Sensing danger in a war zone
The sight was not that unusual, at least not for Mosul, Iraq, on a summer morning: a car parked on the sidewalk, facing opposite traffic, its windows rolled up tight. Two young boys stared out the back window, kindergarten age maybe, their faces leaning together as if to share a whisper.There is much more. This is an interesting and important story. For the troops it is talking about life or death decisions.
The soldier patrolling closest to the car stopped. It had to be hot in there; it was 120 degrees outside. “Permission to approach, sir, to give them some water,” the soldier said to Sgt. First Class Edward Tierney, who led the nine-man patrol that morning.
“I said no — no,” Sergeant Tierney said in a telephone interview from Afghanistan. He said he had an urge to move back before he knew why: “My body suddenly got cooler; you know, that danger feeling.”
The United States military has spent billions on hardware, like signal jamming technology, to detect and destroy what the military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, the roadside bombs that have proved to be the greatest threat in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, where Sergeant Tierney is training soldiers to foil bomb attacks.
Still, high-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all — the human brain. Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible for foiling many I.E.D. attacks, and, like Sergeant Tierney, they often cite a gut feeling or a hunch as their first clue.
Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do.
Experience matters, of course: if you have seen something before, you are more likely to anticipate it the next time. And yet, recent research suggests that something else is at work, too.Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do.
In recent years, the bombs have become more powerful, the hiding places ever more devious. Bombs in fake rocks. Bombs in poured concrete, built into curbs. Bombs triggered by decoy bombs.
“On one route sweep mission, there was a noticeable I.E.D. in the middle of the road, but it was a decoy,” said Lt. Donovan Campbell, who in 2004 led a Marine platoon for seven months of heavy fighting in Ramadi and wrote a vivid book, “Joker One,” about the experience. “The real bomb was encased in concrete, a hundred meters away, in the midst of rubble. One of my Marines spotted it. He said, ‘That block looks too symmetrical, too perfect.’ ”Lieutenant Campbell had the area cleared and the bomb destroyed.
The men and women who performed best in the Army’s I.E.D. detection study had the sort of knowledge gained through experience, according to a preliminary analysis of the results; but many also had superb depth perception and a keen ability to sustain intense focus for long periods. The ability to pick odd shapes masked in complex backgrounds — a “Where’s Waldo” type of skill that some call anomaly detection — also predicted performance on some of the roadside bomb simulations.
Good warriors have always had excellent tracker skills. In Vietnam they could sniff out ambush locations or potential spots for preregistered mortar fire. This hypersensitivity to their environment in a chaotic situation cannot not always be taught, but my guess is that gamers who learn to quickly recognize danger would probably develop the skills over time. I suspect the military could develop the recognition skills with a war game.
If you read the story to the end you find some of the clues that tipped the sergeant to the booby trapped car with the boys inside. While the story is about the senses used to detect danger in the war zone, there is something to be said for the depravity of an enemy who would use small boys in a car bomb to lure troops to their possible death. When the multi cultis talk about all cultures being equal they demonstrate their own lack of morals if they can't find this kind of conduct evil.