Document created: 31 December 03
Air University Review, January-February 1972

Intuition: 

An Instantaneous Backup System?

Colonel James E. Mrazek, USA (Ret)

 Only within the past few years have the military services tried to grasp the essence of creativity and its meaning to military affairs. On the whole, their efforts have been rather uncoordinated, and the results of research on the subject have not led to lasting or practical benefit, especially in making the combat forces more effective.

Yet, evidence is there. Intuition, the essence of creativity, has won battles and wars. Leaders with creative ideas have vanquished supposedly insuperable enemy forces. The legend of the Trojan horse comes immediately to mind.

Before the turn of the last century Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, this nation’s foremost naval historian and a serious military philosopher, came to the conclusion that there was something more to winning a naval victory than sheer superiority in gun calibers, in battleship sizes, in learned admirals and trained sailors. What resulted was an intellectual breakthrough of major proportions to our comprehension of how battles and wars are won. He said that the “conduct of war is an art, having its spring in the human mind of man, dealing with various circumstances, admitting certain principles; but beyond that, manifold in its manifestation, according to the genius of the artist and the temper of the materials in which he is dealing.” It is, in other words, not battleships that win a naval battle, Mahan told the world, it is not men that tip the balance, it is the mind of man that wins a battle, most frequently the lone leader. And it is the novel tactic which the individual’s mind produces that brings victory.

Naval leaders long ago labeled this indefinable leadership talent “the Nelson touch” in recognition of the unique quality Admiral Horatio Nelson demonstrated when he defeated the French fleet at Alexandria, and again at Trafalgar, to doom forever Napoleon’s dreams of an overseas empire. It is an incandescent quality the navies of many nations hoped to find in their admirals.

It remained for T. E. Lawrence, “of Arabia” fame, that baffling, thoroughly unmilitary military genius, to demonstrate what Mahan had theorized. Bedridden, wracked by fever, in despair over an unsuccessful campaign, Lawrence pondered the direction the Arab revolt should take to break the Turkish shackles. Lacking the professional armies and modern weapons of his opponents, his task looked insurmountable. To a lesser man, it would have been.

Weighing the teachings of Clausewitz, de Saxe, Jomini, Foch, and others to find an answer to his dilemma, Lawrence finally rejected them all. He came to his own conclusions about how to fight his particular war. They are buried in only a few pages of Chapter 33 in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. There he set down his philosophy of warfare, especially from the metaphysical side.

Suppose, he said, “we [Arabians] were . . . an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind [My emphasis—J.E.M.]; and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only what he sat on, and subjugating only what, by order, he could poke his rifle at.”

Shortly thereafter Lawrence sallied forth to test his philosophy on the conventional Turkish garrisons. He blew up their railroad tracks, raided outposts, and in cleverly deceptive tactics hammered the Turks’ main forces. Unable to cope with such unprecedented warfare, the Turks capitulated.

Differentiating the individual soldier from the mass to function as a free agent (apart from the structure of formations, “intangible,” a force free to maneuver where it chose, the intellect free and supreme), Lawrence transferred to guerrilla warfare some of the fundamental conditions and rationale for creativity as we understand it now. In doing so, he turned intellect to the task of making up with ideas what he lacked in soldiers and guns.

Lawrence’s ideas, as carried out by Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh, have proved the undoing of more traditional strategies. Only a few in the Western world—Winston Churchill; General Orde Wingate, who was Lawrence’s contemporary and student; and George Bernard Shaw, who was his confidant—understood what Lawrence had discovered and was telling the world.

The Army has never quite caught up with our Navy in acknowledging or even realizing the existence of this special quality of the mind. This is so despite the fact that the Army produced Patton, MacArthur, and others of comparable intellectual caliber in the course of its history. The military establishment has been more bewildered by such men than understanding of them and their idiosyncrasies, but more often than not our politicians and public have been thankful that, to the ultimate good fortune of this nation, the military establishment managed to make such men generals. Here, by and large, the matter has rested, with no serious attempt to determine what made these men operate so successfully. Investigations, if any, have been quite superficial.

