Critical analysis: History’s guide to better performance

As we saw in the wake of the events in Mumbai, India last Thanksgiving (and other such events around the world) the pundits come out in force analyzing the attack, the response, and everything in between. Arguments ensue as to whether or not things went according to plan, provided there even was a plan.

In any operation, fate, luck, or what Carl Von Clausewitz called “fog” may (read: probably will) come into play. We try to anticipate what may or may not happen and plan for it in our operations. Waco and other operations “gone bad” appear on the surface to be easy to analyze, and in some aspects they are. Casualties, failure to overcome resistance quickly, slow or no communications, poor intelligence, etc., can be readily pointed to as causes having an effect.

One has to realize that doing a proper critical analysis in no way should be viewed as slanderous or detrimental to those involved. We are not attacking the individual’s courage, motivation, or personal attributes. In our profession we are loath to say that one agency or group did anything wrong for fear of insulting that agency.

However, if we are to learn from past errors, and we all make them, then political correctness has to take a back seat to truth and knowledge. There is usually nothing pretty about these operations especially if they go bad and the critical analysis is usually not very pretty either. However, we must do it if we are to learn, prepare, and win.

Many times, others criticize our operations after we have expended tremendous time and resources. This is the way it will always be—we can’t help being armchair quarterbacks. However, the most critical of all should be the persons involved in the operation. This is where the truth must come out. There is no room for hurt feelings. If small things are overlooked during the critical analysis phase of an operation, more than feelings may get hurt the next time.

In order to understand the basic premise for doing a proper critical analysis, one must understand that during the planning phase of any operation, the planners will only know half the equation! In other words, the plan is always built upon what is known, rather than what is not known. The other part of the plan is known only to our opponent.

This idea was put forth by Clausewitz in his great work, On War  and is central to proper planning, leadership, and conducting a proper critical analysis. It is also applied throughout as the principle of the “Objective,” the first Principle of War.

Let’s see what Clausewitz had to say about critical analysis. In order to comprehend what a critical analysis entails, we must understand that there are three different intellectual activities present.

First is the discovery, and subsequent interpretation, of actual facts. This is referred to as historical research, and is not the same as theory.

Second, the tracing of effects back to the causes – the cause and effect. This is really known as critical analysis proper.

Third, the investigation and evaluation of the means employed. This last activity is criticism proper, and involves praise and negative comments. Here we draw the lessons to be learned.

In the last two activities—which are truly critical parts of the historical inquiry—it is vital to analyze everything down to its basic elements, down to the incontrovertible truth. This is not the time to look for a cure for the symptoms of the failure but instead to the root causes of the failure itself. You must go all the way.

At times the truth is blocked by some obstacle, rendering the true causes (in the cause and effect) continuum unknown. In situations such as war, the facts are seldom fully known, and the underlying motives for what has occurred even less so. In addition, knowable facts may be intentionally concealed. By design or by accident, facts may not be recorded at all. Serious problems arise when known facts are forcibly stretched to explain effects, which then give those facts false importance.

All any theory demands is that the investigation be vigorously carried out to a point where judgment has to be suspended.

The abovementioned problems notwithstanding, all critical research is faced with another, intrinsic difficulty: effects in any conflict seldom result from a singular cause—i.e. forces were outgunned, communications didn’t work, etc. There are usually several concurrent causes for a failure.

It is therefore not enough to trace, however honestly and objectively, a sequence of events back to their origin each identifiable cause still has to be correctly assessed. This leads to a closer analysis of these causes, and in this way, critical investigation get us into the theory proper.

In Waco and other such incidents for example, the politics transmitted from Washington D.C. to the operation site was a fundamental flaw in the plan, as was the leadership of the agency’s hierarchy. All the weapons and courage of those involved on the ground could not make up for these major deficiencies. Keep this fact in mind as a potential issue within your own jurisdictions.

In a proper critical analysis, the examination of the means poses the question as to what effect the means employed had, and whether the effects conformed to the intentions with which they were used. To do this, we must reach the point of incontrovertible truth, never opting for some arbitrary assumption. Analysis must be pressed until the core elements are reached. Critical analysis should never use the results of theory as laws and standards, but only as aids to judgment.

The conduct of a proper critical analysis is not very difficult if one isolates the matter from its setting and studies it only under those conditions. Many times we are apt to change that setting in little ways to bring about a desired result.

Critical analysis, therefore, is not just an evaluation of the means actually employed, but of all possible means yet to be formulated or invented. One should not condemn a method without being able to suggest a better alternative. We can not blindly follow a single line of thought (“we lost the element of surprise” or “communications broke down”). The question that must be asked is, “Was there any other way to solve this problem?”

There usually is.

In doing a proper critical analysis, if praise or shame is to be handed out, the critic must try to put themselves into the position of the commander. In other words, he must gather everything the commander knew and all motives that affected his decisions such as politics, leadership, intelligence, support, etc. and ignore all that he did not or could not know—especially the outcome.

In considering the outcome, unless it was the result of chance, it is almost impossible to prevent that knowledge from coloring one’s judgment of the incident. We see these findings in light of the known results. This is not only true of the outcome, it is also true of the facts that were present from the beginning—factors that determined the action taken. The critic will as a rule have more information than the participants (read: hindsight). A more comprehensive view is necessary so that subjectivity is minimized.

When pointing out that a commander made mistakes, it does not mean that we would not have made the very same mistakes. It could also mean that we would have made even greater mistakes. What it does mean is that we recognize these mistakes from the pattern of events and feel that the commander’s knowledge, training, and experience should have seen them as well.

However, if we let politics (and politicians) manage tactical operations, we can ultimately predict the outcome. This is judgment based on the situation of events and, therefore, also on their outcome. But, in addition, the outcome may have a completely different effect on our judgment when the outcome is simply used as proof that an action was either correct or incorrect. This is called judgment by results. Thus we can say that an operation was incorrectly planned because the results prove it. That is taking the easy way out.

In any conflict, all action is aimed at probable—rather than certain—success. General Eisenhower called it a “realm of hope.” The degree of uncertainty must be left up to fate or chance, (remember you are missing half the equation). However, we would like to keep this as slight as possible. If the incident goes well, we take great satisfaction and it is viewed as positive historical example of an idea or strategy. This can also be taken for a failure—the view taken then is to use it as an historical event to avoid when we encounter future actions. There is inherent danger in this if the event is not given a proper critical analysis.

The lessons learned could be the wrong ones such as the outcome of Columbine which was for all its analysis, an anomaly in the annals of active shooting incidents.

Critical analysis is nothing but the thinking that should have preceded the incident. Therefore, we use the theoretical principles (nine principles of war) to determine the facts of the situation. These principles should not be used as a checklist or as rigid external rules. They should be applied as self-evident truths. While this cannot always be completely achieved, it must remain the aim of any critical analysis. We do not need a 500 page report to tell us what went wrong and the reasons it did.

The causes and effects of any incident will determine the options available for future operations, but only if we do a proper critical analysis. This must be done regardless of the political or social consequences. To know where you are going prior to getting there is the basis of successful incident planning.

As Clausewitz said, “We should not take the first step without knowing the last.”

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