Army Critical Thinking Tackles the “Vortex of Violence”


Categorie: Reality Check, Research, Training |

“One night I got a call as a squadron commander to provide a QRF for a force the next morning that was going to go into a southeast province [sic] of Baghdad called Madaiin,” Army Colonel Michael Johnson recalls:

Went down about 9:00, 2100, met with the commander, had no real idea of his key maneuver. And we went in the next day with the QRF and all of a sudden I owned all of Madaiin with that Iraqi brigade commander. … No guidance from higher other than to provide a QRF. And then you have to figure all those things out. That happens to commanders at all levels continually I think in the current environment we’re in.

Johnson’s now at the Army’s grad school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. There, with his partner Clinton Ancker, Johnson has developed a new course in “critical thinking” for Army officers. He calls it “Design.”

According to Ancker:

It’s an approach to critical and creative thinking that enables a commander to create understanding about a unique situation, and visualize and describe how to generate change. … When leaders are faced with vague and ill-defined problems that do not have immediate solutions, they need a way to help them reach a more thorough understanding of the operational environment …

Design accounts for the dynamic and multi-dimensional nature of the operational environment through a methodology, built for collaborative understanding, synthesizes multiple perspectives all seeking to achieve a desired end state. 

Sounds like nonsense, at best. At worst, it’s ill-advised compensation for poor strategy and vague mission statements from higher command. We shouldn’t fight battles, or wars, without clear goals, no? Then I recalled intel Major Shannon Beebe’s theory of the “vortex of violence,” where old conflicts lose touch with their roots:

No one really knows why, who they’re fighting, why they’re fighting. All they know is that it’s a chaotic world. It’s Mad Max in the Thunderdome. And it’s, again, it’s about personal survival.

The vortex is chaotic. The vortex doesn’t make sense. And the vortex can ambush you after you’ve committed forces to a conflict, with what you thought were clear goals. Design is just the Army’s way of teaching its commanders to expect more chaos, more confusion, more uncertainty.

Ancker again:

There may be circumstances where a brigade is given very clear orders, very clear objectives, and yet the environment they are operating in is so complex that you can’t simply start into the planning process, where you have to analyze all of the very intricate relationships between parties in the area of operations; you need to understand second and third-order effects of your operations. And where you are dealing with complex problems for which your background and experience may not suit you, you need to go out and get outside expertise on that.

(Photo: David Axe)


One Response to “Army Critical Thinking Tackles the “Vortex of Violence””

  1. charles federspiel says:

    I disagree. There are disciplined, structured approaches to Critical Thinking and the Creative Process. Understanding them is crucial to solving complex problems collaboratively.

Leave a Reply