Feature Article

War Stories

A narrative approach to understanding military decisions.

By Neil Shortland and Laurence J. Alison

Over the past few years our understanding of what being at war means for members of the armed forces has exponentially increased through a proliferation of soldiers' own published accounts of their time on deployment, as well through increasing media visibility (Hoskins, & O'Loughlin, 2010). With long-standing operations in Iraq over, and Afghanistan coming to a close, the armed forces will no doubt use the lessons learned to improve their future operation, ingraining successful adaptations that were developed on the battlefield into doctrine so that they can be employed in future conflicts (Farrell, 2010). At this time it is also important for psychologists to explore the utility of individuals' experiences (derived through narrative accounts) at war. In light of this, the goal of this research brief is to outline the potential utility of using war stories to test and develop psychological theories that are at the center of military operations — decision-making in high-stakes environments. It will then highlight the importance of using structured interview techniques to ensure that when collecting these narrative accounts we are able to understand why things happened in a given situation, rather than merely what happened. Finally, the strengths and weaknesses of such data is discussed, as are the significant ethical considerations that must be taken into account when seeking to develop detailed insight into decision-making during highly emotive, highly challenging events.

Members of the military are taught to employ the military decision-making process (MDMP) — a linear process of identifying and evaluating courses of action before selecting and implementing the one option deemed best. This rational process, however, does not reflect the process through which we actually make decisions in time-sensitive and high-stakes environments (Lipshitz & Strauss, 1997; Rasmussen, 1985). Instead, decision-makers find the first workable option, prospectively model its outcome, and if it is satisfactory (rather than optimal) they act. This process is better known as recognition primed decision-making (RPD). The RPD framework has emerged as a common process across a range of expert environments, including firefighters, nurses and pilots (Klein, 2011) and is based on the premise that decision-makers find quick, workable solutions and implement them rapidly, rather than waiting for more information or an option with an ideal outcome. When using recognition planning models of decision-making (a military-centric RPD) operational tempo increased by 20 percent and plans were evaluated as better suited and less constrained by doctrine (Thunholm, 2007).

We therefore have several theories of how members of the armed forces should react in combat situations. Yet there remains a conspicuous lack of research on decision-making in situ. In some cases, the psychology of military decision-making is presented without reference to any real decisions (e.g., Brehmer, 2000; Dhesi, & Banks, 2014; Thunholm, 2005) or based on simulations of military operations (e.g., Klein, 2011). This is not to say that such research is not valid but that the models and theories developed here need to be tested against evidence derived from real decisions in war. In accordance with German strategist Helmuth von Moltke; if “no plan survives contact with the enemy” it would be prudent to explore if our decision-making models fair any better.

Published autobiographical accounts have served as a data source in several emerging fields of study where direct access is often hard to obtain (Horgan, Altier, & Thoroughgood, 2012). Autobiographical accounts from soldiers or embedded journalists can provide insight into the types of difficult decisions members of the armed forces face. This has several important implications as it shows that many of the decisions members of the armed forces have to struggle with at war are not traditional (i.e., mission planning). For example, consider a decision faced by Gen. Petraeus during his time in Iraq:

One seemingly trivial item on Sinclair's agenda was in fact vital: Should helicopter blades be taped or painted? Apache and Blackhawk rotors revolve at high speeds – 1,456 feet per second at the tips – that blowing grit could bore through the titanium spar on the leading edge of each blade. Wormlike, a grain of sand would then eat out the honeycombed material inside the blade, which might unbalance the helicopter aerodynamically and cause a crash. Traditionally, the blade edges were protected with strips of black tape, which had to be reapplied after every mission or two. But taping was time consuming, difficult in the desert, and required adhesive that wore badly in hot weather. Some aviation experts insisted a thick coat of black paint, reapplied to the edges after every flight, was an effective substitute … The tape-versus-paint conundrum neatly illuminated the thousand technical challenges facing every commander (Atkinson, 2005, pp. 54-57).

Deciding on rotor blade protection may seem prosaic and was likely not something taught in basic (nor advanced) training, nor is it a likely candidate for a predeployment or research simulation. Yet what is important about this decision — and what makes it so hard — is that there was no good outcome: A spray-painted propeller could get a hole, leading to disaster; tape could falter in the heat, resulting in the same outcome. Applying tape could also take a valuable asset out of action, leaving other missions (and therefore other soldiers) under supported. Contrary to selecting the best course of action, Petraeus had to select the least-worst.

