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Venkat on Positioning vs. Melee Moves

Blogfriend, Dr. Venkat Rao had an intriguing post at Tempo (his other blog) on which I want to make a few, relatively disjointed, observations:

Positioning Moves versus Melee Moves 

My general philosophy of decision-making de-emphasizes the planning/execution distinction. But I am not an agility purist. Nobody is. You can think of the Agility Purist archetype as a useful abstraction. This mythical kind of decision-maker believes that a mind and personality that is sufficiently prepared for a particular domain (say programming or war or biochemistry) needs no preparation for specific situations or contingencies. This magical being can jump into any active situation in that particular domain and immediately start acting effectively.

At the other extreme you have an equally mythical Planning Purist archetype who has thought through every possible contingency all the way through the end and can basically hit “Start” and reach a successful outcome without further thinking. In fiction, this is best represented by jewelry heist capers based on long, involved and improbably robust sequences of moves, as in Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job. A few token things go wrong, but overall, these narratives play out like Rube Goldberg machines. 

What is interesting to me is that if we look at historical figures who epitomize a “purist archetype” they can represent disaster as easily as they can triumph. Take the planner archetype,  for example. Two figures in the annals of warfare who are “purists” in this regard would be Moltke the Elder and Robert Strange McNamara.

Because the Vietnam War was such a terrible debacle and because McNamara’s role in the war was so significant the resulting opprobrium heaped upon McNamara (deservedly, IMHO) makes it too easy to forget that he had a brilliant mind, that he was not just a reckless bumbler or a hack as Secretary of Defense. A famous anecdote of McNamara’s intelligence and his ability to quickly grasp enormous reams of data is in The Best and the Brightestby David Halberstam.  As Halberstam related, Secretary McNamara was once over a thousand slides into  being briefed about the war when he abruptly ordered the briefer to stop because the current slide conflicted with the information on something like “slide 23”. They stopped and checked. McNamara was indeed right.

It was McNamara who introduced systems analysis and PPBS to the Department of Defense, created the DIA and the Defense Logistics Agency. Yet despite his methodical and mathematical analytical gifts, his understanding of the human element was a curious lacuna that led to his carefully calculated attrition strategy and escalation. There was no way way, in Robert Strange McNamara’s metrics, to quantify Hanoi’s will to fight, and without such comprehension, attrition would be (to use a popular phrase anachronistically) a “stratergy of tactics”.

Field Marshal Graf von Moltke’s careeer as a war planner and chief of the Prussian general staff was a happier one as the victor in three of Prussia’s wars and a co-founder, with Bismarck, of the German Empire. A devoted student of Clausewitz, von Moltke was at home in the contradiction of exquisite planning and the improvisation that was part and parcel of coup d’oeil in the midst of battle. Unlike McNamara, von Moltke’s planning encompassed the human factors and serendipity. As Antulio J. Echevarria put it:

….Like Clausewitz, Moltke emphasized flexibility in military planning and execution. He eschewed dogmatic thinking, whether tactical or strategic, accepted chance and uncertainty as inseparable from the nature of war, and recognized the often decisive (but incalculable) role that moral factors played in victory. He originally viewed the destruction of the enemy’s main fighting force as the proper aim of war, but gradually became less convinced of its genuine decisiveness after the French resorted to partisan warfare in 1870-71.[10] “We want to believe,” he later told the Reichstag, “that neither the Thirty Years’ nor the Seven Years’ War will recur, but when millions of individuals are engaged in a bitter struggle for national existence, we cannot expect that the matter will be decided with a few victorious battles.”

….By the early 1880s, this free-form approach to war had further established itself as part of the German military tradition, accruing still more Moltkean ideas: simplicity is the essential ingredient of an order; war plans do not endure beyond the first engagement; friction, chance, and uncertainty are inescapable elements of war; and strategy serves policy best when it strives for the highest aim, complete tactical victory.[32] The fact that military writers often accused each other of Schematismus–rigid, prescriptive thinking–in Germany’s turn-of-the-century military debates indicates that Moltke’s ideas had become paradigmatic within the officer corps. Ironically, an inherent contradiction developed in the German view of war at this time–namely, that while war possessed no absolute rules, the destruction of the enemy’s forces had to remain its ultimate aim.

