The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface


Should soldiers think before they shoot?



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Should soldiers think before they shoot?

One activity that might seem to fall into this category is frontline warfare. In the heat of battle, it might seem that there is no time to think. But should soldiers ever shoot without thinking? Clearly much of what must occur in military action must be automatic. A marine once told me that because of the numerous drills he has been through, he reloads his weapons without any thought at all. Re-loading, yes, but what about shooting? Somehow, perhaps because of the large M4 carbine in his arms, I was too intimidated to ask. According to the view I advocate, expert action generally involves and is not hindered by relevant thoughts. This is not to say that expert action does not also involve some level of automaticity. And reloading for soldiers may be one aspect of expert warfare that does occur at the automatic level. (Though even here I would imagine that the action should not become so automatic so that if one does stop to think that she forgets what to do. That is not a situation a soldier ever wants to find herself in.)

According to the stereotypical idea of military performance, soldiers are taught not to think about what they are doing, lest they end up humanizing the enemy. However, in contrast to this stereotype, standard military doctrine rejects the idea that soldiers should just do and not think, as highlighted, for example, in “The U.S. Army Concept for the Human Dimension in Full Spectrum Operations” (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2008), which states that “soldiers must be able to recognize the moral implications in a given situation, reason through the situation to form a moral judgment, develop the intent to act, and finally, summon the courage and conviction to carry through with the intended behavior” (p. 19). Recognizing moral implications, reasoning through situations, making moral judgments, developing intentions, and exerting one’s will power to follow thought with those intentions is as good an invocation of the think-to-win principle as I can imagine.

This standard protocol, however, has been questioned. As the military theorist Jorgen Eriksen (2010) points out, “intuition [which involves acting without preliminary thought] has started to find its way into military doctrines as a supplement to traditional decision-making procedures, primarily in time-constrained situations” (p. 197). Moreover, the idea that thought is inimical to outstanding military performance was also espoused by the nineteenth-century military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz in his book On War. Clausewitz writes:

During an operation decisions usually have to be made at once: there may be no time to review the situation or even to think it through . . . [T]he concept [of being a military expert genius or expert] merely refers to the quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection. (1976: p. 102)
Clausewitz called the military genius’s characteristic decision a “coup d’oeil” because, he thought, a military expert has the ability to see things at a glance, or, literally, the stroke of the eye. Eriksen wants to determine which view is correct: the view expressed in standard military protocol or the one found in On War. He wants to know, as he says, whether “soldiers [should] engage in deliberate and thoughtful processes before they respond to upcoming complex and ambiguous situations” (Eriksen 2010: p. 196). In particular, he is interested in the matter of discriminating between combatants and noncombatants, which may be extraordinarily difficult in situations where combatants with concealed weapons dress as civilians and mix in with the civilian population. Attacks from such combatants, Eriksen points out, “may occur at close range from seemingly non-combatant citizens and the soldiers’ responses to such situations must be immediate to be successful” (2010).

Yet should such immediate action involve thought? Eriksen assumes that expert intuition (that is, the ability to see important features of a situation) arises out of the expert’s background familiarly with the situation at hand. And, as he points out, on the Dreyfus and Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, it is only after years of involved experience that such background familiarity is in place. Yet, based on information he culled from interviews and informal conversations with Norwegian soldiers and officers, Eriksen argues that in situations where combatants with concealed weapons dress as civilians and mix in with the civilian population, soldiers never have enough opportunities for practice, and so never reach the level of ability that Dreyfus and Dreyfus characterize as intuitive (Eriksen 2010: p. 204-206). Thus, it is at least not clear, he concludes, that they should proceed automatically.

