When it comes to thinking about impossible conditions nothing even comes close to war. Armed combat has a way of presenting everything at once.
- Confusing information
- Limited resources
- Critical moments
- Fluid situations
- Immediate risk
- High stakes
In all this the human factor, flawed as it is, riven with insecurities, fears, uncertainties and a whole host of highly personalized issues that we usually lump together under the convenient label of “personal demons” has to somehow perform sufficiently well to survive and, possibly, win.
Let’s contextualize this a little more. Surviving means not dying. Winning means overcoming another subset of human beings who are undergoing the exact same process and who are locked, thanks to the localized nature of war, into the exact same conditions with additional variants of their own that arise out of their own unique cultural and personal conditions.
Let’s contextualize it even further. Executive decision making, in this context, is every decision that allows you to survive. Each time you are in a hostile engagement what you do and how you do it move the needle towards “right” or “wrong”, death or life.
Nothing, in this context, is clear. Things happen incredibly fast. The context in which they happen remains unclear. The planning you have in place is constantly changing. Your situation is constantly changing. The only measurable goal is survival. To make things harder your mission is sometimes unclear. The way you measure success is not the way success is measured by those higher up the chain from you.
Everything we do and the way we do it is part of a modular built up.
Dealing with all this requires perfect robot minds. Artificial intelligences driven by complex algorithms with seemingly unlimited information resources at their fingertips and capable of the 24 trillion operations per second your average AI car system can now perform.
Except there are no robot minds dealing with it. On each side of the armed combat interface are human beings. Physically fragile, mentally complex, emotionally unstable and tasked with making it all somehow work so they can come out the other side of it more or less intact.
How can this be done?
Because we’ve been waging war for such a long time in our history as a species, this is one instance of our activities which we have been able to optimize even before we fully understood the complex dynamics that govern it. Part of this is down to the essentially Darwinian Principle of survival inherent in war, which allows us to incrementally progress our learning by simply surviving each hostile engagement.
Mind Under Pressure
This has created a framework that takes higher-level elements such as Situational Awareness, Focus, the Mindset we succeed in creating and the Communal relationships we build in such situations and devolves each of these into simple, practical activities that allow the core goal of survival to be achieved.
In this context the self is always a complex mix of basic drives (the need to survive), information processing (drives, talents, inclination) and training (skills).
Knowing all this now, if you want to experience a little of the chaotic nature of war and how this framework helps you survive you may want to check out two award-winning documentaries by Sebastian Junger called, respectively, Restrepo and Korengal.
The trailers below are gripping in their own right and they barely do each documentary justice:
I’ve watched each documentary as part of writing The Sniper Mind more than a dozen times. Each time I tease out a little more operational detail out of the context within which such human activity takes place.
It sounds here like I am trivializing war and the killing that takes place in it. That’s not what I am doing. War is a deplorable human activity which leaves losers even amongst the winners. In order to examine the impossibility of normal human beings functioning successfully within its premise and parameters it is important to strip it of its affective elements and look at it dispassionately.
Everything we do and the way we do it is part of a modular built up. The triumvirate of Survival>Information Processing>Training shown in the illustration above creates dictates that are encountered in every possible human activity.
What we learn from this approach is that the human mind, under pressure, can be made to operate effectively when specific training is applied that allows it to understand how to break things down and slowly build them up. The same processes that enable us, as individuals, to survive war can be used to effectively deal with any other situation.
We can learn how to make better business decisions, deal with a crisis in our lives (or business), avoid emotional pitfalls that can blindside us and change the perspective we have of specific situations so we can deal with them better.
The approach is not without its own sandtraps. Controlling our emotions is not the same as shutting them down. Becoming dispassionate is not the same as losing our sense of empathy. Operating like a super-human uber-cool decision machine is not the same as losing our sense of humanity.
How we learn to balance all this so we can achieve successful outcomes requires honest self-appraisal and the willingness to make ourselves feel mentally and emotionally uncomfortable.
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