Lost in the wilderness? Competition killing your business? Asteroid on a collision course with your planet? When your survival depends on it there’s always a way. Are you interested in learning the secret to success for all of humankind’s greatest leadership moments? It’s not hyperbolic, it’s biologic: “Freedom of choice to make sense of what’s going on around us and sensible choices for the purpose, place, and people we have the privilege to lead.” Free Minds, Free Spirits, Free Speech, It’s the “Common Sense Way” to accomplish any purpose. In this book you’ll learn what I learned and what many other common sense leaders across the ages have learned before us: How to Live, Learn, and Lead the “Common Sense Way.”
Chapter 5: Identification Friend or Foe?
How to make sensible choices in complex unfamiliar situations
“Do you ever pigeonhole other people, experiences, or events? Is it bad to do so? No—in fact the tendency to categorize and label is a keystone of human intellect and essential to any but the most primitive thinker.” Morton Hunt
October 2001, 0245 (local time), 25,000 feet above Afghanistan: “Hard Right,” the pilot screamed over the inter-aircraft communications system (intercom) as the aircraft and my head violently whiplashed left to right. My first thought was “surface to air missile.”
I was wearing an MTX Halo86 parachute and immediately began snapping, tightening, and checking each buckle in the order I learned at “jumpmaster school.” “Look grab. Look grab, pull, pull, check,” I mouthed while lifting my hands and moving my head in the universal pantomime sequence all Halo jumpers go through as part of their pre-jump ritual to rehearse the activation of their main and reserve parachutes.
“All systems are green,” the captain updated over the intercom. “That was close guys, we almost collided with the other AC-130. Sounds like they misunderstood their altitude directions but we got them squared away.”
It was good to know it wasn’t an enemy missile or mechanically related, but the fact we almost ran into another AC-130 gave me pause.
Most training exercises and real world operations I had been on over the previous fifteen years had an AC-130 flying overhead at one time or another during the operation. In all those years and all those training events I never recalled having two AC-130′s in the air at the same time over the same target. However, this wasn’t a training event. This was the opening raid of the war against terrorists and every military service, every unit, and every weapon system in the U.S. inventory was available for duty.
Add in the fact that this was the only show in town, and you have the timeless military planning recipe that calls for as much combat power and as much redundancy as possible. In addition to the two AC-130s there were over 100 other aircraft involved (helicopters, cargo planes, fighter jets, refueling aircraft, command and control aircraft, electronic jamming aircraft, etc.), making this one of the most complicated and intricate plans in modern military history. Plan is a verb, not a noun.
Planning is how our brains prepare for the unexpected. I kept my parachute on and buckled “just in case.” The mission of the two AC-130s and their crews was to provide fire support and visual over-watch for an air assault raid on a Taliban compound located on the outskirts of the enemy-infested city of Kandahar. I was on board the AC-130 as the “Ground forces liaison officer” (referred to in the military as the “L-N-O”). The military defines the duties of the LNO as follows: “A member of one unit attached to another unit in order to ensure unity of purpose and mutual understanding of action.” In this case, to assist the aircrew with making sense of what was happening on the ground below.
According to the U.S. Air Force “the AC-130 is a heavily-armed long-endurance aircraft equipped with an array of air-to-ground oriented weapons (105mm howitzer, 25mm Vulcan cannon, and 40mm Bofor’s cannon) that are integrated with sophisticated targeting sensors, satellite navigation, and fire control systems. The aircraft is capable of delivering precision firepower or area-saturation fire over a target for extended periods of time at night and in adverse weather. The sensor suite consists of thermal, infrared (IR), and side-looking radars. These sensors allow the gunship to visually or electronically identify targets on the ground in the harshest of weather conditions.”
“The helicopters are ten minutes out: oxygen masks on, depressurize the aircraft, open gun doors, the mission is a go,” the captain announced over the intercom.
A few feet from my seat, hydraulic arms slowly separated symmetrical sheets of steel from the fuselage of the aircraft to expose firing portals through which the barrels of the 105mm and 25mm cannon would now protrude. Like driving down the highway in a convertible going 200 MPH or standing next to a blast furnace, the roar of the wind was earsplitting and the air too thin to breathe so everyone on board wore fully enclosed aviator helmets with soundproofing insulation, face shields, and oxygen masks through which we talked and breathed.
