Monday, 25 February 2013

Forever War - Losing track of strategy

This piece contains spoilers, so if you haven't read The Forever War by Joe Haldeman that's really your problem and frankly, your fault. This is one of those books which everyone should read.

The Forever War is, unsurprisingly, a book about war. It charts the conflict between humanity and an alien species called Taurians. The Taurians are alien in the classic sense, unknown and for the majority of the book unknowable.

The core of the book is the war, but it is also a book about disconnection, since the protagonists suffer from the effects of time dilation every time they go on tour, with hundreds of years potentially passing each time they ship out and return home. The same is true of the Taurians, meaning that in every engagement is is impossible to know whether the Taurian enemy is operating with technology from the future, or the past (from the perspective of the protagonists).

Over time the characters become disconnected from their own species, as guided evolution turns humanity into a species in which they have no part. Despite being the cream of the crop when recruited (all recruits have an IQ of 150+, the effects of this brain drain are explored in the book) they are left behind by a humanity which has chosen to pursue a guided evolution.

Strategy is at it's most effective when the environment over which a conflict is going to be fought is understood. Terrain is part of this, however the mindset and moral elements of the opponent must also be understood. The Forever War is a study in what happens when a conflict is unmoored from reality, indeed it never has a root in reality, since the Taurians are unknown and unknowable.

Similarly in any real world situation where strategy must be employed the greater the comprehension of the reality the stronger the strategy will be. Boyd would have called this comprehension "Observation", the Fingerspitzengef├╝hl from which the originator of strategy is able to build. In the case of the Forever War the Fingerspitzengef├╝hl is entirely lacking, the creators of the war know only that an alien species exists, but beyond that have no understanding. Everything which the protagonists do in the book (in the conduct of the war) is tactical, go here, take that, kill this, but they have no sense of a wider strategy, there is only the objective of killing off the Taurian race.

On a side note, there are strong lessons here about counter insurgency. Since insurgency is to a large extent a moral activity (in the eyes of it's protagonists) the only way to be absolutely certain that an insurgency is ended (rather than having receded, to emerge later) is to kill 100% of those who might be sympathetic to the insurgency. In human-human conflict the moral compunction not to kill mostly prevents this, however in hypothetical human-alien conflict no such moral compunction exists (at least not until circumstances arise in which humanity is glimpsed in the alien, at which point they cease to be alien in the true sense and instead become funny looking "people"). In the Forever War it is not until the alien aspect of the opponent eliminated that the war can be ended.

I'll end with a quote, from someone who would have instinctively understood the implications of The Forever War:

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.

- Sun Tzu


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Blogging is on hold

Lots of personal stuff going on, so I've not got a lot of time to focus on blogging. Will be back to it soon.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Book Review: 101 ways to win an election

One of my most common complaints about any book is that all too often the point is made within 50 pages, and then there's another 200 pages of exposition which belabours all the joy out of the point. As always, I'll point to my favourite target of this criticism Malcolm Gladwell an extremely proficient thinker who has ruined several good ideas with his overly long books.

That's why Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield's 101 Ways to Win an Election is such an enjoyable experience to read. Rather than drag out a single central point this book is closer to a series of well written and thematically connected essays. It covers the full gamut of factors which must be considered in an electoral campaign, and many of the lessons are as applicable to any campaign.

I should add a disclaimer at this point, Mark was kind enough to provide me a copy of this book for the purposes of this review.

This book is an extremely comprehensive piece of analysis of political campaigning, and it's important to recognise that I mean analysis in it's true sense, it is an act of disassembly to identify the myriad components that comprise a political campaign. Of course good analysis is an enabler of the synthesist, giving them access to the components so they may be recombined into novel fashions. For me, that is the most useful feature of this book, in it's brevity it strips away all but the most illuminating anecdotes and instead focusses on the meat of the issue.

Of course synthetic thought is extremely rare in political campaigning (and frankly, is simply rare). The most entertaining story is about how the last campaign was won, an act of deconstruction, rather than hypothesising about how the next one might be, an act of taking what previously worked and rebuilding it into new forms. Political campaigns often fail for the specific reason that the team involved have prepared for the last campaign rather than confronted the new reality they have to deal with.

The book also stands nicely between the two main types of political writing, on the one hand we have the biographical pieces, which tend to focus on a single campaign and the role that key individuals played in it. These can be illuminating and entertaining but the value can be scattered throughout. They are primarily stories. On the other side of the coin are the pure theory books, which can be rather singular in their focus and often go into a level of detail which is frankly unhelpful. 101 Ways sits nicely between the two, with it's quick shifts between topic areas and relevant anecdotes.

