Characteristics of Sense-Making in Combat - Oxford Handbooks

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Characteristics of Sense-Making in Combat

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores characteristics of sense-making in actual combat. We begin by examining the “booting up” and “rebooting” metaphors. These concepts denote a process through which commanders understand that their notion of the fighting requires adaptation. In hectic and often desperate situations, involving intense emotions and confusion, they must realize that their original frame may no longer be valid. We then explore creativity in combat, as signified by constant and free thinking. Successful commanders were focused on both the immediate task and the overall context of a fight. Finally, we look at the detrimental consequences of failing to make sense, namely, lack of participation in combat, freezing, or the repetition of futile and harmful actions.

Keywords: Sense-making, combat behavior, performance under stress, emotions, counterinsurgency


Sense-making is often described as sifting through large volumes of information and selecting the necessary bits. The process of sense-making involves retrospective thinking and facilitates the adoption of a new course of action. Sense-making may therefore be considered a prerequisite for action. According to a recent definition, it is “a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively” (Klein, Moon, & Hoffman, 2006, p. 70). The concept of sense-making is also used to study how people behave while in action (Weick, 1993). This is a narrower framework, which explores how people understand the gap between their conception of an action, and reality. A process like that encompasses their need to cope with emotions, and especially fear, which characterizes stressful events and may hinder the ability to think and act in an adequate manner (Janis, 1982). Ultimately, sense-making is a prerequisite for action or inaction (if it fails), as failure to act stems from “the astonishment of the perceiver, and … inability to rebuild some sense of what is happening” (Weick, 1993). Stressful situations entail a multitude of psychological factors, and the clear-cut boundary between the realms of emotion and cognition is often blurred. It is reasonable to assume that their effects are interactive. Sense-making is studied in its relation to humans’ striving for meaning. Research have shown that the ability to create a sense of purpose and togetherness is essential for human well-being and coping with stress (Frankel, 1985; Pargament & Sweeney, 2011).Yet, immediate and acute stress focuses sense-making on a narrower framework that is immediately related to the stressful stimuli (Chajut & Algom, 2003). When sense-making fails, it may hinder important aspects of motivation and leave the individual in a state of “limbo,” not only in the cognitive sense but in absence of meaning and thereby of purpose and motivation.

Researchers have explored the decision-making process of fire-team leaders or intelligence officers, especially under stressful conditions or when circumstances necessitate quick decisions (Lipshitz (p. 219) and Strauss, 1997). Klein and his colleagues (1993) suggest that the process of sense-making in action is triggered by the realization that a situation is no longer developing as expected and that consequently a new course of action must be adopted. This line of research stems from the “naturalistic decision making” framework, which seeks to understand how decisions are actually being made in real-life situations (Klein et al., 1993). Researchers have argued that the emergence of a gap prompts a cognitive process whose primary function is to establish a data frame that best fits the new situation (Sieck et al, 2007). Data frames are small scenarios that describe a situation and predict its probable outcome. Constructed on the basis of personal experience as well as classroom knowledge, these scenarios serve as a framework for interpreting reality and for acting on it (Klein, Moon, & Hoffman, 2006).

Sense-Making in the Military Context

A fundamental quality of warfare is the uncertainty emanating from the friction inherent to the deployment of force, a difficulty exacerbated by the opponents’ free will (Clausewitz, 1832/1976). Minimizing the effects of friction requires psychological preparation and training for soldiers and commanders. Training fosters common understanding, thereby contributing significantly to their ability to adapt to a combat environment (Driskell, Salas, & Johnston, 2006). Researchers have been using sense-making in the study of preparation for combat or following military missions rather than immediate actual combat. For example, sense-making served as theoretical guideline to the study of long-term processes of finding meaning during protracted military missions or upon returning from military missions that included traumatic events (Bartone, 2005, 2006).

Leedom (2004, p. 1) defined sense-making in the military context as “the multidimensional process of developing operational understandings within a complex and evolving battle space.” He divided this framework into four distinct dimensions: cognitive, operational, social, and organizational. The study of sense-making in combat should be understood within the context of military preparation for a fight and the way a certain fight develops. This fact inevitably calls for better understanding of non-cognitive dimensions of sense-making as resiliency and thereby functioning in combat (Scales, 2008; Matthews, 2008). It is the cognitive dimension in which “sense-making” is most often utilized in the military context, especially in the decision-making process (Garstka & Alberts, 2004) and in advanced network-centric warfare (Brikner & Lipshitz, 2004). Scholars have also been examining the sense-making process employed by operators of advanced weapon systems and information systems (Singer, 2009) and higher headquarters (Klein et al., 2000). In one way or another, these issues focus mainly on the cognitive dimension of sense-making as performed by commanders. The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) serves as the context for a number of these studies, focusing scholarly attention on the technological dimensions of future warfare (Alberts, Garstka, & Stein, 1999). Other works examining sense-making in the military have explored how military personnel think about, and attach meaning to, their surroundings in everyday situations (Bartone et al, 2007). By and large, these studies implement the sense-making paradigm in training, force buildup, or post-deployment rather than in real-time operations and actual combat.

Sense-Making in Combat

In actual combat, sense-making is related to behaviors, emotions, and decisions relevant to the experience of fighting, such as: the decision to open fire, the forming of situation estimations, or the decision to take a risk. Thus, sense-making in combat is influenced by the smells, sights, and sounds aroused by the proximity to danger and the physical characteristics of the combat environment. The heat of battle evokes emotional, physical, and cognitive human responses, in contrast to the organized and detached qualities aroused by the high-tech digital human–machine interface. In the former, sense-making and creativity are likely to be disrupted because of the myriad contextual events and the failure to draw the necessary conclusions due to stress (Weick, 1993).

