Machiavellian Strategic Concepts III

The first post on Machiavellian introduced Machiavelli’s world and the concept of subordination, while the second covered centrality. Today’s installment covers drilling and disengagement. (We will conclude tomorrow with hierarchy.)

9. Drilling

Another important concept for institutions is drilling. Drilling complements subordination and completes it. “Practice makes perfect” is an excellent rule even for an institution’s chief strategists, but it is particularly important for the grunts.

The principle of subordination is one thing. The practice is another: every new situation throws up material which subordinates can try to mine for an extenuation when they ignore an order or execute it in an unusual way. When it comes to military drilling, Machiavelli is a true believer: have them follow the order wearing heavy armor; have them follow the order in torrential rain; have them follow the order under the hot sun; have them follow the order with explosions in their ears. The more they drill, the wider the variety of circumstances in which they have followed the order before, the less they will be rattled under difficult circumstances.

Indeed, in the midst of chaos stress and shock occasionally leave people so disoriented that they simply wouldn’t be able to make any halfway rational decision about what to do.  An order that has been made safe and familiar through long drilling can be a comforting source of clarity to someone in a state of distress.

Furthermore, drills allow members of a team to fine-tune their expectations about the role each will play in executing the order. Practice with a certain task allows them to get the kinks out of the system and adapt to one another in a way that makes the team function smoothly, and then commit to that high-function equilibrium.

Indeed, drills effectively increase the centrality of the orders a superior gives to his subordinates. Already in the hierarchy of the institution, he has authority over them, but typically he cannot expect to prevent them from talking to one another. That is to say, they can pass a few words back and forth; but they will not have time to deliver lengthy discourses to one another in the midst of some emergency! Drilling loads a superior’s laconic orders with the semantic depth of hundreds of hours of practical experience. This gives him unassailable centrality in communication within his unit: he can provide a huge amount of data on exactly what his men should do in a few concise sentences, and they would have to talk for hours to propose amendments and revisions. So they follow his orders.

Drills have an analogous benefit when the same teams need to act autonomously and/or without orders. Suggestions that are most similar to what the team knows from its drills immediately become central. Indeed, any word or phrase will be preferentially interpreted as a reference to something similar to drills they’ve been through, because those are what they all know how to put into action. Words may be unnecessary; if one starts to execute a technique, his teammates will immediately recognize what he’s doing and can move into appropriate positions to support him.

The overriding importance of this centrality (for military cohesion, at least) is that no one ever drills “abandon your comrades, every man for himself”. No one ever drills “do X, but in a half-hearted and indecisive way”, nor “endanger your team by refusing to take risks”. This is not to say that these things never happen, but it is much easier for subordinates to stick with their training (the salient option) than to improvise some original act of cowardice, and often much safer to stand with a team that still has good discipline than to be abandoned by them. This shifts the equilibrium so that shirking and demoralization don’t set in under the unit’s circumstances become quite dire.

Drilling is also useful for the more impersonal (modular) aspect of subordination: even where it cannot make its orders more effectively obeyed, an institution learns the limits of its power. Machiavelli’s favorite example is horses: horses won’t run into walls and won’t charge a pike line, and if you don’t believe it you should try to make them do it. The more practice you have executing your plans, the more ways you’ll see them go wrong, the more moving parts you’ll see malfunction, and (ultimately) the more prepared you’ll be to make sure you execute your plans successfully when it matters.

Because there is such a gulf between the demands made on soldiers and any of the challenges civilians face, it may seem a little trivial to put such heavy emphasis on a concept whose connotations are so military. I reject any such charge: for one thing, drilling is an institutional principle, not a military principle per se. Doctors drill. Athletes drill. Lawyers drill. Wherever you have an institution that has an urgent need for reliable, competent cooperation, you’ll find drilling. Drilling is a fundamental strategic concept in any conflict where your team is an institution and its cohesion its a precondition for any strategy you expect it to execute.

(Do leftists drill? Ask yourself that question the next time you wonder how such a lazy, quarrelsome, silly movement has acquired such power.)

Even if you don’t think that your plans involve “that kind of institution”, bear in mind the value of drilling. I can almost guarantee you that the next time you have a brilliant idea for our political struggle — “I can do X to accomplish Y!” — you will wish you had already tried to do X a few when it wouldn’t have accomplished anything as grandiose as Y, in order to have a better understanding of the how your plan will unfold when the stakes are high.

10. Disengagement

There is one type of order which is particularly important for subordinates to follow: the order not to run away.

Like drilling, the parameters which make disengagement meaningful as a strategic concept are most vividly illustrated in military conflicts. But to be clear, in any sort of winner-take-all conflict the coalition that is losing the conflict is in danger of imploding, and this danger only grows greater as the loss becomes inevitable.  I have devoted a few paragraphs to this phenomenon elsewhere, but to summarize: winner-take-all conflicts are a bit like those nasty all-pay auctions. Both coalitions lose the resources they pour into the conflict, but only the winner will get anything in return. Worse still, neither coalition bids what it would be rational for them to bid (if they were individuals), but rather the aggregate of what is rational for each of its allied factions to contribute to the war effort.

If your coalition can calculate exactly what each faction needs to contribute to win, it’s reasonable to contribute your share. Once it becomes clear that your coalition will certainly lose and you will suffer the costs of defeat either way, you have no reason to contribute anything more to your coalition (it’s a pure loss). The difficulty comes when your coalition says that it is certain to win if everyone makes additional contributions, but certain to lose otherwise. At that point (even if assuming you believe what your coalition says!), small changes in the confidence and loyalty of a few allies can start to ripple through the coalition. A low chance of victory lowers the value of additional contributions, so some discouraged factions start skimping, and then refuse to make additional contributions entirely. (This may include dropping out of the coalition, surrendering, etc.) The coalition has fewer resources, its chances of winning fall, the value of additional contributions falls, more skimping, more refusals, and on and on until the implosion.