I'd be hard pressed to find a relevant topic this book doesn't cover for at least a few moments. Some may complain that it is almost too brief, but if you want a book which covers the depth then use 101 Ways as a reference text and search for more specialised topics. This is a book I'll keep close to the centre of my political library to dip in and out of when the need arises. A highly engaging and relevant text.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Ethics and Geek Culture

Only two pieces today, but excellent in each case

Executives learn ethics the hard way: From Marines by Jim Michaels
The mission was simple. The team was to meet with a local village priest and establish a relationship.
The plan quickly fell apart when the group realized the solemn ceremony they had been invited to was a forced "wedding" in which a bride whose hands were bound by rope was carried screaming into a tent.
Now they were faced with a choice. Protect the woman from possible harm and alienate an important ally or allow the wedding to take place and avoid interfering in a culture they barely understood.
"I was torn," said Elton Mile, a 28-year-old financial adviser with Morgan Stanley, who led the team.
Mile was part of a group of executives who came to the Marine Corps base here as part of a three-day course to learn ethical leadership from combat leaders. In the wake of the Enron debacle, the collapse of Lehman Bros., Bernard Madoff and other moral lapses, business schools are re-examining ethics training. Traditionally, business schools have taught the skills needed to maximize profits, and given short shrift to softer subjects, such as ethics.
The stakes are rarely as high in the business world as they are in war, where lives are at risk. But that's why the military is uniquely qualified to teach ethics, executives and officers say. It is harder to maintain normal values amid the death and chaos of war.
"What combat does to you is it … corrodes that moral sense that you have about the world," said Marine Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, commander of The Basic School at Quantico, which is where newly minted second lieutenants are trained before entering speciality schools.
Officers are responsible for setting an ethical tone that will allow Marines to keep their ethical balance amid the chaos of war. "You have to be able to return your Marines back to the United States complete, whole — their characters, their integrity, their moral fiber," said Desgrosseilliers, who earned a silver star in Fallujah, Iraq.
This is not Harvard Business School. The military is used to creating realistic training to prepare men and women for war. The training is designed to be so authentic that it triggers real emotions and fear. There are no right answers.
Morality isn't something which is often taught, at least not explicitly, although plenty of us have exposure to it through our friends, family and so forth. Explicit learning however serves to teach us that as with everything else, strong ethical decision making is something which takes practice if it is to be done well.

Geeks are the New Guardians of Our Civil Liberties by (the inimitable) Gabriella Coleman
Take, for instance, the reaction to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a far-reaching copyright bill meant to curtail piracy online. SOPA was unraveled before being codified into law due to a massive and elaborate outpouring of dissent driven by the hacker movement.

The linchpin was a “Blackout Day”—a Web-based protest of unprecedented scale. To voice their opposition to the bill, on January 17, 2012, nonprofits, some big Web companies, public interest groups, and thousands of individuals momentarily removed their websites from the Internet and thousands of other citizens called or e-mailed their representatives. Journalists eventually wrote a torrent of articles. Less than a week later, in response to these stunning events, SOPA and PIPA, its counterpart in the Senate, were tabled (see “SOPA Battle Won, but War Continues”).

The victory hinged on its broad base of support cultivated by hackers and geeks. The participation of corporate giants like Google, respected Internet personalities like Jimmy Wales, and the civil liberties organization EFF was crucial to its success. But the geek and hacker contingent was palpably present, and included, of course, Anonymous. Since 2008, activists have rallied under this banner to initiate targeted demonstrations, publicize various wrongdoings, leak sensitive data, engage in digital direct action, and provide technology assistance for revolutionary movements.
One key ingredient to the success of Anonymous lies in its participatory nature, especially when compared to spheres of hacker action where technical skill is a prerequisite for participation (and often respect). Skilled hackers are indeed vital to Anonymous’s networks—they set up communication infrastructure and grab most of the headlines—for instance, when they hack into servers to search for information on government or corporate corruption. Hacking, however, still remains one tool of many (and some Anonymous subgroups oppose hacking and defacing). There is other work to be done: stirring press releases to write, propaganda posters to design, and videos to edit. Geeks and hackers may have different skills sets, but they are often traveling companions online, ingesting similar news, following similar geeky cultural currents, and defending Internet freedom, although using distinct methods and styles of organizing.

The depth, extent, and especially diversity of this geek political movement was made evident to me just recently, not at an official political event but at a memorial service that doubled as an informal political rally. Over a thousand people gathered in New York City’s regal Cooper Union Hall to honor Aaron Swartz, a hacker and self-proclaimed activist who had recently taken his own life, some say due to government overreach in his federal case concerning the legality of downloading millions of academic articles from MIT’s library website (see “Why Aaron Swartz’s Ideas Matter”).