The very nature of warfare dictates that every combat situation is unique and susceptible to the influence of unpredictable factors. For example, there are unknown enemy plans, the timing of a skirmish, and the intensity, type, and direction of fire. All these are but common examples of being “one bullet away” from being hit (Fick, 2005). Hence, every combat situation inevitably requires of its participants a degree of adaptation and therefore involves the significant psychological dimension of the fear of death and mutilation. Historically, these psychological experiences were often labeled as surprise, combat response or “shock”; consequently, the psychological phenomenon was studied from (p. 220) a negative point of view. A prime non-cognitive dimension of combat is the fear response (Dollard, 1943; Shalit, 1989) and the consequent need for certain human qualities such as a leader’s character strength and his followers’ trust (Sweeney, Thompson, & Blanton, 2009). Human behavior in combat is usually studied in relation to negative consequences and decrease in performance. Indeed, early military psychologists were interested in negative phenomena related to combat experience such as mental breakdown and other non-effective behaviors (Kellett, 1982). But when both positive and negative aspects of combat are studied, a stable pattern emerges. For example, Egbert and his colleagues (1957) have studied effective and ineffective combat soldiers in Korea. They found that effective fighters were characterized by their ability to give leadership, take aggressive action, exhibit a high degree of personal responsibility, and above all remain cool under fire. The ineffective fighters, on the other hand, exhibited behaviors such as withdrawal and nervousness. Under fire, the poor fighter becomes jumpy, remains passive, and imagines things. This pattern of results resembles that of other studies in different military contexts (Kawano, 1996; Dover, 2002). They point to the fact that war calls for specific human characteristics, such as determination or resilience. These non-cognitive dimensions have an impact on the sense-making process.

Both positive and negative aspects of behavior in combat are difficult to predict, partially due to the inherent uncertainty of war (Ben-Shalom, Weinstein, & Keren, 2008). In order to mitigate the negative psychological effects of stress in combat, military organizations devote considerable resources to preparing their soldiers for action (Driskell & Salas, 1991). Great efforts are made today as well as historically to foster common understanding and establish discipline through education and training (Keegan, 1976). Sense-making is often used in this vital process and in accordance with fundamental military procedures. For example, Garstka and Alberts (2004) applied sense-making to network-centric warfare through elements such as “awareness,” “understanding,” and “decision-making.” These are strongly related to warfighting doctrine and similar to the component elements of situation estimation. However, this depiction of sense-making is cognitive in its emphasis and therefore does not encompass the full spectrum of qualities that characterize the experience of combat, such as surprise, confusion, and bewilderment; nor related emotions such as fear, joy, or numbness.

Training affords commanders the option of choosing between alternative operational procedures or drills. However, each instance of combat is unique as it is composed of a specific combination of elements. The commander is therefore required, not only to perform rehearsed prescriptions, but also to comprehend and evaluate developments and devise new solutions, all while under extreme circumstances. In this context, then, “sense-making” denotes an active effort to make sense during combat in addition to performing battle drills and executing pre-battle plans. Our contention is that this cognitive process is not restricted to seeking information, analyzing it, and deciding on a suitable course of action. The cognitive process is part of a more complex experience involving intense emotions (often fear but also joy), a physical dimension (fatigue, stress, and even empowerment) and a spiritual dimension (fear of annihilation and despair but also a sense of purpose and revelation). Thus, our aim in this chapter is to describe sense-making in actual combat situations, and by doing so to contribute to the use of the sense-making framework in military operations. The use of typical combat scenarios ensures its significance to current and near-future war scenarios in which Western militaries are currently involved.

The Current Study

This chapter is based on empirical evidence gathered among units of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during the years from 2000 to 2009. During this decade, fighting was usually executed by small tactical units, often in urban terrain (Ben-Shalom, Lehrer, & Ben-Ari, 2005). The typical land fighting during the major operations was conducted by units up to the battalion level, despite massive mobilization and a heavy reliance on artillery and aerial fire support (Shelah & Limor, 2007). The opponents of the IDF often used guerrilla warfare, emphasizing surprise attacks in order to compensate for their military weakness. Therefore much of the data collected concerned incidents such as night attacks on army camps, search and arrest missions, and patrols, as well as defense against infiltration, suicide attacks, and ambushes, often sprung in conjunction with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

We used a “bottom up” approach in which we tried to study sense-making processes from interviews and analysis of debriefings. We incorporated results from selected other research to facilitate better understanding and examples to present our contentions. We used qualitative analysis of 50 interviews (p. 221) with combatants who took active part in combat. Interviewees included noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and officers, regulars, and reservists describing first-hand combat situations. They did not relate experiences involving mundane decision making such as staff work or the conduct of situation estimations with subordinates. Our focus is therefore on combat situations at the squad and platoon level, typical to counterinsurgency operations. Characteristically, combat took the form of squad- or platoon-level skirmishes, raids, or patrols in urban and populated areas, using infantry tactics and employing small arms.