“Panther, this is Mantis, we are five minutes out.” “Mantis” was the commander of the helicopter raid force. “This is Panther, we are on station and see no movement or activity in or around the target.” “This is Mantis, roger, thanks, keep me updated, out.”
The compound had been under continuous electronic and visual surveillance for the last ninety-six hours. Even though we were confident there were no enemy personnel inside the target we had no way of knowing if there were any nearby. The target sat on the outskirts of Kandahar, which was considered the religious capital of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. U.S. Intelligence had information that numerous terrorist leaders such as UBL, Zawahiri, and Zarqawi were living in and around Kandahar in the months, weeks, and days prior. Yet, without eyes on the ground, we couldn’t confirm or deny whether any of them were there at that time. I guess you could say that the only thing we knew for sure about the area in and around the target was that we didn’t know anything for sure. Which is always the best way to approach the unknown.
In front of me were two 13-inch video display terminals. The monitor on my left showed the image from the Infrared (IR) targeting camera, while the monitor on the right showed the image from the Thermal targeting camera. A single joystick allowed me to adjust the direction of the cameras and to zoom in and out. In general, the Infrared image provides better resolution quality, while the Thermal image provides better human detection capability because it works off heat. As an example, if an enemy fighter is hiding behind a wall the IR camera may not detect him but the thermal camera will pick up a glowing red heat signature as his body heat rises up and over the wall like the flames from a fire.
If anyone was hiding in or around this target I was determined to find them. It was my purpose. I used a simple scanning method taught to me by one of our snipers and easily recalled using the military march cadence, “left -right-left.” When it comes to guiding principles and mnemonics, universality is everything. I use the same technique whether I’m searching a target for hidden enemies, searching for cars as I cross the street, or searching my house for my phone. I start on the left side, work my way back to the right and methodically repeat until the entire search area is complete. I scanned every inch in and around the target searching for discrepancies such as movement, discordant shapes, and contrasting colors. Then I rechecked to see if anything changed. I detected nothing.
Next to the video screens was my radio control panel. This mission required active monitoring of four different radios: the inter-aircraft communications radio which linked me to the pilot, co-pilot, weapons officer, and crew; two separate satellite radios used by our higher headquarters for command and control; and perhaps the most important radio for my role as LNO, the “fire support” radio. On this mission the “fire support” radio was the only direct link between the two AC-130′s and the guys on the ground conducting the raid.
Military doctrine reinforces that the more radios you monitor the more overall situational awareness you have. But nothing in life is free and the price you pay for an increase in overall situational awareness is a decrease in situational specifics. “The human brain is only capable of paying attention to one thing at a time.” When you are talking and/or listening to one radio conversation your brain is incapable of making sense of what’s being said on the others. It’s a biologic fact: if you’re not paying attention to something you cannot comprehend it. Like texting while you’re driving; when you’re texting you’re no longer consciously driving. You are a catastrophe waiting for a contingency.
“The helicopters are one minute out,” the Captain relayed over the intercom.
I “zoomed out” my Infrared camera to provide a panoramic view of the target and surrounding area just in time to see the image of the first MH-47 Helicopter float into the picture. In infrared green it looked more like a giant grasshopper then a helicopter as it braked, flared, and crested over the eight-foot-high rock wall that surrounded the compound. As it hovered in preparation to land, its image gradually faded then completely disappeared from view. The dust and debris kicked up by the two massive turbo-powered rotors created blinding brownout conditions so severe that 99.9% of pilots in the world would have had to abort. But these weren’t the 99.9%. These were the 0.1%. Onward they flew.
Brake, flare, hover, touchdown, disgorge, lift, accelerate and climb. While flying in the blind. Like clockwork, each of the helicopters followed the same routine. Except the last one. Theoretically, you wouldn’t want to be the first helicopter to land on an enemy target during a nighttime raid. However, if the target is empty and you’re dealing with severe brownout conditions you’d much rather be first than last because by the time the last helicopter approaches the target most every un-tethered dust particle in and around the target has already been blown airborne.
The blinding brownout conditions meant the pilots were 100% dependent on their instruments, and the crew’s eyes, to slowly feel their way forward and down. Speed kills and smooth is fast. In training the pilots take all the time they need. If they don’t “feel good” about landing in brownout conditions they simply pull up, go around, and try it again. In combat, the enemy always has a vote so there’s rarely any extra time to take.