They spoke about Aaron’s life, quirky personality, and especially his political accomplishments and aspirations. Like his peers, he abhorred censorship, and thus naturally joined the fight against SOPA; the service featured snippets of his famous keynote address at the Freedom to Connect conference from May 2012, when Swartz said, “It was really stopped by the people themselves.” He had been instrumental in fundamental ways, for he had founded an organization, Demand Progress, a nonprofit that had effectively harnessed this citizen discontent over SOPA through petitions and other campaigns.
I enjoyed this piece but I think it misses the point that what she calls geeks are really the emerging norm of politically (and socially) active people. The most recent generation to enter politics was born when the internet was slow and clunky and have grown with it, as a vibrant core of their social experience. It is unsurprising therefore that it has become a strong part of their political identity. Geeks (and indeed - normals) are unwilling to accept claims that they live in representative democracies if the fundamental freedom of "their" internet is being put on the chopping block.

The internet is serving to shape politics and that trend will only grow stronger in time. It will becoming increasingly unacceptable to undermine the free internet, which will of course make attempts to limit the free internet all the more aggressive. The key issue currently is that while geeks may be defending civil liberties too few are entering public office. The growing power of the Pirate Party is hopefully a sign of things to come.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Innovative thought - Theory and practice

One of the things I've gotten most out of writing this blog is enormous exposure to ideas which I wouldn't have had access to under normal circumstances. The Small Wars Journal is one of those resources. I've lost track of how I first came across SWJ but it's an amazing resource and underutilised in my opinion, selling itself short as a tool for anyone with an interest in strategic concepts and their implementation. To an extent Disruptive Thinkers (which I have been fortunate enough to write for) bridges some of that gap. It's not surprising that two of the articles below are written by the founder of DT.

There have been three pieces recently which stand out for me as a non military person as having a much wider utility. These are pieces which require the civilian reader to engage in a little lateral thought, replacing military terminology with business terminology. Below I've selected some choice quotes from the three pieces and my thoughts on them, emphasis is mine:

Intellectual Curiosity and the Military Officer by Benjamin Kohlmann

John Boyd got a degree in industrial engineering, with a detour into thermodynamic physics along the way, and revolutionized military strategic thought.  VADM James Stockdale went to Stanford and took a Masters in International Relations, but spent most of his time absorbing Stoic philosophy, laying the groundwork for his remarkable leadership in the hell of the Hanoi Hilton.  ADM James Stavridis earned a PhD in International Relations from Tufts, and is one of the most innovative flags to ever have served.  General James Mattis attended the National War College, and will forever be recognized as both a remarkable warrior and cunning diplomat.

You have to want to learn to learn.  If you are intellectually curious, you will go in search of answers – often finding them where you least expect them, growing wiser along the way.  Your curiosity will lead you to discover the world is more than either Mechanical Engineering or International Relations.  It is the complex interaction of both, and more. 
Reading, however, is just the beginning.  It, to paraphrase Peggy Noonan of Reagan speechwriting fame, is the sowing of intellectual capital.  It is the synthesis of all these ideas, and the vigorous interaction with others about these ideas, that create a mind able to tackle the biggest problems.
Read, but fail fast – namely, if something bores you, move on to something that doesn’t.  Learn things as they become relevant to the problems or interests in your given stage of life.  Read on a variety of topics, to include non-military fiction.   The human condition is better revealed in Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo than nearly all psychology textbooks combined.
Ben summarises one of the deepest problems which exists in both business, politics and (I assume from my limited knowledge) the military. The diversity of thinking is extremely limited. People are not encouraged to read outside their subject area, or to seek qualifications which are outside their comfort zone. Synthetic thought, and to a large extent analytic thought are not useful skills, since disruption is challenging and often uncomfortable.

Failure is also not something which many of us are comfortable with. When it comes to reading I find there are two types of failure, failure to care, and failure to comprehend. It took me a long time to be comfortable with either type. Failure to care is the more frequent failing, I'll often pick up a book and realise within a couple of dozen pages that either I don't much care about the topic area, the writers style, or realise that the author has made his point early and the rest of the book is case studies to prove how smart they are (I'm looking at you Malcolm Gladwell). Failure to comprehend is the type which is more frustrating for obvious reasons, however it should provide a spur. It took me three attempts to read Osinga's Science, Strategy and War from cover to cover, and there is still plenty in it I don't fully "get".

Modern Warfare is a Thinking Officer’s Game: Why the U.S. Military Needs More Leaders with Technical Education by Jonathan A. Bodenhamer

Certainly a solid officer corps needs leaders with diverse educational backgrounds, but the fact is that international relations experts are not necessarily good at solving military problems.  Having just completed an assignment teaching Mechanical Engineering at West Point, I heard regularly the propaganda that Social Science and Leadership officers vigorously promoted, centered on the notion that on today’s battlefield, these are the skills an ambitious officer should focus on.  I could not disagree more with this.  My personal field is dedicated to the study of solving complex problems.  Yes, many of them are math based, but not all of them.  I argue that if an officer can break down and solve a complicated engineering problem, there is nothing preventing them from using the same analysis methodology to dissect and understand a complicated tribal/political problem in Iraq or Afghanistan just as successfully.
As we study Mission Command in the classroom now, I often see and comment on the fact that many of the basic premises of this “new” concept of leadership, from a problem solving perspective, are nearly identical to what I studied in Mechanical Engineering Design and later taught as an instructor.  The fact that six years of rigorous classroom engineering study has made me very comfortable with analyzing and solving complex problems I do not initially understand well makes taking on similar challenges in military operations somewhat familiar terrain from a mental perspective.  I absolutely benefit from a technical education nearly every day in the Army.

