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Decision Making Made Impossible

On October 23rd 1983, 241 US Marines died when a truck bomb exploded in their barracks, the former Civil Aviation Authority building inside the perimeter of Beirut International Airport. In this chapter of the book, 'Shoot, Don't Shoot', I tell the story of how the Marines were placed in an impossible position, with no good options or ability to influence a situation that was deteriorating day by day.

The incentive for looking back over the tragic events of September and October 1983 lies in the negative example they provide - effective decision making on the part of the Marine Expeditionary Force was rendered impossible. Exactly why this was the case, and what it looked like, offer us a useful insight into what makes high consequence decisions POSSIBLE, and those factors that generate good grounds for confidence in a successful outcome. Here, from the text of the book, is a summary of those as they applied to the Marines in Beirut,

"Our detailed description of the situation that confronted the US MNF by this stage of their mission in Lebanon now brings us to this main conclusion—the MAU were in no better position to make a ‘shoot, don’t shoot’ decision than are the participants in our HCD training scenario. The decision was an impossible one, there was just no basis for determining the right answer, the best anyone could do under the circumstances was to pick an option and hope for the best.

For HCD, this is clearly an unacceptable outcome. It leaves us in a ‘state of high risk’ that we will make a potentially catastrophic mistake. However, if we are able to pinpoint the precise factors that made this decision so difficult, then the way is clear to set out the elements that can make high consequence decision-making both as easy as circumstances allow, and carrying the minimal possible risk of error. This is our goal.

Why Was a Decision So Hard to Make ?

Several points stand out from our discussion so far, the Marines’ tactical decision-making was hampered by:

· a lack of situational awareness, leading to

· an inability to make a reasonable assessment of the situation, and

· a lack of clarity in relation to their own situation, the mission, ROE.

It is worth examining these difficulties in more detail, as they highlight the key components of HCD that contributed to the MAU’s impossible position.

1. Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the result of effective information management processes. The Marines faced a number of difficult challenges in this area.

The MAU lacked sources within the militias; there were obvious gaps in their operating picture, including the nature of AMAL’s operation in Burj al Barajneh or the identity of hostile forces in Hay es Salaam. At other times, however, they were overwhelmed with information, as with the huge number of car bomb alerts. Information on hand was often out-of-date or overtaken by events, such as the situation reports coming in from the LAF HQ at Baabda. The absence of feedback loops meant that the reliability or integrity of sources could not be ascertained over time, and there was a constant risk of deception from Lebanese inputs running their own agendas. HUMINT suffered a major blow with the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, as the US had cultivated most of its networks among the Palestinian factions, and in the 18 April bombing of the US Embassy. At the time of the explosion, seven senior members of the CIA were holding a meeting in the building. All were killed, including the veteran Lebanon Station Chief Robert Ames. Reports were often conflicting and open to multiple interpretations, the military situation on Souk el Gharb being one example.

2. Situation Assessment

Setting aside these problems of information management, the nature of the situation itself added immense difficulty to the task of coming to an understanding of what was happening in Lebanon, making sense of the position at any one point in time and arriving at an assessment of its implications for the US MNF and its mission.

This was a dynamic situation with periods of intense change following the withdrawal of the IDF and later, the disintegration of the LAF. These events triggered major realignments in the balance of forces. The large number of actors involved in these shifts added enormous complexity to the political and military position at any one point. Non-linear developments were also evident, as with the link between Souk el Gharb and the barracks bombing. Patterns were hard to pick out from the appearance of general chaos, and the significance of individual developments was hard to assess. Multiple assessments were often plausible, such as the disagreement over whether the loss of Souk el Gharb would mean the end for the Gemayel presidency. The MAU lacked the ability to shape the environment in any meaningful sense, and this absence of control made it harder to understand as well. There were few precedents to draw on, even from Lebanese history or the 1958 intervention by the Marines, as the situation was unique in all its key aspects. Nor at this time was peacekeeping an established discipline, with accepted doctrine, training manuals and guidance. The lessons learned from earlier Marine rotations were not much help to the 24th MAU. For most members of the US MNF, this was their first experience of either the Middle East or military operations other than war (MOOTW). Tactical decisions were often made under severe time constraints and could only be taken on the spot.

3. The Role of Other Forces and Actors

Forming an understanding of the various actors in the drama of Beirut 1983 was an important part of situation assessment. It was the number of players, and the intricacy of their inter-relationships, that created the high degree of complexity marking the situation. This is a key element that gives ‘complex warfare’ its complexity, which has also been the case in recent examples of counterinsurgencies and hybrid wars, including those of the Middle East and Afghanistan. For this reason, it is worth highlighting in detail the complexities faced by the US MNF in this regard.

First was the sheer number of actors; at least 13 major militias were active in the Beirut area alone. Forces from other parts of Lebanon would sometimes intervene in the city, in partnership with local allies. The Christian South Lebanon Army based in Marjayoun near the Israeli border, for example, participated in the Phalangist massacres of Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila. Many of these militia forces were supported by regional powers, in particular Israel, Syria and Iran. Relationships with these backers were complex, in some cases they acted as proxies, but in others they asserted their independence or shifted their allegiance. The PSP had an ongoing love-hate affair with Syria, as did most of the PLO factions. All of the militias fought each other at one point or another in the civil war, without exception, including those from the same political alliance or religious faith. Periods of cooperation also emerged between unlikely allies, such as AMAL and Aoun. The motivation for particular courses of action could be driven by internal considerations, the Phalangists being highly factionalised for example, to consolidate a base within their home community, or to apply pressure against another actor. Jostling for position in this way was constant and cut across larger scale developments, as with AMAL’s use of the Israeli invasion to strengthen its level of influence in southern Lebanon. For the MAU, its reliance on the LAF for intelligence and for interactions with the local population added a layer of complication to its own mode of operating, as did the high level of media scrutiny present throughout the life of the MNF, both local and international.

