Practicing chaos

H/t Ace.  Naturally I can't find confirmation of any of these quotations, but I did find another unprovable one:  Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop is said to have tried to get a rise out of Winston Churchill before WWII by predicting that, if it came to war, the Italians would side with Germany.  Churchill replied, "It seems only fair.  We had them last time."


Grim said...

Have you read FM 3-24, "Counterinsurgency"? It's probably got the most intellectual talent behind it of any Army field manual, but I defy anyone to actually fight by it.

It's still worth reading, especially if you're going to take on the challenge of fighting a counterinsurgency; there's a lot of good thoughts and best-practices in there.

MCDP #1, "Warfighting," is a good example of what doctrine should look like. It's also got a lot of intellectual depth, but it's at a much higher level of abstraction. Actual application of these concepts is left to the Marine.

Texan99 said...

As probably became clear a long time ago, I know nothing of military doctrine or tactics. I just like the idea that the U.S. thrives in chaos, to the consternation of its enemies. I'm not even sure it's true, though I've often read pieces suggesting that our forces benefit from their relatively great autonomy. I want it to be true.

There are some things my brain is good at, but military tactics and strategy are not among them. It's a foreign language to me. I just can't get it. I can barely understand why something worked in history, and I have no conception whatever of how anyone guesses in advance what will work. In my book they're magicians.

Grim said...

You might want to read the first chapter of "Warfighting," then: just what it intends to do is to give new Marines a conceptual foundation for thinking about these things.

Or perhaps you like magic; sometimes its nice when things just work, and we don't need to know why. There are plenty of things I'd rather not know about if I could avoid it -- I would have been happier never to know what a "credit default swap" was, and I resent being forced to learn by the people who used them to destroy our economy a few years ago.

MikeD said...

It IS a fact that Soviet doctrine emphasized command driven maneuver. That is to say, top down management of troops from what we'd consider the Corps level on up. Which made them very vulnerable (in theory) if their communications were disrupted or severed. Our great advantage was that we had flexibility of command they could not imagine. An example:

An American squad, out of contact with higher echelons, is prepared to take the initiative and continue to engage the enemy, and seize objectives. A Soviet squad, out of contact with higher echelons is trained to stay put and wait for higher command to get back in contact.

The primary causes of this was the Soviet's lack of a professional NCO corps, a conscript army, and no faith in their soldiers to execute the mission without direct supervision. Thus, they wanted their soldiers to do nothing when in doubt of what their orders were.

Texan99 said...

Grim, I'll certainly take a look at your links. The problem I usually have is that I read these things and think, OK, that sounds plausible. But something completely different sounds plausible, too. And then if you give me a conflict scenario and ask me what will work, I still have no idea. News from real military conflicts continues to take me completely by surprise. If things had turned out the exact opposite way, I'd have been no more surprised.

I've been listening to lectures about the Peloponnesian wars. I can form reasonable opinions about the politics -- what mistakes might have been made and how things might have been induced to go better -- but the military side of it remains a mystery. Why did these guys win a particular battle? Why did these guys lose? What could they have done differently? I'm pretty much that way about chess, too: a contest for spatial territory simply won't fit very readily into my brain.

OK, I sort of get the battle of Salamis, the idea of taking away an enemy's advantages of number by forcing him to fight in a bottled-up space.

Grim said...

Right. US and US-influenced countries build a concept called "commander's intent" into written orders. This is to explain right/left limits to subordinates receiving the order, so they know what their boundaries for latitude are.

[C]ommander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the military end state.... It also includes where the commander will accept risk during the operation.

Such orders prescribe specific actions to be taken, like so:

"NLT 101500R JUL 12 BPT provide escort for CODEL SP ATL RP 3/3 BCT HQ FT Benning."

That is, "no later than three PM on the tenth of July this year, be prepared to provide an escort for a visiting Congressional delegation. Pick them up at the Atlanta airport, and bring them to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division's headquarters at Fort Benning."

There might be dozens of specific tasks. But there will also be a commander's intent, something like: "Commander's intent is that the visiting CODEL will receive the fullest cooperation, and leave appreciating the good spirit and morale of the US Army." That statement of intent licenses all sorts of additional actions you might take (and likewise bans other actions that are out of order with it).

