Learning to Learn to Fight

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

I’ve been discussing Matthew Caffrey’s Toward a History Based Doctrine for Wargaming, which sounds terribly dull but is really full of fascinating anecdotes.

One issue with wargames that I noticed a long time ago was that players have strong incentives to use their anachronistic “out of character” knowledge to fight any particular historical battle or war the way it should have been fought, knowing what we know now and using the lessons learned from the actual conflict.

In a real conflict, of course, you haven’t learned those valuable lessons yet. For instance, the US Navy didn’t really know the capabilities of the Japanese going into WWII:

All through this period, US intelligence on the specific characteristics of Japanese weapons and of troop training levels was atrocious. Instead of arguing over what they did not know, the Navy turned this handicap into an advantage. How they did it shows their keen insight into education and human nature.

Naval War College students certainly wanted to win their big “capstone” wargame at the end of their school year. As students have always done, they asked those who graduated before them for advice, or in the vernacular of the US military, “gouge.” Graduates were happy to provide advice: “Try to engage the Japanese at night, they are blind; watch out for their torpedoes though, they are killers; fortunately, though, their ships sink like rocks after the lightest of battering.” However, when they talked to someone who graduated in a different year, they learned “Avoid night engagements, the Japs are incredible; and their ships are so rugged they can really close in and slug it out; at least you don’t have to worry about their tinker toy torpedoes.” Slowly it dawned on the students — the faculty was giving the Japanese different strengths and weaknesses in each wargame!

What were the students to do? Unable to simply learn Japanese strengths and weaknesses before the game, they had to play the game in such a way that they could learn them through experience before any decisive engagements took place. Once they learned what those strengths and weaknesses were, they would then develop a strategy to put US strengths against Japanese weaknesses while protecting our weaknesses from Japanese strengths. They could then force the decisive engagements. In other words, they were “learning how to learn.”

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