Alternate Perspectives: Trying to Think from the Other Side of the Hill
Greenberg, William, Military Review
THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE reflects the feelings of Ulysses S. Grant during his first engagement in the Civil War. During the run up to the engagement, Grant thought about the Confederate enemy only from his own perspective, never really wondering how the enemy commander might be thinking about the upcoming battle:
As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris' camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view, I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there and the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.1
As Grant and his regiment crested the hill, and looked down below upon an empty enemy camp, it dawned on him that he had never taken the alternate perspective, looking at the situation from the enemy commander's view.
Most people are barely conscious of the cultural factors and biases that control their own actions. Culture is an overwhelming force, one that forms mental models that ultimately guide most of our actions. Culture also has a tendency to narrow our thought processes to the point that we believe most people think as we do and view a problem as we would. Trying to break out of the "cultural cocoon" that guides our actions and look at a situation from another person's perspective is difficult. However, the ability to do so is crucial to understand how others will act in a given situation.
In organizations that conduct some form of red teaming activity, looking at alternate perspectives of the enemy and other actors in the operational environment improves decision making.2 This article examines two commanders who gained insight into the the enemy's perspective to achieve success on the battlefield.
Try to Understand the Hated Enemy
Gaining the perspective of one's enemy, especially if he comes from a different society and culture, is a daunting task. In classical Greece, one great commander developed such an insight into his enemy while absolutely despising its society. In the early fourth century BCE, having defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War and expanded her direct influence throughout Greece, Sparta (known as Lacedaemon) dominated the Hellenic world. The Spartan oligarchy did this through a confederation of allies funded with Persian gold. Using its military might, Sparta forced numerous cities throughout Greece into their coalition. Sparta's rule enforced a conservative oligarchy like their own in each of the city-states among its allies, conditions abhorrent to democratically minded factions that had formerly dominated in Attica and Boeotia.
Thebes was the major city-state in Boeotia, the northern region of Greece south of Macedonia and Thessaly. Sparta came to dominate Thebes in 382 BCE, when a Spartan general, Phoebidas, installed a pro-Sparta oligarchic regime in place of the democratically elected council. One of the leaders of the anti-Spartan faction, Epaminondas, then organized a revolt against the regime and, in 378 BCE, cleared Thebes of all pro-Sparta forces.
Over a six-year period, the Spartan forces tried to retake the city but were rebuffed each time. During his protracted defense of Thebes, Epaminondas grew to hate every aspect of Sparta's xenophobic culture as well as their political oligarchy. …