Air University Review, July-August 1984

Certain Uncertainty: Inoculating for Surprise

Dr. Roger A. Beaumont

CLAUSEWITZ called war the "province of chance," for, in essence, war is a collision of opposing imperfect systems. How much victory (or defeat) is a product or skill, leadership, situation, subsystem, or chance is not anywhere nearly as clear as searchers after a science of war would like it to be. Unhappily, much military history tends to present war as a kind of athletic contest, with much anecdotalism plus maps that suggest an order and precision that were not apparent to winners or losers at the time. In any case, the image of military commanders as martial virtuosos, or maestros of violence, lives on. The mythology of generalship is based on an assumption that commanders constantly and boldly impose their will on the complex tangle of sinews and tendrils of modern combat. The realities, while less glamorous, are not less real for their being undramatic: detailed logistical planning, lag-time, error, and the technical intricacies of the administration "tail" and of communication nets--these stand in tension with the popular images of combat at the cutting edge, where skill, courage, aggressiveness, craftiness, stamina, speed of thought, and reflex are at a premium. War is, after all, similar to football in more than one sense.

THE game of football, often drawn on symbolically by Americans in war, does have some analogies that are rather less apparent than is usually noted, particularly in the domain of roles. In the same way that support roles in military operations are well out of the picture in most fictional renditions and in much military history, so are the many people involved in the support of players and coaches, e.g., trainers, scouts, publicists, accountants, clerical personnel, and even owners and alumni. Beyond that, like war, football is unrelenting in its pressure on the coach and his quarterback. The case of "squad leaders in the sky" in Vietnam showed how some commanders, like some coaches, found it difficult to leave the game in the hands of those actually "playing."

There have, in any case, been many instances of a split in view between sidelines and teams in the military realm, as the development of new technologies of transport and communication have extended the battle zone far beyond what any one commander's view could physically encompass. Thus, it has become necessary to extend the commander's abilities through the addition of a staff.

Staffs and headquarters have existed well back in the modern period. From their beginnings, the staff's function evolved incrementally from essentially housekeeping and personal service to the commander into a kind of administrative arm. After Waterloo, the rate of this evolution was accelerated as the synthesis of railways and telegraph systems began to have a radical impact on the scale and pace of warfare. It was also in the nineteenth century that technical functions and services became increasingly important as the industrial revolution gained momentum.

Nevertheless, the image of the heroic warrior lived on, creating a tension between the need for individual aggressiveness and skill in combat and the growing bureaucratization and mechanization of war. This tension was similar to the one that existed in the dichotomy between dashing entrepreneurship and anonymous professional management that appeared in the late nineteenth-century business world.

Under these conditions, friction and invidious comparisons between staff and line officers began to appear, compounding as time progressed. Such examples as the organizational battle between sailors and engineers in the U.S. Navy after the Civil War and the epithet "gabardine swine" aimed at some British staff officers in World War I indicate the trend. More recently, in the 1960s, this tension between line and staff personnel was revealed in the remark of a French paratroop commander in Algeria who distinguished between "those who fight--and the others." The result has been that line officers and troops and staff and support elements often have lost sight of their vital symbiotic relationship and have forgotten if they were to attain effective levels of teamwork, they would have to reappraise their predisposition to struggle for turf.

While the tension between the combat "teeth" and the supporting "tail" elements was aggravated by many who lamented the increase in the "tail," few in the military wished to address the difficulties. Thus, when military professionals, such as Charles de Gaulle in the 1930s in France and William Hauser in the 1970s in the United States, pointed out the expanding boundaries of the "tail" and the need to rationalize the player-quarterback-coach-manager boundaries to maximize the impact of the team, they met apathy or substantial hostility.