The well used quote by Greek philosopher Thucydides, “the nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools” perhaps applies now more than ever.  As we progress into a more and more technology driven Army, officers with strong technical educations are extremely valuable.  Just as engineers and scientists are actively recruited to lead the American business world, the Army should actively encourage its future officer leaders to pursue similarly rigorous courses of technical study.
Although this article may seem to be of less direct use to a civilian thinker this is to do it a disservice, since it speaks to the necessity of synthesis, a critical skill which is almost entirely lacking in traditional civilian agencies (particularly larger more established ones). Models of thought are based in large part on educational experience, and an engineer will have a radically different way of solving problems to a more traditionally trained graduate. Again this piece speaks to the simple fact that non-traditional thinkers may be as good, or indeed better, at solving traditional institutional problems (Whatever they may be in your particular institution) but contain a higher opportunity to solve problems in a novel fashion than a traditional thinker.

The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers by Benjamin Kohlmann

Yet, in reality, the very word entrepreneur is met with blank stares by career servicemembers– and in some cases, viewed as an anathema.  This is primarily because entrepreneurs see a need and without consulting higher authority, simply go ahead and try to solve it.  Their very nature inclines them to disrupt the status quo.  And of course, the one thing a vertically integrated organization like the military hates most is change.  Or at least, change that wasn’t decreed from on high.

Part of this stems from an antiquated, 1950s career model.   A large bureaucracy thrives best when it can promote the average individual in a one-size fits all ascension program.  This, however, necessitates sloughing off the highly talented instead of promoting them in accordance with their ability.  For example, a younger, Marine reservist friend of mine can be a Vice President of Goldman Sachs, overseeing their Hong Kong branch by the age of 31, but would barely be commanding a Marine rifle company at the same point.
The future lies with those individuals who can see connections across a myriad of professions and intellectual pursuits.  The mind that can see that a phone and entertainment device can be intertwined into something like, say, an iPhone.  Or, an intellect that recognizes how secondary and tertiary networks are often more valuable than first-order relationships, thus creating something like LinkedIn.  Or the strategist who understands that crowdsourced, horizontally structured non-state actors pose a greater threat to our security than Nation states.
The reason John Boyd was so successful was because he understood the world of thermodynamic physics and saw a connection with fighter aviation that his peers never could.  Steve Jobs built elegant and useful technology because he explored calligraphy in collegeIt was the fact that they investigated beyond their respective professions that gave them a truly brilliant edge. 
Orson Scott Card noted that “every officer learns how to function within the system that promoted him.”  So we get officers who think small, don’t understand the importance of broad understanding, and miss the trends that are shaping our world.  We get procurement officials who buy $150 million strike fighters when the future may be in autonomous, cheap, swarming drones.

It’s time we get leadership that understands the present.  This necessarily requires understanding the context of our world.  That context is not merely in artillery shells and Tomahawk missiles, but rather crowdfunding, horizontal management, social media and broad interaction with people not like us.  Adaptable strategy requires the ability to consider everything, not merely one thing.  The beginning of such thought is a Disruptive Mind. 
I've been thinking a great deal about disruption and innovation of late, for a variety of reasons too dull to go into immediately. Too often innovation is actually veiled iterative change, a marginal increase on someone else's ideas which are dressed up to appear novel. Truly disruptive and original thought is extremely infrequent, and in business is almost always the province of entrepreneurs, who's ideas are all too often hijacked by larger businesses who are able to add iterative improvements without truly innovating beyond the source material.

Google is all too often a good example of everything good in business, however their 20% policy may have something to do with their success (despite vigorous debate). The point is that successful or not the policy encourages individuals to push their intellectual boundaries in a way which a more traditional organisation would not. Although the majority of employees may even be unproductive with this extra time there is something seductive about the idea that 20% of one's week should be dedicated to things which are not directly work related. This is something which can be done outside the workplace of course, although it relies on individual drive to achieve it, and a willingness to set aside time to read and learn new topics. Imagine what you could achieve if you put aside 20% of your spare time to "learning" or indeed any productive activity outside your normal routine.

I'll leave by re-quoting the most meaningful quote in all three of these articles, and leave it at that:
The future lies with those individuals who can see connections across a myriad of professions and intellectual pursuits.