USS Clueless - Citizen Soldier

Stardate 20020813.1652

(Captain's log): There have been many minor revolutions in warfare, such as the beginning of the use of infantry firearms, but there have been two major revolutions overall, and ironically the second was the opposite of the first and nullified it. (Well, sort of.)

It's impossible to say just how far back in history warfare goes; it's probably been with us as long as we've had weapons and tribes which competed with each other. Up until a few thousand years ago, a battle consisted of the armed men from two tribes meeting on a battlefield, perhaps doing a bit of demonstration such as screaming insults at the enemy and chanting songs to work up their courage. There might be a few individual duels, but eventually the two forces would charge each other, as disorganized mobs, and individual combatants from both sides would then try to contribute to the resulting violent anarchy by harming as many of the enemy as possible while attempting to avoid themselves being harmed. Eventually one side would begin to dominate the battle and the other would flee or be destroyed.

The emphasis was, therefore, greatly on individual courage, prowess in battle, and keeping a cool head in the midst of a horrible situation and trying to look for opportunities to harm the enemy. Individual initiative was extremely important.

The first revolution in warfare happens about the time of Phillip of Macedon, who is generally credited with creating the first disciplined modern army, which he then used to conquer all of Greece. The tactics he developed were perfected by his son, Alexander, who proceeded to use them to embark on a campaign to conquer the whole world. Unfortunately, Alexander didn't quite realize just how big the world actually was, and didn't manage to do it. But he got further than anyone before him, and no-one matched his achievement until the Romans several centuries later. Alexander's empire was, for a brief interval, the largest known in history to that point.

The greatest Macedonian innovation was the development of the phalanx. This was a large mass of men armed with pikes (very long spears, sometimes as long as 10 meters) who fought as a group. The pikes were long because they were all pointed in the same way, and the ones from the rear ranks were long enough to reach beyond the front rank and threaten enemies. A disorganized mass of men using the old tactics against such a formation would just get skewered, but for it to work the phalanx had to move and fight as a unified group.

Instead of emphasizing initiative on the part of the individual soldier, the new tactics required the soldier to dutifully follow orders without thinking. Obedience was the great virtue. The ideal soldier listened well and did what he was told; if the men of the phalanx didn't all obey orders the same way then the cohesion of the phalanx was destroyed and its combat power was greatly reduced.

The next two and a half thousand years of war continued this trend, and the most successful armies were those whose men were the most obedient and disciplined. The Roman Legions gained their strength from the coordinated use of their shields and swords, and you find the same thing right up until the Napoleonic era, by which point this had become extremely elaborate.

On the Napoleonic battlefield, you had a wide variety of ways of dying. You could be killed by cannon fire, by the swords of enemy cavalry, by infantry musketry, or by infantry bayonets. Reacting to each of these was different, and infantry had to be trained to use different formations at different times, to maximize their ability to fight and minimize casualties as a function of what they were threatened with or what they intended to threaten. Different formations were used for different jobs, each optimized for the task at hand, and the men had to be trained on how to operate in each.

And if unit cohesion for the Greek phalanx was important, it was vital for Napoleonic battalions. If the order rang out to "Form Square!" then you better well do it, and damned fast. It meant that someone may just have spotted an enemy cavalry regiment facing toward your battalion, and you have maybe three minutes before they're on you. Square was a formation where the battalion faced outward in all directions, with the front rank using their bayonets (often kneeling) while those behind them fired their weapons towards any enemy unit (i.e. cavalry) which came within range. The advantage of the formation was that it had no flanks or rear; it was equally dangerous in all directions. Its disadvantage was that it moved badly and it had no concentration of force for attack; it was a totally defensive position. (It was also quite vulnerable to artillery fire.)

But if you didn't manage to form square before being hit by a cavalry charge, you were probably going to get butchered. Once an infantry battalion lost unit cohesion, the individual infantrymen were easy targets for cavalrymen with sabers, who would chase them like animals and cut them down. The infantry's only hope was to prevent the charge from going home, using their bayonets to discourage the horses and their musketry to discourage the riders. Sometimes they succeeded.

Their firearms also gained effectiveness from disciplined use. Napoleonic muskets were actually not very effective weapons, and if one infantry unit threatened to attack another, the defenders would try to hurt the attackers as much as possible with musketry before melee began, where the men would use their bayonets. Melee was unbelievably ugly, but it was also much more lethal, and caused far more casualties than musketry. So when you as the defender were firing at a charging battalion, partly you were trying to kill them, but partly you were trying to dissuade them. What you wanted was for the charge to fail, the attackers to lose heart, and for the charge to not go home.

