by Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Adolph, Jr. (USA, Retired)

Commanders always demand complete information about potential battlefields—absolute data— upon which to base their decisions. Intelligence officers often find themselves caught in a vice, with constantly building pressure based on those demands. No intelligence officer could hope to satisfy all the demands for information placed upon him. The pressure for more and more data is significant, unending, and unrelenting.

Commanders’ demands for more and better information are perfectly understandable. Poor decisions based on limited information can result in defeat in battle and the loss of any nations’ most precious military assets, its soldiers. Commanders are quick to point out “intelligence failures” as the reason why an operation or battle failed to achieve its objective. It is axiomatic that “Victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

One way in which some intelligence officers attempt to bridge the gap between incomplete information and those demands is to reduce the battlefield mathematically. In other words, they attempt to provide percentage estimates of likely enemy courses of action. For example, an intelligence officer could tell his commander that there is a 75-percent probability that the enemy will attack with two brigades abreast within the next 24 hours along avenue of approach X. Such an estimate could represent an actual mathematical probability or the measured judgment of the officer. Commanders, though, must bear the ultimate responsibility for their decisions. It has always been thus.

Because intelligence officers are only human, there is a tendency to tell one’s superiors what they want to hear; they must guard against this tendency at all costs. Commanders are human too. They can be guilty of preconceived and inaccurate notions about an adversary.

During World War II, British Major Urquart, an intelligence officer, told his superiors that the largest planned combat airborne operation in history might ultimately fail. He had discovered that a German Panzer Division was close to a planned British parachute drop-zone, and was able to support his assertions with aerial photographs.

His commanding officer, General Browning, discounted Urquart’s analysis because he did not wish to believe that Operation MARKET GARDEN could fail. After all, Field Marshal Montgomery, Browning’s superior, had conceived the plan himself. General Browning relieved Urquart from duty and compelled him to see a psychiatrist. Upon execution of the operation, the young intelligence officer’s analysis proved correct and the enemy decimated the British 1st Airborne Division. Major Urquart demonstrated considerable moral courage in presenting the truth without prejudice or concern for his own career. (He earned a promotion to general officer later in life.)

Early U.S. military forays into the interior of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the mistaken belief that Western Indians were ignorant savages. The truth was that those “savages” produced great war leaders like Quanah Parker, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo. It was also true that those “savages” constituted some of the best light cavalry this planet had ever seen.

Underestimating one’s enemy is intolerable under any circumstances. Colonel George Armstrong Custer essentially served as his own intelligence officer. He discovered these truths the hard way and sacrificed his life and the lives of nearly everyone under his command at the Battle of Little Big Horn shortly after the end of the Civil War. Custer’s inflated ego and prejudice would not permit him to believe that mere “ignorant savages” could defeat him.

If the commander tells his intelligence officer that he expects an attack from the North, for example, that intelligence officer might focus his attentions in the North to the exclusion of other possibilities. Good intelligence officers must train themselves to expect the unexpected and to be prepared to forcefully disagree with commanders when the weight of evidence suggests possibilities not previously considered by the ‘‘boss.”

The most important function of the intelligence officer is to search out the facts, and to determine the truth from those facts. Moreover, once intelligence officers believe they have a “bead” on the truth, they must present it clearly and concisely to their commanders, even when it is a truth the commanders may not want to hear. This requires the rare attribute of moral courage—the most important kind of courage for leaders engaged in war.

Battlefield courage can burn brightly one day and desert a soldier on another. Debilitating fear can come and go. Moral courage—the courage to do the right thing regardless of personal consequences—is essential

in a good intelligence officer. The objective truth requires a protector and champion. This is the most critical function of the intelligence officer. The intelligence officer’s first loyalty is to truth. Too many lives are at stake for it to be otherwise.

