From Individual To Operational Initiative

Benoit Olie

From Individual To Operational Initiative
To cite this article: Olie, Benoit, “‘From Individual To Operational Initiative”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 4, Fall 2014, pages 13-15.

In May 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). This book is the worldwide reference for diagnosis, amongst others, of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Major modifications have been made, compared to the previous edition. Exposure to traumatic events have been taken into consideration has been expanded to ‘non-combat’ situations, such as those encountered by first responders, and sexual violation. Another major change, as mentioned on the APA website, is that: ‘Language stipulating an individual’s response to the event – intense fear, helplessness or horror, according to DSM-IV – has been deleted because that criterion proved to have no utility in predicting the onset of PTSD.’

Since PTSD is the main diagnosis of psychiatric issues amongst soldiers and veterans, it appears important to position and define helplessness in military PTSD. Military PTSD sufferers are, arguably, a population of subjects for whom action and a ‘grip on events’ have a strong significance. Although DSM-IV mentioned intense fear and horror alongside helplessness, we will exclude them from our study: if helplessness is due to intense fear or horror, i.e. when the soldier is ‘stunned’ by the shock of horror or by an incapacitating fear (what Dave Grossman names ‘condition black’ in On Combat), we will consider this as fear and horror. What we would like to study as ‘helplessness’ is a physical and/or cognitive incapacity to get a grip on events. That helplessness can be due to rules of engagements, direct orders, or physical limitations (eg, enemies are out of range or impossible to identify). We will then consider that a soldier is not subjected to that helplessness if he is able to take decisions and to act, and interact with the given event.

The hypothesis suggested by this paper is that ‘military helplessness’ is to be avoided because it is a major stressor on soldiers (men and women of action) and may cause stress disorders and even psychiatric casualties. Therefore, tactical immobility, which may be the main reason for military helplessness, is to be avoided as well. As tactical immobility is generally due to a lack of operational initiative, seizing operational initiative may be the answer to stress disorders generated by ‘military helplessness’. Although not necessarily done in current and recent operations, this is nothing new. However, the implication and the logical flow from individual to operational levels may be used the other way around when facing an operational dead-end.

‘Military helplessness’, taken as the inability to fight back, can lead to stress disorders

In July 1980, Joanne Weinberg, Mary Erksine and Seymour Levine published the results of an experiment conducted on rats regarding shock-induced stress[i]. They administered electric shocks to the rats. Some were alone in their cage; others were in pairs and fought against each other after the electric shocks. The scientists then evaluated the level of stress of the rats through the presence in their bodies of a specific hormone (adrenocorticotropic hormone, ACTH). They found that those rats which were shocked individually presented far higher levels of ACTH than those shocked in pair and thus able to fight. They also found that the rate of lowering of ACTH in the blood of rats which fought was not related to the amount of fighting but only to its occurrence.

Electric shock generates pain but also fear and (because there is nothing that can be done about it) frustration. Fighting is a way of overcoming the stress thus generated. In a relative sense, that experiment is similar to a situation known by many soldiers that would describe themselves as ‘stuck inside the wire’. Being the target of rockets and shells fired randomly at you and not being able to do anything about it or to fight back creates the same feelings (fear and frustration), thereby generating stress. That situation, repeated over and over again, could lead to stress disorders or to a modification of the soldier’s behaviour, as they try to find a way to overcome stress. One example of this is provided in Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary about the Abu Ghraib events, Standard Operating Procedure. The interview of Military Police Sergeant Javal Davis is very explicit:

‘Incoming, incoming! You got to run, boom. God damn, you get mad because it happens over, and over, and over, and over again. After a while, the fear goes away and you just get angry. It’s like: ‘Damn it! Can’t we shoot back?!’

This example shows how the physical inability to act, ‘military helplessness’, can generate excessive and sustained stress. In the end that may result in stress disorder or altered behaviour.

Sometimes, the inability to act may simply be a legal issue, not a physical one. This is notably the case in peacekeeping operations. Peter Kosminsky’s Warriors, the drama about British peacekeepers in Bosnia in 1993 during the ethnic cleansing in the Lašva Valley, shows how the rules of engagement and the duty of maintaining impartiality resulted in an almost total inability to act or to get a grip on events. The fiction also shows how the frustration resulted, for many soldiers, in various kinds of PTSD.

A documentary, Peter Raymont’s 2004 Shaking Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, tells the story of ten Belgian paratroopers who were massacred in Rwanda, while protecting First Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana on the morning of the 7th of April 1994. In this video, one can see the interviews of other Belgian elite troops just before embarking on the plane that brought them home. They had been ordered to stay in their positions and were therefore unable to help their comrades. They expressed how that ‘military helplessness’ turned into rage for some of them, and to acute survivor guilt for others.