Booting Up

There are several critical moments in a combat. The first one is the sheer realization that one is in a fight, which requires a psychological booting up process. The realization that the battle has really begun is actually the first element of the sense-making process. No matter how expected was this entry into battle, or how physically and mentally one feels prepared for it, the realization of the battle is almost always a shocking moment, and therefore requires some adaptation. S. L. A. Marshall vividly described the moment of his entry into the battlefield: “The unit enters upon a battlefield and moves across ground within range of the enemy’s small arms weapons. The enemy fires. The transition of that moment is wholly abnormal” (Marshall, 1947, p. 47). The “booting-up” process that follows this moment involves a quick and sometimes improvised rehearsal of battle plans and procedures and some contingency plans. Our analysis reveals that the efficacy of this initial booting-up process is strongly influenced by the degree to which available battle plans, procedures, and contingency plans can be enacted in the evolving situation. Put simply, if plans or battle procedures are actualized as anticipated, then thinking—and consequently emotions and behaviors—is reasonably predictable; the required adaptation is lesser and shorter. If, on the other hand, one needs to react to enemy plans or to some unexpected deviation from the anticipated reality rather than execute prepared plans, there is a greater likelihood that the combatant will experience a booting failure. A gap is created between the combatant’s initial conceptions and the evolving reality: at this point, astonishment and need to rebuild some coherent sense of what is happening arises (Weick, 1993).

However meticulous and careful pre-battle plans may be, combat will probably develop differently than expected. Therefore, combatants are often forced to reevaluate situations, since events develop differently than anticipated. Using a computer metaphor again, the combatant is forced to “reboot” by making new sense of the situation. But if this process fails or results in the construction of a frame that hinders the detection of significant clues, the combatant is left without a suitable understanding of the action he or she must adopt. For example, when we interviewed an infantry company commander about storming into a settlement infiltrated by terrorists, he said:

… I have three minutes driving in the vehicle during which I try to understand what is happening before I arrive at the fight. On the radio I talk with [the] scout who was there in the morning and he says that there was shooting there, near the palm tree, but the war room reports terrorists inside “Eley Sinay” [settlement] and not where he is saying. What’s running through my mind is that there are terrorists inside “Eley Sinay” and not where he said, and the incident two years ago when they entered this place and killed three civilians. … I then receive a battle report that there is one dead civilian and that our forces are in contact. … The only thought in your head is that you must end this and kill this terrorist. It is your responsibility, you don’t want to have casualties in your unit. At this moment I see the terrorist clearly … I work according to the drill and assault to close in on the terrorist. The driver stays in the car … and my radio operator is running after me. I’m focusing on the terrorist and don’t understand that there fire directed into me. During all this the radio operator shouts “you’re under fire,” and then I see that the bullets near me are not from the terrorist but rather the other force and then, in a split second, I understand that I’m entering a fratricide, that the other force is firing and that we’re running directly into their fire. I then decided to go back to the Jeep, and advance from another direction, so as not to die from our fire. I arrive and both forces are throwing hand grenades. I’m calling the other force to stop and assault the terrorist and end this. …

This example demonstrates two processes of sense-making: Setting a frame (booting up) and changing a frame (rebooting). The first occurred immediately upon receipt of the initial notification. Using the computer metaphor, the actor was booting up using two iterations. He “loaded” a general and well-drilled scheme for dealing with such a situation, based on past experience. This scenario was then refined in accordance with reports streaming (p. 222) in from the actual scene. The ability to make sense in a combat situation should not be taken for granted, as intense and horrific moments do not encourage deep, complex, or sophisticated thinking. Indeed, in one of our studies, we found that the ability to think during combat made the clearest distinction between good and excellent soldiers. More specifically, during the 2006 Lebanon War, we analyzed detailed evaluations of 405 combat soldiers taken from 33 combat arms platoon commanders just after the war ended. The analysis yielded several types of soldier prototypes: “excellent,” “good,” “medium,” and “poor.” Analysis of the behavioral descriptions provided by the platoon leaders of their soldiers revealed that excellent soldiers were as hardy and technically proficient as good soldiers but surpassed them in terms of their ability to understand the combat situation and their tendency to assume responsibility, which allowed them to adapt to circumstances (Ben-Shalom, Weinstein, & Keren, 2008). But excellent combatants were also able to enhance the performance of fellow soldiers by supporting and encouraging them. Personal motivation and emotional stability were related to a positive view of military undertakings (Ben-Shalom & Benbenisty, 2011).

Having adopted a frame that determined his goals and course of action, the company commander we have just quoted began to execute his plans. During this short span of time, seconds or moments, the frame partially blinded him to contradictory information. Through the initial frame he had viewed the battle as short and coordinated, and estimated the probability of taking enemy fire as a certainty. It took great effort from his radio operator to make him aware of data contradicting this frame. Only then did the “reboot” procedure begin and the process of sense-making began with a textbook frame, accepting the reality of “friendly fire.” The principal ideas governing a commander’s actions are his responsibility for the mission and his subordinates, and fear of inflicting further damage on noncombatants. The commander’s concern was to fulfill his mission. He was operating according to battle drills, which serve as a background for his decisions. It was the radio operator seated behind him in the armored vehicle who exhibited independent thinking. It was he who identified the new evidence and freed the commander from the frame that governed his perception of the scene.

At this point, we would like to elaborate on the nature of the mental process actors undergo in combat. It is complicated and often desperate. Indeed, sense-making in combat is far from being clear-cut and is not performed with clinical detachment. The actors, actively participating in combat, must swiftly reevaluate the situation in order to close the gap between reality, their experience, and battle drills. Commanders must also convey their perception to their subordinates.