In the United States, some critics (e.g., Gabriel and Savage's Crisis in Command and "Cincinnatus's" Self-Destruction) traced the dilemmas of Vietnam to the rise of a managerial ethic, while many since then have called for a return to feudal-heroic values, pointing most often to the German model as the best prototype. Overlooked is the fact that although the self-image of "manager" has remained unpopular in the U.S. military, much of the career of professional officers is spent in performing bureaucratic-managerial tasks in a peacetime setting. The dominant prestige of the role of wartime commander-combat unit leader remains, creating an imbalance and generating disdain for these "tail" tasks--tasks that are vital if fighters are to battle effectively and win. The current evocation of Patton as a warrior in tension with a bureaucratic system is notably ironic, given Patton's great sensitivity to the need to avoid interfering with his subordinate commanders. In spite of his image, sensitive discussions of what Kipling called "the sweet-leaving-well-enough-alone" are threaded through the Patton Diaries. More recent recognition of the problem appears in stark form in Field Manual 100-5, Operations, which defines the role "battle captains," to achieve an American equivalent of the German aufträgsbefehlgebung/aufträdgstaktih--i.e., the giving of the general-mission orders, rather than calling in detailed plays from the sidelines.

The most critical point of tension between players/quarterbacks and the sideline coach in the military realm is seen in respect to the threat and realization of surprise. Obviously, an attack on the nuclear triad by an enemy would be a catastrophe far worse than any experienced in history. Indeed, prognostication may prove ultimately to have been a wholly futile exercise. However, even before nuclear weapons appeared, the torrent of increasingly refined weapons pouring forth from the industrial revolution had increased the sense of uncertainty and futility on the part of planners and commanders. In conventional wars, great and small, and in guerrilla wars (and terrorism to an even greater extent), the point of decisionreaction has been forced down upon the young leaders on the spot, a phenomenon carefully traced by S. L. A. Marshall, while simultaneously a countercurrent to that trend has appeared in the form of C3 technology. Thus, in the United States, presidential authority has been extended into even such very small-scale operations as the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the subsequent Rolling Thunder air war, the Mayaguez affair, and the Eagle Claw raid in Iran. It should be kept in mind, however, that such intervention at the combat contact level has been mainly in individual crises or in the closely controlled context of limited conflict related to the cold war. Thus, preemption of on-the-spot command discretion has been driven by anxiety radiating from the "red phone," i.e., the fear of nuclear escalation.

As much as some military professionals dream of a world in which they could proceed free of politics, it has been a very long time since generals had a freewheeling time of it--if they ever did. As a general, George Washington grappled with the Continental Congress; President Polk sent a special agent to oversee Winfield Scott in Mexico; Lincoln and Congress, like Johnson and Congress more than a century later, wrestled for control of the Army; and General Sherman exiled himself to St. Louis, Missouri, in deference to the reality of civilian control by Secretary of War Robert Lincoln. Similarly, General Arthur MacArthur was checkmated by Governor-General William Howard Taft in the Philippine Insurrection, General Pershing was constantly fending off interAllied pressures during the AEF's buildup and the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and General Henry "Hap" Arnold was subjected to constant nudging from President Roosevelt during the fitful course of deploying the not fully developed B-29 in China and the Pacific. President Eisenhower's problems with Admiral Darlan, the MacArthur-Truman controversy during the Korean War, and the politicomilitary Gordian knot of Vietnaryi are still fresh in the minds of many. Nevertheless, the myth of civil-military exclusivity dies hard. But a myth it is. In spite of the constitutionally defined preeminence of civilian authority, many military enthusiasts still seek an ideal world in which professionals practice the military art, free of sordid political concerns.

Interpenetration has, of course, run both ways; the Grossegeneralstab helped stifle German liberalism and gave Hitler a hand up to power at least twice. To be obedient and effective requires the ability to read nuances, to anticipate and to advise, to see political factors, and to be far from naive. To return to the analogy: professional football coaches, players, and trainers must read the sports page, recognize the existence of a team budget, and develop a feel for the concerns of the managers, the owners, and the fans.

