Lifting the Fog of War

Dr. Dave Ricciuti

It is of immense importance that the soldier, high or low, whatever rank he has, should not have to encounter in War those things which, when seen for the first time, set him in astonishment and perplexity; if he has only met with them one single time before, even by that he is half acquainted with them.                                                                                                           -Carl von Clausewitz (1)

War has a way of highlighting man’s weaknesses—both physical and mental. Combat reveals the limits of human ability that once crossed; often result in significant losses in individual and unit performance.  The emotions and experiences of combat differ wildly among individuals.  For some, combat heightens their senses and sharpens their reflexes; but for many, an increase in the intensity and frequency of combat exposure can cause a corresponding increase in fear and stress.  Numerous effects have been noted, seen, and experientially and experimentally proven to occur during times of high stress/combat.  All of these potential effects of high stress environments and the engagement of the adrenal stress response in the body have only one goal: survival. 

Lifting the Fog of War
From a purely physical perspective, the ambush moment initiates a lightning-fast, whole body response that is coordinated by a small portion of the brain known as the amygdala.  The output from the amygdala into the brainstem areas that are in control of our reflexes creates massive coordinated muscular contractions, postural shifts, changes in eye focus and pupil dilation, etc. in response to a threat.  The fear and desperation created by a sudden attack causes first the “flinch or freeze” response which is then followed by the well-known “flight or fight” response.  What is vital to understand is that all of these responses which are built into the “fight or flight” system of the body are only a part of the story. In fact, this response is in fact a secondary response of the body to an immediate threat and occurs after the incredibly fast response of the amygdala. For developing a training methodology that most efficiently enhances real-world survival, understanding this distinction is vital: amygdalic reaction, first – fight or flight response, second.  The amygdala connects directly into the brainstem of the body where all of our instinctual responses and reflexive responses to danger are stored. This is a beautifully designed protective mechanism of the body that does not require conscious thought.   In fact, modern researchers believe that many of the amygdalic responses to danger do not involve the cerebrum, the cognitive/thinking portion of the brain at all. The reflexes bypass our learned behaviors.  By thetime the cortex has figured out the situation, the amygdala has already started to defend against possible dangers.The information received by the amygdala from the thalamus is unfiltered and biased toward action. In contrast, the cortex's job is to prevent an inappropriate response rather than an appropriate one.

If personnel in the future conflicts are to deal with the asymmetric extreme of modern warfare, while maintaining a capacity for more conventional conflict, then training needs to ensure that they perceive or believe that they are well prepared and able to cope in a range of situations. If the body will react without the benefit of our conscious brain where we store all of our typical tactics, techniques and training, the traditional approach of over-learning to engender instinctive reactions does not result in optimal combat performance.  The cognitive dissonance and amygdalic reactions that are virtually guaranteed in a real world fight wreak havoc on the typical trained, fine motor responses taught in most current combat training and there is evidence to suggest that skills learned will quickly degrade under extreme and prolonged stress

Training Implications.
We know that the amygdala contains, instinctive and intuitive fears, but also that it can learn.  Combat affects soldiers violently, and they must be conditioned to deal with their fear.  If training can condition a warrior to kill, then training can condition him to cope with fear. The key is not desensitization, but sensitization. Soldiers need to know how their minds and bodies will react to fear and develop a combative mindset that mitigates the psychological and physiological effects of fear. Experiential learning is critical in sensitizing soldiers to the bedlam of combat.  Numerous experiments have shown that while it is virtually impossible without radical brain surgery to completely eliminate the instinctive amygdalic response to danger, it is possible, through training, to modify the flinch response. The amygdalic receives INPUT from every sensory system of the body. Thus the amygdala can create responses to danger signals represented in the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile or gustatory systems. In other words, the amygdala can instantly respond to any sensory input into the body that indicates danger, regardless of the source. A training alternative is to provide realistically stimulated environments that can increase personnel self-efficacy or confidence to deal with the unexpected. Promising work in the aviation human factors domain shows that the performance of aircrews in high-risk and high-stress conditions can be improved by enhancing a range of basic communication, interpersonal and situational awareness skills.  Research also suggests that this form of stimulation does not need to be high fidelity or overtly realistic—it just needs to expose personnel to the unexpected in a situation where they are able to demonstrate they can cope. Training that balances fundamental military skills while encouraging innovation at the team and individual levels, would assist not only with asymmetric operations, but also contribute to recently identified complex warfighting requirements for versatility and agility.  

The pay-off for lifting the fog of war would certainly be huge:  Preparing warriors to operate effectively in such an environment will only be achieved through realistic training that embraces conditions of chaos, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and employs a realistic, free-thinking opposing force, with real-world capabilities and strategies.  Tactically speaking, research has proven that as the number of available options increases, so does reaction time. In other words, having one available alternative, in a situation that requires the fastest possible reaction time, is the best situation available – as long as the available option is capable of meeting the threat.  Future war will remain characterized by friction, ambiguity and chaos, and will be more complex, diverse, and lethal than ever before. Speed, precision, lethality, and range of weapon systems have combined to compress events in time so that warfighters must make decisions faster and therefore have less time to process and evaluate the situations as they unfold around them.

Australian Army Richards B. A., Hodson, A., Wright, R., Churchill, R.  and Major Blain, J. (2003). Future conflict and its implications for personnel in the Australian Defence Force.

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von Clausewitz, C, 1982, On War, Penguin Books, London.

Wilson, C, Braithwaite, H & Murphy, P, 2003, ‘Psychological Preparation for the Battlefi eld’, in Kearney, G E, Creamer, M, Marshall, R & Goyne, A (Eds), Military Stress and Performance – The Australian Defence Force Experience, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

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