Don't Underestimate the Fog of War

Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden died at the hand of a U.S. Navy SEAL team in a compound in a wealthy, militarized suburb of the Pakistani capital. Bin Laden’s death is a symbolic blow to the terrorist organization and was met with elation in the United States, though the details surrounding the strike operation are painting a less than flattering picture of the White House.

Others can (and will) debate whether or not President Obama’s 16-hour delay in launching the strike or his vacillating on releasing photographic evidence of bin Laden’s death are mistakes, but far more interesting is explaining the “fog of war” that accounts for the varied and changing stories of precisely how Osama bin Laden was killed.

Early reports read that when operators of Seal Team 6 burst into bin Laden’s room, he was holding a weapon, and using one of his wives as a human shield. Variants of the story (and there are several) differed on whether or not he fired his weapon, and reports differed on the number of times bin Laden was shot (2-3) and the precise locations of his wounds (head, chest, or both). The most recent iteration of the story is that bin Laden was unarmed but resisting, that he was shot twice (one shot each to the head and chest), and that his wife wasn’t killed but shot in the leg as she rushed operators entering the room.

The Obama administration has come under considerable criticism from a frustrated media and public that wants a simple, unambiguous description of events inside the upscale mansion -- but they do not deserve all the blame. There are recognized physiological reasons why the 79 operators that were part of this mission cannot give an accurate, immediate account of the conflict.

Bruce Siddle is managing partner of the Human Factors Research Group (HFRG), a researched-based use-of-force consultancy that helps law enforcement and military clients understand the physiological effects of combat. Siddle is also a recognized close quarters combat (CQB) expert, and has provided training for elite military units -- quite possibly those that killed bin Laden. He is also the author of Sharpening the Warrior's Edge: The Psychology & Science of Training and several other books (full disclosure: I am currently co-authoring a pair of books with Siddle based upon his combat human factors research).

A key factor of how the body functions in high-stress environments is the sympathetic nervous system’s marshalling of the body’s resources -- particularly an array of hormones that are dumped into the bloodstream during combat and which persist for hours and sometimes days afterward. Among the two most important hormones are adrenaline, which makes us faster, stronger, and quicker, and cortisol, which aids in increasing blood sugar and the metabolism of fat, proteins, and carbohydrates. Together, this hormone cocktail creates our “fight or flight” response.

Among the many effects of the fight or flight response are a narrowing of visual perception, altered motor skill performance, and cognitive effects -- including a profound impact on memory.

A destructive symptom that occurs as the result of SNS activation is “critical incident amnesia.” This is defined as “a form of temporary amnesia subsequent to a SNS mass discharge, which includes the release of the stress hormone cortisol.”

This temporary amnesia will affect both the operator’s memory and his ability to compose an accurate after-action report in debriefing if it takes place immediately after combat. Because this form of amnesia is temporary, considerations should be made as to the timetable necessary to recover the memory, including the effects that sleep has on this process.

Before the first sleep period, a person will only be able to recall general characteristics of the incident. After the first sleep period, a person’s ability to remember will increase by 50% to 90%. A person’s ability to remember completely will not occur until after the second sleep period. The most complete recovery of memory will occur after the second sleep period.

This timetable should be taken into consideration when considering the accuracy of after-action reports, and accounts for new and changing details, especially since these reports have to be discerned between 79 individual debriefings.

Law enforcement administrators and military debriefing officers are trained to to take these physiological realities into account, but these factors don’t often matter to a media business where the focus is on speed of information delivery, and not precision accuracy.

There are many things that the Obama administration and the president as an individual can be faulted for in relation to the events and decisions surrounding Osama bin Laden’s death, but the fog of war surrounding our warriors’ perceptions of events cannot be one of them.