Volley fire was much more effective than individual fire for that reason. The prospect of hundreds of men all discharging their weapons at you at once is much more scary than low level continuous fire, and much more likely to make you as an attacker give up. It was at the moment of presentation just before volley that the attackers were most likely to shy and the charge to fail.

Over the course of that two and a half thousand years, the weapons given to individual infantrymen increased in sophistication and in lethality. The beginning of the second revolution was the American Civil War, with the use of the Minie ball, because that's when the use of organized formations on the battlefield began to be as much a disadvantage as an advantage.

The term "ball" refers to a bullet, and it doesn't mean it's spherical. The Minie ball wasn't; it was what we think of as "bullet shaped". It was a radical advance in military technology, because it made the rifle practical for widespread battlefield use. Without going into painful detail, it made it possible for men with rifles to fire as often as muskets had, while at the same time being much more lethal than musket balls (which really were balls) and having five times the effective range.

All the infantry on both sides in the American Civil War were armed with rifled muskets, and suddenly musketry drastically increased in effectiveness. Where the response in Napoleonic times to a threat of a cavalry charge would be to form square, in the Civil war you'd form line and shoot the crap out of them. If there was ever a successful cavalry charge against formed infantry in the Civil War, I've never heard of it. (Indeed, I've never heard of a case where it was even attempted.) And the vast majority of attempts by infantry to charge other infantry also failed due to the effectiveness of the defending gunfire. That's how Pickett's Charge failed at Gettysburg, for example.

The old tactics still were used, though, in the Franco-Prussian war. But by World War I, they no longer worked, because of the introduction of long range artillery, the machine gun, and barbed wire.

The firepower available to small groups of infantrymen had increased so much that a mass of men moving in a tight formation merely made themselves a superb target. Use of tactics like that resulted in obscenely high casualties with nothing to show for it. By the end of the war, such tactics had largely been abandoned in favor of much less organized operations. Skirmish order was the only one of the traditional formations to survive.

And the amount of firepower available to the individual soldier has continued to rise. By the end of WWII, the Germans and Americans and British armed all their infantry with at least semiautomatic rifles, with a rising proportion using fully automatic weapons. The machine guns got more plentiful and more deadly, and you saw the widespread use of mortars at the level of platoons and companies. Individual men had grenades. By Viet Nam you have every man using automatic weapons, even better machine guns, and the widespread use of grenade launchers, which were sort of like a hand-held light artillery piece.

And you also saw something else. The second revolution was in progress, and what you saw was a return to the reliance on initiative by individual soldiers and small units.

The modern US Army is the best practitioner of the new approach. In combat, American soldiers aren't given orders. They're given assignments. They are not told where to stand and where to shoot, they're told what they are supposed to accomplish and it's assumed that they will themselves figure out how to do so. Indeed, the operation cannot succeed if they don't. It's not just that they are permitted to exercise individual initiative, it's required of them.

That happens at every level of the hierarchy. Instead of the battleplan being worked out in detail at the top level and everyone doing their part, the battle is treated as a problem to be solved and the solution is a collective effort. A commander at each level is given a task to accomplish by his superior, and he divides it into smaller tasks which he assigns downward to his subordinates. And this goes down all the way to the point where the leaders of individual squads may be planning how to take an individual building or hill. Even buck privates may be making decisions and planning what to do at some points.

Even more important, information flows upwards. Men at each level may see opportunities not known to their superiors, and may recommend actions based on that. An officer given an assignment might suggest changes to it, or request reinforcements.

This superficially resembles the original form of warfare, where individuals pretty much decided for themselves how they would participate and what they'd do. But the differences are dramatic, since the modern army is using space-age weapons, and the "Battlefield" may encompass entire nations Also, it's not anarchy. It is heavily organized; it's just not tightly controlled.

It really can't be any other way. The sergeant who commands a tank controls more firepower than the colonel who commanded a Napoleonic battalion. There isn't time for him to be told what to shoot his gun at; he has to decide that for himself because the target may only present itself for a few seconds. So his lieutenant will have told him to go to a certain place and accomplish a certain goal, and as he sees things worth shooting he'll do so, to accomplish the mission he's been assigned.

The best modern armies rely on the intelligence of their soldiers, and the battlefield results of such armies are the emergent result of individual decisions made by the men at every level of rank and hierarchy. It is truly a democratic army.

That's how a modern information-age economy is run, too. In an agrarian society, individual farmers did their thing and the total output was the result of their work. When you move to industrialization, there's an increasing requirement for workers who stand in a certain place and do what they're told, in large factories. But in information-age companies, workers are brains and not hands. Everyone at every level is there because they are making decisions, whether big or small, and the total activity of the company is the result of all their choices.

