In the literary classic Beowulf, the main protagonist and title character answers the call from King Hrothgar to kill the evil monster Grendel. Successful in his quest, Beowulf kills Grendel and returns to the King’s castle, victorious. When the celebratory party is in full swing, Grendel’s mother appears seeking revenge. This is a prime example of a second order effect that is very analogous to what often happens in the intelligence community.
Whenever a commander makes a significant decision, intelligence professionals often have to present possible second order effects, which can be positive or negative, for consideration. Often these second order effects are considered and acted upon by commanders.
For example, in Afghanistan, a commander may increase the tempo of operations in an area with difficult terrain, resulting in an increase in soldiers on the ground. As a result, the negative second order effect is the risk to the soldiers. MRAP vehicles have diminished the threat from IEDs and direct fire, but soldiers on foot patrols increase this threat again. Conversely, a positive second order effect is the increased goodwill achieved by patrolling soldiers who interact with the local people.
Similarly, professionals from organizations such as JIEDDO continue to be effective in their efforts against IED threats. These professionals target the IED network, including training, supply, and the technology required to construct and initiate sophisticated IEDs against coalition troops. A positive effect might simply be increased freedom of maneuver for the commander and his subordinates throughout the area of operation (AO). Negative second order effects might include increased numbers of smaller, less sophisticated devices throughout the AO, which could result in increased attacks against the populace. This could also cause the emergence of other threats, such as suicide bombers. Second and even third order effects are something that must be considered and presented to commanders by all intelligence professionals.
And in the case of our hero Beowulf, he overcame his surprise at seeing Grendel’s mother and eventually slayed her as well. The net result was that he became King of the Geats and lived a long, adventure-filled life—a prime example of a second order effect leading to a positive outcome.