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Look at That Jerk – Texting While Shooting Hellfires…

January 17, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

A Jan 16th article on New York Times.com takes a look at the impacts of the information age battlefield.  Apparently military leaders are figuring out that more information isn’t always better.  The article cites a February, 2010 incident in which 23 Afghan civilians were killed by an airstrike based on faulty information from a Predator UAV (drone).  The Predator team was required to monitor the aircraft’s video feed while simultaneously instant-messaging in tactical chat rooms AND talking on the radio.  An anonymous military officer familiar with the incident commented, “Information overload – an accurate description.”

The real culprit here is multitasking, or more appropriately, the myth of multitasking.  According to Joe Robinson, author of one of my favorite articles of all time, E-mail is Making You Stupid, the brain can only do one thing at a time.  Someone who is multitasking isn’t doing three things at once, rather, he is constantly switching from one to the next to the next and back again.  Robinson writes:

Say a salesman is trying to read a new e-mail while on the phone with a client. Those are both language tasks that have to go through the same cognitive channel. Trying to do both forces his brain to switch back and forth between tasks, which results in a “switching cost,” forcing him to slow down. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that productivity dropped as much as 40 percent when subjects tried to do two or more things at once. The switching exacts other costs too–mistakes and burnout. One of the study’s authors, David Meyer, asserts bluntly that quality work and multitasking are incompatible.

Unfortunately, the military has a long and glorious history of ignoring the physiological limitations of the human body.  Despite the evidence that working when deprived of sleep is functionally equivalent to being drunk, the Army, for example, will routinely direct Soldiers to perform dangerous tasks without proper sleep.  This occurs under the assumption that if you do well on your physical fitness test then you should be able to overcome sleep deprivation.  What does running two miles have to do with overcoming basic human physiology?  Nothing, as it turns out.    In fact, a creative Army Major conducted a study on the subject more than 25 years ago and found no connection between physical fitness and the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation.

The Army is doing it again here.  LTG Mark Hertling, the general who oversees Army basic training, is quoted as saying, “It’s the way this generation learns…  It’s a multitasking generation. So if they’re multitasking and combining things, that’s the way we should be training.”  Just because this generation is doing it that way doesn’t mean its right or good.  Like my mother used to say, “If Jimmy jumped off a cliff would you follow him?”

You can’t teach/train multitasking.  What you can do is reduce the number of tasks the Predator operator or Soldier is trying to accomplish.  This means higher headquarters needs to get off the net and let the commander on the ground control the action, talk to the Predator team, and get things done (UAV video feeds are affectionately known as “Field Grade Crack” in the Army).  Higher level commanders need to start making themselves comfortable with the fact that they don’t need to know RIGHT NOW.  Let the company commanders and platoon leaders fight the fight – they will call you if they need you.

P.S.  Running really fast on the physical fitness test won’t help either.

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  1. Great Post
    January 25, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    I just had to comment that I loved the term, “Field Grade Crack” when referring to a UAV feed in a TOC. It is so true. If anyone wanted to REALLY pare all of the retarded Lieutenant Colonels and Majors out of the Army, they could just put observers in all of the Battalion/Task Force/Squadron TOCs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who exceeded a given quota (depending HOW MUCH they wanted to pare down the ranks; more UAV feed viewing at that grade is directly proportionate to more retarded) should be fired. Thus, the ones who are monitoring the developing situation, properly employing their battle captain, and commanding vs. micromanaging would survive. (Now- the ones who are actually IN the battle space at the decisive point of the action with their platoons instead of being FOBBITs in the TOC should be skipped right to General- this might happen if only Company Grades and Senior NCOs could run the Army…)

    • January 25, 2011 at 7:29 pm

      JoeMomma,

      Thanks for the feedback, and thanks for stopping by to read the post!

      M.L.

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