The Air Force has been generously endowed with creatively gifted Billy Mitchells. Such officers have been far ahead of their time, with ideas and deeds solidly demonstrating they could produce high-quality creative thought. They grew up in the Air Force when it was struggling for recognition as a separate service, when it had no well-developed traditions and only a small body of doctrine and regulations. The Air Force is still a youthful service, less hampered by deeply rooted traditions and voluminous regulations than the other services.

forms of creativity vary

The creativity which Billy Mitchell, Patton, and the others demonstrated was not the colorless, lethargic, deductive sort but rather the intuitive and intellectually nimble kind. It is the kind of thinking that has produced winning battle combinations and surprises as well as man’s greatest achievements in science, art, and business.

There are actually only two well-defined kinds of creative thinking. One is the analytical or deductive. The other is the intuitive, flash-of-insight kind. Analytical, logical thinking moves laboriously, a step at a time, sorting, relating, finally concluding.

In contrast, intuitive ideation arrives at answers to a problem by mental shortcut. Frequently the person encountering a good idea all of a sudden is surprised by it. He may call it a hunch. “It feels good!” is a remark often heard from those who have had the experience. There is no logical explanation for it. He is totally unaware of the mental processes used to arrive at it.

I do not mean to imply that analytical thinking cannot be creative. It can, but man has rarely made great strides via this route. Intuitive thinking has been the kind that has made significant breakthroughs, such as Galileo’s concept of the universe.

Intuitive thinking is “hunch” thinking, to use the vernacular. It has produced many innovations in aerospace equipment design. The “coke bottle” fuselage idea used in supersonic planes came to Dr. Richard Whitcomb like a “bulb lighting up.” Dr. John Houbolt, a NASA scientist and engineer, scribbled some calculations on the back of an envelope after a sudden new thought, and the product was a device that helped get man to the moon. Spontaneously, it became clear that a lunar excursion module (LEM) was a scientific and engineering possibility. Like many innovative ideas, however, it was for a long time an idea no one wanted.

The Doolittle raid on Tokyo, a feat that reinvigorated the sagging morale of this nation after the debacle at Pearl Harbor, called for the takeoff of heavily laden bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The idea was conceived suddenly by Admiral Francis S. Low while flying to Washington. MacArthur conceived the brilliant strategic scheme for the Inchon landing in Korea while on a flight over that country.

Napoleon intimated that the outcome of a battle could hang on a thread and would most likely be decided as the result of a sudden thought: “One approaches the enemy according to a prearranged plan, one comes to blows, one fights for awhile, the critical moment draws near, a spark of inspiration flames up [My emphasis—J.E.M.], and a small reserve division does the rest!”

Hitler’s intuition, according to General Kurt Student, a retired German Air Force officer, produced one of the greatest surprises in military annals, the German glider attack on Fort Eben Emael. Ten gliders discharged 78 German infantrymen onto the roof of the mammoth “unconquerable” Belgian fort and within 20 minutes had subdued the 780 defenders. The loss of the fort proved of such catastrophic dimensions to the Belgian cause that within days the Belgians sued for peace. The double tragedies of Dunkerque and the fall of France were the unavoidable results.

The unusual ideas of many military innovators prove hard for their superiors to accept. Frequently this is so because such ideas would upset the hierarchical status quo, change current doctrine, and disturb the complacency of establishment-conditioned mentalities ensconced in cocoons of their own weaving.

Ideas unpalatable to the Army and his staunch support of them got Billy Mitchell into much trouble. Congress later cleared him after the validity of his ideas had been established. The Italians jailed General Giulio Douhet, apostle of air power. They finally recanted and released him when they caught up with his unorthodox thinking. General Claire Chennault was another who had a mind of his own, reportedly a quick and decisive one and certainly one that has contributed to the development of aggressive fighter doctrine.

psychologists’ viewpoints

Behavioral psychologists have pretty well identified the creative personality. Intuitive thinkers differ in personality traits and general outlook from average persons. The creative person is alert, confident, foresighted, informal, spontaneous, and independent. He is deeply involved in what he is doing. He is not afraid of his experiences, himself, or his world. Moreover, he accepts challenge readily. He is unconventional, yet comfortable in this role. He can live with doubt and uncertainty. He is willing and able to create and is not afraid of exposing himself to criticism.

