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Why have one soldier dressed differently from the rest, ideally in a primary colour? Try looking at the picture bellow.

enter image description here

This is the famous "black dot on a white page". As you can see, it is difficult to focus your attention on anything else than the dot. Our eyes (or rather our brain) are trained to spot irregularities and focus on them. This phenomenon is tempting to use as a tactic, because there is nothing that can be done to prevent us from focusing on it without hampering vision of course. (If you looked away and failed to see the dot, congratulations!)

So how does this play in warfare? What's the point?

In battle one needs to be constantly aware of everything that is happening, lest being caught by surprise and dying pointlessly. Wether taking aim or keeping track of enemy movement, you must pay attention. And so, our eyes and the way we perceive things plays a big role. In the context of my story, the general makes the odd decision of dressing one person in red (or bright pink) in every battalion. This seems nonsensical and it probably is. However we can't argue that being distracted for a moment on a battlefield means death. One oddly dressed soldier is indeed very distracting (lime green?! What was he thinking?).

How effective would this "black dot" tactic be, regardless of context?

The tactic is pretty universal, I couldn't give one example of it being used effectively. It works just as well with ground troops or aircraft dogfights. Take your pick. At the same time getting as varied perspectives on the advantages and disadvantages would be very helpful. For ease of answering you can explore the tactic in any setting or era you prefer. The more perspectives the merrier and having a little fun at the same time doesn't hurt either, I'm not a tyrant.

The limitations of the tactic are:

  • Only one soldier from each battalion must be dressed conspicuously. Any more than one would lessen the effectiveness of the distraction. If the red soldier dies, another picks up his colour. If two or more battalions meet, the red soldiers will play rock paper scissors (if they have time) to determine who the red soldier will be.
  • The colour has to be vivid to draw attention. Colder colours like blues and greens won't be as effective as yellows or reds. Bright pink with bunny slippers for those that want their enemies to die laughing.
  • Stealth is optional.
  • A soldier standing alone must take off the coloured uniform. Only in cases where there are more than one do we need the conspicuous uniform. Rock paper scissors decides who has to put it on (sorry Jimmy! nothing personal).

If the question is missing anything important inform me in the comments.

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    $\begingroup$ Do enemy soldiers have access to explosives? If so, the red soldier is a bullseye for a bomb or rocket, with shrapnel taking out the soldiers around them. Unless the red soldier is all on their own, which basically makes them a distraction used to attract gunfire away from the other soldiers. $\endgroup$ 2 days ago
  • $\begingroup$ @GregBurghardt Yes, they do. Which is why red soldiers don't get to use the big weapons themselves. $\endgroup$ 2 days ago
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    $\begingroup$ Why dress the soldier that way? Why not build wooden pink elephants and have those positioned in view of the enemy? If distraction is the goal, having one risk their life is not required. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    yesterday
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    $\begingroup$ Slightly related (amazingly enough) Family guy clip $\endgroup$
    – BruceWayne
    yesterday
  • $\begingroup$ Decided using rock paper scissors ? You actually mean Russian roulette !! when armies would do this with their soldiers, it would be execution. Even when desperate, armies will not sacrifice soldiers just to distract the enemy imho.. they will use it to inflict damage, killing hundreds of enemies (ref Kamikaze) $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    yesterday

10 Answers 10

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Red herrings.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/29/israel-putting-dummy-soldiers-lebanon-border-reports-say

dummy soldier in jeep

dummy in fort

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said they would not comment on reports. It was not clear whether the dolls had been set up in an attempt to lure Hezbollah into firing on the targets or for other reasons. The Times of Israel said the IDF had placed mannequins in bunkers in the past to trick enemies “into thinking that these positions are full of soldiers and thus serve a deterrent effect”.

Your garish soldiers are meant to draw fire. They are not alive. Or perhaps if alive are heavily armored compared with their compatriots, in the knowledge that they will be attracting fire.

There is a long and excellent history of fakes intended to waste the focus and effort of your military foes.