4. The Mission

A course of action (COA) is an intervention into a situation, in order to achieve a desirable outcome. Individual COAs sit within a wider mission, expressed either in a mission statement of some kind or a commander’s intent, setting out a desired end-state, and this should establish a framework for tactical decision-making.

For the Marines in 1983, the US MNF’s mission presented a huge problem. This was a major theme of the Long Commission’s report into the barracks bombing. The initial entry of US forces into Lebanon had been to act as a buffer between the IDF and the local population, and to assist the Lebanese government reassert control over the Beirut area. But once the IDF had withdrawn, the rationale for the peacekeeping component of the mission evaporated. The country was descending into civil war, but the size and disposition of the MNF did not permit any serious effort to prevent this development. Furthermore, the key battleground did not lie inside Beirut, but the Shouf, beyond the MAU’s AO, although in range of their artillery and naval guns. The original mission was rendered irrelevant by this turn of events and gave no guidance on how to proceed. What was a desirable end-state for the situation in Hay es Salaam? To what extent was the MAU responsible for the operation of BIA? Confusion on these questions was widespread. Furthermore, different interpretations emerged along the chain of command as to what exactly the mission was and the extent to which the MNF should respond to the shelling of the airport or provide operational support to the LAF. This was reflected in the final decision over Souk el Gharb, taken by the National Security Council in Washington, which argued naval fire support was necessary for the protection of the MAU at BIA. But if this was the reasoning, then a withdrawal to sea would have achieved the same purpose. Clarity over the MNF’s mission was never achieved.

5. Constraints

The same confusion existed over the ROE. As the shelling of the airport grew in intensity, at what point was a return of fire authorised? Did the MAU need to take casualties first? This was a dilemma presented to Marine commanders throughout the month of August. In the opinion of the Long Commission, the ROE were an important factor in the catastrophe of 23 October, in particular, the orders given in relation to weapon readiness. From an HCD and a systems theory perspective, however, more significant were the constraints imposed by the small size and capability of the MNF, effectively confining it to BIA and its immediate vicinity, excluding any possibility of occupying the strategic high ground overlooking the airport and the city. The inability to control the airport security environment, and the refusal to develop communication channels with and intelligence sources inside the militias independent of the LAF, were also major restrictions on the MAU and contributed heavily to its ultimate failure.

6. Additional Elements

Other factors influencing tactical decision-making also play a role, such as the appropriate delegation of authority to commanders on the ground so that they can respond quickly to the demands of a situation without needing to seek higher approval. The extent to which such situations conform to those anticipated in training or covered by existing doctrine is also relevant, as do time constraints. Personal experience of combat, and human factors such as stress, fatigue, cognitive overload or the presence of distractions can all have an impact on decision-making capability, as do the stakes involved when there is an immediate threat to life or the potential for a catastrophic outcome.

What Makes High Consequence Decision-Making Easy ?

In the case of the Marines in Beirut 1983, all of these elements combined to create a position where high consequence decision-making proved impossible. However, if we now turn these negatives into a positive, we can draw up a list of the key factors that drive high consequence decision-making and which determine how easy a decision will be and the likelihood of a catastrophic error. These form the ideal, against which the realities of a current situation can be measured and potentially catastrophic areas of weakness identified in time.

  1. There is good situational awareness delivered by sound information management processes.

  2. The SA includes a solid understanding of all the relevant forces and actors, their character, motives, objectives, capabilities and inter-relationships.

  3. There is an assessment of the situation that makes sense of individual developments, is coherent, is set in its historical context and allows for some anticipation of the future course of events.

  4. The mission is clear, relevant to the situation and projects a desired end-state that is achievable.

  5. Constraints are understood and procedures are realistic.

  6. There is no confusion over the decision-making process itself, whether certain actions are authorised or not.

  7. The current situation was anticipated and prepared for, time has been available to consider options and refer to guidance.

  8. The necessity for a decision to be made, the time allowed and the options available are all clear.

  9. The consequences of any course of action can be foreseen with some confidence.

  10. Human factors such as stress, fatigue and fear, which may degrade the decision-maker’s capabilities, are not present.

The important point here is that all of these elements are set up in advance. Shoot/don’t shoot decisions may well be taken in the heat of the moment, but their prospects of success, with a minimal risk of catastrophic error, are determined beforehand by the extent to which these factors have been taken into account and managed effectively." (pp. 76-80)

As will be clear from the above extract, the position inside Beirut during that period was insanely complex, and posed particular difficulties. The point here, however, is to identify exactly what it is that makes decision making hard, and what makes it easy. The objective is to MANAGE these factors, the emphasis is on decision MAKING as opposed to the decisions themselves.

This is the basis for High Consequence Decision Making (HCD) as a program. The idea is both to manage the factors that increase the risk of error in decision making, and also to be able to gauge the RISK of that error, in real time, before anything bad happens. This is possible because many of these factors are in fact under our control, at least in principle, and can be successfully addressed. In the Marines' case, the confusion over the mission was just one such factor, posing an ever greater problem as events unfolded over the course of 1982/3. Plenty of time existed to fix this problem, the opportunity, however, was missed.

HCD seeks to avoid such errors. If you would like to find out more how this program can apply to your context, contact Avoiding Catastrophe at this address -

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