Intuitive thinking sometimes brings the wrong answer, since all human activities are subject to error. But logical thinking also errs. Intuitive faculties cannot be turned off or on at will. Sometimes they refuse to operate. An intuitive person can sense when this faculty is operating. When one has “that feeling,” one rarely makes a mistake. When “that feeling” is not there, his judgments reflect only the laws of chance. The feeling of being on the beam, so to speak, comes and goes.

Psychologists hold that it is difficult to combine logical and intuitional thinking. The former interferes with intuition and distorts its message. One authority has even indicated that the “logical mentality is afraid to think.” What the author of this statement meant is that the individual who must sit down and figure out his problem step by step is afraid to trust the intuitive voice of his mind.

Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, explained intuition this way: “It can never be as precise as intellect [analytical thinking], nor a substitute. But what it lacks in precision, it makes up in immediacy. It comes into play whenever our vital interest is at stake. It pierces the darkness of night in which our intellect leaves us.”

Several stimuli help to increase creative thinking. Among them are:

Most individuals can be creative to a certain degree in the social environment in which they are immersed. Nevertheless, it is much better if an individual is in as free an environment as can be made available. The free environment increases creative ideation.

The captain of a warship is freer of constraints than the commander of an infantry regiment in that there are rarely any political boundaries to hem him in, or roads he must travel on, or barriers he cannot cross. The skipper of a submarine has yet another dimension than either of his surface colleagues. Once he departs from national shorelines, he is virtually alone in a boundless and boundaryless sea that imposes no restrictions on the movements of his sub as his mind wills it to move. 

The physical range and maneuvering potential of the aircraft pilot exceed that of the submarine skipper. The aerospace atmosphere is among nature’s most violent yet intangible elements, and the pilot is in constant contest with it. Like the submarine skipper, the pilot wields intellectual resources in three dimensions but at rocket speeds.

tension enhances creativity

It has been determined that tension, pressure of mission, and even danger enhance the quantity and quality of creativity. There is strong evidence that heroes, in reality, are not so much rash, brave beings as highly creative men who perceive more than their comrades. An unusual case to support the contention that danger can heighten creative output was reported of one of the world’s most famous mathematicians, the Frenchman Évariste Galois (1811-1832). He had allowed himself to be goaded into a duel. Throughout the night before the duel, in those last desperate hours before dawn, he sketched out intricate mathematical formulas. On the dueling ground the next morning, Galois, only 22, took a mortal wound, but generations of mathematicians have been kept busy by his final creative spurt. 

Pilots under combat stress perform breathtaking, innovative feats—tactics and maneuvers so new and different they are as creative as inventions or works of art. They are apparently the result of intuitive, flash-of-insight intellections just as notable inventions and artistic masterpieces are.

All pilots encounter unanticipated problems calling for innovative approaches when in flight. Many instances abound, but one described in the Winter 1970 Aerospace Historian is worth recounting as illustrative of one pilot’s inventiveness under stress. Colonel John D. Mainwaring, in “Born for Combat,” tells of an attack against a Japanese formation of 36 bombers which the then Lieutenant Donald C. McGee, in a flight of P-39s, encountered near Port Moresby, New Guinea:

As three of us finished our initial firing run and dove away to start our climb for the second attack, Mac, who was flying last, performed a prohibited maneuver. Dissatisfied with his firing pass, he, alone, turned back to hit the Japanese from the rear, where he would soon receive full cannon fire from the entire formation of bombers as well as cannon fire from the rearmost flight of escorting Zeroes. . . . Closing to 100 feet, he pumped the rudder pedals back and forth as he fired, to yaw his plane’s nose 15 degrees. In a split second he had knocked out all three bombers’ tail guns and gunners. Then he pulled into the center of this three-ship V-formation of bombers which were now totally defenseless.

The entire bomber formation went after Mac, dropping down or popping up so their rear gunners could get a shot at him. They soon discovered that they could not strike Mac without hitting their bomber mates. During this time Mac flew a cozy, tight formation with the three enemy bombers as he manually disarmed all his guns but one 50 caliber. . . . His plan was to employ one gun at a time to conserve ammunition. . . .

Then, with the calm of a pro golfer putting, he began firing short bursts from his one-armed 50 caliber at the port engine of the bomber element leader just in front of him. The crews of the Jap bombers flying on his wings just viewed the proceeding helplessly. His plan was to skip from bomber element to element, duplicating this same procedure until he’d downed all 36 bombers! . . .