Certainly that's the case when a company relies heavily on engineering; one doesn't command engineers. You nurture them. You get them interested in the problem, you provide them with tools, you give them general overall guidelines as to what you want, and then you hope like hell they get fascinated with the problem and start creating things that are helpful. (Sometimes they do.)

But even the workers are more than just hands and eyeballs. The folks who wear the bunny suits in a silicon foundry have to be highly trained and trusted; what they're doing is much more elaborate than that done by the guy standing on an automobile manufacturing line screwing in the same bolt on every car that comes by.

But increasingly that bolt is screwed in by a machine, and even the workers on that line are doing more complicated work which requires more thought on their part. In the classic book "The Third Wave", Alvin Toffler pointed out that in second-wave industrialized economies equipment was an asset and people were an expense who could readily be replaced. In the information society, people are an asset and equipment is an expense, which is regularly replaced. A company prospers by recruiting good people, training them well, and encouraging them to commit to the organization and to help it over a long term.

Which is exactly what a modern army does. So it's hardly surprising that no-one in the world does either better than the United States, because that is also what our political system does.

The political philosophy of monarchies and other authoritarian forms of government is to assume that decision making will be reserved for a small elite, with the great mass of people in the nation serving to carry out the orders they have been given. There is some delegation of authority but not much; a king alone cannot as a practical matter rule an entire nation, but he and a few hundred nobles are enough to do so.

And the second form of military organization, which relied on obedience, fit this nicely. The people of such nations were already used to doing what they were told, and when military units were formed it was normal for the officers to be aristocrats and the body of the unit to be recruited from the commoners, and the King to be the overall commander. And since they were going to be doing what they were told on the battlefield, there was little lost in also telling them that they were going to serve in the army, so it was common for these units to be made up of unwilling conscripts.

The American political experiment was radical. Instead of assuming that power vested in an elite who make limited grants of power downward, the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional system is that power resides with the mass of the people, who make limited grants of it to their government, and who actively participate in how the government operates.

As I have grown older, I have become more and more awed by the fundamental philosophical implications of the First Amendment to the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

That is a fundamental statement that the foundation of our system is intellectual freedom for its citizens, to learn what they want and think what they want and say what they want.

This is amazing. It is profound. It was extremely courageous. It is, in my opinion, the single most important sentence ever written in the English language.

I used to think that this was something of a grab bag, with a bunch of different things all thrown together that were only distantly related. I now know different. This is all of a piece. Every part of it serves the single purpose of sanctifying freedom of thought.

The prohibition of establishment of a religion is there because a state-mandated religion could potentially try to use the power of law to enforce its own religious orthodoxy even on unbelievers, as has happened many times in many other places, and thus preventing those unbelievers from making their own decisions. The "free exercise" clause helps by stating that each of us gets to make our own decision in this regard; otherwise the government could effectively enforce orthodoxy by outlawing everything else.

Freedom of speech and the press are obviously important, but there are two sides to each. We generally think of freedom of speech as the right to say what we want, but it also means that we have the right to listen to what we want. Equally, freedom of the press gives us the right to read what we want. What these do is to guarantee to us the widest possible access to information on as many topics as possible, since you can't hear what isn't spoken nor read what has never been printed.

And the right of free assembly gives us the right to meet with others who agree with us, and the right of petition means we can try to actively promote our beliefs and try to influence how government acts.

This is the fundamental philosophy behind our entire system in the US: the belief that our government will serve us best if we as citizens have full access to information, unrestricted right to form opinions about what we learn, and full ability to communicate what we've concluded to others and to try to influence our government. Nothing remotely like this had ever been tried before.

It means that our governmental system is the collective result of millions of brains thinking about problems and millions of voices expressing opinions just like a modern army or a modern corporation.

And it's just about the opposite of any nations whose traditions derive from monarchy or authoritarianism, where the governing elite do not trust those they rule and fear letting them have access to information and fear letting them make decisions.

In recent experience, the system which best represented the opposite of the American system was that of the Taliban, a militant theocracy which used extremely brutal force to control nearly every aspect of the lives and even the thoughts of those they ruled. It's hard to conceive of a group of people less free than adult women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

With one broad exception, there is a strong correlation in the world now between the wealth of a nation and the extent to which it gives its citizens access to information and lets them make their own decisions and act on them. The exception is nations which derive their wealth from the exploitation of natural resources, and a study of them is instructive.