To vanquish fear and panic, elite pilots train their brains to focus on the two things they can control—the aircraft and their emotions. In this case, you could actually hear them on the radio as they did both. Speaking in a cool, calm, collected manner is one of the most effective methods of quieting our emotional brains as well as the emotions of everyone else who is listening. “Calm” like “common sense” is contagious.
“Look out,” one of the crew members yelled over the radio as the tail boom of the final helicopter clipped the eight-foot-high rock wall then violently whiplashed sideways. In what would turn out to be the first of many examples of heroic airmanship that night, the pilot immediately compensated, steadied, and finessed the wounded but still air-worthy aircraft onto the ground for a hard but upright landing. Out from the back burst the bruised and eternally appreciative operators. I breathed a sigh of relief for them as they planted their feet onto the relative safety and security of enemy-occupied ground.
Mantis called in the code word that confirmed the entire assault force had landed and the raid was underway. While the guys on the ground did CH-47 Heavy Lift Helicopter preparing to land in Afghanistan. Identification their job, I stayed 100% focused on doing mine. I increased my sweeping search pattern in longer left-right-left arcs that stretched one to two kilometers around the target. “Nothing seen around target,” I updated Mantis using the fire support radio. But before he could respond to confirm that he heard what I said someone screamed: “Enemy busload of terrorists.” The fire support radio went silent for a second. Then it erupted.
“Last calling station, say again what you said about an enemy bus,” “How many terrorists are on the bus?” “Did someone say there was more than one bus?” “Say again names of terrorists on the bus?” “Last calling station can you confirm whether there are one or two buses?”
Radio traffic flows just like highway traffic. When too many people try to get on the highway at the same time it creates a traffic jam that eventually brings all traffic to a standstill. When too many people try to talk on their radios at the same time it creates a “frequency jam” that brings all radio traffic to a halt. To make matters worse, someone was intermittingly holding down the “push-to-talk” button on their radio handset—a phenomenon known as “hot mic-ing” that “jams” the entire network. As a result, the communication flow between the AC-130′s and the men on the ground was now 100% gridlocked.
All I could do was listen intently for the radio traffic jam to clear up so I could attempt to re-establish contact with Mantis. Unfortunately, in situations such as this everyone else was doing the same thing.
“The busload of terrorists is heading east,” the original caller screamed and once again the radio erupted with calls for additional information and clarification. The sound of the caller’s voice and the fact he didn’t identify himself made me certain the caller wasn’t Mantis, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t someone else on his team who might be in contact with the enemy.
My priority was the safety and security of the assault force so I rescanned every inch of the only two roads leading into the target. I checked both roads out to five kilometers. I found nothing. “How could a ‘busload of terrorists’ appear out of nowhere? And how could I have missed it? Stay calm, think.”
“We have visual on enemy busload of terrorists,” announced the Weapons Officer over the intercom as he took control of the targeting cameras and aligned the crosshairs center-sector on top of the slow moving bus.
“Enemy busload of terrorists? This doesn’t look or sound right?” As much as I had to take it seriously to ensure the safety of the assault force, it was an almost comical description when said out loud (in this case to myself inside my helmet). Why would a bunch of terrorists hop on a bus at 0300 local time instead of dispersing into the hills or the surrounding sea of urban sprawl situated a few hundred meters south of the target? It didn’t “make sense.”
“Prepare to engage,” the weapons officer directed as the weapons operator loaded a 105mm round in preparation to fire.
“Ready to fire,” alerted the weapons operator.
“Fire,” responded the weapons officer.
“Boom” began the bombardment. Seven seconds after the concussive boom, I watched on my video screens as the round impacted the ground below. In infrared green the earthen upheaval from the impact looked like a large splash of viscous black ink. The round splashed a hundred or so meters off to the left of the still slow-moving bus. The radio gridlock opened up for a split second and the unidentified caller screamed, “we got ‘em now.” A split second later it was back to gridlock. With these the opening shots fired by American forces after 9/11, it was hard to deny the feeling that the handcuffs were finally off. Most every soldier, sailor, airmen and Marine involved in the initial invasion wanted to do something tangible against the enemy that committed the carnage known as “9/11.”