When asked about the incident and how he had decided to use such tactics, Colonel McGee could not recall. He did mention that while attacking he always had the “feeling it was right, and that if one did not do right, one knew that one would ‘buy the farm.’”

contradiction exists

Interviews with other fighter pilots have shown general agreement that the training a pilot undergoes is what prepares him to do the correct thing in combat. Like McGee, some observed that the decision to make the maneuver that paid off “hit just right” or that “there was no logical explanation, I just did it.”

Although these experiences tend to resemble the character of the mental or emotional experiences of artists and scientists and leaders of the other military services when intuitions occurred, all pilots interviewed have been hesitant to use the term “intuition” to describe the source of their decision.

One reason may be that intuition is not understood. Also it is too unusual a suggestion for combat-experienced officers to absorb and accept easily. But once having grasped the meaning of intuition, many admitted having experienced it. I have spoken to many soldiers returned from combat, and, surprisingly, they were more apt than the officers to acknowledge that they fought by hunch dictates.

Those in command positions, who must plan strategy and tactics, are often more willing to accept the role of intuition, however. General Elwood Quesada, USAF (Retired), when asked if he felt intuition played a role in combat operations, replied, “Absolutely! It is an integral part of air combat as well as ground operations.” Asked if he had experienced it with any degree of frequency personally, he said:

It occurred over and over again. There is a lot of confusion in war. Intuition isn’t perfect, but it’s often the best thing there is! I can cite an example.

By the winter of 1944-45 ours was a close-in fighter force. Our bases were right up to the front. One day it intuitively hit me that the Germans were about to launch attacks against our airfields. I don’t know why the idea occurred at the particular time. However, I took the cue and acted on it right away. I ordered a fighter pilot into each anti-aircraft defensive position at each of my airfields. They were to be in the emplacements one half hour before dawn to one half hour after, and the same at dusk. I did this because I knew the ground crews were not well enough trained to recognize quickly German fighters sweeping in to strafe or bomb the fields, but my pilots with their combat against the German fighters could recognize them with little trouble.

Just as I thought, it was only a few days before German fighters descended on us, but we were ready for them. We got some, but they quickly learned they would pay heavily if they continued attacks on the 12 fields of my 9th Tactical Air Command. There were other fighter commands that had not anticipated such attacks, and they caught hell from the German fighters.

Psychology has conclusively established that there is intuitive-caliber creativity in operation in men in the arts and sciences and in war fought on the earth’s surface. Backing up the Air Force’s air arm is a creative effort of substantial dimensions in aircraft development, in planning, and in the creation of “Billy Mitchell”-quality doctrinal concepts for the use of air power. Evidence is lacking as yet to document man’s intuitive creativity in the space environment.

Theoretically, however, man should have an extraordinary ability to turn out more and better creative ideas while in space. The farther man escapes from man and from the confinement of his laws and customs on earth, the better and more exhilarating the intellectual performances of man in space should be. Explorers have sailed into vast unknowns to make fantastic discoveries and accomplish exceptional feats. Escaping the constraints of civilization seems to have helped them do this. But astronauts on space missions hundreds of thousands of miles out have had such close communication with earth that their isolation does not seem as complete as that of the explorers of earth’s farthest regions. Space explorers may have yet to experience a need for intuitive invention in that environment.

This brings us to another point. Separation from home base does not change the way man’s intellect operates. To those who would question the whole concept of creative thinking, or in a more narrow sense the fact that it goes on at all in flying, some of NASA’s conclusions about the psychological reactions of the astronauts to the stresses of deep-space flight are worth noting. These are digested from a paper presented to a conference on medical education for national defense by NASA psychologist Dr. E. J. McLaughlin. Essentially, space flight creates no psychological changes, Dr. McLaughlin declares. No astronaut experienced disorientation. Generally, weightlessness produced a pleasant state wherein crewmen found movement easy and pleasant.

Since intuition seems to increase in speed and quality in a man under stress or in danger, the question then arises, Can a pilot or astronaut produce a sudden, brilliant insight in flight just as the foot soldier does when he solves a dangerous situation confronting him in the jungle with an almost instinctively quick idea? If man does not change psychologically in space, then he must be able to achieve the same creative impulses in space as on land.

