Monday, May 01, 2006

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

I just finished T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, all 605 pages, in just three days of being ill. The most interesting part of it for me was that the Arab revolt was a truly all-volunteer force. There were no medals for bravery, nor were there punishments (other than social) for cowardice. No one had to go farther than he willed, no one had to take any order. They did not have to fear reprisals, since the Turks did not have the mobility to control the desert. This had several odd effects on the Arab Revolt:

Victory was nearly as dangerous for them as defeat. When they won a victory, and everyone had loaded as much loot as their camel could carry, they dispersed back to their homes. After every victory followed a period of rebuilding the force--waiting for the army to squander its new wealth and return to the ranks.

Casualties were a very serious concern. Throughout the book, Lawrence was weighting the achievement of this or that objective in its price in men, and deciding that it wasn't worth it. There was one instance in which he took the opportunity to destroy a Turkish battalion of about a thousand men, at the cost of only a few dozen killed, and regretted it because that one battalion, far from its supply lines in hostile territory with no transport (after the first raid), would have dissolved on its own.

Most of his time was spent, as he termed it, "preaching". Only through persuasion could they keep the army together. Every shiek, every person with any sort of power, had to be persuaded, as well as all of the men under them.

I wonder how such a truly all-volunteer force would work today. I suppose the cost of easy-come, easy-go recruits was minimal, as the army was, for the most part, self-arming and self-trained. It would, at the very least, restrict the kinds and manner of wars in which a nation could get involved. What if, prior to an invasion, the commander had to get volunteer troops, with the knowledge that those troops could quit at any time if they didn't like it? Perhaps the only way to create such an all-volunteer force would be to artificially construct the warlike society of Bedouin Arabia, by sending all males through bootcamp--so everyone was prepared for war--and then allowing them to participate if they chose. At least I know that it has worked once in history, I wonder if it could work again.

4 Comments:

Blogger Noumenon said...

The worse things get, the worse this should work. The ratio of loot to danger has to be pretty high for the prisoners' dilemma of "fight or run away" to come out "fight." Try this essay application of game theory to warfare. Here is my favorite part, showing how little "volunteering" there was in a historical military:

"This brings me to the much-maligned British army of the eighteenth century, We all learn in elementary school about the foolish British, who dressed up their troops in bright scarlet uniforms and lined them up in rigid formations for the brave American revolutionaries to shoot at. The assumption (as in the nationalistic histories of most nations) is that we were smart and they were dumb and that explains it all. I am in no sense an expert in eighteenth-century military history, but I think I have a more plausible explanation. The British troops were armed with short-range muskets and bayonets, hence the relevant decision for them, as for the spearmen of a few centuries before, was to fight or to run. In order to make sure they fought, their commanders had to be able to see if someone was starting to run; rigid geometric formations and bright uniforms are a sensible way of doing so.

Bright uniforms serve the same purpose in another way as well--they make it more difficult for soldiers who run away to hide from the victorious enemy, and thus decrease the gain from running away. Of course the fugitive can always take off his uniform, assuming he has enough time (perhaps that was why they had so many buttons), but young men running around the countryside in their underwear are almost as conspicuous as soldiers in red uniforms.


As I've come more and more to think of war as something waged to protect the interests of a country's leaders at the expense of its citizens, (mainly due to Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution), the actual front-line expression of that coercive force seems more and more unjust. I wonder if and how our "volunteer" military expresses that value in front-line combat today. Same as with the Arabs, the more we're winning, the better it should work.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

Bright uniforms serve the same purpose in another way as well--they make it more difficult for soldiers who run away to hide from the victorious enemy, and thus decrease the gain from running away.

The usual explanation for why they had bright uniforms was that battlefields were typically blanketed with smoke after the first volley. Bright uniforms were the only way for the generals to tell who was whom.

young men running around the countryside in their underwear are almost as conspicuous as soldiers in red uniforms.

This is why we have the expression "turncoats". They turned their jackets inside out to hide the redness.

A better support for this theory are the thick leather collars that the troops wore, ostensibly to protect them from sword strokes, but it had the effect of making them unable to turn their heads. They weren't supposed to be looking at what was going on around them, they were just supposed to advance.

From the essay...

Consider a simple case. You are one of a line of men on foot with long spears; you are being charged by men on horses, also carrying spears (and swords and maces and...). You have a simple choice: you can stand and fight or you can run away. If everyone runs away, the line collapses and most of you get killed; if everyone stands, you have a good chance of stopping the charge and surviving the battle. Obviously you should stand.

Quite obviously. Horses will not charge closed ranks of pointy things. In this case, the odds of survival drop dramatically by running away, even if only a handful do, since they will be the only ones vulnerable to the cavalry. That's why in Napoleonic war they formed squares all the time. The horses wouldn't attack.

A French military theorist, Ardant du Pica, argued that the traditional picture of a charge, in which the charging column smashes into the defending line, is mythical. At some point in a real charge, either the column decides that the line is not going to run and stops, or the line decides that the column is not going to stop, and runs.

If this were the case, then it wouldn't matter what angle the charge came from. Historically, however, charges that approached from an acute angle were much more likely to break the enemy's ranks than those that approached perpendicular to the enemy.

And back to you...

Same as with the Arabs, the more we're winning, the better it should work.

This actually seems like a sensible way to fight a war. Everyone should have all-volunteer armies, and let the momentum of victory carry them through. It would keep the overall cost of war down. As someone said, "A rational army would run away."

7:00 PM  
Blogger Hamlette said...

I just finished T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, all 605 pages, in just three days of being ill

I'm sorry, but that made me giggle. It sounds like reading the book made you ill for three days :-D

12:52 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

I'm sorry, but that made me giggle. It sounds like reading the book made you ill for three days :-D

One of his many obsessions in the book, besides describing grass and the quality of the various bodies of water he encountered, was detailing the symptoms of the many ailments he experienced. He is a very odd chappie.

4:48 AM  

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