Grim said...

So what Mike is saying is that US-style orders license a lot of decision making by the subordinates receiving the order. Soviet-style orders don't do that. It's not quite "chaos," but we're comfortable pushing down a lot of the decision making to the lower levels.

Texan99 said...

Sure, and so of course "chaos" is just a funny way of saying "what extremely successful American freedom and initiative look like to a totalitarian robot of the Stalinist or Nazi variety," which is why I thought the poster was amusing. I love the idea of their frustration when their opponents won't follow what they fondly imagine to be the universal rules. I'm not sure if the poster's subtitle was meant to be a snarky putdown, but in any case I didn't choose to take it that way.

Without understanding military tactics or strategy, I still root for the freedom team.

Grim said...

Well, if you're interested, I'd be happy to talk you through any particular battle you're struggling with. Military science is a longstanding interest of mine, and there are general principles that seem to apply over time. As you begin to see them at work in different battles and different times, they'll become more obvious.

E Hines said...

T99, are not your bankruptcy cases adversarial? You have to conceptualize what a favorable outcome looks like to you, what it looks like to the other side, how you intend to achieve your end, how your adversary intends to achieve his. And the steps in between to do so, and how he's likely to react to your steps.

Battle is largely the same, with the minor detail that lots of lives are at stake, and entire nations, not just businesses.

And then you have to adjust in real time to the way events actually unfold, even if the legal clock's version of real time is different from a shooting clock.

You follow a battle, as Grim will walk you through, but it's key also to understand that the sequence of events realized is only one of several sequences that would have led to the same outcome. Don't be confused by the plethora of possible paths that could have reached that outcome.

Eric Hines

bthun said...

"So what Mike is saying is that US-style orders license a lot of decision making by the subordinates receiving the order. Soviet-style orders don't do that. It's not quite "chaos," but we're comfortable pushing down a lot of the decision making to the lower levels."

Indeed... Not to mention the rigid hierarchy of the Japanese and German military which did not foster the sense that initiative could be taken among those suddenly leaderless Axis peons, particularly the Japanese.

Improvise, adapt, and overcome describes not only our Marines, but our military in general. The dog-faced GI's improvised, adapted, and overcame as a matter of routine in WWII, Korean and in the former French colony we got mixed up with a few decades ago.

Insolent, knuckle-dragging, bitter-clingers apparently didn't and still don't understand their place in the hierarchy. What they did and still do understand is how to kick arse and dispense with the name taking, unless ordered to execute the inverse.

It swells my heart and soul to see this generation filling those shoes.

Texan99 said...

Eric -- Oh, yes, in that kind of adversarial confrontation I'm completely at home. I know what we're after and how to get there, and I play for blood. It not the adversarial relationship that throws me, or the concept of strategy in the abstract, but the specifics of physical warfare over geographical territory.

raven said...

Geoffrey Perrett's book "The US Army in WWII". Was interesting , in that it highlighted several (among hundreds) technical innovations -the Higgins boat, the 2 1/2 ton truck, the M1 rifle, Liberty ship, etc and also the organizational effort to develop a Army from the dregs left over during the Depression. Apparently Marshall and a few others were convinced we had not seen the end of war and were determined to have a system in place to build an army on.

MikeD said...


You said something that was very interesting to me:
Why did these guys win a particular battle? Why did these guys lose? What could they have done differently?

Military history is my first love, and much of it is for this very reason. And the answer (in almost every case) depends on the battle in question. For example, throughout the vast majority of history, battles occurred for one of two reasons. Either both sides thought they were going to win or one side couldn't choose to march away. The first would occur when both sides were roughly equal, and the results usually came down to one side seriously underestimating their foes or overestimating themselves. The second was that the numerically superior force caught the inferior force by surprise or at a place the inferior force could not march away from (either for reasons of supply, terrain, or some form of strategic value). And in most cases, the numerically superior foe wins... but not always. You get cases like Agincourt where the massively outnumbered English absolutely annihilated the French due to a combination of French overconfidence, terrain, tactics, weaponry, and leadership.

