The proliferation of empowered networks makes “ethnographic intelligence” (EI) more important to the United States than ever before.2 Among networks, al-Qaeda is of course the most infamous, but there are several other examples from the recent past and present, such as blood-diamond and drug cartels, that lead to the conclusion that such networks will be a challenge in the foreseeable future. Given the access these networks have to expanded modern communications and transportation and, potentially, to weapons of mass destruction, they are likely to be more formidable than any adversaries we have ever faced.
Regrettably, the traditional structure of the U.S. military intelligence community and the kind of intelligence it produces aren’t helping us counter this threat. As recent debate, especially in the services, attests, there is an increased demand for cultural intelligence. Retired army Major General Robert Scales has highlighted the need for what he calls cultural awareness in Iraq: “I asked a returning commander from the 3rd Infantry Division how well situational awareness (read aerial and ground intelligence technology) worked during the march to Baghdad. ‘I knew where every enemy tank was dug in on the outskirts of Tallil,’ he replied. ‘Only problem was, my soldiers had to fight fanatics charging on foot or in pickups and firing AK-47s and [rocket propelled grenades]. I had perfect situational awareness. What i lacked was cultural awareness. Great technical intelligence…wrong enemy.'”3
I propose that we go beyond even General Scales’s plea for cultural awareness and look instead at amassing EI, the type of intelligence that is key to setting policy for terra incognita. The terra in this case is the human terrain, about which too often too little is known by those who wield the instruments of national power. The United States needs EI to combat networks and conduct global counterinsurgency. This paper will therefore define EI, discuss some cases that illustrate the requirement for it, and propose a means to acquire and process it.
The militarization of cultural and social “intelligence” is an old notion (Tacitus, Marco Polo), and in the hands of military and policy planners, at least the current crop, the results will probably be misused and malnourished. The fact of the matter is we need better thinking about human scale phenomena more than ever, from the local to the national. Just listen to the presidential hopefuls stumble all over themselves to formulate their own ideas on Health and Economic issues. Part of the problem is an inability for people to understand large-scale systems in the human context, such as cities and regions.
I go back to borders. Borders in the US should be cultural centers and destinations, not places to fear and wall up. Borders should also be shared. The US’s southern border is also Mexico’s border. I’m perfectly mindful of the charge that this is a naive position. People want to enter and blow us up, 9.11 being a case in point. But this is a misinterpretation. Many of our problems, such as drug crime, are worsened by issues unrelated to the rules, regulations, and ethics of border crossing. People come to the United States to work because they haven’t the opportunity in Chihuahua, not because they want to thumb their nose at the law. But Mexico feels its brain-drain and population loss, too, and has just as much stake in shaping its course as does the United States. We are all trained to see the world as divided by national borders. We could think differently. Physical borders become cognitive when we orient to the container of predefined place and decide on either impulse, impression, or assumption.
“‘I had to fight fanatics'” said the 3rd infantry commander. How did the commander know they were fanatics? And why were they shooting at him in the first place?
I remember a kid who once loved to kill insects. We found him blowing up horn toads with fire crackers.
“What are you doing?” we asked.
“Killing insects. I hate insects.”
“Those are lizards,” we said.
“Lizards? Are lizards insects?” he asked.
I remember that we all a little stunned.
“Shit,” he said.