Intellectual development

I recall a statement by a senior officer (not German, but likely known by name by most readers) about his experience on a civilian university.

He recounted that after being in uniform and equipped with the authority of a superior in the army and equipped with a degree from a military college he had a culture shock when he joined the civilian university.

Suddenly, his authority was gone and even much younger guys and gals were beating him in many regards - especially discussions. He had to adapt and become better, develop himself, to cope with this more challenging environment.

This is but one of many anecdotes about the poor effect of authoritarian organisations on the intellectual development. You don't need to have good arguments or even be correct if you can simply give orders to have it your way. Having good arguments doesn't serve you well in disagreements with your superior if he can simply order you to do it his way.

Well, how could this be addressed without forcing military personnel into a civilian environment for years? After all, you'll only know who of them will become senior personnel with a real need for intellectual skills after a couple of years, and few will cope well with a university environment after the age of 30 anyway.

This problem reminded me of an experience of mine; I was once sent to a role-playing game. About 40 Luftwaffe personnel were waiting for the coordinator in a room, and the first the coordinator said upon his arrival was to ask us to remove our rank insignia. Actually, he had expected us to arrive in civilian clothes, but somehow this news didn't make it to us.
Obviously, he knew the answer for my aforementioned question: You're only going to train your mind very well without an authoritarian rank system.

- - - - -

Could this work in general, outside of role plays? Well, yes. There's an approximation to "no rank system" available; "no substantial difference in rank".
One example: Chiefs of staff could form ad hoc task teams without a leader. All members of the team would have equal or practically equal rank (a captain cannot give orders to a lieutenant without a direct link by the chain of command in at least some personnel systems). They would need to decide on the final conclusion much like a supreme court does; all voices having equal weight*. Influence would depend on exactly the same as in the civilian environment of my intro: Good arguments, reputation and skill in their use.

That, of course, would require that hierarchical authoritarian order is not held too high as an ideal or necessity in the armed service. There would need to be a readiness to accept alternative forms of organisation and even the consciousness about the need for the latter in order to develop the personnel.

S Ortmann

*: In case you believe this has no place in the military: It's how certain special forces outfits do their planning in the interest of getting the best out come rather than always the one that the leader had first in mind.


  1. King Louis XIV had "last argument of kings" (in Latin) on his cannons. I like the picture.


  2. As long as you are not dealing with time-sensitive issues the team approach could work quite well. However, pitfalls include "design by comittee" and having to deal with naturally dominant personalities, e.g. charismatic persons that can bend/pull the other team members to their will despite having a weaker case (Jock-Player Effect?).

  3. This isn't about the destination, it's about the route. There are plenty occasions where such an approach could be used to develop the skills beyond what an authoritarian hierarchy usually achieves.
    The quality of a result can -especially in peacetime- be of secondary importance in comparison to the learning progress.

  4. You start with the presumption that being better at arguing equals being better at solving problems, or in other words, that the problem can be solved by rational deduction from a limited number of starting assumptions.

    The question is somewhat philosophic, and has been described numerous times, starting from Aristotle up to Isaiah Berlin and Gadamer. This is the distinction between theoretical knowledge - which is the deduction from premises, and practical knowledge, which can be gained only by practical experience.

    In some areas theoretical knowledge is more useful, in other - practical knowledge. It seems to me that the practical knowledge is much more relevant to practical warfighting - as distinguished from proposing novel methods and techniques.

    Therefore, in order to improve practical performance of military officers, it would seem best to allow to gather them as much practical experience as possible, not to make them soldier-scholars.

    That does not mean that younger officers should mindlessly repeat precepts given them by their superiors, but that the proper way to understand and eventually test and improve them is by experience, not by argument.

    The soldierly theories always seemed to me rather substandard anyway, with their Talmudic explanations of the "center of gravity" etc. Or the recently popular OODA cycle, which is applied to everything, esp. business.

    I do not question the basic concepts, but the attempts to create universal deductive systems based on them. It is better to understand such ideas and see how they apply in practice.

  5. @ Tim

    It was on the field guns of the old Prussian army: ULTIMA RATIO REGIS

    In the sense of "If everything else fails to work, then war".