It's really a case by case study, and that's why I love it so. How did Washington manage to pull off such a daring, complex and difficult plan to beat the Hessians at Trenton? How did Hannibal, for all of his advantages (once in Italy) fail to beat the Romans? These are the kind of things that make history interesting to me.

Texan99 said...

I suppose the kind of analysis that comes most easily to me is reproducible experiments, which you can't easily use on military history -- or any history. So I read analyses about how the particular circumstances of a battle favored one outcome or the other and I think, "Really? Or is that just hindsight? Could/should the general have been able to see that? Could he have done something different, and would it really have mattered?" Sometimes a difference in technology makes it obvious, the loss of air superiority, say. But I'm left feeling grateful I've never had to design a military campaign, because I wouldn't even know how to start. Again, in complete contrast to a legal campaign, where I know exactly what to do, and you'd hate to have to go up against my dispositive motions if the judge is anything like honest. That's a terrain and a set of forces I understand.

I enjoyed "Band of Brothers" and tried to watch closely the early episode when Captain Winters pulls off such a coup in the L-shaped trenches, but I just couldn't get the sense of why what he did was so effective.

MikeD said...

I enjoyed "Band of Brothers" and tried to watch closely the early episode when Captain Winters pulls off such a coup in the L-shaped trenches, but I just couldn't get the sense of why what he did was so effective.

That engagement is still taught at West Point as a textbook example of an assault upon a fixed position. He set up a base of fire to keep the German troops in the trenches and their heads down. He then had his team assault the trenches with small arms fire and grenades to kill or chase the Germans away from the guns, which were then disabled. Once those objectives had been secured, he led his troops back out (again under covering fire) and successfully broke contact with the enemy.

Some battles were decided before they began, with logistics, better positioning, better equipment, leadership, or whatnot. Some turn on seemingly random occurrence. Others hinge on one side seizing upon an opportunity presented by the foe. I do understand your concern over whether the outcome COULD have been different if only ____ had happened being a matter of hindsight or genuine error. That's a source of endless debate by historians. Had Admiral Kurita not confused Taffy 3 for Bull Halsey's carriers, then Leyte Gulf would have been a disaster for the US. But COULD he have known? That's the question. And thus do historians stay employed.

Texan99 said...

I remembered that the on-screen notes said he'd pulled off a textbook engagement. I guess I'm saying that even something as clear-cut as that doesn't want to penetrate my skull. I'd have to see it with diagrams, and more important I'd have to watch it played out repeatedly, with important details changed at each decision point, so that I could understand not only why each step worked but why the alternative would not, or what the Germans in the trenches should have done and did not.

And even then, for some reason, it's not the kind of information I retain easily. If you confronted me with a similar set of trenches and artillery, but with important alterations, I have little confidence I could draw lessons from this engagement that would help me attack with the circumstances somewhat changed, or if the Germans responded differently.

Grim said...

Well, and you probably couldn't identify an enemy Japanese aircraft even if we showed you the charts. Nor could you tell a male from a female chicken at its birth.

Until you practice, that is. And then you find that you can 'see that' such-and-such would work, while this-and-that would not.

So maybe you were right to start with: it's a sort of magic.

Texan99 said...

I know it's a rational field -- how else to explain that some people can get consistently good results? -- and I probably could learn it much better than I ever have if I put more effort into it. My point is only that this is an area that comes much harder to me than others, for whatever reason, needing lots of pounding, simple breakdowns, and repetition. My husband is good at it, and I've always noticed that the concepts come much more easily to him than they do to me, though that's not true of all mental puzzles. My mind just doesn't seem to be built that way, just as his is not built for some of the puzzles that most absorb me. A male-female thing? A purely individual quirk? Who knows?

E Hines said...

My point is only that this is an area that comes much harder to me than others....

But this is not at all unique. Everyone is better at some things than at others. And for those of us to whom a thing came easily, it's often hard to understand why others might find it difficult. For those of us who've had to put effort in to something so that it does become easy (or easier, or less hard), it's easier to understand why someone else might find it hard, but not always, even here.