The anticipation of surprise, in any case, is very closely related to the realm of politics, inside the military services and outside, since surprise has as its target the coping capacity of not only the commanders and their staffs but the political elements in the opponent's society. The launching of Sputnik in 1957 may not have been a surprise to U.S. officials or to many scientists, but it was to many Americans. In a sense, the failure to cushion the public in advance led to a kind of strategic defeat in itself. It is hardly surprising that much current concern over C3 circulates around the problem of surprise in the realm of combat.

Every major modern military power has suffered major surprises and dealt them out as well in battle. Insomuch as recent studies suggest that these are growing in frequency, they must be coped with in a practical way. Forms of surprise vary. They include technological surprise, like the German "smart bomb" during the Salerno landing, the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and the very skillful use of state-of-the-art equipment, e.g., in the Pearl Harbor attack and the Israeli preemptive air strike of 1967. Or they may stem from artful fusion or modification of on-the-shelf weapons and forces, as was the case when the British navy used shallow-draft aerial torpedoes against the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940, and during the Doolittle raid of 1942, when U.S. Army medium-size bombers flew from Navy carriers to attack Japan. The time, place, and shape of force deployment may be the key element in surprise, as it was in the German blitzkrieg campaigns and at El Alamein during World War II and at Inchon, South Korea.

In a recent study, Barton Whaley identified sixty-nine cases of military surprise in the twentieth centurv. The implicit question is: What can one do about surprise in advance? The target of a surprise attack is the sense of self-confidence, the stability of mind, and the competency of the target, as well as physical destruction of forces. As Martin Blumerison has pointed out in analyzing relief of commanders in the U.S. Army, such actions may often not be necessary changes but reactions to stress felt by the relievers. Certainly, the pattern has been to relieve or otherwise humiliate commanders after a major surprise--i.e., to hunt for head. General Short and Admiral Kimmel, the commanders in Hawaii, were shunted offstage after Pearl Harbor; General Fredendall, II Corps commander, was sent home after Kasserine Pass; General Bradley had one of his armies transferred to Field Marshal Montgomery's command immediately after the Germans struck the Bulge; and the failure to anticipate Chinese entry into the Korean War in 1950 made MacArthur's relief much easier, if not inevitable.

One can debate the question of competence in these cases, and one can argue that losers should be dumped to avoid spreading gloom through the ranks. This latter logic, however, denies victims a chance for redemption and ignores the fact that defeat is often the goad to dramatic action. Anthony Wayne avenged the Paoli Massacre, after much anguish; Admiral Kelly Turner erased the stain of losing a ship; MacArthur "returned." Too quick a tendency to relieve overlooks the fact that relief can deprive an organization of leaders who have some practical knowledge of prevailing conditions. Even the most brilliant replacement will need some time before he can take charge effectively. The matter is certainly not as simple as it might seem on the surface. Relief can produce an atmosphere in which fear of risk-taking and near-hysteria can affect successors, and a broader sense of anxiety and resentment can build in the force as well. The sense of caution and rigidity prevalent among Union commanders (1862-64), in British forces after Dunkirk (1940), in the Red Army from the mid- 1930s to 1942, and within the U.S. Navy from December 1941 to May 1942 are evidence of the effect. The frequency with which General Omar Bradley referred in his memoirs to senior officers being relieved is both alarming and thought-provoking.

IS THERE an antidote or an antitoxin to surprise? Certainly a need for a kind of inoculation is evident, a rigorous program of preparation, based on the fact that surprise is quite likely to happen. Techniques for preparing to cope after a disorienting attack include:

The last point seems to fly in the face of traditional military organization and operations, which emphasize discipline, hierarchy, and authority. Yet that is not the case: the chaos, turmoil, fear, pain, and destruction inherent in war (words rarely used and not kept at very high levels of reality in much training maneuver or in doctrine) require discipline, hierarchy, authority, and high morale. Demanding the unobtainable or nitpicking in this context detract from these essentials.

