If you know anything at all about fox hunting, you know it’s a really big deal in terms of pomp and circumstance, ritual, tradition and sheer logistics. It’s not about catching the fox, but what goes into catching the fox that’s important. In fact, most of the time, no one even sees a fox at all. It’s all about having a shared experience – and the experience is supposed to last. That’s why if the hounds are closing in on the fox too soon, the master of the hunt will order one of his assistants to drag a fish at the end of a rope across the fox’s trail to throw off the scent, thereby prolonging the hunt. This is the origin of the term “red herring.”
These days we’re seeing a lot of red herrings in the United States. The Democrats rant about the Russians helping Trump steal the election. The Republicans scream about Susan Rice’s involvement in surveilling, unmasking and leaking regarding the Trump campaign/transition team. These are simply diversionary tactics that play upon human nature (see The Scorpion and the Frog). These diversions are incredibly powerful.
History is full of examples of people using the power of diversion. During World War II, the Japanese navy used U.S. Adm. William “Bull” Halsey’s aggressive nature against him in the battle of Leyte Gulf. With the Americans poised with an invasion force off the Philippine’s Samar Island, the Japanese knew it was a pivotal moment in the war. They were able to lure Halsey, who was responsible for the operation and protecting the invasion force, away from the area by allowing him to “discover” the location of an irresistible prize – their aircraft carriers. Like a bull to a red cape, Halsey charged toward the decoy with most of his fleet. The Japanese then moved in to destroy the invasion force that was protected by only a small force of World War I-era destroyer escorts and a few, small escort carriers. Known as Taffy 3, this force charged headlong into the guns of a superior Japanese force and bought enough time for Halsey to realize he’d been duped and race back. Only because of the valorous actions of Taffy 3 and some Japanese missteps, was the invasion force spared.
What made Halsey vulnerable to this ruse is precisely what made him a great commander – his aggressive nature. But, the Japanese successfully used it against him the same way a wrestler uses an opponent’s inertia against him in Judo. This is why self-awareness is such an important quality in a leader. I spent most my youth in the service of my country, much of it as an attack helicopter pilot. It should come as no surprise that attack helicopter pilots are selected, partly, because of their aggressive nature. With a nod to Halsey, the Army realized this quality is also a liability and created training to account for it. They created the Combat Mission Simulator, a full-motion, virtual-reality training system where aircrews could “fly” missions based on various scenarios. One such scenario was called “the Deep Attack Mission.” The scenario called for the crew to fly deep behind enemy lines and take out a high-value target, such as an air defense radar. Along the way, the aircrew would encounter hostile enemy action. Attack helicopter pilots instinctively want to destroy anything that shoots at them, but in this situation, it is counterproductive. They must bypass the immediate threat and continue the mission to accomplish the ultimate objective – the destruction of the air defense radar. This is easier said than done and requires repetitive training (again, see the Scorpion and the Frog).
So, whether it’s fox hunting, flying attack helicopters or watching the news, if something smells fishy, look out for a red herring.