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ARTICLE Table of Contents   
Year : 2009  |  Volume : 11  |  Issue : 42  |  Page : 22-25
Strategic and tactical thinking in the hearing conservation mindset: A military perspective

Aearo Technologies, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Click here for correspondence address and email
How to cite this article:
Ohlin D. Strategic and tactical thinking in the hearing conservation mindset: A military perspective. Noise Health 2009;11:22-5

How to cite this URL:
Ohlin D. Strategic and tactical thinking in the hearing conservation mindset: A military perspective. Noise Health [serial online] 2009 [cited 2023 Sep 21];11:22-5. Available from: https://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2009/11/42/22/45309
Military terminology is not used in this article to advocate a war on noise like we have a war on drugs or a war on terrorism. That kind of terminology implies that only heavy-handed tactics will work and we have to drop bombs on everything. Hopefully, the hearing conservation mindset takes a more thoughtful approach. The terms 'strategy' and 'tactics' can apply to this topic and are frequently used in the private sector.

The layman often misuses strategy and tactics as synonyms for each other. Some of us intuitively seem to know the difference. One's perspective on these differences may depend on where you are in the food chain of your organization or company.

In the broadest terms, strategy is supposed to be about leadership and tactics about management. Strategy is the 'what' and the 'why' and tactics is about the 'how'. The difference between 'doing the right thing' (strategy) and 'doing things right' (tactics) is illustrated in [Table 1]. [1]

These are not new concepts since most of us at one time or another have been exposed to them in management or leadership courses or have participated in strategic planning.

In [Table 2], the worker bees and the military grunts are operating mainly in the far right column that describes tactical thinking. [2] The thinking processes of leaders should be operating mainly in the middle column of strategic thinking. If leaders are only thinking short term with a narrow focus or the wrong focus, eventually that will result in negative consequences for all those involved.

Proceeding without a coherent strategy is described by a colonel's disgust with one particular civilian authority: "They were pasting feathers together and hoping for a duck." [3] So, ask yourself: are you one of those who is "steering your ship where you want it to go," or are you "clinging desperately to the anchor chain as it drags you through the water?" [2] Would you be arranging deck chairs on the Titanic while the great ship foundered?

Pulitzer-prize winning author, Thomas E. Ricks, advocates that your strategy will flow from answers to the following questions: [3]

  • "Who are we?"
  • "What are we trying to accomplish?"
  • "How will we do it?"
  • "What resources and means will we employ to do it?"

Ricks wrote that these are sometimes difficult questions to answer, but once correctly addressed, an effective strategy can be formulated that will drive your tactics. Ricks put it this way: "Strategy, correctly formulated, shapes tactics. But tactics uninformed by strategy, or misinformed by an incorrect strategy, are like a car without a steering wheel. It may get somewhere, but probably not where the driver wants it to go." [3]

A military term that relates to strategy is called the 'center of gravity'. The term originated with Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military theorist in the late 1820s. Some define center of gravity as the source of strength or that principal capability that prevents a military force from accomplishing its mission. Others have gone to Clausewitz's original work, On War , and have interpreted the center of gravity as the focal point where physical and psychological forces come together. That is, "the one element within a combatant's entire structure or system that has the necessary centripetal force to hold that structure together." [4] For the purposes of this discussion, think of the center of gravity as what your focal point should be.

In a Hearing Conservation Program (HCP) your center of gravity may depend on who you work for. For many of us, it is the noise-exposed population. In the military, the center of gravity for the HCP is the mission, which emphasizes readiness for duty. The specific military focus is most concerned with communication aspects of the mission relating to situational awareness and effective coordination among and between units. How would that focus drive your hearing conservation tactics? That should translate into having hearing protectors available that not only protect hearing, but also enhance hearing ability. It also means, to borrow a phrase, "you go to war with the hearing you have." So, protect it in training as well as in combat.

In movies and on television, night scenes depicted in combat are commonly shown through night vision goggles. In these media, the visual is usually emphasized at the expense of the auditory. Veterans of conflict, however, value hearing as a 360 degree warning sense. In 1952, the Office of Naval Research confirmed as much after interviewing hundreds of frontline troops returning from WW-II and Korea. Soldiers reported that in combat, "sound was more important than all other means of equipment identification. The men regarded the sound of enemy weapons as such an important means of identification that they rarely made use of captured equipment because it resulted in their being fired upon by friendly troops." [5]

The National Ground Intelligence Center has conducted interviews with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Center has confirmed these earlier findings of the importance of hearing in combat with the following observations:
"Unlike visual observations, information carried by sound comes to us from all directions, through darkness and over or through many obstacles to vision.

