Military Black Boxes


About the only military leadership criticism Romney seems to have against Obama is the somewhat confused and shifting messages about the attack on the US Embassy in Libya. What anyone who has actual experience with field conflict realises is that the most prominent characteristic is confusion. What Romney’s naïve critique misses is that the confusion he is attacking is standard field conditions.

Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Paradoxes of Intelligence Reform’ brought this action/analysis distinction to life examining some very ‘decisive’ moments in history including the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, September 11 and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Gladwell notes…

  • “In the real world, intelligence is invariably ambiguous. Information about enemy intentions tends to be short on detail. And information that’s rich in detail tends to be short on intentions.”

He make a parallel to an experiment showing how highly skilled people get things wrong amidst distraction and complex data. In the experiment, a series of ‘sane’ people were deliberately admitted to a mental health hospital complaining of ‘hearing voices’ on admission but that they no longer did.

  • “The eight subjects were hospitalized, on average, for nineteen days. One was kept for almost two months. Rosenhan wanted to find out if the hospital staffs would ever see through the ruse. They never did. Rosenhan’s test is, in a way, a classic intelligence problem. Here was a signal (a sane person) buried in a mountain of conflicting and confusing noise (a mental hospital), and the intelligence analysts (the doctors) were asked to connect the dots–and they failed spectacularly.”

The inscrutable complexity of frenetic field conditions is why discipline and command-and-control is so important to maintain a steady execution amidst the chaos. Personnel need to embrace the failure of comprehending the whole and stay focused on their mission or they risk being fatally distracted by imperfect signals and misleading indicators.