Make no mistake about it, I wanted what we were looking at to really be a “busload of terrorists” too. After all you don’t stumble on juicy “targets of opportunity” like a “busload of terrorists” very often. However, after too many to count “dry holes” and/or inaccurate intelligence tips over the past ten years, most of us in the Unit had developed what Einstein described as an “incorruptible sense of skepticism.” In this case it was palpable because what I was hearing on the radio and what I was seeing on the ground didn’t “add up.”
Along with my fellow Unit members, we were deployed in combat zones around the world almost continuously during the previous ten years. Experience only matters if you learn from it. Time and feedback teach that “first reports are almost always inaccurate, incomplete, or both,” I reminded myself. Why would “a bunch of terrorists” load a bus? Did anyone actually see “a bunch of terrorists” get on this bus? If not, what about this bus makes it an “enemy bus”? There are no machine guns mounted on top of it or any enemy flags painted on the side of it. When dealing with uncertainty it’s common sense to question everything. Instead of seeing a juicy target of opportunity all I saw was a question mark.
I continued trying to get through to Mantis to make sure he wasn’t trying to get through to me. No luck. The chatter was unrelenting.
“Right one hundred,” came the corrective command from the weapons officer.
I kept my eyes focused on the bus and my mind focused on the facts: “I know what I saw and this bus could not have come from the target. So where did it come from? Maybe it came from somewhere else in the city,” I rationalized, yet the only place we (the U.S.) had surveillance assets focused was the area around the target. “Maybe the bus was so well camouflaged that none of us spotted it until the helicopters spooked them?” Whenever you’re two or more suppositions deep you’re in over your head. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make sense of it.
“Ready to fire,” announced the weapons operator.
“Fire,” the weapons officer instantly responded.
This time the round splashed on the ground two to three hundred meters off to the right of the still slow-moving bus.
“Left one hundred,” commanded the weapons officer.
“We got it bracketed,” someone screamed excitedly as the bus suddenly skidded to an abrupt and angled stop. Seconds of stillness seemed to stretch into minutes. No one jumped out.
“When you’re fleeing in a bus that’s being bombarded from above and hasn’t been hit, why in the world would you slam on the brakes and turn your ‘hard to hit’ moving target into a sitting duck? What if they ran out of gas or a piece of shrapnel took out the tires? Both are plausible, but neither makes sense of why the terrorists would stay on the bus? What would I do? I’d get off that bus as quickly as possible and run for cover, which there was plenty of on the boulder encrusted hills that surrounded the road. No one got off the bus.
“Ready to fire,” the weapons operator responded.
“Fire,” the weapons officer commanded.
This time I felt the “Boom” of the 105mm howitzer reverberate in my stomach and it didn’t “feel” good. From the very first day an operator begins their career at the Unit they’re taught that positive identification of the enemy is a non-negotiable prerequisite for any type of kinetic engagement. “Shoot first, ask questions later” only applies to photography. In training, if you inadvertently shot an unarmed or friendly paper target with training ammunition you were admonished on the spot. If it became a pattern over time you were thrown out of the Unit. Killing is easy. Anyone can do it because it only takes one finger—your trigger finger—and you don’t need to think about it. Target discrimination is difficult. It takes knowledge, hundreds of hours of practice, and the ability to pay attention to what’s going on around you. It takes a thinking brain.
This time, the rounds landed 200 meters behind the bus.
Still no sign of human movement in or around the bus.
“That’s strange,” the pilot slipped over the intercom. “Strange, indeed,” I murmured to myself. To be continued.
How do our brains “make sense” of what we perceive? Perception is the process of distilling sensory information into context-specific knowledge of patterns that “make sense” to our brains. “The biologic way” our brains are hardwired to perceive the world is explained by the complimentary principles of contrast and coherence. Contrast occurs when our nervous system perceives a discrepancy between what we know/expect to see (e.g. “no enemy activity around the target”) and the adaptive stimulus of what’s going on around us in the “context of the moment” (e.g. “Enemy busload of terrorists? This doesn’t look or sound right?”). When our brains perceive a discrepancy we instinctively expend energy to make it cohere. Why is that? What does that mean? How do we make sense of it?
The human eye can detect candlelight in pitch-blackness up to 50 km away.
Our nervous system is designed to detect contrast in stimulation rather than constancies. Your ability to read the previous sentence is based on the contrast between the dark ink and the white page, if they were both white your brain wouldn’t pay attention because your eyes wouldn’t perceive contrast on the page.
