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Creating Decision Forcing Cases: The Combat Case Study Method

In the early 1930s, a group of officers at the US Army Infantry School put together a remarkable little book.  Called Infantry in Battle it consisted of a series of short narratives, each of which described, from a third-person perspective, a particular engagement.  These ‘combat case studies’ served a number of purposes, not the least of which was the provision of the raw material from which instructors could create historical map problems.  In the eighty years since then, both the US Army and the Marine Corps sponsored the writing of additional works of this sort.  As a result, a few hours on the internet, or in a well-stocked military library, will uncover dozens of works of this sort, each of which provides a concise account of a particular clash of arms.

In some instances, the authors of combat case studies were  professional writers, whether historians or journalists, who were charged with the task of creating compact descriptions of tactical actions.  (The most famous of these was S.L.A. Marshall, a veteran of the First World War who thrice interrupted his career as a foreign correspondent to document fights fought by American soldiers in North Africa, Europe, Korea, and Vietnam.)  In other instances, the authors took part in the events in question.  (For example, many of the former officers of the German Army employed by the Foreign Military Studies program after the Second World War produced descriptions of engagements in which they had participated.)

Whatever the source, a combat case study will provide most, if not all, of the essential elements of a decision forcing case:  a situation in which a leader finds himself, a decision that he makes, and the events that followed the decision.  In addition, it will also provide a useful starting point for searches for items that will enhance the presentation of a decision-forcing case, things such as maps, photos, and orders of battle.  (These can often be found in unit histories, war diaries, accounts of battles, and chronicles of campaigns.)

As a rule, combat case studies will describe the events in question from the point of view of a third-party observer who enjoys the benefit of hindsight.  Thus, as a decision-forcing case necessarily engages problems through the eyes of a particular protagonist, much of the work of converting a combat case study into a decision-forcing case involves a change of perspective.  This, in turn, will invariably require the removal of a good many facts.  In particular the creator of a decision-forcing case will have to limit students to information that could reasonably have been available to the protagonist prior to the taking of each decision.  Thus, the creator must necessarily remove information about the intentions of other parties and the outcomes of decisions.  Moreover, he will, in all probability also want to exclude many facts related to the strength of enemy forces and the status of friendly forces.  (As ‘war is the realm of uncertainty’, the creator of a decision-forcing case should be guided by the motto ‘when in doubt, leave it out.’)

In addition to redacting information that would not have been available to the protagonist, the creator of a decision-forcing case will usually have to add material that is missing from the combat case study.  This material, which can be found in unit histories, official histories, war diaries, old manuals, and reference works, will usually include such things as the setting of the engagement, weather, weapons effects, unit organization, and the condition of the units involved. The creator will also have to devote a great deal of time to the finding, redaction, and creation of maps.  In particular, he may have to find ways to modify maps in ways that remove features (such as unit symbols) that provide information that would not have been available to the protagonist.

The use of a combat case study as the foundation for a decision-forcing case greatly facilitates the creation of the last element in most decision-forcing cases, the historical solution. In many instances, the combat case study can be used, as is, to tell ‘the rest of the story’.  In others, it can provide the lion’s share of the information needed to provide students with a thorough description of what happened as a result of the decision taken by the protagonist.

Bruce Gudmundsson
Historian and Case Teacher | Website

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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