    And of course the colours had the motto:

    " NON SOLI CEDIT" under the Prussian eagle, i.e. the Prussian king does not fear the French king (=sun).

    Re : Decision making in groups of people with different rank:

    IMHO one should analyse structure and and succusss of good groups in science, often low rank members like diploma students and PhD students are encouraged and forced to contribute as pars inter pares, the last decision is still made by one of the high rank members, but only after rank free discussion, tricky thing is how to implement this in a military organisation.


  6. baduin; my assumption was rather that paying more attention to objectivity rather than to hierarchy would be an advantageous development.
    This assumption can be found in many of my blog posts.

  7. That any entity should do what is best, not what is the pet idea of its leader, is pretty obvious. Any entity which does not attempt to discover the best course of action is so deeply dysfunctional that it will not survive for long.

    The problem lies precisely in discerning which course of action is best. This is not very easy, and there are various methods which can be used - and the best method depends on the subject.

    For example, you already have proposed two, quite different methods:
    - argument, ie rhetoric.
    - scientific method.

    Objectivity does not mean simply "truth". It means truth, or at least an attempt at reaching truth, using a specific method, or at least a specific kind of method - which is usually called the scientific method. It is based on discerning universal laws and testing them by experiment.

    It is obviously very important in modern armies, since they depend on technology, and technology can be to a large extent tested by scientific method.

    It can be easily noticed that things which can be objectively, scientifically tested, cannot be argued. Unfortunately, strategy and tactics - the things which interest higher rank officers - cannot be tested experimentally, or at least only to a limited degree.

    But arguing about them is even worse. Rhetoric is easily replaced by sofistry. The results are easily visible in various American military ventures.

    Even if the argument is conducted honestly, there is no guarantee that the speaker with best arguments will prove victorious in the field. Even the greatest speaker do not necessarily makes the best general. To give a historical example, Demosthenes was the best rhetor in Greece, but militarily proved quite unable to deal with king Philip.

    In short, I do not think that the methods taught in civilian universities would prove helpful in teaching military officers to make correct decisions.

    The only exception are hard sciences, which are obviously useful for solving technical problems. However, even here there is a great risk: this method was used by the school of Operational Research, which certainly provided many useful solutions, but later over-concentrated on technology, neglecting human factors.


    The Operations Research Revolution Rolls On, To Where? by James F. Dunnigan


    Here is an interesting description of a traditional military officer training tool: wargames.


    History of Wargames: Toward a History Based Doctrine for Wargaming as of 6 Jan 2000 By Matthew Caffrey

  8. "Even if the argument is conducted honestly, there is no guarantee that the speaker with best arguments will prove victorious in the field."

    "Perfektion ist der Feind des Guten."
    Perfection is the enemy of the good.

    You're making a classic mistake by suggesting that an improvement is only good if it's perfect and solves a problem entirely. No such thing is necessary. I am trained to think more along the lines of ceteris paribus - to look at the difference a change makes.
    The difference would IMO be an improvement. The deficits of an authoritarian organisation would be reduced by non-authoritarian islands in it. The effect on the outcome of such task groups isn't even what I'm after; it's rather the intellectual development.

  9. Your proposition could improve things, and it could worsen things.

    Namely, it is easy to have a discussion with each participant saying what they think. But after each had his say, you have to judge the outcome and select who is right.

    When you are dealing with science, you can design some experiments and test your proposition. If the topic of controversy is general enough, military history can be used to illuminate it, and even to partially test it. However, here one needs judgement, since historical examples are never exactly the same.

    If one does not deal with science, how does one decide who is right? By vote? By the decision of the highest ranking officer?

    Universities generally use so called "peer review" which is simply a decision by anonymous reviewers - a disastrous system. Introducing "peer review" into army would certainly not help things.

    In one of the articles mentioned above there is a rather interesting quote:


    History of Wargames: Toward a History Based Doctrine for Wargaming as of 6 Jan 2000 By Matthew Caffrey

    "When the successful applicants became War College students Moltke saw to it that they did a great deal more wargaming. Wargaming appears to have always been part to the curriculum at the War College, but Moltke added new, surprisingly modern, elements. His innovations were grouped under the title - Staff Ride.