Aggressive action produces sounds that the enemy cannot hide or camouflage.

Sound is often the first source of information a warfighter has before direct contact with the enemy." [6]

Major Eric Fallon, an Army audiologist, has served two tours in Iraq. More than anyone, he has helped to clarify the need for protecting hearing and enhancing communication in combat situations. His message has provided much of the basis for a paradigm shift in program emphasis: "The Army conducts warfare in a specific manner. We shoot, move, and communicate. However, we have placed far too little emphasis on the communication aspect of warfighting. We design radios that that will communicate from the other side of the globe and ignore the last few inches it takes to be heard and understood." [7] Recognition of this need for an increased scope and shift in program emphasis has resulted in a re-designation of the Army HCP as the Army Hearing Program.

Urban warfare is inherently dangerous and probably one of the most stressful listening situations imaginable. Noise and miscommunications cannot simply be written off and accepted as the 'fog of war', a term ascribed to Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote: "The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently - like the effect of a fog or moonshine - gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance." [8] Our soldiers and marines deserve better. We can do better and there are some promising beginnings.

So, what would be the most effective approach for ensuring that military personnel use hearing protectors in a tactical environment? As night vision goggles enhance vision, the hearing protector should enhance hearing ability. Also, we should make the hearing protector part of some other equipment considered vital to the mission, like a radio.

Our modern warfighters are 'loaded' with armor and gear. The rule-of-thumb for the weight of personal gear a soldier or marine can carry and still be effective is one-third of his or her body weight. In addition to a strategy to ensure inclusion, the integration of a hearing protector/hearing enhancement system with other essential gears would help address these weight restrictions.

Other electronic interfaces could offer additional tactical advantages. Envision a global positioning system (GPS) incorporated into an electronic hearing protective device (HPD). With the right programing, such a device could function as a sniper locator or help to pinpoint a mortar location. Envision a translator chip that converts Farsi into English. The intelligence community would like to see an acoustic weapons recognition chip that could tell the difference between an AK-47 and an M-16, a grenade and an improvised explosive device (IED) or the difference between a mortar and a rocket propelled grenade (RPG). The medical community would like to include a device that monitors blood pressure, heart rate, and internal body temperature. The bottom line is, in order to increase their utilization, hearing protectors must be integrated into other vital devices and systems.

Let us address the questions previously posed, beginning with "Who are we?" If we only define ourselves and the HCP narrowly within professional lines, our center of gravity in the program may not be the focal point that is in the best interest of the noise-exposed individual. For example, if an industrial hygienist makes the prevention of hearing loss claims the HCP's focal point, the program priority may become how many people can be kept out of the program. A HCP is not much more than a 'paper program' if the Safety Professional only thinks it is about posting caution signs and issuing hearing protectors. Similarly, an audiologist who only churns out reams of audiograms and calls it 'hearing conservation' has too narrow of a focus. Even if the audiologist's focus is on each individual's hearing sensitivity, an effective HCP should be much more than that.

Because of the collective expertise that the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) brings to the table, our members have a duty to reach out to people in different professions and make them 'believers' - that is, to make them Hearing Conservationists in every sense of the word.

We can try to understand the difficulty some people have taking noise as a serious hazard by reading Cliff Bragdon's list of behavioral obstacles [9] and adding to that list through our own frustrations and experience. According to Bragdon, the following factors contribute to our failure to reduce the impact of noise on human society:

  • Auditory regression: Over time, hearing has become a lower priority in our society
  • Unawareness that noise is a significant problem with serious consequences
  • Human ignorance
  • Conflicts in societal goals
  • Priority of urban concerns
  • Priority of noise solutions
  • Institutional apathy in both the Public and Private Sectors (this includes ineffective implementation of hearing loss prevention and noise reduction policies)