The psychology of humans at war is little studied and, therefore, little understood. One thing is certain. The intelligence officer must understand the commander’s intent. General J.E.B. Stewart commanded the cavalry forces of General Lee, Commander of Confederate Forces, during the Civil War. Essentially, Stewart was Lee’s intelligence officer. The cavalry of that day was the eyes and ears of the Army commander.

At the Battle of Gettysburg, Stewart apparently misunderstood General Lee’s intent for the upcoming battle and was out of contact for days leading up to the start of combat—effectively blinding Lee to the fact that he was facing the bulk of General George Meade’s Union Army. Stewart’s failure to understand his commander’s intent led to a devastating defeat at the hands of the Union Army. This defeat was the beginning of the end of the South’s cause. Although the Confederate Army fought on for two more years, the turning point of the American Civil War occurred at Gettysburg and with what some historians view as Stewart’s failure as an intelligence officer.

Enemy psychology is often one of intelligence officers’ focal points. An often-overlooked point is that it is probably impossible to understand others when one does not understand oneself. The best intelligence officers come to understand their own prejudices, weak- nesses, and strengths. The finest intelligence officers learn to over- come their all too human frailties to be able to become clear vehicles to the truth.

Buddhist monks teach that overcoming one’s own prejudices and weaknesses is one of the most profound struggles in which any human can engage. Each of us carries our own demons in the form of prejudices and weaknesses. It is necessary to acknowledge and understand those demons so they cannot control us or influence our opinions and judgments. Those who have succeeded in overcoming themselves in this way are special and unique. This is the struggle in which every intelligence officer must embark—to seek to understand himself or herself better in order to see the enemy more clearly.

This leads inevitably to a discussion of wisdom. My favorite definition of wisdom is “knowledge tempered by experience.” Many people try to possess knowledge these days. Soldiers in modern armies today are becoming technicians in an attempt to master machines, statistics, and computer-driven systems. Soldiers are increasingly more specialized in order to master the complexities of military sciences demanding gre- ater degrees of specific kinds of knowledge. The search for “knowledge” dominates not only Western armies but Western societies.

The problem is that knowledge in terms of facts and numbers can ultimately be sterile. Knowledge by itself is sometimes useless without the wisdom to apply it within a human context. The possession of knowledge provides the possessors a seductive illusion: that they can control events because of their possession superior knowledge. As wars throughout history have proven even superior knowledge cannot, by itself, win a conflict. As suggested by the earlier definition, knowledge only becomes wisdom when tempered by human experience.

War has not, is not now, nor will ever become strictly a science.  The U.S. Army, for example, leans very heavily on science and technology in the attempt to protect the lives of our soldiers and airmen. This dependency is a two-edged sword, though. U.S. cruise missile and bomber attacks on Iraqi Air Defense Forces and upon terrorists and their supporters in Afghanistan and Sudan have not had any noticeable effects on changing the behavior of our antagonists.

The U.S. Armed Forces possess the knowledge, science, and technology of the world’s most modern military organization. Unfortunately, that knowledge, science, and technology is insufficient to win future wars. We must remember that the conduct of war is a human art, which uses science to achieve its ends. All human emotions come into play in war—fear, courage, hatred, love, and the always terrible and sometimes debilitating anxiety brought on by uncertainty. War is visceral, sometimes animal, always emotional, brutal, and aggressive. Intelligence officers who fail to grasp the essentials of the human dimension in war will ultimately fail their commanders and their nation.

Bob Adolph is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel who spent his early commissioned career as an intelligence officer. Today he serves as Defense Advisor to the Bosnian Ministry of Defense and primary Intelligence Instructor for the Federation Joint Command under the U.S. State Department’s Military Stabilization Program in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. LTC Adolph has served as adjunct faculty in government and history departments at various universities, and has published more than 90 military-related articles, essays, and book reviews during the last 20 years. He holds Master of Arts degrees in International Affairs and in National Security Studies and Strategy from the American University and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, respectively, and has a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology from Regents College. Readers may contact LTC Adolph via E-mail at [email protected]