Ender’s Game, a novel centered around training the perfect general, has a lot to teach a junior officer about squad tactics, leadership, and maneuver warfare. Consequently, it’s been on the junior officer reading list for every branch of service since it was published as a novel in 1986 (it was a short story first, and you can read that short story online for free HERE). The discussion points for this book for young military officers is to pay close attention to the unconventional thinking, empowerment of subordinates, training methodology, and ethics prevalent throughout the book. Of little interest is the technological aspect of the book, which allows Ender to direct a space battle fleet remotely.
Of course, in today’s military, the remote battle leadership is a zillion dollar program in the sky for many of today’s “Leaders”. A classic example of great sci-fi being taken way out of context.
And this brings to the aforementioned “Attritionists” and “Maneuverists”, which allude to two styles of warfare: central command vs distributed command. The “Attritionists” favor central command, with admirals/generals commanding the battlefield directly from a remote location, their soldiers little more than biological drones carrying out their orders. “Maneuverists” are the opposite, overcoming the fog of war through superior training, flexible tactics, and leadership. For the last 20 years, Maneuverists have had their way, but now, with the state of technology being what it is, Attritionist thinking is coming to the fore. The crux of this argument, on the surface, is the best deployment and safety/conservation of our troops in a chaotic battle space. And, while everyone wants that, many take exception to the “Attritionist” philosophy.
The Fog of War is a big deal and has stymied generals for thousands of years. It’s been touched on by every military mind of every decade since we’ve been counting decades. Historically, it has been universally agreed that the best way to overcome this obstacle is superior training, discipline, tactics, and weaponry. Until now. With the advent of GPS, satellite observation, real time communications, computer networks, predator drones, and guided missiles the fog of war is starting to lift a little. This incredible technology is causing a lot of people to start thinking in very dangerous ways.
The idea is that with direct, simultaneous communications and reconnaisance, who better to direct every part of every battle than “superior” military leaders directly? I mean, if you could have Chesty Puller in your earpiece telling you what to do while he’s watching you patrol in real time, wouldn’t you want that? Throw in the fact that he’s got full aerial recon of your area with a direct view of the enemy forces over the next ridge and it sounds like a great idea, right?
NO! It is NOT A GREAT IDEA!
Giving that patrol leader the aerial recon footage IS A GREAT IDEA. Interpreting that data from thousands of miles away and trying to direct live combat like its a chess game is NOT A GOOD IDEA. But, a great deal of our leadership is pushing us in exactly that direction. And it’s not just combat, it’s pretty much everything from contracting, time cards, personnel issues, and Private Johnny’s dental appointment. It’s micromanaging in overdrive and we are spending billions on it (yeah, Billions with a “B”).
The rationale is to provide the best leadership and management possible, in reality, it is very much an issue rooted in control and liability. Every single JO in the force knows that if the Generals had been this far down in their knickers back in the day, they wouldn’t have grown up to be Generals today. Also, if you’re going to get to this level of micromanagement, why don’t you cut personnel? If field reports will go directly to the division commanders and bypass the Company, Battalion, and Regiment commanders, then cut those positions and streamline the structure. But that’s not really feasible and the “Attritionists” know it. Besides, if you cut out all the subordinates, who’s going to do the dirty work of actual personal leadership? And there’s the rub.
This entire managerial conflict is being handled beautifully by the USMC in the Marine Corps Gazette’s feature “General Screwtape” named for the famous Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.
The pursuit of “remote leadership” capability is, in my mind, a fundamentally bad idea and illustrates perfectly the concept that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something. Our technology is growing every day and we are now more science fiction that science fiction. The way we are pushing the boundaries of quantum physics, biology, computer science, control systems, energy creation, sensor systems — all of it — is amazing, intriguing, and way too fast. We are becoming drunk on our technology and if we’re not careful, we’re going to get into one hell of a car wreck.