Consider our good friends the Saudis. They are using their oil wealth to try to create a nation which has all the same kinds of technological comforts that we have, because they're buying them from us (and selling us oil in exchange). But they have the hollow shell of a technological society, not the substance. It's all an illusion. Their people are mired in thought control, and don't have the skills to operate an information age society, and the Saudis operate their economy with an army of foreign workers who take care of all the difficult jobs but are otherwise isolated from the citizens of the nation. And when the oil money runs out, their technological society will collapse (if it doesn't happen sooner). It's entirely parasitic; it isn't self-sustaining.

There's a good reason why this is happening. These changes present authoritarian governments with an unsolvable dilemma. You can't have selective freedom and selective initiative confined to certain spheres; when people learn to do this, they do it all the time, everywhere. If you want them to think about their work, then they'll also think about your government and they may decide they don't like you and want you out.

Nations which embrace the information age either must embrace liberal democracy or face revolution. Those who don't are mired in the past and will never be able to compete, either economically or on the battlefield.

There is no more pure expression of the philosophy of the First Amendment than the Internet. Anything goes. Anyone can post anything they want. Anyone can read anything they want because everything is within arm's reach. And with access to a broad range of information, people begin to think critically and to doubt what they've been told by their government or religious leaders. It's little wonder that authoritarian governments view the Internet with extreme fear.

Yet they know that they cannot ignore it; it's just too damned useful. China has been trying to have it both ways, with gradual and limited increases in access to information and gradual and limited increases in the degree of autonomy given to its citizens, to try to become part of the information economy, while at the same time trying to retain enough control to sustain the existing authoritarian structure in power. With respect to the Internet, their attempted solution is a national firewall, which grants access by the Chinese to some but not all of what's online elsewhere. I don't believe it's going to succeed, and the effect of it will eventually be a liberalization of the Chinese system, or a bloody revolution.

Again, it's hardly surprising that Americans have embraced the Internet more thoroughly than anyone else, and influenced it far more. Some Europeans try to take credit for the Internet, pointing to primitive work at CERN which defined the concepts behind HTML, but that is trivial compared to the drastic contributions in other ways made in the US, from the creation of the first slow wide area network (Usenet) and the first fast one (ARPANET), to the most important step of all: driving the cost of access down to where it's broadly available to the citizens, through cheap personal computers and cheap dialup access.

And the way information flows on the Internet is very much in tune with the philosophy of the First Amendment and its belief that people should be able to read what they want, think what they want, say what they want, and organize with those who are like-minded. In most of the world, this idea is anathema.

Bill Thompson wrote an opinion column for The Register where he said that Europe must "take back" the Internet.

I've had enough of US hegemony. It's time for change -and a closed European network.

Today's Internet is a poor respecter of national boundaries, as many repressive governments have found to their cost. Unfortunately this freedom has been so extensively abused by the United States and its politicians, lawyers and programmers that it has become a serious threat to the continued survival of the network as a global communications medium. If the price of being online is to swallow US values, then many may think twice about using the Net at all, and if the only game online follows US rules, then many may decide not to play.

Some have derided him for this, but in fact he's correct. Though he tries to talk about such things as the DMCA, and tries to present the US as a nascent police state (comments truly worthy of derision which approach paranoid fantasy) his fundamental point is actually true: the Internet, by its nature, is fundamentally American in the way that it reflects our philosophy about the individual and his relationship to his government, and the freedom that individuals should have. He wants to reverse that:

I believe that the time has come to speak out in favour of a regulated network; an Internet where each country can set its own rules for how its citizens, companies, courts and government work with and manage those parts of the network that fall within its jurisdiction; an Internet that reflects the diversity of the world's legal, moral and cultural choices instead of simply propagating US hegemony; an Internet that is subject to political control instead of being an uncontrolled experiment in radical capitalism. It is time to reclaim the net from the Americans.

What he wants is an Internet without the First Amendment, an Internet which returns to how nations were able to use other media to control what their citizens learned, and how they thought. He wants an Internet which permits governments to indoctrinate their people instead of one which frees the people from government strangulation on information flow.

It can't succeed, because a network like this is subject to "network effect", and the new controlled network would not be as valuable to anyone as the one we already have. Computer networks by their nature are more valuable when they access more information, and the reason that the Internet formed (because it wasn't created as a deliberate act) was because a series of individual backbone operators started putting in gateways. His new proposed network can't bootstrap because users won't want it, and information providers won't use it without users.

I surely can't say just how widespread this kind of attitude is in Europe, but at a lower level it seems to manifest much more broadly. It remains the case in much of Europe that the intelligence, opinions and good intentions of the lower classes are not really trusted, and it remains the case that European experiments with democracy over the last hundred years have very ginger by comparison to the American leap into the deep end.

