Fighting Through the Fog of War

Clausewitz Describes the Fog of War

Carl von Clausewitz is credited with coining the term “the fog of war,” although he never actually used it.  He did speak of fog as a metaphor for war’s ambiguities. Once a battle begins, information that is tactically relevant can become confusing and even distorted.  Because of the difficulty of seeing patterns in the midst of the fog—separating the signal from the noise, for example—tactical leaders must be allowed to act independently of operational plans. Dwight David Eisenhower summed it up neatly:  "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensible."

Sun Tzu recognized the importance of spontaneous decision-making in The Art of War. "There are occasions when commands of the sovereign need not be obeyed. When it is expedient in operations the [leader] need not be restricted by the commands of the [higher authority]…. When you see the correct course, act; do not wait for orders. … The [leader] must rely on his ability to control the situation to his advantage as opportunity dictates. He is not bound by established procedures."

What happens when the quarterback drops back to pass

The quarterback hears a series of words and verbal signals in his helmet/headset and repeats these instructions to the team in the huddle.When the huddle breaks, the QB approaches the line of scrimmage as his mind begins to translate the word-based instructions he has into a mental image.That is, the message about the intended play has come to him through the audio channel in the form of words.This message is processed in the language center on the left side of his brain.Words will do him no good, though, in the heat of battle, so it is essential for the QB to form an anticipatory mental image of what is about to happen.

This translation of words to image is an example of a skill we call “tacit,” since it is hard to explain how this is done with words.Rather, the QB learns to decode the signals he receives and encode them into a mental image by doing this over and over, thousands of times in his career.We know that kinesthetic learning of this sort does not happen the way we might learn, say, that Columbus sailed in 1492.That kind of declarative memory is pretty irrelevant in this case.The image that goes through the QBs mind, as a sort of mental rehearsal for the action to come, is partly visual as he can almost see what is going to happen, but it is also akin to muscle memory, as he can almost feel himself going through the motions of dropping back and looking downfield. He may even hear himself uttering the second “hut,” at which time he’ll feel the ball snapping into his hands.

This mental rehearsal just before the play begins is a critical aspect of success.To learn to do this well, repetition is the key.Since multiple repetitions are essential for burning this skill into one’s repertoire, the team should find multiple ways of practicing the mental imaging process.For example, a random play could be called out in the video room and players could be asked to form mental images of what they are supposed to do and what it will feel like when they are doing it.They might then see video of the actual play, to which they can grade the accuracy of their mental image.I can see a variety of ways to give players a competitive edge by improving this ability to quickly match up the correct mental image to the verbal instruction:Flash cards, some kind of audio-tape that could be experienced while running with an iPod, or quick drills in the locker room or study room.The important point is that non-declarative memory must be burned into memory through methodical, almost incessant repetition.

Once everyone is in place, the QB must sometimes call out audibles in the form of words or sounds to communicate to the team first whether to heed or ignore the coming set of instructions and then, if it is a live message, what adjustments all must make to their mental representation of what is supposed to happen next.Returning back to the audio/verbal channel just before the play makes this sequence of events all the more difficult.

As the ball is snapped, the QB takes his 3-step, 5-step, or x-step drop.His footwork during this initial part of the play is critical for success, but the QB’s mind must be focused elsewhere.The steps he takes must be entirely guided by muscle memory.If he is thinking about his feet, trouble looms.Knowing how critical these dance-like movements are, the QB practices his footwork constantly at home.

So far, we are talking about learning something akin to “taking” requests at the piano… “Play this… play that…” But we are just getting started!The next set of actions must take place not in front of a predictable keyboard but on a field of action with huge bodies flying around at high speed.We are about to enter the fog of war.

As the quarterback looks downfield, the things he sees in the dimensions of space and time match, to some degree,the mental representation he ran through just prior to the snap.Now he must make sound choices under great pressure.Again, the language center on the left side of his brain is of little help, since once he is thinking to himself “well, that guys is covered, so I better look to the other side of the field…” he is sacked.Rather, his brain must be working in a matter similar to the batter waiting on a 90 mile and hour fastball.There is no thinking… just reacting.

As the QB looks at his primary receiver, he must determine quickly whether he should throw the ball to a place that the receiver is going to be a second or two into the future.He must see the defenders and their own trajectories through space and time, decide what to do, and act.This entire decision-making sequence is accomplished without engaging the verbal channel. Rather, the QB must simply react to what he “feels”… That is, if the receiver is covered, the limbic system in his brain will send out a fear response not too much different than the rush you get when you suddenly see a wolf in the forest, as the body begins to react with alarm before the mind has even processed what was seen.

Because of constant repetitions of this sequence of events, the QB has learned to trust his fear response, and “knows” that the receiver is covered.There is a quick and imperceptible communication between his limbic system and the frontal cortex of his cerebrum, and his body reacts with a visual and physical reorientation as he begins to consider the next option.

