News | Feb. 1, 2006

Custer in Cyberspace

By David C. Gompert and Richard L. Kugler Defense Horizons 51


Custer in CyberspaceOverview

The combination of abundant networked information and fluid, unfamiliar situations in the current era makes it at once possible and imperative to improve decisionmaking in combat. The key to improvement is to integrate faster reasoning and more reliable intuition into a cognitive whole to achieve battle-wisdom. Although the technologies that both demand and facilitate battle- wisdom are new, military history holds lessons on combining reasoning and intuition in conditions of urgency, danger, and uncertainty. 

Today’s fast and distributed style of war has antecedents in the reconnaissance and strike operations of 19th-century American cavalry, which depended on similar qualities—speed, flexibility, and command “at the edge.” Cavalry officers had to make quick decisions in unfamiliar circumstances with imperfect information, and without seeking instructions. 

There may be no more arresting case of fateful decisionmaking by a commander in combat than that of George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Custer’s reliance on his legendary intuitive powers, which had produced many victories during the Civil War, was his undoing. Instead of analyzing his options when he learned of Major Reno’s failed attack and Indian strength, he evidently satisfied himself that his original plan still made sense. Famous for his self-confidence, Custer never asked himself the critical question: Could I be wrong? 

Although intuition remains central to decisionmaking under time pressure, the ability to combine intuition with reason in the crush of battle is increasingly important to commanders. The need for this combination of cognitive skills has implications for the recruitment, retention, development, selection, training, and education of military decisionmakers.