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    $\begingroup$ I was convinced that the "red herring" part of the image was the conspicuous yellow circle. I tried so hard to find what's the circle is trying to distract me from. (I was wrong. YouTube red circle thumbnails made me think that way.) But then, in some way, it even proves your point more about distraction. $\endgroup$ 8 hours ago
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Only one soldier from each battalion must be dressed conspicuously.

There is little point, I am afraid, in capturing the attention of the enemy on a soldier, if the rest of them moves with him. The trick of "look there" work if the point where you are calling the attention of the target is different from the point where you want them to not look. So, for example, you make them look at the paper on your left hand, while your right hand is taking their wallet from their pocket.

What you can try is to have a whole battalion drawing attention, while others maneuver under the distraction given by the first one.

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If all you're doing is the dress equivalent of painting a big "look here" sign on a random soldier in the unit then it's unlikely to be an effective tactic - not after the first time anyway. In order to really draw attention you need something that will function at a much deeper level psychologically - as Trioxidane mentions in his comment on another answer - or their dress needs to positively identify them as a high-value target.

Let's assume that your forces are the normal mix of a large number of low-level infantry with minimal training, with a small number of officers who provide direction, strategy and morale. Killing an officer can reduce the efficiency of the troops they control, so identifying and targeting officers can be a highly effective tactic. So much so that in most modern wars the ground-pounders are forbidden from saluting officers, and officers try to dress and act as much like the common troops as possible. It only takes one reasonably-competent sniper to decimate the leadership and leave an armed force without direction.

Back in the days of men with swords and spears hacking away at each other though, it was apparently common for an army's commanders to not only dress differently but also do silly things like carrying big banners into battle... or at least stand next to someone who was carrying the banner. Officers from both sides would try to hack their way through the fodder to get to each other so that they could settle their dispute 'like men' on the field. The common soldiers would often steer clear of these conflicts because they'd be easily slain by wild swings... and besides, nobles fought from horseback, and nobody wants to mess with an angry war-horse.

Except of course there were plenty of people who never heard about how you were supposed to let the nobles have their own fight. These barbarians would actively seek out the shiniest target just for the bragging rights. No respect for the rules of engagement I tell you.

So depending on the setting, the training and the norms of engagement you could get away with suckering your opponent into believing that the dressed-up soldier is someone important that they should focus on. It may help to draw some of the aggro, funneling some of the more eager opponents into a killing lane. You'd need to know your enemy very well to know whether this was going to work or not, and your troops would have to be well trained to take advantage of the distraction. When the barbarians make a push towards the 'officer' and find themselves channeled into a killing field... well, it could ruin their day.

As a viable, repeatable tactic though? Probably not. If the enemy has anybody with a working brain they'll be able to figure out that your faux officers are a trap. As an occasional thing though it could work.

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That tactic is useless, 100% useless.

