and sociocultural understanding into military and intelligence operations. Many argue that these observations, spurred by experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, inspired the popularization of analyzing “human terrain” (Wainwright, 2016).

Despite its resurgence between 2005 and 2007, the term "human terrain" was first used in 1968 (Medina, 2016; Wainwright, 2016). While human terrain is, by its nature, multi- and interdisciplinary, it draws in large part from key foundational concepts of cultural anthropology and human geography. The Human Terrain System (HTS) was developed after 9/11 when people realized the importance of a sociocultural understanding. HTS became popularized in 2005, and it emphasizes a very micro-level, ethnographic, and anthropological perspective (Medina, 2016; Pawinski, 2018). Beginning in around 2007, anthropologists began to be deployed with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of Human Terrain Teams (HTT). These deployed and deployable HTTs often encompassed at least five individuals who interfaced with local populations, including a team leader, social scientist, research manager, and two Human Terrain Analysts (Pawinski, 2018). HTTs were slowly rolled out in Iraq in 2012 and Afghanistan in 2013 (Price, 2017). Not long after the installment of HTTs in Iraq and Afghanistan, controversy emerged amongst the academic anthropological community about ethical issues surrounding the discipline’s role in HTTs and its synthesis with the military (Medina, 2016; Pawinski, 2018).

While the program drew down, the utility of sociocultural understanding to military and intelligence operations did not wane. After 2010, a shift away from anthropology and towards human geography occurred in many branches of the military and intelligence, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (Wainwright, 2016; Medina, 2016). This shift also signified a change in the scale of sociocultural understanding: from a micro-scale to a more strategic macro-scale. Medina (2016) characterizes this shift as also a shift away from the face-to-face interactions integral to anthropologic understanding to a more “systematic” approach, including a greater presence of Geographic Information Systems. To this end, in 2011, the World-Wide Human Geography Data (WWHGD) Working Group was established as a mechanism for discussing and organizing Human Geography-related data to meet the needs that were unveiled by the investigation of natural and technical disasters: the Human Security Taxonomy (Medina, 2016; WWHGD). The WWHGD Working Group established 13 themes described in the Human Security Taxonomy, including: communication, demographics, economy, education, ethnicity, groups (civil, political, and ideological), land, language, medical, religion, significant events, transportation, and climate.

What does the shift in scale from micro-scale anthropologic focus to a more macro-scale, strategic, human/cultural geographic focus portend for sociocultural understanding in military and intelligence studies? Does this more macro-scale focus mean a lack of face-to-face interactions, as Medina (2016) postulates? How will that impact sociocultural understanding? Whatever the military-intelligence complex decides to call it, the importance of sociocultural understanding in intelligence analysis is here to stay. What inception it takes may evolve overtime; however, the inclusion of human and cultural geographic principles will be closely intertwined, as well as the interdisciplinary nature of understanding people and places.


Medina, R.M. (2016). From anthropology to human geography: Human terrain and the evolution of operational sociocultural understanding. Intelligence and National Security, 31(2), 137-153.

Pawinski, M. (2018). Going beyond human terrain system: Exploring ethical dilemmas. Journal of Military Ethics, 17(2-3), 122-139.

Price, B. R. (2017). Human terrain at the crossroads. Joint Force Quarterly, 87(4), 69-75.

Wainwright, J. D. (2016). The U.S. military and human geography: Reflections on our conjuncture. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(2), 513-520.


Forsyth, I. (2019). A genealogy of military geographies: Complicities, entanglements, and legacies. Geography Compass, 13(3), e12422.

Medina, R.M. (2016). From anthropology to human geography: Human terrain and the evolution of operational sociocultural understanding. Intelligence and National Security, 31(2), 137-153.

British Broadcasting Company. n.d. The Vietnam War. Reasons for US failure in defeating the Vietcong.

Pawinski, M. (2018). Going beyond human terrain system: Exploring ethical dilemmas. Journal of Military Ethics, 17(2-3), 122-139.

Petraeus, D. H. (2006). Learning counterinsurgency: Observations from soldiering in Iraq. Military Review, 45-55.

Price, B. R. (2017). Human terrain at the crossroads. Joint Force Quarterly, 87(4), 69-75.

Rech, M., Bos, D., Jenkings, K. N., Williams, A., and Woodward, R. (2015). Geography, military geography, and critical military studies. Critical Military Studies, 1(1), 47-60.