Least-worst decisions are those in which all potential outcomes are high-risk and all have adverse outcomes. They are therefore hard for the decision-maker because any possible decision could result in a negative outcome. RPD researchers have called this the zone of indifference within which it is argued that, “the closer together the advantages and disadvantages of competing options, the harder it will be to make a decision but the less it will matter.” (Klein, 1998). As such, decision-makers should, “stop right there, make an arbitrary choice, and move on” (Klein, 2011, p. 87). Klein's point is not to belittle the importance of a choice, but to acknowledge the likelihood that an individual can become stuck when faced with equally (un)attractive choices. Becoming stuck in decision-making is a phenomenon known as decision inertia (Power, Alison, & Ralph, 2013). Decision inertia has many manifestations; decision makers can ignore a decision, actively attempt to decide but fail to choose, or choose and fail to act (Alison, Power, van den Heuvel, & Waring, 2015). All three forms of inertia can have disastrous consequences in military operations in which indecision is very often a decision. With reference to Petraeus for example, he could have postponed the decision until the next briefing (decision avoidance), invested time, resources, manpower and cognitive effort in choosing one of the options and yet still failed to reach a decision (decision inertia) or he could have chosen one method over the other but failed to issue the orders to implement his choice (implementation failure). Inertia is therefore a psychological state that can manifest cognitively through redundant deliberation as well as behaviorally through the failure to take action. Successfully navigating least-worst decisions is therefore a fragile process that can become derailed by a host of factors, including the environmental, individual, social and organizational aspects. Once decision-making becomes derailed, inaction is then a high-probability outcome.

Military operations are surrounded by uncertainty, are highly-complex, involve multiple coalition and partnered forces and require the individual to balance principles of force protection with those of protecting the local populace (two factors that rarely align); best outcomes are often unlikely. Furthermore, least-worst decisions do not only present themselves at the tactical, or operational level but are present across all ranks. Consider the decision faced by President Obama and the United States government with the eruption and escalation of violence in Syria:

Do nothing, and a humanitarian disaster envelops the region. Intervene militarily, and risk opening Pandora's box and wading into another quagmire like Iraq. Send aid to the rebels, and watch it end up in the hands of extremists. Continue with diplomacy, and run head first into a Russian veto. None of these approaches offered much hope of success (Clinton, 2014, p. 461).

Situations within which there are few good options are frequent in conflict, and will only likely continue as war moves towards increased urbanization and clustered environments. And while we have developed decision-making models to understand and help members of the armed forces choose the best courses of action, we have little understanding of how they go about choosing the least-worst. Furthermore, while a strong literature base on military decision-making (and decision-making writ large) exists, very little is known about military indecision. Because we know so little about how, when and why indecision emerges in a military context first-hand accounts will be a crucial first step to identify and define the phenomenon.

Hearing war stories alone is not sufficient, hence why autobiographical accounts from soldiers (though plentiful in their availability) are insufficient to develop theories of decision-making. While autobiographical accounts may be useful for gathering data, elsewhere their utility is limited because, while they often portray the nature of the decision, and the outcome, they rarely elucidate the process through which the decision was made. With regards to Petraeus, while we are very aware of the decision he faced, and his struggles, we are none the wiser as to the factors that really were affecting his decision. In addition, simply asking individuals to recall operations and decisions will not glean sufficient data. Gaining meaningful data from individuals' experiences in war instead requires a structured methodological approach aimed at probing the cognitive functioning that was going on throughout the situation.

One such method for exploring decision-making in complex incidents is the critical decision method (CDM; Klein, Calderwood, & MacGregor, 1989). CDM is an extensive semistructured approach to interviewing that focuses on a single event in great detail. Interviews often take over two hours and involve a gradual deepening of an exploration into a given situation. At first a suitable event is selected and outlined. This is then expanded upon by developing timelines and identifying key decision points before deepening occurs. Deepening involves identifying the individuals' perspectives, expectations, goals and uncertainties, as well as how these factors changed as the event unfolded. Finally, what-ifs are discussed to identify how any alterations in circumstances (for the individual or the event) would have altered the outcome or their decision-making process. CDM is therefore an extremely powerful method of knowledge elicitation, and has been applied to a variety of high-stakes environments, including the military (e.g., Pascual & Henderson, 1997). CDM can be used to identify cues and patterns that individuals use to make decisions, the types of decisions that are faced, what makes these decisions tough, as well as what makes a decision typical or rare (Crandall, Klein, & Hoffman, 2006). In developing an outline of the case, before deepening through repeated sweeps, this methodology captures the narrative of the events, before using a variety of cognitively rich methods to unpack it.