  • Your soldiers are under command, they are trained, they respond to orders. This is the single biggest element. No matter how distracting an element is, your commands issues a command and all soldiers fall in line. Basically: commanders dictate the attention of soldiers
  • Training and focus are against you. You see. Soldiers are trained to focus, soldiers are put into the field and ordered to focus, and lastly soldiers focus on what they are commanded. Not every second is the commander screaming commands, but you don't need to. If you are in a shield wall and in the distance you see a clown dancing on a gigantic floating pie, you are not gonna focus on that. Your entire being is solely focused on the enemy right in front of you with weapons and intent to kill.
  • Tunnel vision is real. From video games to sports to combat. People focus on what is important. Sometimes to the exclusion of other things. A man in a silly outfight is not a big deal.
  • Apparently Napoleon Bonaparte said "You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war." It does not take a genius to figure out the application.
  • Elephants were used and was another tool. Sure the initial shock of elephants was a big thing. But then they were countered. Was not like people just got some stun value like it's a video game.
  • Cavalry exited. They were terrifying. And it did not matter. You made say a phalanx formation and played a game of chicken with them. Well trained troops won that game 9/10 with the cavalry either falling back at the last second of the charge or getting impaled.
  • Tanks are another example. Big powerful machines capable of a lot of destruction. Yet people were focused enough not to be afraid and knew how to counter them.
  • Modern warfare is something else. A greater reliance on electronics and computer guided stuff. For example: No drone pilot is gonna be distracted by a jumping up and down clown, a tank commander is not gonna stop his work to look at a guy in a weird outfight.
  • Artillery, guided missiles, bullets...don't care about people in silly outfights.
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    $\begingroup$ As a psychologist I say differently. Sure the soldiers can be trained for focus and such, but this isn't foolproof. A study where they paraded bare breast woman around showed that in a firefight the soldiers lost a small but valuable time in identifying dangers, acquiring target and firing. Even if the women were the threat themselves. Not everything can be trained out of a person. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    2 days ago
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane, I'd be interested in knowing more about the study. Modern fights are complex. Urban environment, for example, don't allow for your battalion to see that 1 weird thing. Optics are used to engage the enemy. It's not like play a video game from a 3rd person pov. So. Unless they injected a naked woman into each optic then what! Also this does not include tanks, drones, artillery, or fighters. All a standard part of warfare. So. Not sure how was this tested exactly and the accuracy of the findings. There is just too much to cover $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    yesterday
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    $\begingroup$ Training =/= 100% success rate. This counts double for soldiers in the field. Even if you can assume the soldiers are 100% focused at the beginning (they are not) they will tire and lose that focus. Direct combat is very tiring which degrades focus, as is the psychological impact of people getting hurt etc. The whole point of R&R is to make sure people can focus more again. On top of that: any success rate during training does not automatically translate to success during actual combat. For example "look busy" tactics is common for soldiers instead of focussing on the enemy. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    yesterday
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane there's also the invisible gorilla experiment, in which focus on the task means the surprising appearance goes unnoticed $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    yesterday
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    $\begingroup$ @Seallussus because we arent talking exclusively about those? You might as well say "well what about a nuclear ICBM????". But listing scenario's where this doesnt work is not the point. You might as well say "BUT WHAT IF THAT SOLDIER IS INSIDE A TANK EH??!!??!". Read the OP, it talks about taking aim, looking with your own eyes. And neither OP or me are saying "AND NOW BULLETS CURVE AND BATTLES ARE DRASTICALLY ALTERED!!!". He's asking if it could have an effect, and you assume impossible stuff to "prove" you are right, like 100% focus and everyone being a tank/artillery etc. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    yesterday
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I assume that your tactic involves getting all of the enemy troops to target a single one of yours while your soldiers all shoot individual targets

So for an even number of soldiers all getting one shot off and aiming perfectly you will win with one casualty

diagram

I would say that this may have been somewhat effective for a small timespan when guns were getting accurate enough to properly aim, but hadn't moved to shooting prone, so maybe napoleonic wars / american civil war.

You will probably notice that around this time they stopped having officers wear easily distinguished uniforms and fancy hats as they would always get shot first and it would be hard to persuade people to take this role on

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Not much, as it's easy to become visible already.

If you want an enemy to focus on you, just spray an assault rifle at them full auto. That will get their attention.

But most of the time, you want to get their attention as late as possible, so you can shoot faster than them. Having a conspicuous outfit means you can't switch to stealth if it's tactically appropriate.

But it's always easy to become loud and annoying.

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Probably not against Humans, but...

Against more simplistic beings, it can be a very effective strategy! In a setting that I am working on, the armored front-line soldiers will often polish their armor and paint it garish bright colors. In addition, they will carry torches or adorn their armor with magic to make it glow. When facing off against beasts or monsters, the less intelligent ones will tend to focus on the shining, bright colored thing in the front.

This strategy is only successful if:

  1. The enemy is not able to think strategically. Otherwise they'll understand the tactic and counter it.
  2. The decoy (our soldier) must have some method to survive. Otherwise the enemy will dispose of them and then target the rest of the troops and the strategy will have done nothing other than change the order in which the troops die.
  3. The enemy perceives noise and light. For example, the strategy would probably fail against Bats or Snakes due to their low reliance on vision and different modes of hearing.