A male-female thing? [wrt military science]

An interesting question, and maybe there's been some actual research in the matter. Absent such information, I speculate that it may well be a male-female thing, but one of borne of how we raise our children more so (but not exclusively so) than something innate.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

Of course it's not unique! It only surprises me because it's not obvious how it's different from the things that come easily to me. It doesn't surprise me, for instance, that I have good fine-motor coordination but lack perfect pitch, because they don't seem at all related. Why shouldn't I be good at one and bad at the other? But military science appears as a kind of blind spot in the middle of what I would otherwise have guessed are capabilities involving similar brain functions, like whatever it is that gives you good marks on spatial-apprehension tests, or general logical functions, or verbal processing. It's as if I were good at multiplication unless the digit "7" were involved.

Grim said...

I know it's a rational field -- how else to explain that some people can get consistently good results?

That's the point of the plane-spotting article, though: some people get consistently good results even though they can't explain, rationally, just how to do it. They can even teach it, by experience... but not by rational argument.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest had no military training whatsoever, but proved to be possibly the finest cavalry general in American history. He could articulate a principle -- 'get there first with the most' -- but it doesn't adequately account for his successful application of maneuver warfare. Indeed, his life's work could be properly said to be the foundation for the school of maneuver warfare that dominated the 20th century's wars (WWI's trench warfare on the Western front being a major exception).

People have been studying him for more than a century to try to derive the lessons of what he did, but he did it naturally. If he'd been in charge instead of Braxton Bragg at Chickamauga, it's possible there would have been no Sherman's march to the sea -- Forrest's instinct was to recapture Chattanooga, which would have restored a highly defensible position to Confederate hands (and been a major blow to Northern morale, since they'd just captured the city after a long and bloody campaign).

Mr. Hines:

Absent such information, I speculate that it may well be a male-female thing, but one of borne of how we raise our children more so (but not exclusively so) than something innate.

What is this speculation based on? If I were speculating, I'd run in the other direction -- every ordinary boy is fascinated with playing war. If you tried to raise them differently, you couldn't do it -- take away their toy guns and they'll pick up sticks, point them at each other, and say "Bang!"

Texan99 said...

I take your point -- it needn't be a rational exercise for people to show different aptitudes for it, as they do for other imponderables, like the ability to compose music. I suppose I was really trying to say that I don't doubt the ability is genuine, even if it's opaque to me.

I happen to be awful at many kinds of shape-recognition, too. If my husband gets a split-second glimpse of an aircraft or tank in a war movie, for instance, he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt what it was, and usually what year it was built in. I used to think he was making it up, but he's proved to me that it's for real. They all look like blobs in the sky to me. Ditto for cars. It's all I can do to recognize my own car in a parking lot, and I rarely remember the make or color of even good friends' cars. "It's some kind of grayish sedan, right?" (An exception is a vehicle whose style I admire, like an Airstream.) I would be a nightmare as an eyewitness. In contrast, I remember words in considerable detail without having to give it much effort.

E Hines said...

If you tried to raise them differently, you couldn't do it -- take away their toy guns and they'll pick up sticks....

Because there's more than raising a child than the one-on-one of parent and child, it is hard. It doesn't take a village, but the village is involved.

Most of what our children see, to use stereotype shorthand, is boys playing soldier and girls playing dolls, and all their mothers and fathers saw growing up--and in adulthood, like much of our entertainment--was boys playing soldier and girls playing guns. Children are as steeped in culture as are adults, and that's what we're working against when we "take away their toy guns."

I grew up in the Midwest playing variations on cops and robbers, and girls in the game were as likely to be the armed aggressors as the boys. I played tackle football with a neighbor girl until my mother made me stop because it "might lead to breast cancer." My wife grew up playing football with her brothers and the neighbors, and continued until size differentials left her unable to compete.

Various folks are attributed with the claim of "Give me a child until he is seven, and I'll show you the man." But the claim isn't far wrong. If a thing is physically and mentally possible to do, either gender can be taught to do it. Thus, it's not exclusively innate. I believe in the power of culture and of the ability of a human to learn; the relative weights of my speculation flow exclusively from that.

Eric Hines