Did Custer rely too much on his original plan although he must have known that Reno and Benteen weren't following him?
CUSTER & COGNITION
Extracts from an article by David C. Gompert and Richard L. Kugler, Distinguished Research Professors in the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University, Joint Force Quaterly, April 2006.
Opinions are sharply divided about whether George Armstrong Custer was a brilliant tactician or a compulsive risk-taker. Was the massacre at the Little Bighorn the result of his misfortune or his audacity? This article does not aim to settle the argument between admirers and critics. Rather, it uses a new explanatory model of cognition in combat to explore what Custer's case suggests about decisionmaking in today's era of networked warfare.
How does this flamboyant 19th-century cavalry officer relate to information-age military decisionmaking? After all, Custer's "bandwidth"--binoculars and scouts--was negligible by today's standards. Yet there are good reasons to consider his experience.
First, 19th-century cavalry action was a precursor of the fast-breaking distributed warfare that characterizes the network era. Cavalry-type missions (reconnaissance, deep strike, disruption) and qualities (speed, flexibility) are relevant in current warfare. The cavalry had to respond to the unfamiliar, unclear, and unanticipated. More than those who directed set-piece infantry maneuvers and artillery bombardments, cavalry commanders had to make prompt decisions under fluid and ambiguous conditions, often without guidance from higher authority, much like tactical-level officers in networked warfare.
We begin by offering a model for effective decisionmaking in combat when time short, danger is great, and conditions are unfamiliar and dynamic. We call this battlewisdom. If Custer was battle-wise in earlier battles, why not in his final one? By observing him in that light, we can learn about good and bad decisionmaking in combat as well as about the man who made the Last Stand.
We should take a particularly keen interest in military decisionmaking at this juncture for two reasons: information networking is enabling better decisionmaking, and geopolitical turmoil is making better decisionmaking imperative. Today, such enemies as al Qaeda are exploiting information to complicate and confuse our strategic and operational reasoning. Cognitive superiority has never been so crucial; indeed, it is the new plane of military competition. But what is it?
When conditions are complex and unstable, time is short, and information is abundant, the key to making good decisions is to blend reliable intuition with timely reasoning. Intuition is demanded by urgency. Research in many fields (military, emergency room care, firefighting, neonatal intensive care) shows that the greater the time pressure, the more decisionmakers rely on intuition. (2) For our purposes, intuition is the mental model, or map, a person brings to a situation, mainly based on experience and only lightly affected by fresh information. Intuitive decisionmakers do not weigh the risks and rewards of alternative courses of action but proceed down the paths they have been conditioned to believe are right for given circumstances. The reliability of intuition depends heavily on whether the circumstances at hand are broadly familiar. In strange circumstances, therefore, intuition can be wrong.
"When conditions are complex and unstable, time is short, and information is abundant, the key to making good decisions is to blend reliable intuition with timely reasoning. Intuition is demanded by urgency. (...) Those good at integrating intuition with reasoning should make good military decisionmakers. They tend to be self-aware--to know or be able to judge dispassionately how much they can count on their intuition."
Conversely, reasoning (informed, methodical, logical analysis) is vital when complexity and change (unfamiliarity) reduce the utility of experience, on which intuition depends. Reasoning uses new information to check and correct intuition and to consider the merits and costs of multiple options. However, reasoning can be time-consuming, so people neglect it when time is precious, as it is in combat. It follows that the decompression of time and chance to exploit information is crucial for introducing reasoning and for cognitive effectiveness, less by replacing intuition with reasoning than by integrating the two.
Those good at integrating intuition with reasoning should make good military decisionmakers. They tend to be self-aware--to know or be able to judge dispassionately how much they can count on their intuition. Before making irretrievable decisions, they will consider whether their prefabricated mental models are applicable to the situation at hand.
The way decisions are made during operations is crucial. In what we call rapidly adaptive decisionmaking, self-aware intuition is used initially but provisionally when both time and information are scarce, thus gaining time to gather information and introduce reasoning to enhance cognition. Such an approach can be taught, practiced, and refined.
"The idea that Custer was a compulsive risk-taker and poor tactician is belied by his success in the Civil War."
Four particular battle-wise abilities that are especially important in the age of networked warfare were also applicable in 19th-century cavalry action: anticipation, decision speed, opportunism, and learning in action. Each aims at gaining and exploiting an operational time-information advantage, by which we mean the product of, or synergy between, time and information. Anticipation can make time an ally from the outset of hostilities. Decision speed helps control the course and tempo of action. Opportunism seizes fleeting conditions that offer nonlinear gains; when opposing forces are both vulnerable, the one that strikes just when the other is especially vulnerable can prevail. Learning in action means getting smarter and adjusting rapidly and continuously despite complexity and confusion--all the more advantageous if the enemy is relying on a script that events have superseded. Taken together, time-information superiority offered by these abilities means that information can be used to defeat urgency, the enemy of sound military decisionmaking. Custer needed all four at the Little Bighorn.
"Much depended on Reno diverting the Indians from Custer and on Benteen arriving promptly."
The massacre of Custer and much of his 7th Cavalry Regiment in June 1876 is one of the most perplexing battles in American history. Why were he and his 210 troops annihilated? (...) While Custer may have been seeking glory, he was no fool. He was a top-notch cavalry commander, and his tactics that day were consistent with the Army doctrine of his time. While events mainly broke against Custer, that did not make annihilation inevitable. The situation was fathered by Custer's own decisions, and he could have saved his command simply by changing course until near the end.