Another observation of the Weinberg, Erksine and Levine experiment is that, when isolated in an individual cage, rats which previously were in pairs and fought after the electric shocks continue to display a lower rate of ACTH. In other words, rats which could initially fight to overcome trauma and stress were subsequently more resilient to the shocks, even if they could no longer fight. This relates to another experiment, conducted on dogs, about ‘learned helplessness’. In 1967, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier inflicted electric shocks on dogs. Some of them could avoid the shocks; others were restrained and could not. After a few shocks, the dogs which were previously unable to avoid the shocks were given the opportunity to do so. They did not. They were completely resigned to their fate (of receiving shocks). Moreover, some dogs displayed signs similar to those of clinical depression. Again in a relative sense, that experiment could suggest that protracted ‘military helplessness’, besides possible stress disorders and alterations of behaviour, could be a cause for a psychiatric condition.

‘Military helplessness’, the inability to fight back or to act upon events, is a different condition from intense fear and horror, both of which can generate helplessness as a sort of paralysis. ‘Military helplessness’ is an individual condition that is not due to individual internalised factors such as fear or horror, but to environmental factors such as rules of engagement or the physical impossibility to act. As such, it is mainly imposed by issues at the tactical (as opposed to the individual) level.

Individual ‘military helplessness’ as a result of tactical immobility or paralysis

If we consider that ‘military helplessness’ generates sustained stress and frustration that can result in stress disorders and even, in extreme cases, in a psychiatric condition, we can spot a very paradoxical situation in low intensity or counter-insurgency conflicts: tactical caution may create psychiatric vulnerability. Ironically, keeping soldiers inside their Forward Operating Base in order to avoid casualties in combat may appear to be a good way of avoiding public opinion overreaction to the death of servicemen and women. A result of being operationally inefficient, that tactical immobility ¬– actively chosen; as opposed to tactical paralysis, which is imposed – will generate ‘military helplessness’. In turn that may generate at least a psychiatric vulnerability, or at worst psychiatric casualties.

Therefore, ending tactical immobility, which implies a tactical risk, can alleviate ‘military helplessness’. General Petraeus proved the point with the implementation of counter-insurgency (COIN) tactics in Iraq: taking a physical risk gave back to units their tactical freedom of action and therefore an individual’s grip on events. What Thomas Ricks describes in his book as The Gamble, is simply the risk of more physical casualties. In the winter of 2006-2007, that risk was not welcomed by American public opinion. The decision was taken in expectation of regaining a grip on events, and stopping both guerrilla attacks on isolated bases and terrorist strikes on the civilian population and military convoys. Back in the cities, among the population they were defending, patrolling on foot in the streets, US soldiers managed to get back a grip on their image and their relationship with Iraqis. They were able to collect intelligence again. In the end, they got the ability to identify and act against decisive targets. At that point they were able to fight back and ended their ‘military helplessness’. Physical risk diminished psychiatric vulnerability. Tactical freedom of action translated into an individual grip on events and helped relieve frustration-based stress in soldiers.

In high-intensity conflicts, ‘military helplessness’ can sometimes simply be a question of firepower. Heavy bombardment, be it from aviation or artillery, can prevent the individual from moving or doing anything other than taking cover. This phenomenon was studied extensively by Reuven Gal and Hava Dayan in relation to heavy bombardments during the Yom-Kippur war in 1973. In a paragraph of their study dedicated to the feeling of helplessness, they wrote ‘Helplessness: A very sharp rise was found in the feeling of helplessness among the combatants who stayed in the bunker, as opposed to a slighter rise in that feeling among the combatants who remained outside the bunker during the course of the shelling.’[ii] They evaluated the feeling of helplessness on a scale from 0 to 2, and over a period of shelling of three hours. For the soldiers inside the bunkers, that feeling started at 0 at the outbreak of shelling and peaked at 1.6 two hours later. For those outside the bunkers, it started at 0.6 at the outbreak of the shelling and peaked at 1.4 two hours later.

John Keegan expresses the same concern on ‘military helplessness’ in full-scale combat operations in The Face of Battle:

‘It is a function of the impersonality of modern war that the soldier is coerced, certainly at times by people whom he can identify, but more frequently, more continuously and more harshly by vast, unlocalized forces against which he may rail, but at which he cannot strike back and to which he must ultimately submit.’

Since tactical immobility or paralysis generates ‘military helplessness’, tactical freedom of action alleviates it. Freedom of action can be gained through risk-taking, mainly in low-intensity or COIN operations, or through matching firepower and movement support in high intensity conflicts. In both cases, what happens at the operational level will have a critical influence on tactical freedom of action.

Tactical paralysis results from the operational loss of initiative

Operational initiative allows those who hold it to decide at least one of the elements of the battle (time, location, target) while the other side cannot. This provides whoever holds the initiative with a military ‘first mover advantage’. Freedom of decision on one or a more aspects of the battle leads to freedom of movement. The opposing party can only react, and therefore has limited freedom of action. This, in turn, leads to partial or complete tactical immobility.