The process of sense-making, a consequence of the initial adaptation to the combat reality, is conveyed in the following short description: “When the first round is shot at you, you duck and everyone falls to the ground. But then you start thinking and understand that not every bullet will hit you. …” (Reserve battalion commander, 2009). In this short but meaningful sentence, the actor relates to the onset of thinking, or the process of understanding the nature of events in an unfamiliar and frightening tactical situation. In another case, a participant of operations told us:

We are advancing in the alley and after the sixth leap forward from nowhere came a kind of “poof.” I don’t mean that we didn’t hear firing until then. There was [some] experience[d] but not so close. And then I looked back because I didn’t know from where this fire was coming from. And this is inside an alley and there are echoes from all directions. And I see this big guy, like a falling tree, starts falling in my direction. He falls, unlike falling and blocking, but simply falls. In short, I sensed that something hit him but I didn’t understand [from] where. I looked down and saw a whole in the leg, now thousand[s] of things rushed through my mind in a second. I mean if I look forward that means he was shot from behind, but how could that be? My force is there and the hole in the leg comes from the front. I look to the right, perhaps he got it from the side. But the hole is in the front, so if it comes from there how did it get in here? But if it was shot from the front how didn’t it get me first? He was right behind me. He was very big so his hips are in the center of my body. I understood that he was shot from the front or above. … I shout on the net, “Kodkod to mishne pazua” (“CO [commanding officer] to XO [executive officer], we have a wounded man”). They understood that I was hit and a mess started on the net. It is a firefight and nobody really understands what is going on in a fight. I shout “evacuation procedure!” point to the front of the alley and shoot three rounds in that direction. They continue and I look at him and understand that I will not be able to carry him with the combat gear. I grab his body armor at the shoulders and drag him back (interview with platoon commander, 2004).

(p. 223) In this case, the commander was attempting to deal with the immediate problem of identifying the source of incoming fire while concomitantly changing his mission from advance of force to evacuation of wounded. He was operating according to a mixture of battle procedure and new impressions that were all being combined during his attempt to make sense of the situation. This task was performed in the confusing setting of dense urban terrain in which the platoon commander was advancing and cut off from the rest of the force and his direct commander. The proximity of the buildings prevented clear lines of sight and lines of communication, and the echo disrupted orientation. Common sense was directing him towards a proper understanding of events. His actions were also partially supported by pre-battle procedures.

This thinking process is different from the simple understanding that one is now in an actual combat situation and exposed to its perils. This process of disillusionment is reflected in the common saying, “Only when you see dead bodies do you understand that this is war.” The current chapter focuses on sense-making as an active process, and not merely a passive and gradual understanding. Sense-making should be understood in the context of the efforts to direct behavior in combat through a combination of subjective experience, drills, pre-combat planning, and training. Collectively they form a proper frame of the situation, leading toward a proper response to the gap between anticipation and reality, and eventually resulting in adaptation. For example, a combat engineer platoon commander operating a heavy bulldozer stated:

… I receive an order to get four teams and go down to where the mortars were firing from. This incident happened when I was in the platoon for only three days. We are going there and I start working by the book with backup and protection and then I see that the bullet proof window in front of me is crushed. I gaze at the window, amazed. And then I see that this is accurate fire and that the window is being hit from a building about 400 meters away. But what can you do? This machine is very slow and you can’t drive there. I asked the driver, what is this? And he answers: That’s fire. And then I understand that this is it and that was my first experience of fire, and we just continued (interview with combat engineer platoon commander, 2004).

In this account the inevitable gap between experience and reality is very clear. The ability to form a suitable frame of the situation as a basis for a proper emotional and behavioral response depends on a combination of personal experience and training. Due to the complexities of combat, individual sense-making is inevitable and cannot be set in advance into clear battle procedures. The gap between the anticipated progression of events and actual combat reality necessitates the development of some frame of reference that will explain what is going on and why. Failure to make sense of the situation is a common occurrence, often resulting from the adoption of irrelevant procedures, or paralysis. Surprise often follows when the operational plan is disrupted. This may occur as a result of enemy activity, such as an inadvertent activation of IEDs triggering an ambush. Usually, the reasons are more mundane: the disappearance of the enemy or the scattering of the unit, which separates a combatant from familiar and trusted leaders.

These examples reveal several features of sense-making that characterize combat situations. The first is the dependency on prepared frames delineating archetype situations. Due to the time constraints, mental strain, and physical danger, solutions must be presented quickly; hence, reliable solutions should be worked out in advance. The second is the loneliness experienced by commanders and other combatants in this process; the nature of combat situations often prohibits an orderly, joint sense-making process. The third feature is that preexisting frames (e.g., drills and previous battle plans) sometimes obstruct one’s ability to perceive contradictory data, even when it appears to be so obvious that it is being “shoved down one’s throat.” The frame that is initially being set is very strong, often due to being drilled to the level of habit, and calls for a specific interpretation of reality. The actor strives to make sense of the chaotic situation and create a new and perhaps more appropriate frame (Klein, 1996) essential for functioning in the combat zone. This structure contains the specific information and sensory input, such as the direction and kind of incoming fire.

Dynamics of Flexible Thinking

Common descriptions of cognition in extreme stress situations refer to a “narrowing of attention” or “tunnel vision” (Chajut, & Algom, 2003). Behavioral scientists studying decision making often focus on the detrimental consequences of this cognitive functioning (Janis & Mann, 1977). Yet such a framework of thinking is both inevitable and appropriate, and combatants describe it as an excellent solution for the hazards of stress (Johnston, Driskell, & Salas, 1997). In addition, specific drills taught in military (p. 224) training actually provide the basis for performance. However, from our point of view, this characterization falls short of the mark, since it does not encompass all the dimensions of functioning in combat. For example, it fails to explain long-term performance of combatants. Also, it does not explain the effective thinking, problem solving, or creativity that may indeed exist in combat. To better understand this issue, we studied the tactical decisions of successful combatants. Here is a notable example of constant contemplation in the words of a successful NCO:

You think all the time: What should I do next? What should I do next? What’s the best thing I can do? There is no room for mistakes. … You turn inward and think. You think about the others, too: what is the right thing to do now, where should I aim, what should I bring, where’s the best place? … You run contingency plans through your mind, what would happen if. … You do it constantly (interview with a first sergeant about the Second Lebanon War, 2006).