If Custer's tactical decisions resulted in calamity, why did he make them despite several opportunities to make better decisions and escape disaster? While the truth lies buried with Custer, we offer our own hypothesis. Early in the battle, he formed a mental model, based on his experience and assessment of the situation, of how the 7th Cavalry should engage the Indians. This model, embodied in a hammer-and-anvil battle plan that was a proven standard for cavalry operations, led him to expect victory. When the plan began breaking down in the face of surprises and adversity, Custer failed to use new information, time, and reasoning to reevaluate his premises and analyze his options. Though facing unfamiliar circumstances, he did not question his intuition, which had served him so well to that point.
The idea that Custer was a compulsive risk-taker and poor tactician is belied by his success in the Civil War. From 1863 to 1865, he led his brigade and division in 23 cavalry engagements, many of them major battles. He won most of them decisively; and while he suffered a few reversals, he never lost in a calamitous way. Widely regarded as having a natural flair for combat, he showed professional skill at sizing up complex situations and seeming to "know" how to act. Like most seasoned cavalry commanders, he believed that offensive action was key to victory, and he practiced the art of rapid mobility. He earned a reputation for being able to read terrain quickly, discern the enemy, craft an effective plan, and lead troops to success. He also showed skill at changing tactics in fluid situations and at extracting his forces from peril. One of his brigade commanders summed up his talent: "Custer was a fighting man through and through. There was in him an indescribable something--call it caution, call it sagacity, call it the real military instinct, it may have been genius--by whatever name entitled, it nearly always impelled him to do the right thing." (...)
Custer's decisions to attack the Indian village on June 25 and to divide his command into three dispersed battalions have been criticized by historians. But these choices did not doom him, and there was reasoning behind them. (...)
Much depended on Reno diverting the Indians from Custer and on Benteen arriving promptly. Neither occurred. When Reno met resistance, he dismounted his troops, advanced in skirmish formation, and at 3:30 retreated into a nearby grove. Twenty minutes later, Reno and his embattled troops fled the trees in a mad dash across the Little Bighorn and up "Reno Hill" to establish a defensive position. Meanwhile, Benteen's force marched slowly, and when it arrived at 4:20, it joined Reno, not Custer, who by then was 6 miles away.
"But the most significant error for our purposes, as well as for Custer, was the one that produced the actual massacre. Custer's plan depended on Reno's anvil."
We have noted several mistakes by Custer, including, as it turned out, his choice of a plan that splintered his force and his haste in executing it. But the most significant error for our purposes, as well as for Custer, was the one that produced the actual massacre. Custer's plan depended on Reno's anvil. Yet even if he did not know Reno was in full retreat, he knew the anvil had not held. This same information should also have alerted Custer that he was facing a larger and fiercer Indian force than he had expected or previously fought. Nevertheless, he proceeded with his original attack plan in apparent confidence that he could pull it off.
"As an alternative hypothesis, perhaps Custer judged that the hammer must strike even faster with the anvil cracking. If so, his objective in hurrying to the far end of the village to attack would have changed from exploiting Reno's anticipated success to relieving his actual failure. By this interpretation, Custer did rely on reasoning once new information had shattered his model, as opposed to proceeding chiefly on intuition and self-confidence. But the reasoning led him back to his original plan, not despite Reno's failure but because of it. Could the Last Stand have been a heroic attempt to save Reno, as opposed to a vainglorious effort to destroy the entire Indian force?
"Could the Last Stand have been a heroic attempt to save Reno?"
While this idea cannot be excluded, we remain convinced that Custer relied too much on intuition based on prior experience, and not enough on reasoning based on new information. Had he analyzed his options, he might have concluded that a divided force was not the only or best way to prevail against an enemy now known to be large, aggressive, and able to concentrate on his small force. The information available meant that the risks of trying to help Reno by continuing with the original plan were decidedly greater than the risks of reversing direction and joining up with him. Whatever Custer's final objective, his cognition never strayed from his original mental map, despite mounting evidence of its disutility and escalating danger to his troops.
How does Custer's decisionmaking measure up to the precepts of battle-wisdom? Balancing and Integrating Intuition with Reasoning. Custer was a successful intuitive decisionmaker. But at the Little Bighorn, he relied excessively on his mental model, including prompt attack and the experience from which it was formed. The best evidence that he did not augment his intuition with reasoning is that rational analysis, had Custer taken time for it, would almost surely have revealed that striking as planned was not his best option. Even after reaching Last Stand Hill, he could have escaped had he not positioned to attack. Custer's experience and intuition failed him because what he faced at the Little Bighorn was unfamiliar--precisely the point at which cold, hard reasoning, triggered by self-awareness and new information, must take precedence.
"While this idea cannot be excluded, we remain convinced that Custer relied too much on intuition based on prior experience, and not enough on reasoning based on new information."
According to the article "Custer and Cognition" published on custerwest.org, Custer main error was... to trust his subordinates and to think that they would apply his plan.
It's clearly one of the strangest conclusion of military history. It is politically uncorrect to state that Custer could have suffered from a military betrayal, despite overwhelming evidence. So the military analysts are now condemning Custer of having followed his plan, and of having expected that his entire unit would support him.
Well, what's wrong with a commander expecting his surbordinates to obey his orders?