When these ideas were presented to Dr. Charles L. Jennings, Chief of the Clinical Psychology Function, School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks Air Force Base, Texas, he spoke of the need for pilots to learn to “transcend the obvious.” As he explained, pilots are taught appropriate responses to problems that can be reasonably forecast. Even these responses can become fixations. Pilots need to learn to develop untested theories quickly, to enable them to “rise above the obvious” (as he refers to the procedure), since many times they will encounter entirely unexpected challenges in flight to which there are no obvious solutions.

No amount of training, no amount of experience, will be entirely adequate to handle the all-too-frequent, totally new emergency. The instantaneous reaction to a tire blowout on landing in an emergency is a result, perhaps, of training having properly prepared the pilot for its occurrence.

The correction of a fault that jams a bomb bay will require something extra from the mind. Involved are not just the problems with one piece of equipment but with a whole array of equipment, modules, electronics, switches, or the human error of the bombardier. The mind is pressed to transcend the obvious, to do something truly innovative, to reach for genius in such situations; and countless reports provide convincing evidence that minds have produced handsomely under stress.

When pilot consensus about training being the main reason for getting out of tight pinches was cited, along with the contradiction that was created concerning intuition as the prime mover, Dr. Jennings was reassuring. In his opinion intuition is at work in space; it does not cease when man leaves the earth. He would be inclined to feel that though pilots were reluctant to admit to intuitive thought taking place when in stress, evidence strongly suggests that these messages, transformed to successful actions for which they cannot account, are indeed, on the whole, intuitive ones.

It is worth noting that there is an almost purposeful intent to avoid mention of creativity with respect to aerospace flight. Works about the psychology of flight are notably silent on the subject. Flight examinations stress eye testing, acceleration tests, and a host of psychological tests, but they disregard the mind. The examiners seem little concerned as to whether the mind exists.

But those who have experienced flight in space indicate otherwise. Astronaut John Glenn has stated:

You go into an unknown every time you fly in combat, and you often face stress situations that are far more exacting than the physical strain of pulling G’s. Through such experiences, and by constant training, combat pilots build up the experience required for quick reaction which they can rely on, almost without thinking [My emphasis—J.E.M.] whenever they get into trouble. . . .

Only man himself, however, has the imagination, curiosity, and flexibility to notice the smaller facts and take advantage of the unexpected things that crop up.

I feel that the mind puts forth an extra something in the aerospace environment, making possible phenomenal accomplishments in air combat and tremendous achievements in aerospace explorations in a relatively few years of effort. The extrasensory perception (ESP) experiments conducted during the Apollo 15 mission by Captain Edgar Mitchell bear watching. Their results so far appear strikingly significant.

There will always be challenging new situations ahead. Every cloud is different, every cloud bank an enigma, every enemy pilot a question mark to which no amount of training and experience will provide an exact answer, and perhaps they will provide no answer at all. It is in these situations, as in other fields of man’s endeavors, that it is well for a pilot to lean on his intuitive faculties, should they be making themselves heard from within the inner recesses of the mind.

Perhaps it is time for a more thorough investigation of this aspect of man’s thinking, to learn how intuition can be used in con junction with techniques of training to produce even more effective fighting men and better tactics and strategy.

What has been said here is so aptly expressed by Commander Howard Bucknell in the June 1964 United States Naval Institute Proceedings:

Play your hunches, Captain. No one else in the ship can develop such a composite “feel” for the ship as her captain. . . . Many commanding officers have had cause to regret that they did not heed that small inner voice that their unique experience, non-watchkeeping responsibility, and continuing information give them.

Silver Spring, Maryland


Contributor

Colonel James E. Mrazek, USA (Ret), (USMA; M.A., Georgetown University), was a glider-infantry regimental commander during World War II. Afterward he served in Germany, Czechoslovakia as Army Attaché, Korea, and at Command and General Staff College until his retirement in 1958. He is author of The Art of Winning Wars, The Fall of Eben Emael, and the forthcoming Fighting Gliders and Glider Warfare, both to be published in London. His articles appear in many U.S. and foreign military journals.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


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