Likewise, when some of the words in this sent_nce are mi_sing letters our brains unconsciously pay attention to the discrepancy between what we perceive (unusual word patterns) and what we know (spelling patterns for common words) and then instinctively expend energy to make the discrepancy cohere. Your pattern recognizing neurons are doing it for every stroke of every letter you read. Unconsciously contrasting what you see on this page with everything you know—you know a lot—and then effortlessly filling in the blanks based on your deeply hardwired kno_ledge of w_rd patterns. Nicely done.
The term cognitive consistency is used to label our biologic need for a consistent, coherent world where things fit together and “make sense.” When someone screamed “busload of terrorists,” what I heard over the radio didn’t cohere with what I saw on the ground or what I expected to see based on past experiences. When we find ourselves paying attention to something random and/or have a “bad feeling” about a situation and we’re not sure why, it’s likely because our unconscious brain is trying to alert us to a discrepancy. Don’t dismiss it, pay attention to it.
It is sheer myth to believe that we need merely observe the circumstances of a situation in order to understand them. Patterns do not speak for themselves. Only our neocortex can give them voice by paying attention to and thinking about them. How do we pressure test the patterns we perceive to see if they actually “make sense”? We use one of our ancient ancestors’ most innovative sense-making adaptations: We “say it out loud” so we can see.
The arc of human evolution skyrocketed when our species learned to speak. “Saying what we’re thinking out loud” to ourselves and to others is an evolutionary capacity that enables us to put any situation in “context of the moment” to see if what we’re thinking actually makes sense.
“Enemy busload of terrorists?” As much as I had to take it seriously to ensure the safety of the assault force, it was an almost comical description when said out loud (in this case to myself inside my helmet).
Giving voice to what a person is seeing can change their perception of it. Why is seeing and hearing knowledge critical in learning to adapt to it? We can’t fully illuminate our thoughts and ideas unless we translate them to something tangible. Saying what we see, hear, smell, think, or feel out loud makes our thoughts physical. The reason we can record our voices is because sound waves are physically present as compressed air molecules. Although invisible to the naked eye, we can feel air molecules as the wind in our face and as the rock-solid support they provide to the tires on our cars and bikes. By making our thoughts physical we enable additional senses (our own and those around us) to collaborate and pressure test the sense we make.
“Why would a bunch of terrorists hop on a bus at 0300 instead of dispersing into the hills or the surrounding sea of urban sprawl?
It’s not reality unless it’s shared. The brain can only think of one thing at a time, yet our other senses and the senses of the people around us enable us to override this sensory blind spot. When separate elements are seen, heard, and/or felt together we discover patterns and relationships we may have missed when we thought about them one-dimensionally. By enabling our brains to actually hear, see, and feel what we’re experiencing, we engage more (sensory) brainpower in analyzing and solving the problem and so gain added insights. The more senses we involve the more sense our individual and collective brains can make.
How could a “busload of terrorists” appear out of nowhere? And how could I have missed it? Stay calm, think.
What’s the secret defense against impulsiveness, as well as psychological paralysis, in life or death situations? Talk to yourself and to those around you. Say what you’re thinking and feeling out loud. Remember that your brain is designed to help you survive. A growing body of research has shown that labeling an emotion or describing our feelings with words (“no need to panic”) can help to downregulate the affect and change the way we react to similar situations in the future. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman write: “a single word or phrase has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” “Stay calm, think.”
Freedom of speech is the verbal manifestation of freedom of choice. We choose to speak. Saying what we’re thinking and feeling out loud to ourselves and others is how we pressure test what we perceive. It’s how we share knowledge. And it’s how we build a structurally sound “foundation of knowledge” to better prepare us for whatever the future throws our way. Say it out loud and you’ll see.
Instead of technology rendering the need to “say it out loud” obsolete it’s made it absolute.
Copyright © 2021 by Pete Blaber. All rights reserved. “The Common Sense Way: A New Way to Think About Leading and Organizing” is available for purchase.
Pete Blaber commanded at every level of one of the most elite counter-terrorist organizations in the world. He is the author of “The Mission, The Men, and Me, Lessons From a Former Delta Force Commander.” He retired from the military in 2006 and spent 10 years as an executive in the biotechnology industry before leaving to write this book. In 2018 he founded a company called AddArmor where he is currently the CEO. Pete has an MBA and an M.S. in national security and strategic affairs.
Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.