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Preparing for Free-Play Field Exercises: The Case for Decision-Forcing Cases

The pseudonymous ‘Steve B’ hits three nails squarely on their heads.  In ‘A New Approach to Command Post Training,’ (Wavell Room, 10 July 2018) he provides us with a report on the current condition of battalion-level command post exercises in the British Army, a diagnosis of the malady that plagues such undertakings, and a promising prescription for a cure for that particular ailment.  To be more specific, ‘Steve B’ describes ‘overly scripted’ events ‘with limited scope for free play or imagination from either side, argues that these fail ‘adequately simulate the mental and physical strain of combat’, and proposes that they be replaced with a smaller number of exercises in which complete brigades engage each other in full-scale, free-play field exercises.

 The problem that ‘Steve B’ describes, the argument that he makes, and the solution that he proposes, are far from new. Consider the following, written by Sir Francis Tuker soon after the Second World War.

The extraordinary ambivalence of our commanders and their inability to seize upon the occasion can only have been due to the training they had been given and especially to that given at our Staff College in England, where the occluding clouds of 1914-1918 hung over the teaching and settled damply upon all original thought.  Gideon and Scipio Africanus would have had a thin time.  The swiftness of the coming tactics, of communications and mechanization, were unimaginable in a conception which was slowed down to the pace of a horse pulling a limber, and to the cavalry Affair of Cérizyof 1914.

This spellbinding traditionalism continued at that place until well into the late twenties and much of it held on until later. Unfortunately, it was therefore the pattern for the Staff College in India.  Excellent staff officers emerged, men capable of the highest efficiency, exemplified by such great projects as Overlord, but inevitably there came forth astonishingly few capable fighting commanders for a war of manoeuvre.  Paper, paper, and more paper!  The diagrammatic rigidity of the 1918 artillery governed battle, and minds became conditioned by it.

It should be forbidden to teach tactics, even on the ground, at such an establishment and certainly never on paper.  Tactics are absorbingly interesting and especially so when full-sized units and formations are out on the country, free to act against each other within the loosest of the instructions to the umpires.  There is no such thing as a tactical doctrine; and tactics which are mulled about and produced from a junta of instructors are only the compromise which in war falls in the dust.  The interest of officers and men in the subject must be maintained at all costs; therefore, on no account should it be made the subject of an examination.*

*Sir Francis Tuker, Approach to Battle, (London: Cassell, 1963), pp. 144-145

The sort of exercises recommended by ‘Steve B’ and General Tuker are inherently expensive and, as a result, will necessarily be as rare as rainstorms in the Mojave Desert.  Thus, in order to make the most of such events, commanders will want to ensure that all of their subordinates are able to make the most the experience.  In other words, they will want to conduct training that prepares participants to learn from the things that they do, and observe, in the course of large-scale free-play field exercises.

The most obvious of these preparatory problems fall into the category of free-play field exercises on a smaller scale. Less obvious, but also of great value, is the use of decision games of various sorts, and, in particular, decision games based on events that actually took place.  Known variously as decision-forcing cases, historical immersion problems, and historical map problems, these are exercises that place participants in the role of a real person (the ‘protagonist’) and ask them to solve a particularly challenging problem that he faced at some point in the past.

Exercises of this sort are sometimes engaged in the places where the historical decision in question was actually taken.  (In that case, they are known as “decision-forcing staff rides.”)  As a rule, however, the presentation, discussion, and resolution of decision-forcing cases can take place anywhere, in a classroom, at a sand table, or under a tree.  This makes them cheap, and thus the sort of thing that can be done as often as time permits.

Some decision-forcing cases resemble the ‘decision-forcing case studies’ used at the Harvard Business School. That is, prior to discussing the problem (or problems) in question, participants read articles that describe the situation at hand.  In the realm of tactics, however, most decision-forcing cases are ‘conference style’ exercises, in which relevant facts about the protagonist and his problem are presented in the course of the discussion.  (This is why such exercises are often described as ‘tactical decision games based on real events’.)

The creation of a decision-forcing case is a simple process.  One need do little more than find a good account of a tactical engagement that took place at some point in the past and re-arrange things so that the tale is told from the point of view of the protagonist.  (This means, of course, removing any information, such as details of the enemy order of battle and the intentions of the enemy commander,  that could not have been available to the protagonist prior to his decision.)  

Presenting a decision-forcing similarly straightforward.  The facilitator (as the person running the exercise is often called) begins by telling the tale up to the point where the protagonist is faced with his first decision. At that juncture, he picks one of the participants, addresses him by the name and rank of the protagonist, and says, “Sir, what are your orders?” This leads to a discussion (known as ‘the Socratic conversation’) in which participants offer up their solutions to the problem at hand, critique the solutions offered by their peers, and exchange, in a spirit of open and respectful inquiry, the ideas and observations that inevitably arise.

The secret to the effective engagement of a decision-forcing case lies in the attitude of the facilitator. Neither lecturer nor inquisitor, the facilitator avoids both the making of arguments and the passing of judgements. Rather, his chief duties are the presentation of problems, the sparking of discussions, and the provoking of thought. Indeed, in the realm of decision-forcing cases, the Holy Grail of facilitation is a discussion in which participants engage each other to such a degree that the facilitator finds himself with little, if anything, to do.  (In other words, the best facilitator is one who ‘works himself out of a job’.)

While inherently uncomplicated, the creation and facilitation of decision-forcing cases is far from easy. Those who undertake this work will have a great deal of ‘unlearning’ to do.  In particular, they must rid themselves of the idea that an instructor is a kind of informational quartermaster, charged with the acquisition, maintenance, issue, and return of particular facts, arguments, and items of nomenclature.  Rather, they must embrace the role of game master, someone who sets up situations in which participants are forced to devise, describe, and defend specific solutions to particular problems.

Most of the time, a decision-forcing case concludes with ‘the rest of the story’.  Also called ‘the reveal’, ‘the epilogue’,  or ‘the historical solution’, this is a short account of the decision taken by the protagonist and the results that followed.  Not to be confused with ‘the right answer’ or a ‘directing staff solution’, this provides participants with the ability to compare their own solutions with something that happened on an actual battlefield. (Some facilitators delay the epilogue until several days have passed, thereby giving participants time to ponder the solutions that they offered in the course of the discussion.  Others point players towards the library, inviting them to discover the historical solution for themselves  A few facilitators refrain from providing any closure at all.  After all, they reason, the point of a decision-forcing case is not to satisfy curiosity, but to awaken it.)

Those interested in learning the art of creating decision-forcing cases and facilitating Socratic conversations will find much of interest on The Case Method in Professional Military Education .  An outgrowth of a decade-long initiative aimed at promoting the use of decision-forcing cases within the United States Marine Corps, this website is part of the Military Instructor ‘cluster’ of blogs and discussion forums (https://teachusmc.blogspot.com/).

Historian and Case Teacher |

Bruce Ivar Gudmundsson, DPhil,  is an historian and case teacher who lives and works in Quantico, Virginia, USA.  In 2004, he served as visiting senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.  If you want to learn more about his vast experience, visit his profile or linkedin links below.

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