Part of the formal military training is directing commanders towards constant assessment of the situation. Their sense-making therefore directs them to assess and reassess the situation and come up with better solutions. These solutions are instantly created during a specific combat. When they are formed, the actor usually does not strive to change them but rather to execute the solution. Another example is the following extract describing a ferocious ninety-minute firefight:

… There were possible targets, shadowy figures, on the windows in that house but then we took sniper fire and an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] blasted near our position and I was hit. … I had to decide if we should cross the field and charge the house or to try and guide fire from the rear. … I had talked to the armored company officer and my deputy … we tried sniper [fire] but it failed. My CO authorized us to outflank. He actually wanted us to do it, and also my soldiers, who were not experienced, were keen on the action. But I saw that they will kill us on the way and that if we fail to enter the house because breaching equipment was low they will nail us from the upper floors. I then decided to order an air strike. But then they said that they do not have the resources, but I was stubborn and eventually it did arrive (interview with a company commander about the Second Lebanon War, 2006).

In this scene, an experienced commander sought a solution based on his understanding and against the express wishes of his superiors and subordinates. The frame that he was setting was not wholly conscious and directed him to calculate the odds. He then saw that the price of an assault was too great; consequently he chose a decision that was in accordance with his frame. Sense-making is oriented towards creating multiple frames for a variety of combat situations. This capacity was the source of his ability to alter the course of events. But thinking creatively in combat is more complex and intriguing. For example, a commander who received the Medal of Valor for his actions in the Yom Kippur War described his thinking during four hours of desperate fighting against a superior Egyptian force:

The preparations are made. The “moment of truth” has arrived. … I feel quiet and serene. The commotion of the battle, some background noises disappear. I am calm and focused. … One part of my brain was occupied by current operations, by whatever was happening at close range. My actions are almost automatic. However, routine actions are dangerous. Nothing is more dangerous than a smart enemy that can predict your next move. So I went out into the open, finger on the trigger. At the slightest sign of movement, a millimeter motion and I aimed, gauged the range and shot, to surprise. From time to time I changed the depth of my patrol, my shooting posture. … With all these fast operations, the other side of my brain was thinking about the broader picture, for instance: what is the most dangerous building? Can we take it?” (Asa Kadmoni, 1973; cited in Nevo & Ashkenazy, 2006; pp. 176–179).

Reviewing the description, we came to believe that extreme combat efficiency is related to a certain type of sense-making. The successful combatant or commander is not only a “performer,” but rather a constant and flexible “thinker.” In this case one can see the emphasis on “thinking” and the active search for information and solutions. Sense-making is not only about prescribed drills and refining the initial frame instilled in training.

In another case, a squad of five was trapped inside a burning house and under heavy fire during the Second Lebanon War. Hearing voices emanating from the body of a dead Hezbollah fighter, they searched and found his two-way radio. One of them thought to appropriate the radio, which could reveal enemy intentions and have a critical impact on the fighting:

At that time when we were not under direct fire, we were busy trying to understand what was going on (p. 225) around us. We were less concentrated on the fire directed at us, which was less accurate. We heard the voices coming from the radio and we immediately realized that this would be critical. We thought about what they would have done to us, if they [Hezbollah] had been in our shoes. For sure they would have taken the radio (interview with a first sergeant about the Second Lebanon War, 2006).

Though under extreme duress, these combatants continued thinking the whole time. Their actions were governed by the need to analyze possible enemy actions and reactions. This deadly “game” of chess requires efficient, continuous, aggressive thinking. Their emotional state was not one of stress or fear. On the contrary, they reported having had a sense of calm and joy. One of them later said: “I even liked this fight a little.”

It is argued elsewhere that the ability to control emotion enables rational thinking and problem-solving (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). More so, emotions have been presented as a block against sound decision-making (Janis, 1982). But the case study presented reveals more than peak combat performance, aggressiveness, and tough soldiering; it demonstrates creative problem-solving that we strive to describe as the ability to function and interpret the immediate combat situation and at the same time be able to see the greater picture in which your current battle position is only a part.

What are the antecedents of such creative problem-solving in these combat conditions? We tentatively suggest the following: First, despite the threat from enemy fire, the combatants felt relatively at ease, sufficiently to allow a continuous intake and assessment of data as well as consultation with subordinates. They did not foster illusions about the prospects of surviving, or seek an easy escape. Second, the actors thought offensively, attempting to “read” the situation like two simultaneous halves of a movie. Soaring high above their own position, these combatants saw the enemy and his possible actions. They asked not only: What are we doing? and What should we do? but also, What is the enemy doing? What is he attempting? The various parts of the puzzle only fit together in this type of bi-directional or joint framework.

It is common knowledge, and the study of combat thinking bears this out, that combat situations, especially severe combat situations, are not conducive to creative thinking. Indeed, generally speaking, they impede any productive and efficient thinking at all. The combination of confusion, uncertainty, and the terror of death serves to obstruct any attempt to maintain an overriding objective view in the face of multiple smaller events. What can explain excellent performance in combat? Is it the result of intelligence or other dimensions of sense-making?