    Periodically Moltke would take the entire student body of the War College and as much of his General Staff as he could spare and literally ride on horseback to one of the actual invasion corridors into Prussia. Moltke would then personally describe the situation he viewed the most likely first clash between invading and Prussian forces.

    He would then turn to the most junior student present and ask for his plan of battle. He would then ask the second most junior, then the third until he would ask the opinion of the most senior General present. Why? If the most senior spoke first would any junior disagree? Besides the younger officers might come up with something innovative. They would then ride to a hill overlooking where Moltke felt the next phase of the battle would be fought and the process was repeated.

    By the end of the day the group would have arrived at a consensus battle plan. Yet the exercise did not end there. They then played a map-based war game. The entire group would retire to a local inn. Moltke would then name the senior ranking general (aside from himself) to command the invading forces. He then named the second ranking general to command the Prussian forces. He continued thus until the staffers and students were split into two equal teams. He did this for two reasons. First, Moltke believed that if their plan could succeed against some of their smartest strategists it would probably also succeed against any enemy strategist. Second, with two equal size teams more officers could participate meaningfully. The Blue (Prussian) team would use the plan devised during the day. The team representing the invaders would develop their own plan.

    This was sophisticated enough but Moltke was not done yet. The next day he would contact the local garrison. (This was an actual invasion corridor.) He would direct the garrison commander to march a few hundred soldiers where the plan called for thousands to march. This was done to test the marching times and other details of the plan. When all this was done the plan went on the shelf as the actual plan for an invasion along that corridor."

    I am not a German, and I do not have any idea how accurate this description is. However, the general idea described there seems to make sense.

  10. Ulenspiegel

    The French had "Ultima ratio regum", but I din't know the Prussians had it too (well they had regis instead of regum), after some looking into it, Prussia adopted it decades after the French under Frederick.


    Comprehension not repetition is what matters most, but just a few senior officers can thwart the best of plans. You need to build a culture of discussion to really be able to reap the best results from it. That way senior officers will be more receptive to it, no one likes the young officer showing them up in a debate making them feel dumb, that feeling might result in the senior officer pulling rank. All I meant by the Louis XIV and picture stuff was I found the picture amusing and it made me think of Louis VIX and his cannon's since the picture was of a riot and I thought of the French revolution under Louis XVI and how Louis XIV would of likley use his cannon to win the "debate".


  11. "Namely, it is easy to have a discussion with each participant saying what they think. But after each had his say, you have to judge the outcome and select who is right."

    No, you don't.

    The team can simply vote and majority wins. There may be no majority - in this case it can be assumed that no single proposition is good enough to be enacted.

    Look, this is how it works in many cases in the real world, outside of military bureaucracy. I named constitutional courts as example.

    It's up to the leader who sets up such a task team to do so only when the procedure is appropriate and to do it with second order effects (personnel development, culture) in mind.

    A group does not always need to come to a conclusion, it is not always a good idea to do something. A case in which no majority can be formed in favour of a specific path of action is likely a case in which "we need to do something" is a folly.

  12. What I like in Baduin's long post is that theprinciple of accountability is still retained.

    Everybody has an opinion until it's time to get the hands dirty, and then nobody will be seen, but the minor tech staff, until the outcome. You know that from any company.

    There is such a thing as a learning curve, and to progress on it, a lot of dirt accumulates on hands and a lot of erros are made. This is not something you want to do when on a career path. This is why western armies as well as corporations are very bad managed.

    Last thing : one single guy may be right, and the others wrong. That used to be the case of Colonel de Gaulle in the 30's.

    When you reach a critical mass of people failing to see a point (because
    a. They don't have the REAL requirements for the job and
    b. even if they don't have it, they could at least get their hands dirty, which they didn't)
    then the argument can't be won and you lose the war.

  13. The old guy in charge is rarely the exceptional guy who's right. In fact, many will align themselves with this opinion anyway and rather tend to bias the vote in his favour.

    Note that de Gaulle was kinda right, but this didn't help in the authoritarian French Army.

    He might have had a better chance with what I proposed.