19 April 2010

Hand Navigation and the Human Terrain

The Army loves acronyms, and it loves coming up with (allegedly) easy ways to remember things. I was reminded of that again recently, while testing on individual land-navigation skills. A handful of mnemonic tricks came flooding back as a bunch of us middle-oldsters trudged around some Midwestern wetlands, looking for little numbered flags, counting our distances in paces, traveling along this and that compass direction.

"If things in Afghanistan ever find me leading troops across a flat wet plain armed with nothing more than a Boy Scout compass," says Trooper, "we will have bigger things to worry about than my land-navigation skills."

He's right. There probably aren't too many flat wet plains in Afghanistan. From what I can tell, the whole country is practically a Frank Gehryesque crumple of contour lines.

One of the navigation tricks we re-learned is always at your fingertips. Want to play along at home? Just make a fist, and you've got an instant model six of the eight terrain features: "hill," "ridge," "spur," "draw," "saddle," "cliff." Open your hand slightly, and you've got the other two: "valley" and "depression." Click here for definitions of each.

Of more practical application, perhaps, is the acronym "OCOKA," pronounced "oh-KOH-kah." (I've also heard it spelled "OACOK," and pronounced "O-A-Coke"). OCOKA is the way I first learned how to analyze terrain for military advantages and disadvantages. Whether you're looking at a map, or looking across a wet plain toward a far ridgeline, OCOKA reminds you how to describe the terrain:
  • Obstacles: What features prohibit, slow, and channel movement across the area?
  • Cover and Concealment: What will stop bullets from hitting you? What will hide you from view?
  • (Fields of) Observation: From where can you can best view the area?
  • Key Terrain: What features are critical to controlling the area?
  • Avenues of Approach: What features offer high-speed travel into, out of, and across an area?
In a counterinsurgency (COIN) mission such as Afghanistan, however, OCOKA only gets you so far. After all, the COIN "fight" is less about shooting, moving, and communicating--although there's opportunity for all that, too--and more about winning friends and influencing people. At the very least, it's about not making any more enemies than what you've already got.

In a COIN scenario, then, the most important "terrain" is the human kind--the population. Obviously, OCOKA is pretty much limited to describing the physical environment--but leave it to the Army to come up with some more handy acronyms. One is "PMESII," which I've mostly heard pronounced "pim-EE-see." Here's how it breaks down:
  • Political
  • Military
  • Social (Tribal)
  • Economic
  • Information
  • Infrastructure
So, here's the proposal at hand: Name any sort of human activity, and it will fall under one of those six categories. And, if it does that, it can be named, labeled, measured, located, mapped, and analyzed. If it can be mapped and analyzed, it can be influenced and changed.

Remember Archimedes and the lever? "Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world." Remember land-navigation, circa 1988? "Give me a compass and two known points, and I will tell you my location." Both our military tools and purposes have since evolved, gotten more sophisticated. I no longer worry about taking that hill in a glorious cavalry charge. Instead, I worry about explaining and illustrating how the people who live on that hill can be influenced to buy into the concept of a national identity, a central government, and an interconnected world. Simple, right?

Layer the PMESII categories atop one another, and you may reveal connections and concentrations both physical and figurative. Identify the movers and shakers. Find out where people live, where they work, how they talk to each other. Follow the money. It sounds like flashpan magic and mafia drama, but it's really just roll-up-your-sleeves community policing and planning.

Give me data, in other words, and I will draw you a map. Then, we will move the world.

We can even shake hands on it.

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