What you don't know may KILL you.
October 23, 2008 6:31 PM   Subscribe

How is paying attention to detail an extremely important skill in the military? I know "why", not doing so can get you or somone else killed, but I don't know "what" people are referring to.

Lately, I've been developing interest in learning about the military. A phrase that comes up over and over is "paying attention to detail is crucial". I'm curious what people are referring to. Is it ike noticing that moving green shapes in the plants/trees/bushes are actually your enemies in camoflage? Or something more complex?
posted by sixcolors to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Spotting IEDs, suicide bombers, or ambushes would be relevant to today's military on the ground. I think what they're referring to is being able to sense subtle things out of place quickly.
posted by samsara at 6:40 PM on October 23, 2008

Best answer: This old rhyme says it all really... just turn the nail into a sparkplug and the horse into a Hummer and I think you'll get the picture...
posted by Chairboy at 6:55 PM on October 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

No, it's about not being sloppy or careless. Tying your shoes "correctly". Putting that thing back where it belongs when you're done with it. Making sure that chart you prepared has all the latest Notice to Mariners information on it, correctly annotated. Making sure every bolt of the subsafe joint was torqued correctly and documented on the QA form.

It's basically the opposite of "don't sweat the small stuff". You do sweat the small stuff, and you make such a habit of it that it becomes second nature. Some small stuff doesn't matter. Some seemingly small stuff DOES matter, and can get you killed. You're not always qualified to know WHY some odd little annoying requirement is the way it is. That doesn't mean it's not important.

That's what attention to detail means. Does folding your underwear the way they say instead of the way you like matter? Probably not. Maybe so, though, so you do it right.
posted by ctmf at 7:00 PM on October 23, 2008 [7 favorites]

I'd guess that it's similar to a principle I use when I go backpacking (in the sense of travelling around developing countries) - you develop a habit of always doing certain things the same way, so you don't have to waste time & effort when you need to be concentrating on other things.

eg - sudden need to go to the toilet? No problem, the handy emergency roll of paper is in the left-hand pocket of the daypack. Keys to your padlock (often used in lieu of a normal door lock) always remain in the lock once you've opened it & are only removed when you lock the door from the outside. That sort of thing.

Over time, you also work the best way of doing things, so these habits get refined - eg the padlock habit above removes any possibility of locking your keys in your room.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:33 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know the dull, slacker "Whatever" attitude? It's the opposite.
posted by dinger at 7:33 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

(as an aside, the Australian army found they could save a hundred thousand dollars a year - or a figure like that - just by having the soldiers lace their boots in a particular pattern, eg crisscross instead of parallel. apparently, one style means the same spot is always rubbing against the eyes on the boot, so they break more often)
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:35 PM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

The PBS series Carrier (available online) had a huge amount of hands-on examples of how nearly anything mechanical can get you or someone else killed. For instance, a large area of the flight deck needs to be clear of people when a plane lands because of how the grappling cable moves. Another good example is the amount of coordination and protocol applied by deck crew ("shooters") in getting a plane launched -- any particular missed detail could put a plane in the water or a crewman in engine wash. Others: the crew running the on-board nuclear reactor, or the sweep of the deck for debris, or pilot skill, nuances of command, cultural issues on shore leave, interpersonal details, etc. Even for non-technical personnel, you can see how regimented and structured the life is -- every single thing is critical to career success, if not actual safety.

Generation Kill was a pretty decent look at hands-on tactics for ground forces (mechanized marine recon). Communications, rules of engagement, supplies, cultural awareness, morale, combat readiness, and occupation were all reoccuring topics loaded with detail.

Both were very operations-oriented instead of theatrical looks at the military.
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:39 PM on October 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

and folding your underwear in a certain way, for example, would be a kind of training in the mindset of doing what you're told the way you're told, without questioning why.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:50 PM on October 23, 2008

I used to organize a lot of big remote field operations and people who aren't detail oriented are pretty much worthless in that situation. We need a lot of stuff every day and we need it to be purchased, remembered, shipped, staged, picked up, charged, dry, packed correctly and re-packed throughout the days as needed, used correctly and repaired and replaced as needed. We need vehicles, boats, trailers, aircraft, batteries, electronics, permits, guns, ammo, emergency supplies, clothing, food, water, coolers, scientific stuff, comm equipment, maps, compasses, pencils, paper, clipboards..... you get the idea.

And we need people to do all that stuff on a daily basis without being told. Anyone can forget the batteries once. More than once and people start to hate you. Forget to unload the shotgun and people will really hate you.

So basically being detailed oriented involves remembering things, not making excuses and not f***ing shit up for everyone around you. Being on it. A deep seated fear of screwing up is extremely helpful.
posted by fshgrl at 7:52 PM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Chairboy, I need to do more than favorite you. (Although I am not seeing the usefulness of the Wikipedia link between that and the butterfly effect - bad horseshoeing is more like the examples UbuRoivas gave; not unintended consequences but things that were glowingly obvious.)

So, sixcolors, in real life every day there are 500 things that happen, that are a PIA, that did not have to happen and would not have happened if you had been paying attention to detail. In the military, just one will get you dead. That's a huge part of it. You can't do the "more" of spotting IEDs and hinky pedestrians unless you have totally nailed down the things you can control and put them on auto.

There's a theory that a certain climber died because she broke her "flight-check" list to tie a shoe or something before she began. The thinking is she skipped one little check, and that was enough.

And another piece is that you need to be fairly predictable to your peers. They shouldn't have to waste time questioning why you did anything - they should know because it's what they would have done.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:57 PM on October 23, 2008

ps - the padlock with keys dangling out of it is always hung on the doorhandle when in the room, or else placed right next to the door if there's nothing to hang it off. if you have a sudden need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, you don't want to be fucking around working out where your lock & keys are. also, your torch (flashlight) is by the bed, right up near your head. you don't want to be fucking around in the dark in that situation also. your toilet paper is likewise in a known spot. just about everything about backpacking comes down to being ready to run to the toilet. well, that and having a system to safeguard your passport, cash & credit cards.

extrapolate that kind of planning to explosions that are other than between your buttcheeks, and safeguarding your life instead of your passport, and you get the idea.

posted by UbuRoivas at 8:37 PM on October 23, 2008

Attention to detail, while in the service is so important because the job can be so monotonous or boring. Every part of a job in the military is primarily governed by checklists, be they in Technical Orders, or Army Technical/Field Guidance Manuals. If you aren't being methodical - you are going to overlook details no matter how well you understand the theory or the big picture. So going thru the motions of doing it correctly step-by-step saves lives, money, and sometimes political embarrassment. It is what makes a service member an outstanding service member. Even though it's boring, they are going to do it anyways.

Some reading:

Why attention to detail is so important

Attention to detail makes the difference

Marine’s attention to detail saves aircraft, lives
posted by bigmusic at 9:34 PM on October 23, 2008

Attention to detail is also a good indicator of your general level of preparedness: If you have taken the trouble to lace your boots or make your bed properly, it's a good sign you have already taken care of the important stuff like cleaning you rifle.
posted by ghost of a past number at 10:22 PM on October 23, 2008

It's also making things predictable. One of the unfortunate side effects of being in the military is that you can die rather suddenly, without the ability to tell your buddies "Oh, by the way, I left the firing pin on the table". It would be nice if your buddies could count on your behavior.

One rather nasty example I was given during basic training was a standard packing of your equipment in the field. If your continued survival requires something that you don't have any more and that's usually packed in your backpack, all you need to do is look around the battlefield, locate one of your recently deceased buddies, pick up his backpack, and know where everything in it is located.
posted by DreamerFi at 3:49 AM on October 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of small details in the army life.

Small details and variations in the intelligence the army receives can aid catching a terrorist before they detonate.

Small changes in the environment help spot newly set mines and avoid driving over them during patrols.

Annoying daily procedures which only take a few minutes, such as testing radio equipment, oiling and cleaning your gun, or wearing your dog tag a certain way, prevent you from being out in the field with no communications, guns too clogged to fire and nasty second degree burns if your tank catches fire.
posted by ye#ara at 6:33 AM on October 24, 2008

For almost a decade, I've had this scene from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon ringing in my mind. Its accuracy I can't speak to, but its resonance is strong, for me at least.
Randy grins, because he knows that Doug Shaftoe is about to enumerate the three reasons. Randy has spent almost no time around military people, but he is finding that he gets along with them surprisingly well.

His favorite thing about them is their compulsive need to educate everyone around them, all the time. Randy does not need to know anything about the ROV, but Doug Shaftoe is going to give him a short course anyway. Randy supposes that when you are in a war, practical knowledge is a good thing to spread around.
(That's just the moral: It's a novel, so I don't expect an excerpt to resonate the same way as the experience of reading the book itself.)
posted by cgc373 at 8:28 AM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

In an accident near to my own heart, since I work in propulsion plants, somebody did not pay attention to detail when putting a steam valve back together on USS Iwo Jima in 1990. They used nuts that looked right and fit right, but didn't look up id numbers engraved on them to see if they were made of the correct material. They weren't.

They then, most likely, installed them correctly, torqued them properly, and closed out the job. Probably even retested it for strength at pressure (but cold, not hot). Bzzt - one small detail wrong -> 10 dead.
posted by ctmf at 10:49 AM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

"If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves. You can gain more control over your life by paying closer attention to the little things."
-- Emily Elizabeth Dickinson

Ironically, I'd seen this attributed to some General at some point.

And these quotes say pretty much what every one above has been saying.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:42 AM on October 24, 2008

as an afterthought, an Israeli who i met travelling around India would always drain his water bottle in one go. i asked why.

"i was in special services - the commando unit. that's what they taught us. your water bottle can only ever be in one of two states: totally full or totally empty. because a half-full water bottle can make a sloshing sound which can give your position away if you're doing a stealth operation"
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:45 PM on October 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

I know "why", not doing so can get you or somone else killed, but I don't know "what" people are referring to.

The details I was most aware of? Cleanliness of latrines, status of floor wax, KP, drill, presentation in the class-A uniform (shoes and brass to high polish, ribbons in order of precedence, crease in pants, zero lint, length of tie, etc, etc), being practiced in quickly breaking down and servicing a weapon, being aware of surroundings not just because you're a trained fighter but more often to avoid the wrath of cranky and self-important officers, servicing vehicles, keeping personal space to SOP, formations, grounds maintenance. . .it's a truly thrilling lifestyle.

They don't keep you on your toes so much to turn you into a hyperaware supersoldier. They do it to accustom you to following orders. To keep you in line.
posted by brassafrax at 10:03 PM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

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