“On one route sweep mission, there was a noticeable I.E.D. in the middle of the road, but it was a decoy,” said Lt. Donovan Campbell, who in 2004 led a Marine platoon for seven months of heavy fighting in Ramadi and wrote a vivid book, “Joker One,” about the experience. “The real bomb was encased in concrete, a hundred meters away, in the midst of rubble. One of my Marines spotted it. He said, ‘That block looks too symmetrical, too perfect.’ ”
I have to confess, this is not a gift I possess. I was never totally blind to subtle clues on the battlefield, but there’s no denying that I wasn’t the guy who was going to spot trouble first. Some people just have an almost preternatural ability to see certain things before the rest of us. I worked with a young trooper in Hawaii back in the 80’s who had an uncanny ability to tell where the Opposing Force’s ambush was. He didn’t spot them by seeing a head sticking up or some such thing. He just subconsciously noticed things that didn’t fit. Perhaps it was a disturbance of the foliage, a bent blade of grass where there shouldn’t be one. And that queued him to look for other signs.
I did have one gift. I had terrific night vision. Now, my vision is actually pretty poor. I’ve worn thick glasses most of my life. And my night vision itself is no great shakes. But I instinctively learned how to use what little night vision I had. People that try to look at something at night will often focus their attention on something, only to have it disappear. This is because your eyes are built mostly to work during the day. The daylight receptors in your eyes are in the center of the eye. The night light receptors are to the sides. If you want to see something at night, look slightly to the side of what you want to watch. You have to learn to use and trust your peripheral vision. Further, you have to learn to change the focal plane of your vision. Basically, your eyes will naturally try to focus on an object somewhere. By relaxing and just starring off into space, you allow the eyes to change their focus, often bringing clarity to an object at night that you otherwise would never have seen. The other big trick is to look for motion. It’s a lot easier to see something that moves, but you have to be aware of it.
In any event, it’s interesting that the Army (and other services, of course) are looking at why some folks get these hunches, and what training can do to spread the wealth.