We have studied performance in intense combat during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. In the study (Ben-Shalom, Weinstein, & Keren, 2007) we collected platoon commanders’ numerical evaluations of 425 combatants immediately following actual fighting. We then correlated these indices on number of psychological measures, including pre-induction and training information. We found that pre-induction measurements, including intelligence measurement, were far less useful in predicting both actual functioning and command potential revealed during combat compared to peer ratings (r values were around 0.15 for cognitive measures as compared to 0.32 for peer ratings). These results are in line with recent studies, which stressed the importance of non-cognitive dimensions in the assessment of morale and functioning in stressful contexts (Dover, 2002; Matthews, Brazil, & Erwin, 2009).

Participation and Repetition

Behavior, including inaction, is preconditioned by sense-making (Weick, 1995). Therefore, action and inaction in combat, which may be appropriate or inappropriate, follow from the nature of the sense-making process. Two notable outcomes of the failure of sense-making are ineffective, repetitive behaviors and lack of participation—“freezing.” There are numerous examples of firefights and skirmishes in which an inefficient action was used repetitively, to the detriment of the combatants. Fundamentally, this behavioral pattern results from the failure of the sense-making process. Combatants then fall back onto known and therefore reasonable pre-battle plans or drills. An example of such behavior is a decision to storm a target repeatedly, regardless of the futility of such an action. Another ineffective pattern of behavior is extreme passivity during the battle. Often, combatant can choose to participate actively or passively; to assume command, await orders or wait for the situation to become clearer. For example: “… after the skirmish we pulled back into a yard. I vividly remember that I had to take all [the] men and change their roles. I simply picked those that were functioning, reorganized the entire platoon, and then we proceeded” (platoon commander interview, 2004).

(p. 226) The process of “combat self-selection” is a manifestation of an implicit social process resulting from the challenges and complexities of battle. For instance, an experienced commander arriving at the scene during an ongoing terrorist night attack stated:

… You don’t understand where it is [the fight]; you can hear heavy bursts of fire and you don’t know from where, and it’s dark. Simply a mess, I simply don’t know where to begin … trying to open an aerial photo and explain, it doesn’t work, giving some situation assessment. I don’t understand anything from what is going on there. … Just a mess, never seen a mess like that. … Something ought to be done, I just felt we need[ed] to do something. … I decided to outflank the source of fire and organized a team. I collected them, and some came from their own free will—people who wanted to come. There was a company commander from another battalion—a very aggressive paratrooper; he just came. And another, from the border patrol, just arrived. … I tell him, “You will come with me,” and then I take three other combatants from my battalion whom I know to be good infantry soldiers. … I know that company XO, he also comes. … I fixed the communication on the signals and then things are moving and then suddenly we were eight and we went. … (battalion commander interview, 2005).

This commander’s decision to act was based on his understanding that things were going wrong and something different had to be done. His actions were based on his sense of competence and responsibility as well as the actions of others. He organized an ad-hoc team based on his selection, but most importantly by self-selection of combatants. In combat, there are actions that by themselves serve as cues for actions; yet taking a risk requires some level of understanding of the situation. Combatants and commanders will usually endeavor to understand the situation and only then decide whether and how to act. The ability to make sense out of the situation or the failure to do so leads actors to attempt action (sometimes it might be a calculated decision not to act at the moment) or to a state of limbo and paralysis regarding a tactical problem. Let us examine this thesis through the following testimony about a 2007 operation:

… I was lying on my belly. I turned around and looked over my shoulder. Started to explore the area again [with my night vision goggles]; suddenly I identified a figure dressed in uniform, with a vest and a weapon but without a helmet. At first I didn’t understand that this was a terrorist. So, I looked further right with the night goggles just to fix what I saw. And then, in a split second, we identified each other. I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me from a distance of 30 feet. It was a crazy moment. Without thinking too much I stood and shouted to the force, “Leopard Procedure, nobody shoot!” meaning that a terrorist is inside the scattered force and no one fires, to avoid fratricide. I got up and in order to save time I charged alone. I charged with fire but after two or three rounds, about 12 feet away from him, my magazine suddenly went empty. I realized that I [made] a critical professional error: I didn’t switch magazines after the first charge. … As I fired the last round I saw the terrorist ignite a spark. At that moment I was convinced it was IED belt that he was carrying on his waist. Instinctively, I ran to him and jumped on him. Grabbed him [by] the shoulders and pushed him from behind. He was leaping and I pulled him to his side, locked his elbows from behind pushed him to the ground and stuck to his back so that if his IED belt eventually blew, he would take the blow and serve as cover. It was like a movie that was screened fast-forward. As if you push the forward button on a DVD and everything just fast-forwarded quickly. You’re saying “shit, I’m dying”; understand that now is your end. They say that before dying you see your entire life before your eyes. But I was thinking about two things: My family—wife and child—and how to save my soldiers. … (infantry company commander interview, 2007).

As in the previous examples, one can see the impact of pre-battle drills on the sense-making process. The use of code words enabled the commander to share his frame quickly with his subordinates, thereby saving time and coordinating their thinking. In an attempt to understand how armies direct the commander’s sense-making process, two contradictory concepts must be examined. On one hand, each combat situation is unique and therefore cannot be anticipated or fully prepared for; on the other hand, the results of the sense-making process must be disseminated in order to facilitate and coordinate the sense-making processes of others.