Information that flows in a system under high stress is only an approximation of reality. How much can be learned about a game by reading play diagrams? In the same sense, graphics of command in combat and crisis, even in modern C3 systems, are approximations. Under conditions of stress, people lose some of their ability to monitor, respond, and cope effectively. Simultaneously, they tend to be prey to pessimism and pettiness; hence, the maliciousness and blame-assigning that one can find in military history, biography, and autobiography. Fear manifests itself in many forms--from compulsiveness and fixation to pointless anger and rashness. Pretending "it isn't so" or imposing standards of unattainable excellence to generate stress may be useful up to a point, but such responses also can preclude both awareness of human limitations and methods of monitoring and controlling actual trauma. Just as the "care of the flier" program was a response to the unusual demands of aircraft piloting, "care of commanders and staffs" provision is needed in the sphere of C3 networks and systems so that current barriers to commanders' disqualifying themselves are removed. In the same way that pilots can ground themselves when they sense problems developing or football players can seek medical aid when injured, the command-staff nexus should have a circuit-breaker available so that there is no stigma attached to temporary inadequacy and withdrawal from decision making. The tradeoff between establishing a reputation for toughness by overstressing versus ensuring the safety and needs of the command is a matter already under review but in need of far more scrutiny.

Advances in science and technology, coupled with increasing knowledge of human behavior, have been changing the nature of warfare steadily for almost two centuries. Success in war has often gone to those who have most effectively woven together seemingly contradictory elements of feudal warriorhood and the industrial revolution. Blindness to or rejection of implications of oncoming technology is correlated strongly with the definition of military failure and incompetence.

The basic challenge is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the interactive system of command networks and to take advantage of them. It is essentially a problem in organizational engineering, a field of activity often relegated to the staff level in major organizations, even in those in which industrial engineering has a strong tradition. Ironically, the idea that materials might fail is accepted and "designed around" or worked to the best advantage of the system under consideration, while human fallibility is not. Nevertheless, the inoculation of people to surprise and to failure is not to create excuses in advance or to predispose to failure, but to acknowledge very real limitations in human abilities and to puncture myths which, if accepted and compounded, could be far more deadly; i.e., adhering to a system where key players neither sense when to get off the field nor understand that they should even think about it.

In considering the function of Kipling's two imposters (triumph and disaster) in individual lives, it might be helpful to keep in mind that the principal wartime American commanders in chief (Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Truman) all suffered grave setbacks and disappointments to their ambitions and in their personal lives prior to assuming the burden of office. Many of the American generals who fit into the category of being at least contenders for great captains (e.g., Grant, Pershing, MacArthur, and Eisenhower) met similar adversities and tribulations. Their ordeals were seen later as a part of a hardening process, a hammering-out on the anvil of life that enhanced their greatness and, indeed, contributed to it.

The intentional imposition of stress on individuals, however, even for the purpose of preparing them for roles of increasing responsibility as commanders and controllers of expensive and critical networks at first glance appears to be inhumane and unethical. Yet, complex societies are literally cluttered with rites of passage: medical doctors, lawyers, academics, certain categories of business executives, chartered life underwriters, aircraft pilots, astronauts, and various skilled-trade people pass through arduous selection processes in which failure of some people aspiring to that status is implicit.

The intentional stressing of people to the point of failure in certain kinds and levels of military training is generally tolerated, even though labeling those who fail causes some anguish. Disappointment, stress, and a sense of limit are a part of the business of selection and preparation. Sensitizing commanders and controllers to recognize their own limits and allowing them to experience some degree of failure may thus be seen as a kind of prudent testing. As long as there are people in the loop of warfare, reliability and limitations will be somewhat uncertain but important factors. A continuing growth of knowledge about limits within the fusion of people and systems is vital to maximizing the benefits that each element can offer in a world of surprises.

Texas A&M University, College Station


Roger A. Beaumont (B.S., M.S., University of Wisconsin; Ph.D., Kansas State University) is a Professor of History at Texas A&M University. Formerly Associate Professor of Organization Science, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Associate Director of the Center for Advanced Study in Organization Science, he is author of Military Elites and Sword of the Raj: The British Army in India, 1747-1947 and coeditor of War in the Next Decade. Dr Beaumont's articles have appeared in numerous publications, including the Review.


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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