Once the loop is closed, ending in a completion, incompletion or a sack, the quarterback’s brain stores the occurrence as a memory, and his brain makes slight adjustments in its manner of discerning and open receiver from a covered receiver.When he sleeps at night, many of these micro-memories are relived, and neuronal connections are reformed in a manner that will best prepare his mind for future crises on the field.

The coach’s job is to prepare the mind and body of the quarterback for this critical sequence of events.

Research has shown that it is the limbic system, associated with emotion and such phenomena as the fear-response, that is engaged during the type of spur of the moment crises that are routinely experienced by the quarterback.While education and learning for academic matters involves finding ways to store information in the cerebrum in a systematic manner, training fighter pilots, emergency room nurses and college quarterbacks must take into account the quick stimulus and response nature of the skill in question.The best method for this appears to be providing repeated experience in conditions that simulate the hectic conditions under which decisions are made.That is, to excel in the fog of war, one must practice in a similar fog.

Genghis Khan, Leadership, and the Fog of War

In the late twelfth century and early thirteenth century, a fearsome power rose out of the East, confronting both European and South Asian civilizations. The Mongols rose to power under its khan, or king, Genghis. With his principal “orlok,” or filed marshall, Subedai Bahadur of the Reindeer people, Genghis created an army characterized by efficiency and discipline never attained before, which carried the speed and tactical flexibility of horse warfare to its extreme, and gained victories on a scale no people or empire ever achieved before or after.

The essence of the Mongol fighting organization was speed and surprise.They could bewilder foot soldiers and slower, more traditional cavalries by the rapidity with which they could materialize before a phalanx, unleash a storm of arrows, attack to the front, sides and rear, and then disappear just as swiftly.Europe’s reliance on a single form of mounted warrior-- heavy cavalry -- created a weakness easily exploited by the advancing Mongols.

The historian Bevin Alexander says that "Mongol tactics were refined by repeated drills and built on tried techniques, directed by clear signals from leaders."  A favorite technique of the Mongols was the feint. Combining the speed of the horse with a refined system of control and timing, horsemen rushed forward in a furious charge, then, pretending the onslaught had failed, withdrew, seemingly in panic and sometimes over the horizon.Invariably, the enemy would follow the retreat, eager to seize on its advantage. In the process, the enemy army would outrun its supports, losing their tight defensive order, and allow units and individuals to become detached from the core.When this occurred, the Mongul horse archers suddenly regrouped, turned on the advancing enemy, and defeated the disorganized force piece by piece

On its way to Europe, the Mongols defeated a great kingdom in the present day areas of Iran and Afghanistan led by Mohammed, the Shah of Khwarezm.Despite the fact that the Mongol army numbered 150,000 to Mohammed’s 200,000 men. Genghis used superior strategic thinking to surprise his enemy, appearing unexpectedly at the enemy rear, by leading his army through a route considered impassible. Strategic advantage, followed by speed of tactical movement led to a swift defeat of a great kingdom. 

An example of the means used to move large divisions of men and horses in the heat of the battle was the innovation of whistling arrows that could be used to communicate the trigger for a sudden pre-planned execution of a division of thousands of warriors. Mongol tactics were rigid in conception, but flexible in execution and build on a framework of moves that resembled a battle drill. The repetition of tried and practiced techniques – directed by clear signals from leaders – made for extreme efficiency and effectiveness.Indeed, the Mongol tactics were so swift and fast that they were usually irresistible. 



A quarterback must make decisions about the dispersal of an odd-shaped ball in a matter of seconds.As giant bodies do violence to each other within yards of his positioning in physical space --some of whom intend him great physical harm -- he must scan the field in order to identify an open receiver who is moving at speeds approximating that of a world class sprinter through an environment crowded with opponents.He must then throw the ball not to the present location of the receiver, but to the place where the man is most likely to be two or three seconds later.He must do this while millions of people look on, many of whom are quick to judge him in terms of whether he is an intelligent and worthwhile human being.

The decision a quarterback must make in these situations is much different than the calm and quiet deliberations that confront most of us trying to make a living. From time to time, though, we all make decisions on the fly and as we watch the NFL QB, the Navy seal, or the emergency room nurse at work, we can only hope to learn something vicariously that we might call upon in our own stressful moments.

To study the dynamics of decision-making under pressure, Gary Klein lived with firefighters and other emergency or quick-response personnel.His objective was to understand how people make decisions in the most hectic of moments.In his book Sources of Power, Klein concludes that the keys to good spontaneous decision-making are entirely different than what matters when one ponders decisions with time available for analysis and deliberation.The best decision-makers in chaotic “fog of war” conditions seem able to call on intuition – knowing what to do without knowing why or how they know.

For example, he tells the story of one fire captain who entered a burning house, got an odd feeling that something was amiss, and ordered his firefighters out of the structure seconds before it collapsed.It turned out the source of the fire was in a basement that they did not know was there.Something about the situation just felt wrong to the captain, and he acted on his intuition, saving the lives of his men.Intuition, Klein says, is recognizing complex patterns "without knowing how we do the recognizing."