What does Eriksen’s insight mean for the just-do-it principle? The (descriptive) just-do-it principle is a principle about expert action: that in normal circumstances, experts perform at their best without thinking in action. However, Eriksen points out that even expert soldiers typically will not have much experience identifying combatants in difficult situations. As he puts it, “[although] it should theoretically be possible for them to develop into intuitive experts for that specific task…it is questionable whether the soldiers are exposed to relevant situations enough times to develop any kind of intuitive response” (2010: p. 214). And the “theory” he relies on is Dreyfus’s theory of skill acquisition, according to which the expert, after extended practice, acts intuitively. We have just seen that in medicine, the time-out protocol was introduced in order to encourage experts, who do have extended relevant practice, to deliberately slow down and employ conscious thought. And I suggested that in certain medical specialties, such as radiology or dermatology, it may be beneficial to employ strategies that prevent one from falling into the automatic, that, in a sense, prevent one from entering what some refer to as a state of “flow.” The scenario Eriksen describes brings out another potential weakness of just-do-it, which is that ‘experts’, at least in some sense of the term, may not have sufficient experience in a particular domain-relevant skill that would call for the type of automatic processing that Dreyfus thinks is characteristic of expertise.

However, it is not clear that the inapplicability of just-do-it in such situations counts in favor of think-to-win, since it seems at best an open question whether such soldiers are experts (as I use this term) at identifying combatants in the relevant situations. They have not deliberately practiced this skill for an extended period of time, so in according with my stipulative definition of expertise, they would not count as experts in this specific domain. Hence, Eriksen’s insight may be neutral with respect to the truth of just-do-it, and indeed he does seem to understand his point as being neutral in this way: there are some activities at which we never become experts at, for which one cannot have intuitive insight, of the kind Dreyfus admires, into what to do. What this means in the case of identifying combatants in asymmetric warfare, according to Eriksen, is that thinking is advised.82 Of course, if we were to individuate domain-relevant skills finely enough, we would be forced to say that there are no experts whatsoever, since it is never the case that one performs actions in exactly the same way even twice. I would like to avoid this conclusion, even though I cannot present guidelines for differentiating practiced skills from unpracticed ones, though perhaps the case of asymmetric warfare falls on the unpracticed side of the divide. (In the next chapter I shall discuss some cases of actions that, though never done before, fall on the practiced side.)

The philosopher Larry May (2007), in his book on military ethics, presents a different argument for the importance of soldiers engaging in rational reflection prior to action, which does seem to attack just-do-it. Also concerned with the soldier’s ability to discriminate combatants from noncombatants, he argues that one important reason to uphold the principle that war tactics ought to discriminate combatants from noncombatants is that this principle, in his words, “force[s] soldiers to think before they shoot” (p. 108). And this ought to be encouraged, he tells us, because “this will nearly always mean that the soldier will shoot less, which is nearly always good in itself” (p. 108-109).

Taking a “time-out” is important in combat since, as May sees it, it tends to lead to less shooting overall. Whether less shooting overall is good in itself can of course be debated; however, it does seem that in a society such as ours in which killing noncombatants is seen as highly morally reprehensible, one must try one’s best to minimize such actions. And it may be that in some cases (such as when it is difficult to identify combatants), thinking facilitates the making of such discriminations. But what about situations where one really does not have time to think, such as when one sees a gun being pulled? Eriksen presents a soldier’s description of how this scenario differs from others:


I think the most important capacity to develop concerns how fast I manage to get an impression of the situation, and as a consequence, how alert and focused I have to be. I use a kind of leveled system which indicates different states of alertness; green, yellow, orange, red and black. Green is careless, not thinking of a threat at all. Yellow indicates a little suspiciousness; something does not fit the total picture. Orange, something has triggered me. I start to consider what to do if something happens. Red is action, based on the considerations made in orange. Black occurs because you are in green when you should have been in orange. If somebody suddenly points at you with a gun, out of the blue, that’s black; no consideration has been made about how to respond. (Eriksen 2010: p. 13)
Black (a situation in which you need to react without thinking) according to this soldier, does occur. But on his view, if you are doing your best, you don’t enter black. “Black occurs,” he tells us, “because you are in green when you should have been in orange.” Perhaps it is overly optimistic to think that it is humanly possible to never enter black. Nonetheless, on

his view, at least ideally, the best performance never leads to black. That is, even if once in black, one has to act instantly, one ought never to have gotten into black in the first place.





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