But there ultimately isn't any choice. The biggest reason why the United States has the world's highest per-capita GDP is precisely because its economy is not centrally controlled, either by government or from a few corporate centers. It's the emergent result of millions of individuals making decisions on their own, and it is successful because it takes advantage of what Americans do best: think for themselves. And that's also one of the reasons why our army is so feared, because an army which doesn't trust its own soldiers to make smart decisions can't compete against one whose soldiers do that routinely.

For all of the rhetoric about "Big Corporations", one of the most striking aspects of how large American corporations work is how much power they delegate down to lower levels. The biggest and most successful corporations are all quite decentralized. In other parts of the world, the entire corporation may be controlled from a single complex of buildings in one city, but a corporation like IBM or Intel has major headquarters spread halfway around the globe. (The retiring CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner, is widely credited with saving the company mainly by decentralizing it and cutting its divisions loose from mandatory dependence on each other.)

But if Thompson's fantasy of a new controlled Internet to compete with the existing freewheeling one is preposterous, then surely this idea is outright hallucination.

A writer for Arab News (always good for a chuckle or a groan) fantasizes about using the Internet against us. It is, I gather, considered the height of cunning in traditional Arab culture to use an enemy's weapons against him to defeat him, and this writer thinks that's what he and his fellows will do. Though his government will protect its own power by controlling access of their own people to the dangerous ideas which are out there, he and his fellow writers will use the Internet to deliver Saudi propaganda to the US, where all of us will read it, become convinced, rebel against the power of the International Jewish Conspiracy, and help the Arabs to destroy Israel once and for all.

Or something like that. He expresses it this way:

It is an undeniable fact that the Jewish-controlled media take a devilish pleasure in spreading falsehoods about the Arabs and Muslims to turn the Western public opinion against the Arabs in general and Muslims in particular.

It is ironical that the advanced information technology has enabled the Arab world to strike back at its enemies, in a limited way though. The West used to threat Arabs with the highly advanced electronic media to undermine our values and traditions.

They tell us with unconcealed contempt that they are promoting their values and style of thinking to influence our life and way of thinking. Time was when they said they would reshape our society’s values and attitudes to serve their best interests and we had to remain passive spectators. The advanced technology, however, is a double-edged weapon. We are now capable of adopting advanced technology of the information superhighway to serve our interests as well.

Several Arab governments have adopted the new media technology, which enable them to pay back their Western critics in the same coin.

Well, not exactly. The situation isn't precisely symmetric. Their government and their culture and especially their religion had relied on tight control of information given to their people in order to indoctrinate them to get them to act in a way which is to the advantage of the leaders. Our system, on the other hand, is designed precisely so that it works best when our people are best informed and make decisions for themselves.

And because of that, we as individuals have developed highly refined skills to detect when someone else is trying to fool us, often referred to as "bullshit detectors". No-one's perfect at this and anyone can be fooled, but most of us are pretty hard to fool and the kinds of attempts the Arabs have been making recently have impressed the majority of American readers mostly because of their sheer ineptitude.

Simply put, we may read what they write, but that doesn't mean we believe it. We're used to hearing contradictory information from multiple sources and trying to ferret out the truth.

In their society, the commoners only get their information from tightly controlled sources, and they believe what they're told (or at least they pretend to) because if they don't then they will disappear in the night some time.

But as a result of that, their propagandists also are used to writing for people who are forced to believe, not for those who are used to rejecting crap. When you read things like the official North Korean news agency, it almost reads like a parody.

In the long run, freedom will triumph. The more free that the people of a nation are, the more they can contribute to the economic and political power of their nation, and the more powerful that nation will be relative to others.

And the more formidable its military will be, man for man. Modern war cannot be fought effectively by armies made of sullen, ill-educated, badly trained, unmotivated conscripts. You can take such an army and give it the best weapons available in the world, and it will look damned mean. But it will perform extremely poorly against a true modern army made up of volunteers who are well educated, well trained, who are trusted by their leaders and who know that they are trusted, and who actively work as part of a team to win a war.

Which is why Saddam wants nukes. It's the only way that a small authoritarian governing elite has any kind of chance of preserving itself against such an army.

Update 20020814: Several people have written to inform me that the Macedonians didn't invent the phalanx. What Phillip did do was to use the pike instead of the spear, which permitted the formation to have greater depth.

Update: John sends this link to an article by an American officer who was assigned to train the Arab militaries; he describes how information and power are horded, and how initiative is discouraged. Here's a key quote: "All of which has led American trainers to develop a rule of thumb: a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army has as much authority as a colonel in an Arab army."

Update 20020815: Perry de Havilland comments.

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