Realizing the importance of this intuitive way of knowing, Klein paid particular attention to the ways that knowledge is shared among co-workers.  He found that while decision-making in formal settings is characterized by careful logical reasoning and analysis of probabilities, knowledge about how to act and react spontaneously to fast-moving circumstances is passed in through the telling of "war stories" as participants gather after events have unfolded and recount what happened from each of several perspectives.  Stories that carry significant learning, such as survival through harrowing experience, are passed on for years and years, and shared across departmental boundaries.  These stories, in turn, provide a way for listeners to mentally rehearse they would react under the circumstances shared by the story teller.  

The Hows and Whys of Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition, by the way, is a key indicator of whether someone has begun to develop a “Zen” way of knowing about his or her field of expertise.Master chess players, for example, can take a brief glance at the pieces configured on a chess board, turn around, and accurately recreate the placement of all the pieces on another board.The rest of us, at best, can remember where one or two pieces are placed.The difference is that the chess masters look at the board and see a pattern – a story – that they can hold in memory and recall later.To recreate the board, they just put the pieces into place in order so as to tell the same story. This is the basis of intuition.While the word conveys a bit of magic or mysticism, psychologists say that intuitive knowledge is the result of repeated experience.The chess master has seen countless configurations on chess boards and gradually learns to see them as a whole experience, pattern or story.To the master, the pieces are just elements of something larger.In like manner, a quarterback who intuits where to find the open man or just seems to sense that it is time to get rid of the ball as he’s approached from behind, has achieved masters level pattern recognition.

Biographers of Napoleon Bonaparte talk about his ability to size up a situation with a single coup d'oeil, (pronounced koo-DOY), meaning “a stroke of the eye” or “glance.”Napoleon was so knowledgeable about his strategic situation—the landscape, the enemy, available technology, similar situations from the past—that he could understand and respond quickly to ever-changing circumstances.Since a term like coup d'oeil is awkward to look at, or to pronounce, we’ll just call the possession of Napoleon’s glance as having it. In Malcolm Glaser’s book, blink, he refers to it as “the power of thinking without thinking.”

In a movie called Napoleon, released in 1927 by legendary film maker Abel Gance, a key segment about the pivotal battle of Toulon is featured.  A young Napoleon arrives on the scene with abook under his arm symbolizing his years of study of military history.  He finds the French generals and leaders in a pub discussing the planned attack on the heavily fortified position of the enemy at Toulon.  The general asks Napoleon "what would you do if you were in my place?"  In what would have passed for "special effects" in a movie produced so long ago, viewers then see Naploeon's keen mind in process, as he draws on his knowledge of similar situations from history.  

in his recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains the nature of genius, and how one goes about attaining that status.  While acknowledging that people of true genius generally begin with a detectable advantage in terms of generalized intelligence, he asserts that for genius to surface, one must put in a significan amount of work and practice.  Gladwell shows that researchers in the field of high-end human development have coalesced around the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice -- ten years of hard effort -- to achieve true mastery of a discipline.

The heroic story of the ditching and rescue of US Airways Flight 1549, and the manner in which commercial airline pilot and captain Sullenberger, captivated America's attention in January of 2009. Explaining the captain's grace under pressure, Jonah Lehrer writes (here) that pilots in emergency  circumstances learn to display a "deliberate calm," because staying calm under fraught circumstances requires both conscious effort and regular practice."


This sort of calmness under pressure, Lehrer shows, is more than simply a personality attribute that some may bring with them to the job.  Calmness under pressure is learnable.  Using flight simulators to put pilots through the most dire of circumstances such as the loss of power of water -- pilots gain the critical skill of emergency management"  "The training provides pilots with important technical skills -- they can practice flying crippled planes -- but it also teaches them something more important: how to draw on an optimal blend of reason and emotion. They learn how to ignore their fear when fear isn't useful and how to make quick, complicated decisions in the most fraught situations. Flight crews don't panic because they've practiced staying calm."

The Mind of the Fighter PilotWith knowledge gained as an ace Korean-era fighter pilot, Colonel John Boyd of the United States Air Force become known as one of the foremost experts on battle tactics of the twentieth century.  His theories, such as the OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) loop, are now used routinely by military and business tacticians. 

Using Fog to Advantage

"Make an uproar in the East, but attack in the West..."

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Whereas Clausewitz saw the fog of war as an impediment to be overcome, John Boyd realized that it could be used to advantage. In addition to his insight about the OODA loop as a means for battle, John Boyd also advocated getting into the mind of the fighter pilot's opponent.  That is, he showed how a pilot can take advantatge of the difficulty his opponent is having in orienting himself to battle conditions by using tactics intended to make the situation even foggier for the enemy.

First, you anticipate ambiguity to gain advantage over an enemy who has not.  Second, understanding the disorientation that fog causes for an opponent, you perpetuate the state of confusion through surprising maneuvers. To win, Boyd tells us, you must get inside your opponent’s “decision cycle” by going through your own OODA cycle faster than he doest, and by varying the speed and rhythms of your own maneuvers so as to provoke confusion, chaos, and panic. “The best way to succeed…” he said “is to revel in ambiguity.”