There are other specifics to consider, but those are the main critical points determining success.

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When facing a large group of moving targets that all look alike, it can be hard to pick out an individual target to shoot at-- especially if they blend in with the background. So your bright pink uniform does solve a problem, but for the enemy, not for you. They will quickly dispatch your unlucky soldier, after which you will immediately give them another one, who will meet the same fate just as quickly.

Maybe the third soldier will get off easier, though, since the enemy will undoubtedly have caught on by that point and started shooting at other things. Creating diversions and drawing enemy fire are legitimate tactics, but I can't imagine why you'd want to make it so obvious that's what you're doing. A few of the enemy troops may be allowed to continue focusing on the easy targets, depleting your army one flamboyantly-clad soldier at a time, but the rest will now be alerted to the fact that you're trying to distract them, and will be actively looking for whatever it is you didn't want them to notice.

If you want to prevent the enemy from targeting your soldiers, then the blank page-- not the dot-- should be your inspiration. Dress them so that they blend with each other and with their surroundings. It's hard to focus on a single point when it looks just like every other point.

not easy targets
Distracted or not, the enemy will have a hard time targeting any of these guys from a distance. Aiming for vitals will be out of the question since they won't be able to tell where one body ends and the next one begins.

easy target
Now they're guaranteed to get at least one kill.

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The moment your enemies learn about this, they'll switch to IR.

Some military as seen in infrared

Or UV.

Or why even bother? If they know the rest of the unit is around the unlucky decoy, they'll switch to explosives for splash damage.

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I would think that if you want the "can't look away" aspect of the black dot to matter, it would have to be different for close combat vs distance combat.

Melee

In a melee group of soldiers fighting each other, one brightly colored uniform in the sea of beige isn't even going to be noticed. Any individual hand-to-hand combatant is only going to see a handful of other combatants around him. In those situations, it would be better to have the entire uniform designed to minimize outlines and edges, except for one marked non-vital spot.

IF the theory holds true, then strikes by the enemy would have a tendency to target more toward the non-vital area. I know that when shooting targets, the bigger the target, the wider the pattern. Shooting at a blank piece of paper means a "success" is anywhere on the paper; even with cross-hairs and scope to aim with, there's no single target "point". So in a nondescript field, the dot would give a concrete target, even subconsciously. Even then, it's not going to save every soldier, it's only going to bias damage toward that point. But that could be statistically significant over the course of a war.

Distance

From a distance, what if the off-color section isn't really a target at all? I seem to recall a far-future story in which deer and other animals had greatly evolved to elude hunters. The does would run in such a way that their body patterns made it look like a buck was running with them, and it took a keen eye to realize it wasn't. Targeting that imaginary buck wouldn't do serious damage to any particular doe, since it was between the individual does. And even if it did kill one, the hunter's license was pulled, since it was illegal to take a doe, or something along those lines. So in any large group of soldiers (area-effect weapons not withstanding) what about making the arrangement of colors or patterns focus an enemy's attention on a non-vital area in the same way as the dot on the close-combat uniforms? This would be similar to just making the off-color unit a dummy unit, as other answers have stated.

But I would expect, as others have pointed out, that this tactic from a distance would only work once or twice without the heat of battle to allow subconscious clues to take effect. In situations where there is plenty of time to consciously pick a target, the enemy would just take the extra time to find a true vital point. If you are targetting an enemy camp from satellite images, you can take the time to analyze the images and personnel movements to determine the coordinates of the true vital target. But a drone targeting on approach may not have the sophistication to tell the difference. A sniper being forced to pick a target and fire while his target battalion is on the march may not have the time to truly determine whether what he thinks he sees is the real thing or not, but if he's able to set up in the hills outside a more permanent base camp and take his time to study the target, any single abnormal coloration isn't going to affect him.

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