Conflict Cover


How Soldiers Make Impossible Decisions

Neil D. Shortland, Laurence J. Alison, and Joseph M. Moran

Oxford University Press, New York, 2019, 248 pages

Book Review published on: November 12, 2021

Neil D. Shortland, Laurence J. Alison, and Joseph M. Moran’s book Conflict: How Soldiers Make Impossible Decisions is an enlightening study of decision-making in combat that will interest both academics and military professionals. Conflict is about how people make “least-worst” decisions—how people choose when all their options appear to lead to terrible outcomes. Using interviews of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, the authors examine the mental conflict that arises when people face least-worst decisions and the psychological processes they use to overcome that conflict and commit to a course of action.

Conflict centers on three key ideas. First, it explores the factors that make decisions hard such as uncertainty, stress, emotion, and risk. Second, it identifies decision inertia as a critical inhibitor of effective decision-making. Decision inertia is when decision-makers fail to act because they spend too much time analyzing their choices. Third, the book finds that values help people make difficult decisions. The authors argue that military service members use sacred values to choose among grim alternatives.

The book has ten chapters. The first three describe least-worst decisions and examine why existing military decision-making models—the military decision-making process and recognition-primed decision-making—are ill-suited for making least-worst decisions. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 examine the individual psychological processes that underpin least-worst decision-making. Chapters 7, 8, and 9 cover team aspects of decision-making, deciding while under physical threat, and the long-term consequences of least-worst decision-making. The final chapter sums up the book’s findings.

Conflict is written for academics; nevertheless, military professionals will find it valuable. The authors use existing psychological and decision-making research to inform their study, but they integrate and explain it in ways that anyone can understand. Researchers will appreciate how this book explores an understudied aspect of decision-making. Military professionals—particularly, leaders—will gain valuable insights on high-risk decision-making in combat.

The main strength of this book is its integration of academic research with combat case studies. The case studies allow readers to put themselves in the decision-maker’s shoes and think about what they would do under similar circumstances. At the same time, the academic research helps the reader understand the internal and external forces that influence decision-making in combat situations.

There is little to criticize in Conflict. The following are observations rather than criticisms. The first observation is the authors’ decision-making model, SAFE-T (situational assessment, plan formulation, plan execution, and team learning), is a useful analytical tool but not a decision-making process. SAFE-T can help researchers understand decision-making, but it will not help military leaders make decisions. A second observation is that readers will get more from this book if they have a basic understanding of existing literature on military decision-making and intuitive decision-making, particularly Professor Gary Klein’s work. Although the authors provide a brief overview of these decision-making approaches in the second chapter, readers who are already familiar with this research can engage more fully with Conflict.

In sum, Conflict is a timely contribution to our understanding of decision-making in combat and other difficult situations. The authors achieve the rare feat of crafting a book that, despite its academic heft, is approachable and easy to read for a nonacademic audience. For military leaders who want to improve their decision-making in combat, Conflict is an essential addition to their professional reading list.

Book Review written by: Trent J. Lythgoe, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas