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AAR vs Hindsight

Know the difference

Have you ever been part of an AAR?  If you were ever in the military or a police officer, I’m sure you have.  For those of you who have not, and have no idea what I’m talking about, an AAR is an “After Action Review”.  It is defined as “The formal after action process completed with all of the key leaders (and/or participants) where the entire operation from start to finish is methodically reviewed usually ending with three positives and three areas of improvement with specific time/date completion requirements for any and all suggestions/fixes.” I hear you asking “Is there an easier way” and well….

There is also a “Hotwash” which is a time-limited quick review of an event to address only a few points of a specific part of an operation or one tactic.  A “Hotwash” is usually intended to be used by Observer/Controllers in order to allow a unit to complete the rest of the training exercise or operation.  Bottom line: “Hotwash” is short and sweet to address specific pieces while an AAR is more formal with a broader scope.  Whichever method you choose, it is a critical part of any operation or training event that everyone should be doing. This is one of the key ways we improve. Think of it like you would a follow through to your trigger pull/squeeze.  Its after the shot, but remains an important part of the engagement.

When a law enforcement or military operation hits the news, its usually because people think it “went wrong” in some fashion.  Oftentimes many people come forward in defense saying not to “Monday morning quarterback” those involved, or that “Hindsight is 20/20”.  For talking heads on the news, couch warriors, or suburban dads to discuss their thoughts on a tactical situation, we agree and will enthusiastically tell them to shut their holes. But as I will discuss below, there is a huge difference between John Q Citizen and a professional in the world of tactical operations when they discuss an operation. 

Not too long ago I was sitting with a couple pals, squared away dudes with loads of tactical experience domestic and abroad.   We were discussing a military operation that we had been briefed on, I started to make some comments about what had happened (It was an area that the 3 of us had worked in, so we knew the local climate and difficulties that came with conducting operations there).   As I started to talk,  I stopped myself mid sentence,  saying I did not want to be a “Monday morning quarterback”.  One of my friends then pointed it out to me, I MUST do my own “Monday morning quarterbacking” (as some would see it), because I am a professional involved in tactical operations and training.  I am not criticizing them like some so-called “counter-terrorism expert” on the news, I am evaluating what they did right and wrong, taking note of it, so that any future operations I am a part of can benefit from those lessons learned.  The people who do this on the news or in their backyards are doing it to try and show how smart they are, how brave they are, or just to be critical of the police / military.  Those of us that do gun-work for a living, are doing it to help ensure our success in future operations.  Its a huge difference that I had never seen until it was pointed out to me. After more than a decade in this line of work, and countless AARs and Hotwashes, I hadn’t seen the difference. 

The most common example that comes up is from the movie “Lone Survivor”.  Not many people that read that book or saw that movie haven’t brought up the action taken by the U.S. Navy SEALs after their position was compromised by local Afghanis.  Many of my friends and neighbors know that I served in Afghanistan, so they think they will show me how smart THEY are.  Because of course, you are the head of an IT department in Southern California who has never been OCONUS except on vacation, so please tell me how much better you would have handled the situation than a team of experienced Navy SEALs…..

When they do tell me (and they always do), that is “Monday morning quarterbacking”. 

Lone Survivor

“If I’d been there…”

Now lets take a hypothetical, an ODA team is preparing for a similar operation in Afghanistan and are discussing courses of action if they are compromised.  One of them brings up the scenario portrayed in “Lone Survivor”, they discuss the pros/cons of the decision made in that scenario, compare it to their operating environment, how critical their pending operation is, and how they will handle it if a similar situation presents itself. 

Whats the difference?  They’re both discussing an event neither of them were a part of in a critical manner and how they would handle it differently (or not).

The difference is that my neighbor is telling me how cool he is that he wouldn’t hesitate to kill 3 people in a situation he’s never experienced, in a country he’s never been to, trying to make comms on a system he’s never heard of, in the company of men of a caliber he will never be.  The ODA is basically doing a short AAR or Hotwash of a small part of an operation, taking the lessons learned from it, and applying those lessons to develop what their course of action may be if something similar happens.  The ODA is making themselves better from it.

Law enforcement officers, military members, tactical trainers….they need to do what the ODA did.  It is important for these professionals to do an AAR for any operation they can get information on, even if they weren’t a part of that operation, and an AAR sounds a lot like “Monday morning quarterbacking”.  But its not. If you are one of these people, doing that AAR may make you feel like a dick (it did to me), but by developing your own courses of action based on lessons hard learned by your brothers in arms, you are making yourself better. 

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