Seizure of lost initiative is a way to regain lost freedom of movement. According to Clausewitz, the seizure of initiative can follow the moment when the enemy reaches his culminating point. That manoeuvre, often requiring the commitment of one’s own reserves after the enemy has unsuccessfully committed his, is illustrated by the transition from defence to attack. The battle of Marne, fought by General Joffre from 9 to 12 September 1914 is a good illustration. (One could argue that it resulted in a partial failure to exploit because Joffre’s own reserves could not be deployed as quickly as he wished.) The tactical change of posture also results in an individual change of mental posture for soldiers: shifting from defence to attack, they mentally shift from risk of defeat to chance of victory.

Just as tactical risk-taking can grant individuals a grip on events, operational risk-taking can grant tactical freedom of action. One of the most famous examples would be General McArthur and the Inchon landing on September 15, 1950. General McArthur’s staff was almost unanimously against the idea of the Inchon landing since it had been evaluated as far too risky, and on difficult beaches for which intelligence was incomplete. General McArthur pushed the idea through, took the risk, and managed to regain freedom of action and psychological advantage. He managed to ‘freeze’ the enemy by creating surprise. They thought Inchon was too far and too risky for the UN troops to dare to conduct that manoeuvre.

The loss or absence of operational initiative, which in low-intensity conflicts can be seen as operational caution, restrains tactical freedom of action and generates ‘military helplessness’. Then, just as at the tactical level, risk-taking can be a way to seize the initiative back. Operational initiative leads to tactical freedom of action and to an individual’s grip on events. Arguably, things might work the other way around.

Individual initiative can bring back operational initiative

Operational surprise is one of the greatest achievements of a general, because it may paralyze the enemy with shock, fear and horror. This is true not only for units but also for the individuals within those units. Seizing the initiative enables the tactical level and empowers the individual level. The operational benefit is transferred to tactical level and in turn to individual level.

But initiative can be ‘transmitted’ the other way around, by the daring individual actions of a few. (Interestingly, we call them ‘individual initiatives’) In turn they enable freedom of action at the tactical level and seizing the initiative at the operational. This is exceptionally well described by Karl-Heinz Frieser in his book The Blitzkrieg Legend[iii] . The book is an historical analysis and description of the 1940 Western campaign and the battle of Sedan. Frieser explains that the German Blitzkrieg was actually a myth created retrospectively by Goebbels in order to take advantage of that success for propaganda purposes. He explains that Guderian actually disobeyed orders to slow down his advance, and exploited westwards after Sedan. This astonishing operational success was made possible by tactical initiatives and disobedience by great leaders, in particular Guderian. In other words, the tactical level, by exploiting its freedom of movement and action created operational initiative and enemy paralysis.

Interestingly, Frieser’s work is full of examples of low-level actions that enabled tactical freedom of action. For instance, a combat squad in a truck dismounted to confront a rifle company, thus maintaining the use of that road. There are individual level examples as well. For instance, Feldwebel Rubarth, a combat engineer, single-handedly stormed a combat position on the bank of the river Meuse, enabling whole units to cross.

Arguably, by enabling the individual initiative, Auftragstaktik (equivalent to the British ‘mission command’) may be easier to achieve when the operation is about seizing ground than in counter-insurgency. Feldwebel Rubarth did not need to ‘master the spaghetti bowl’ to do what he did. But that could be what is at stake in COIN operations: finding a way of fostering valuable individual initiative.

An alternate, down-up, way of planning?

This article refers to well-known principles. Of course, operational initiative is critical. Of course, tactical freedom of action is central. And, of course, each is related to the other. This article proposed to look one step closer to the battleground, at the individual level. Starting from observations on stress and ‘military helplessness’, this article examined how operational and tactical levels could interact with the individual one. We saw that the operational lack of initiative results in tactical immobility or paralysis. At the individual level, this generates a feeling of helplessness that may generate altered behaviours, stress disorders and even psychiatric conditions. Operational initiative is the starting point of a vicious or virtuous circle, influencing soldiers’ morale and possibly mental health.

What this article also proposed is the hypothesis that this virtuous circle could be studied and implemented backwards: from the individual grip on events, to tactical freedom of movement and operational initiative. This ultimately provides an alternate way of conducting estimate and planning: when the search for a way to regain initiative is fruitless and hopeless, why not let go of the operational level for a moment, and try to think about how foot soldiers can be empowered to exert their own grip on events?


[i] ‘Shock-induced fighting attenuates the effects of prior shock experience in rats.’ Physiology & Behaviour, Vol. 25(1), July 1980, 9-16.
[ii] Gal, Reuven and Dayan, Hayan. The Psychological Effects of Intense Artillery Bombardment: The Israeli Experience in the Yom-Kippur War (1973). The Israeli Institute for Military Studies: 1992, p. 46.
[iii] Karl-Heinz Frieser is a German officer and historian. His book, first published in 1995, was translated into French in 2003 and in English in 2013.