A battlefield rout is a special case of this phenomenon. For as far back as there have been cave-men brawling over cave-babes, the rules of fights have been the same: everyone you’re fighting with is safest if no one runs away. Standing your ground and continuing to fight is equivalent to “raising your bid”. By standing your ground you subject yourself to more pain, more suffering, more (and more permanent) injuries, and ultimately to a higher chance of death or debilitation.

However, you suffer the greatest risk simply by being on the losing side of the battle. Unscrupulous enemies will be most likely to take the effort to torment, cripple, or murder you when there no longer have to worry about anyone actively attacking them. More chivalrous opponents will still be able to do more damage when they can surround individual units, hunt down the members of dispersed units one by one, shoot fleeing troops in the back, and so on.

Obviously every soldier struggling with cowardice is in a slightly different situation, but in general the stark logic he faces is this: he doesn’t want his side to lose, because in a rout his chances of dying go up considerably. But… if there is a rout, he wants to make sure he’s the first one to run away, rather than being one of those fools who is still taking fire while the line dissolves on either side of him.

From the perspective of an institution which specializes in strategic conflicts, the solution is obvious: subordination, centrality, drilling. Make sure that everyone in the institution will follow orders, then tell them not run away. Disciplined subordinates will be inclined to follow orders, and the centrality of their training makes it much easier for them to communicate in ways that maintain cohesion.

But that’s not enough. You must anticipate the point past which some of your institution’s subordinates will no longer be able to execute their orders. At that point either they will be mowed down where they stand or they will rout. Either way, the sector around them will begin to collapse, nearby units will be in great danger, and that danger combined with confusion about the ongoing rout and whether a loss is imminent create a real chance that panic will spread to other units. The solution is simple: once you have anticipated the point, you must preempt it by ordering the endangered unit to disengage.

Disengagement has a few different aspects.

  1. Sometimes the unit is at risk of paralysis because it has simply suffered too much damage (some combination of deaths, injuries, lost command structure, broken equipment) to resist the enemy and needs to withdraw from battle entirely.
  2. Sometimes it is at risk simply because some combination of demoralization, fatigue, and disorganization has put it at risk, and it will shortly be ready to fight again.
  3. Whether a unit needs to disengage because of attrition or demoralization, it will probably need to be replaced by fresh units at full strength.
  4. Ideally, whatever mission the at-risk unit had in its sector can be accomplished by the unit that relieves it; but sometimes the mission has failed and the relief unit will only fight a delaying action while it and nearby units fall back towards a stable position.
  5. Exceptionally, the at-risk unit must disengage from a collapsing sector without any real prospect of relief, because its position is deteriorating faster than any reinforcements could arrive to replace it.
  6. Because that kind of emergency disengagement risks disintegrating into a rout, it is best for a superior to countermand his orders as soon as he realizes his plans cannot succeed, and to disengage a unit before it is at-risk and get it ready for immediate use in a different strategy, rather than leaving it to fail and leaving himself vulnerable to the possibility of an impossible disengagement.

The fundamental meaning of disengagement is that you are ordering subordinates to move away from danger, without allowing them to run away from danger.  They are, in effect, advancing towards the rear. The arrival of replacements not only takes pressure off the disengaging troops, but signals to everyone in the institution that the overall strategy has not changed, the battle is still going to be won; but a broken cog is being swapped out for a new cog, as expeditiously as possible.

This assures all involved that they are not witnessing the beginning of a general defeat and a breakdown of cooperation in the institution as everyone involved runs to save his own skin.

Again, while disengagement is easiest to explain in military terms, it is an institutional challenge rather than a military one. Nearly all institutions profit when they succeed and suffer when they fail; rank-and-file members of the institution nearly always absorb the losses and usually absorb some of the profit as well, so it is typical to see a race for the exit when institutions fail. The solution is disengagement; if a branch of an institution is reaching a point where its failures are damaging its cohesion (and therefore its competence), disengage it and assign the task to a different branch.

(In fact, in some cases it is useful to see all plans as dynamic models of the expected future benefits of the plan. If you view the benefits derived from the deployment of a certain unit in each period as a random walk, each deployment is a calculated gamble whose high expected return comes from option value: the ability to pull the plug later, if losses get more severe, means it profitable to continue to take losses on a plan for the immediate future.)

The need to relieve struggling units creates the need for a tactical reserve. In some types of conflicts (and with respect to some kinds of resources) this reserve is idle until an emergency arises. In other cases, it merely means institutions should commit some of their resources to low-urgency projects which can be abandoned/postponed without difficulty if the resources suddenly need to be withdrawn for use elsewhere.

Machiavelli stressed that an army’s tactical reserve prevents routs and promotes orderly disengagements in two ways. Its position immediately to the rear reassures units they will be relieved rather than abandoned if difficulties arise… but it also presents a physical barrier to would-be deserters. Most strategic conflicts do not permit tactical reserves to be used so efficiently! But you should still consider other ways to make desertion difficult, further underlining that the disengagement procedure as the only reliable road to safety.

Part of a series on Strategic Concepts:

  1. Basic Strategic Concepts
  2. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts I: Subordination
  3. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts II: Centrality
  4. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts III: Drilling & DisengagementYou are here
  5. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts IV: Hierarchy


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