Ender’s Game and the Modern Battle Space

Orson Scott Card's Classic "Ender's Game"

Many of you probably don’t know this, but the modern US Military is in a continuous battle between the forces of the “Attritionists” and the “Maneuverists” and the heart of that battle is the very well known SF book “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card.

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?


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.

About Rob McClellan

Rob is the founder of ThirdScribe, a unique author services platform and social network. As a naval officer and diver, he spent a majority of his career doing a lot more than you would think with a lot less than you can imagine -- a skill that has proven extremely valuable in the start-up world. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

4 Responses to Ender’s Game and the Modern Battle Space

  1. But… Why SHOULDN’T we have Generals/Admirals/Presidents directing the battle from half a planet away? (Yes, this is sarcastic)

    It’s not like they are going to put THEIR tails in a position to get them shot off, now are they? (No, this is not sarcastic)

    The danger is there, and it is profound. Soldiers stop being soldiers and become pieces. If that happens, well, god help us all…

    A VERY good sci-fi book that deals greatly with that subject is Stark’s War by John G. Hemry. I recommend it to anyone who thinks that remote control of soldiers on a battlefield is a good thing. Then I recommend that whoever thinks that remove their cranium from their rectum.

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      I tell you, we laugh and look at it through a lens of common sense, but these efforts are in full swing. Defense contractors love it, because its a self licking ice cream cone (as most control software is these days). And an expensive ice cream cone at that. The Flags love it because it gives them a huge sense of control — and it truly feeds the ego. Troops are wary of it — the tech itself is good and useful, the most likely application is very concerning.

      I was assigned to a contracting office a few years ago when a new software system came online with greatly improved “transparency”. Within days, people from DC were calling me asking me questions about miniscule contract data. This is no joke. It was offensive, to put it mildly. The tech was not used to help me and my group on the ground, not even remotely (as I knew it wouldn’t be). It was for staffers with too little to do to data mine issues that just a week prior they never would have bothered with. Now it’s not that these little things didn’t need to be watched over — they did — but there were people already watching over them. Mainly, the teams in the field. And this was just low-key contracting!

      Imagine letting that type of crap loose on the battlefield? Imagine the arm chair quarterbacking after an engagement. Imagine if something goes wrong? Imagine if something goes right and the patrol leader is penalized for it? Imagine if your every move is scrutinized from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. How likely is that patrol leader to follow his/her instincts? In combat second thoughts and hesitation can be deadly. Constantly dealing with “big brother” over your shoulder — especially one who, most likely, has never seen combat and follows tactics out of a book — is not a good environment for split second combat decisions.

      The senior officers need to leave the tech alone and learn to train and trust their subordinates.

  2. Typically of technology or methods that are here to ‘help’ you – they will work extremely well in certain contrived circumstances and leave you to fall completely on your face in others. Imagine 20 ‘one shot, one kill’ tanks vs another 20 identical tanks where the difference is that the first group has a command and control center that directs them each to an individual specific target. If that C&C is up and running, the tank pilots can just lie back and wipe out their counterparts with one volley. If it’s down though or confused somehow, the other battalion that actually trained and had the leadership and versatility will mop up (it’ll take them longer than one volley, but they’ll do it). We are relying WAAAY too much on our magic toys and GPS, and our satellite infrastructure smacks (to my admittedly uninformed mind) of an Achilles Heel. Hopefully we won’t ever run into an enemy Ender 😉 Apologies – I think I took my rant in a slightly different direction from your article 🙂 but I enjoyed and agree with it.

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    Thanks for reading and commenting — means a lot to us bloggers when an actual comment shows up!

    GPS and advanced communications are a huge boon to the services — and many other aspects of our lives — but they are no excuse for training. It would be great to have advanced C&C for targeting and attack coordination, but the coordinator should, in my mind, be someone very close to the action. Not, let’s say, a continent away.

    The issue that arises, when you start talking central control, is how do you train those future “great leaders”? OSC proposed a battle school when children with aptitude are trained and honed to a fine edge until that one great general emerges — Ender Wiggin, in his case. But is this feasible? And, if not, how do you get leaders the experience in leadership, tactics, etc if they’re taking direction from central command the whole time? It’s a Catch-22 of leadership theory.

    In addition, the Ender’s Game scenario took place during a world at peace — they had to invent conflict in the battle school. Unfortunately, that is not true today and tactical combat leadership is needed every day in a hundred different places at once. Not to mention all of the leadership, coordination, communication, and diplomacy our young officers are constantly conducting in small villages and outposts across the Middle East. There is no way that “Attritionist” thinking can handle that.

    In my mind, the use of coordinated fire support (and it is useful and powerful) is a small aspect of a complex leadership problem, one that, in my mind, can only be addressed by Maneuverist thought.

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