These experiences of horrific moments occurring in the dark of night create for the reader a sense of the fusion of psychological elements that make up the delicate process of sense-making. Part of it is automatic; part of it not. Drills and formal training entangled here with individual perceptions evolving (p. 227) during the operation on the ground. Though the interviewees appeared focused on instinctive decisions, they were actually directed by their own perseverance and feeling of responsibility for their subordinates. Both the formal and informal parts influence the decision making in situations that have a quality of unreal, dreamlike, and emotionally detached scenes. These testimonies led us to the conclusion that the nature behavior in combat cannot be taken for granted. Often, it deviates from expectations, especially in the case of inexperienced commanders.


In this chapter we used the concept of sense-making to study behavior in combat by analyzing typical combat events. Characteristics of sense-making were initially described using the “booting up” metaphor, which describes the result of the initial realization that one is actually in the battleground in a situation that sharply deviates from normal life (even in the military). One needs to immediately “load” some practical notions (drills, plans, procedures) of how best to act in this battle situation. The making of this mental shift is in fact the mental entry into the battlefield. It greatly affects the ability and quality of one’s functioning in the ensuing combat. In the words of General Depuy:

Notwithstanding some American mythology to the contrary, there is very little initiative demonstrated on a battlefield. When the bullets start to fly the average man lies low. He stays that way until he is ordered to do otherwise. For example, the main difference between green and veteran units is that in green units it is customary for everyone to lie low waiting for the others to get up and do spontaneously what they have been trained to do for so long, and what our folklore tells us they will surely do—and this is often a long wait. In the veteran unit some man, who has learned the hard way that nothing happens unless someone takes measures of some sort, looks a few soldiers straight in the eye and orders them personally and individually to do some very specific task like, “Move up to that hedgerow”—“Throw a grenade in that window”—“Cross that field”—“Fire at that house.” Lacking such orders, the soldier does what comes naturally—nothing (Depuy, 1958p. 22).

Sense-making is a continuous process. Klein and his colleagues (2007) propose that the sense-making process takes place when the individual realizes that the situation is no longer developing according to expectations and that therefore a new course of action must be adopted. We attempted to connect this approach with behaviors that are relevant and prevalent in combat scenarios that characterize current military operations. Sense-making was studied as a prerequisite for action and inaction in the hectic and intense context of combat. We have also probed the ability to think in a creative manner under these conditions.

As noted by Weick (1993), combat stress is likely to influence this process. Indeed, we also found that the concepts of “tunnel vision” or “narrowed attention” are often descriptive of combatants’ thought processes (Driskell, Salas, & Johnston, 2006). Yet this perspective does not, in and of itself, encompass the full dynamics of cognitive processes during combat, especially when evidence shows that some combatants have great presence of mind in these circumstances. Sense-making offers a wider and more flexible perspective that is also connected to non-cognitive dimensions. Overall it serves as a broad and promising perspective on the mind during combat.

Sense-Making Processes

Our aim in this chapter is to link sense-making concepts to processes identified in firsthand accounts of combat. Our contention is that sense-making in the military should be understood in the context of preparing for a fight and the way a fight develops. It seems that there is a need to distinguish between different kinds of sense-making according to the origins of the initial frame being used. The first, which is a basic or “normal” sense-making occurs whenever the initial frame is constructed in advance as a preparation for combat, either by formal military training or by some other source such as the local unit’s “way of doing things” or specific commanders’ understandings. Usually, it is formed through common drills and serves as the primary buffer against the detrimental consequences of stress. The sense-making process, on this level, involves choosing an option from a prescribed list. It begins with a set of frames prepared in advance that rely on shared terminology and dictate specific behaviors. These in turn enable others to conduct corresponding sense-making processes. But if normal sense-making fails, usually due to a substantial perceived gap between the initial frame and the evolving reality, this gap will not be bridged by prescriptive scenarios but rather through the ability of combatants or commanders to gain new sense out of the situation.

The second type of sense-making therefore occurs when the frame needs to be restored. This kind of (p. 228) “restorative” sense-making is the process that is needed if the frame becomes inappropriate. The rebooting process in combat often initiates a process of restorative sense-making. It is accomplished through a combination of military skills, personal prowess, and knowledge. In this process, knowledge and skills acquired through military education facilitate alterations to operational plans. “Creative” sense-making is an additional type of reframing, typically employed in situations where military knowledge (training and education) is insufficient. In these situations the frame is based primarily on personal prowess or experience enabling an individual to devise a solution. Often, we concur, “freezing” or inaction in combat is to be expected; it represents a state of “limbo” resulting from the lack of sense or meaning. Adaptation to combat may explain some of the debates regarding bravery in combat. Latane & Darley (1969) pointed out that individuals decide whether to act or refrain from action on the basis of a situational assessment vis-à-vis ambiguity, the inaction of others, diffusion of responsibility, and perceived competence. Often, this assessment results in a “bystander effect” (Latane & Darley, 1969). A complementary line of thinking assumes that behavior is dictated, not by courage or cowardice, but by patterns of thinking or sense-making. Traditional socio-psychological concepts may add significantly to this understanding. The concept of the “bystander effect” was proved to be a vital factor in ethical decision making, including in a military setting (Pury & Lopez, 2009).