Second, Moltke’s open, inductive approach to war also helped legitimize a decentralized style of warfighting called (perhaps wrongly) Auftragstaktik. Much confusion reigns concerning this concept and its “dubious” historical validity.[34] Military writers on either side of the Atlantic have somewhat abused the term Auftragstaktik in an effort to legitimize their own preferred style of command. In fact, Auftragstaktik and the meaning behind it surfaced decisively, albeit sparingly, in the debate over tactics that raged for years between the Imperial Army’s traditionalists and reformists. In its origins, the concept probably owes more to that leading figure of the Prussian Restoration, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, than to Moltke. But Moltke clearly advocated the decentralization of military effort. He reasoned that war, a product of opposing wills subject to a host of frictions, gives rise to rapidly changing situations that quickly render a commander’s decisions obsolete. Hence, subordinates had to think and act according to the situation, even without or in defiance of orders. While Moltke did indeed promote such a style of command, he did not condone willful disobedience. In fact, the Prussian, and later the German, army maintained strict codes of discipline. 

Back to Venkat:

….In sail warfare, there is a clear distinciton between moves designed to put you in an advantageous position with respect to relatively predictable environmental conditions (primarily the wind direction of course) and moves that are used once an engagement starts.  The latter culminate in a melee: ships next to each other, boarding actions and hand-to-hand combat. It is messy, chaotic and the very definition of the “Fog of War” phenomenon (in the case of sail warfare, cannon fire and the action of fire ships could create a literal blinding smokescreen over everything).

You can think of positioning moves as rich moves based on fertile variablesthat are likely to put you in command of many situations (“own the high ground” is the most famous one). They are high-potential-energy commitments in the space of probable paths. You can also think of them as leverage moves. A crucial feature is that positioning moves involve much less time pressure than melee moves and can be set up well before they are needed. So positioning moves are early, rich moves.

Melee moves on the other hand are, well, the other kind.

I am no naval expert, but the sea like the sky, being free of human clutter and topographic variation, brutally clarifies for commanders and strategists like Mahan or Wohlstetter the relative spatial relationship between adversaries and the limitations of their comparative resources and capabilities in light of distance and time.

If Russia had been a sea, Hitler would have thought twice about Operation Barbarossa.

4 Responses to “Venkat on Positioning vs. Melee Moves”

  1. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Excellent post! You are right about the seas; “brutally clarifies” will be writ large in the next major naval engagement. 

  2. L. C. Rees Says:

    The Eurasian steppe may produce similar clarity. At least between the domestication of the horse and the socket bayonet, human clutter on the steppe was transitory and its endless sea of grass lacked topographical interest except an island here or there. Nomadic operations unfolded on a massive scale in time and space and even material, with Operation Bagration being the last great steppe incursion into Europe. The less generous confines of the European peninsula seem to encourage small ball: Hitler’s whining to the Finnish Field Marshal Mannerheim about all nasty the Russian tanks the Germans encountered is one example. The vast spaces of North America, especially its western expanses, may encourage similar clarity among American military leaders from colonial times to World War II.

  3. larrydunbar Says:

    “will be writ large in the next major naval engagement.” Those who sailed by the wind, pretty much knew that, as far as positioning goes, you died by the wind. I have always had a feeling almost all battles fought under the sail where pretty much over with before anyone struck a cannon. I mean, unless the enemy ship was very far away, as to be in another environment, the environment observed was the same for each Captain. If each captain had any experience at all, at the helm, nothing could have come as much of a surprise, save  for the lack of transparency, experience, and mother nature. I wonder if Clarity is better now than before?

  4. larrydunbar Says:

    “At least between the domestication of the horse and the socket bayonet, human clutter on the steppe was transitory and its endless sea of grass lacked topographical interest except an island here or there. ”

    I suppose that is true. I am guessing that the socket bayonet (not sure exactly what that is) gave the Russians so much advantage, in the environment their knights fought in that they didn’t figure they would ever be defeated. However, the Mongols strategy of fighting in both directions pretty much decimated Russian armor in the 13-hundreds.   

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