The key, however, to reaching others may be more about identifying the center of gravity: what the program's focal point should be. If we can get everyone on that same page, implementing and maintaining the HCP should be greatly facilitated.
"What are we trying to accomplish?" The answer to that question is to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Because of our corporate and military cultures, we may not be very persuasive with the senior leadership, or with middle management for that matter, by preaching about hearing as our most precious learning and social sense. We also need to list other consequences of a noise-induced hearing loss, such as hearing loss compensation costs, decreased job performance, and not just reductions in quality of life. While we are on the subject of quality of life, tinnitus is probably an underappreciated consequence of hearing loss and noise exposure. In the U.S. military, tinnitus is also a USD 500 million per year consequence in disability expenditures.
"How will we do it?" By employing whatever works? Whatever works is usually a coordinated effort among all the safety and health professionals to implement all the program elements that comprise a comprehensive HCP:

  • Noise hazard evaluation and posting
  • Engineering controls
  • Hearing protective devices
  • Monitoring audiometry
  • Health education
  • Management/Command emphasis
  • Recordkeeping
  • Program evaluation

A sole reliance on just one program element or just one group of professionals is a recipe for disaster. For instance, if noise hazards are the sole focal point of your program, or if the measurement of noise is the primary focus and you merely 'pay lip service' to engineering controls, you might lose sight of the primary goal - preventing noise-induced hearing loss.

While many of us focus our HCPs on the workplace, it is naive to think that off-the-job noise exposures do not contribute to someone's overall noise-induced hearing loss. Recreational shooting is sometimes minimized (or barely mentioned) as a hazard while loud music is identified as a culprit. Such thinking can be used to feed into the cultural biases of our senior leaders and media coverage. Weapons fire versus loud music? It's like comparing the lethality of a BB gun to a howitzer.
"How else are we going to do it?" We are not going to hand earplugs out like candy with no instructions on their use and care. Thanks to Ken Feith at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the new NRR system could provide the impetus we need to convince customers and clients to take the time to instruct users of HPDs properly. A lion's share of credit has to go to Elliott Berger and Dan Guager for laying the foundation of the new NRR system via implementation of ANSI S12.68. Their leadership and contributions to the impending rewrite of ANSI S12.6 could also provide additional incentives for manufacturers of HPDs to improve instructions for their products.
"What resources and means will we employ to do it?" If the noise in any environment cannot be feasibly engineered down to a safe level, and most of it cannot, the proper mix of human resources must be brought to bear on the problem. Hearing conservation is best understood as a behavioral problem, which means it is basically a people program. We need trained and highly knowledgeable people out there interacting with management and the workforce. Moreover, these programs have to be maintained and perpetuated. When there is a turnover of leaders, supervisors, and workers, it is often necessary to start over all again no matter how specific corporate and local policies may be written. Face-to-face interaction will help to ensure that what is written on paper continues to have meaning and 'teeth'. Interpersonal interactions will also help keep your HCP focused on your center of gravity - the people in your program.

In summary, if you ask and properly answer these questions,

  • "Who are we?
  • "What are we trying to accomplish?"
  • "How will we do it?"
  • "What resources and means will we employ to do it?"

then your HCP's strategies will be properly driving your tactics. At the very least, you won't be pasting feathers together and hoping for a duck.

  References Top

1.Haines Centre for Strategic Management http://www.hainescentre.com/essence/strategic-vs-tactical.html, 2007. [last accessed on January 19, 2009].  Back to cited text no. 1    
2.Dockery T. Strategic vs. Tactical Thinking. Business Psychology Newsletter, January 2004. http://www.businesspsychology.com/newsletter_january_2004.html.  Back to cited text no. 2    
3.Ricks TE. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Penguin Group, New York: 2007.  Back to cited text no. 3    
4.Echevarria AJ. Clausewitz′s Center of Gravity: Changing our Warfighting Doctrine-Again. Strategic Studies Institute, September 2002.  Back to cited text no. 4    
5.Office of Naval Research. "Combat Recognition Requirements." Human Engineering Report 1952;SDC 383-6-1,25.  Back to cited text no. 5    
6.Monroe JR. Sound Identification Recordings for Warfighters (SIR) CD. US Army National Ground Intelligence Center, 2004.  Back to cited text no. 6    
7.Fallon, E. Email message, subject: JCTD 2009 (unclassified) December 20, 2007.  Back to cited text no. 7    
8.Clausewitz C. On War . Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing; 2004.  Back to cited text no. 8    
9.Bragdon CR. Noise Pollution: The Unquiet Crisis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 1971.  Back to cited text no. 9    

Correspondence Address:
Doug Ohlin
4 Vaughn Avenue, Bel Air, MD 21014
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1463-1741.45309

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  [Table 1], [Table 2]