Non-Cognitive Dimensions

Current research points to the significance of sense-making for military undertakings and leadership. In order to lead, one must connect one’s sense of the situation to one’s followers’ sense of it, thereby ensuring their understanding, enhancing their motivation, and promoting their resilience. A sense of trust and togetherness are vital in stressful situations, and they result from the interaction of subordinates with their leaders. Leaders who manage to convey the outcome of their sense-making through explicit and implicit behaviors support their followers (Bartone, 2005, 2006). Yet combat prevents long-term processes and forces commanders to focus on the immediate action or mission at hand. Thus, a large part of recent sense-making research, which is focused on long-term consequences, becomes somewhat irrelevant in the face of an actual fight. A significant time span is needed to create meaning or spiritual reconstruction, and it is usually done after a fight is completed (Pargament & Sweeney, 2011). The time span of combat is limited, and it focuses attention into more specific dimensions and sense-making processes. While in combat, the attention of a commander is on a certain tactical situation or mission. This is often a limit on developing sense-making in relation to broad psychological dimensions as emotions or well-being. Instead, the focus of sense-making in combat is the ability to understand a certain task and its corresponding emotional, behavioral, and social consequences. At the same time, we concur that sense-making in combat must be understood in the context of actual combat (Sweeney, 2010). As do other areas of military psychology, this field calls for more empirical studies (Hannah, Campbell, & Matthews, 2010).

One of the significant social processes related to sense-making in combat is “combat self-selection” or volunteering, in which actions are precipitated by successful or experienced combatants. Such “self-selected” combatants were marked not only by their decision to pursue a specific course of action but by their ability to perform and maintain free and effective thinking during a fight. Specifically, they were able to maintain flexible, offensive thinking while imagining their battle space. When commanders were involved in combat, their ability to make sense of the combat situation served their leadership role by enabling them to motivate and provide meaning for their fellow officers and subordinates.

At the opposite end of this continuum, we explored how combat was interpreted during a fight and learned that the inability to make sense of events left commanders or other combatants without a good frame. In a recent study (Ben-Shalom & Benbenisty, 2011), we studied 876 combatants who actively participated in intense combat during the year 2009. The study probed the correlation between motivation, coping, and stress. The results demonstrated that emotional coping (for example, expressing of emotions) in combat predicts a low level of adaptation to the combat environment and less combat motivation. On the other hand, a rational coping style (for example, thinking about how to solve a problem) was highly correlated with non-rational aspects such as sudden faith in God and the ability to repress emotions (Ben-Shalom & Benbenisty, 2011). These results point to the interaction between emotions and cognition during a combat, implying that one of the psychological antecedents of good functioning in combat is the ability to feel comfortable and calm of spirit. (p. 229) In turn, this emotional quality supports cognitive processes and enables clear thinking, which are part of the successful sense-making process.


Preparation for combat is often based on meticulous planning intended to obviate the effects of surprise and foster a sense of self efficacy (Driskell & Salas, 1991). Its advantages notwithstanding, meticulous planning may lead commanders and combatants to perform a normal sense-making process in place of a more flexible approach. In other words, sense-making often occurs when planned behaviors are not applicable. In the general military literature, there is an understanding that one’s pre-battle plan must be adapted due to the inevitable friction and disruption of communications, the “fog of war” (Holmes, 2007). This line of thinking is usually studied in the framework of military history or security studies rather than on the individual level, such as sense-making performed by commanders and combatants. When plans are disrupted, sense-making is needed, especially when pre-battle planning does not cover alternate solutions.

Weick (1995) noted that stress focuses one’s attention on the perceived central elements of a task while “shutting out” peripheral cues that may actually enhance one’s sense-making capabilities. This fact should be considered in training by leaders employing prescriptive models for desired behavior. Simply put, preparations for sense-making in combat should take into account that frames must often change. Although behavioral prescriptions are essential, commanders and combatants must also be empowered by being offered a conceptual framework of general ideas that serve as descriptive themes. This is a significant educational dimension of combat preparation, because it uses training to facilitate sense-making in combat. Our findings demonstrate the process of sense-making as conducted on the ground during combat. The ability to discuss the process of seeking a solution, during the actual sensory experiences of combat, may expand the frame through which challenges are evaluated, support reframing efforts, and inhibit the creation of tunnel vision. To further augment these efforts, the military manpower system may choose to actively search, identify, and support combatants and NCOs to assume leadership roles after they demonstrated an ability to think freely under duress (Ben-Shalom, Weinstein, & Keren, 2007).

Paralleling the importance of technology to modern warfare, sense-making is usually studied in connection with sophisticated command-and-control systems or the decision-making processes of senior commanders (Alberts, Garstka, & Stein, 1999; Garstka & Alberts, 2004). Hence, there remain significant unexplored areas. For instance, while technology facilitates command and control from headquarters in the rear, combatants and commanders must perform local and independent sense-making processes at the scene. Most of our data were collected from situations where surveillance equipment was ready and available for commanders at HQ. However, these systems do not and cannot support the entire sense-making process in combat. The study of sense-making in combat conditions presents methodological challenges, which may be the reason why it was not often used. This is significant, since the current trend of full-spectrum operations and counterinsurgency (Chiarelli & Michaelis, 2005) emphasizes combat scenarios in which small-unit tactics will be frequent. Advance weapon and communication systems may prove less effective in these scenarios; hence, we need to explore methods of expanding the sense-making paradigm as means of enhancing the resiliency of combatants and commanders.

Limitations and Future Directions

This study was qualitative in nature and relied on diverse sources of information. Though this approach has clear limitations, it offers a new perspective on a long-intriguing and debated issue. Replicating this study may prove a challenge, but the framework presented could serve as a guide for further research in this field, the importance and relevance of which is on the ascent. Above all, it points once again to the fact that actual behavior in combat should be systematically explored. New and innovative research paradigms that explore the actual occurrences in the battlefield are needed to grasp the true nature of sense-making during combat.


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