In order to address the research gaps identified above, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the University of Liverpool have been conducting CDM interviews with members of the United States Armed Forces to investigate indecision. Focused on times during their deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, these psychologists are analyzing decision-making processes during least-worst choices and specifically those that result in indecision. The results of these interviews, while only preliminary, are showing that there exist several critical concepts that have previously not been factored into models of military decision-making. Emerging findings from this work are directly working against the claim that they when presented with a least-worst choice, we must make an arbitrary choice. In military environments whereby soldiers' safety is often at stake, it is unlikely that choices can be made arbitrarily. If an ideal outcome does not exist, and a choice will not be made arbitrarily, then how does an individual make any decision? Several cases collected so far suggest that once a least-worst choice is identified and all options are identified as averse, in order to make a decision the individual must recalibrate their evaluation criteria in order to find a best option (in essence after enough recalibration, a best course of action will be apparent). This research is therefore providing new insight into the complex cognitive processes that occur when one finds themselves in the zone of indifference. At the same time, these narratives are also identifying the role of factors not considered in traditional models of decision-making, such as organizational culture (Alison & Crego, 2008). One interviewee recalls how, when faced with the urgent need to respond to an oncoming threat, he struggled to act because:

There was a culture within [the Army] at the time that was a fault intolerant culture … So yeah, that was absolutely in my thought process. Everything there was about … was about trying to prevent bad things [i.e., operational errors] from happening. They were less worried about that, it seems, than they were about accomplishing the mission.

War stories can therefore provide a critical new lens through which we can view military decision-making. The diversity of accounts (from drone pilots, to company commanders) reinforces the widespread prevalence of least-worst decision-making in the Army. However, each account carries with it several significant ethical considerations that cannot be overlooked. Firstly least-worst decisions, by their very nature, have a high chance of a negative outcome (whatever decision was, or was not made) and the cases that we are seeking to study can often involve fellow soldiers getting killed or injured. Furthermore, and linked to the prior point, it is not uncommon for the situations chosen to be those that linger in the mind of the interviewee. In discussing this research with veterans' counselors, it was highlighted that it is the “shoulda, woulda, coulda” scenarios that “come back with you” (implying a role of least-worst decisions in issues of reintegration and posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]). This emphasizes the significant ethical concerns that should be considered when asking participants to discuss sensitive events in detail across multiple hours. In such situations, the CDM may require adaptation, such as not asking “what if” questions (regardless of the data that could be gleaned from the answers to such questions).

That said, there are several mitigations that can be put in place to minimize the risk to participants. Firstly, while we may specify that individuals recall a certain type of decision the cases that they discuss are of their own fruition. Secondly, it is important to consider that recalling events that have happened during deployed duty is a significant part of the after-action report process conducted during a soldier's tour of service, and their post-tour debriefs. Army regulation established the after-action review (AAR), “a professional discussion of an event, focused on performance standards, that enables soldiers to discover for themselves What happened, Why it happened and How to sustain strengths and improve on weaknesses” (United States Army, 1993). As part of the AAR, an individual (or the company commander) must provide the mission objectives, a description of events, dates, locations, major participants and any significant issues they encountered. They must also then identify any lessons learned from that event. The individual is also likely to have further discussed this event as part of the post-tour debrief process. When a member of the United States armed forces returns from a combat tour, they are not immediately returned to their home. Instead they return to the base from which they were deployed to conduct an extensive debrief. This involves conducting extensive AARs (troop by troop, as well as unit-wide) as well as one-to-one interviews with Army doctors and psychiatrists (the goal of which is to identify any possible symptoms of PTSD). With CDM, the focus of these interviews is usually rare or unique events (Crandall, Klein, & Hofman, 2006). Considering the importance placed on identifying lessons learned and AARs, it is highly likely that the stories that are recalled will also be those that were subject to the highest scrutiny in the AAR. As such, it is not uncommon that participants will have previously discussed the incident, its background and critical decision points in great detail. Thus, while this research methodology requires an extensive exploration of a given case, considering the extensive debrief processes adopted in the United States armed forces, it is unlikely that participants will recall any event of information that they have not already discussed in extensive detail with fellow soldiers, commanding officers, Army medics and Army psychiatrists during the AAR and post-tour debriefing process.

An additional consideration is that hearing any story in hindsight has obvious issues with validity. We have to question the participants' ability to recall events that may have occurred, months or even years previously (Burton & Blair, 1991), as well as issues such as post-event information distortion effects (this is especially pertinent considering the culture of debriefs mentioned above; Safer, Levine, & Drapalski, 2002). That said, research based on collecting war stories in an ethically sound and systematic manner is already demonstrating the significant amount of information we can learn about decision-making in war as the soldier sees it, and this data therefore has potential to inform new models of decision-making that incorporate ambient and organizational factors that we are currently yet to explore. As we (potentially) enter another interwar period, we must continue to maximize opportunities to incorporate real experiences from the battlefield to test and refine our theories of how soldiers perform under the extreme conditions of war.

For those interested in how the rotor blade dilemma turned out: After deciding against spray paint, calls were made to identify the stocks of tape. It was discovered that there was not tape. The division's supply had collapsed during a blizzard and the entire decision was therefore a fruitless effort. This shows how even when an effective decision is made it can still be derailed during implementation.

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