Experience has been a better guide than theory

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis explains the success of Operations Research — the simpler, narrower precursor to Systems Analysis — during World War 2:

Even allowing for pardonable exaggerations, the analysts often came up with suggestions that were quite different from practice and yet often demonstrably better. This, in spite of the common and well-founded belief that in the past “experience” has been a better guide than “theory” in this kind of work.

The reason for this success is fairly clear. We might, for example, contrast the situation during World War II with that during the Napoleonic Wars, and ask ourselves if scientific personnel could have contributed much to Nelson’s conduct of the battle of Trafalgar. The following quotation contrasts the situation Nelson found to that faced by the professional officer today. It also indicates some reasons why a civilian analyst is sometimes in a better “psychological” position than the professional military officer in approaching new long range problems.

The professional officer, stimulated always by the immediate needs of the service to which he devotes his life, becomes naturally absorbed with advancing its technical efficiency and smooth operation. This task has become ever more exacting with the increasing complexity and rapidity of change of military technology.

Nelson, whose flagship on the day of Trafalgar was forty years old yet in no wise inferior in fighting capacity to the majority of the ships engaged, could spend his lifetime learning and perfecting the art of the admiral without fearing that the fundamental conditions of that art would change under his feet.

Today the basic conditions of war seem to change almost from month to month. It is therefore difficult for the professional soldier to avoid being preoccupied with means rather than ends, especially since his usefulness to his immediate superior hangs upon his skill and devotion in the performance of his assigned function. And if there is one thing above all that distinguishes the military progression from any other it is that the soldier always has a direct superior.

Nelson and his contemporaries could have had forty years’ experience in handling the equipment they were fighting with. In fact, they could have had effectively even more. They could draw not only on their personal experience, but on the experience of others through personal contacts or writings. Under such circumstances the analytical process does not usually yield results with will compete with those that can be obtained by an experienced man using ordinary judgment and inventiveness.

World War II was quite different. Nobody really had much wartime or even peacetime experience with the equipment because so much of it was relatively new. In some cases it did not exist before the war and the military didn’t even have the benefit of exercises and discussion. Under such circumstances, a theoretical or analytical approach, particularly if it can be made quantitative, will often prove to be fruitful. In fact, it was found that almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results.


  1. If you can find a copy, Keith R. Tidman’s “The Operations Evaluation Group” is a fine overview of the development of the OR/OA field from the naval perspective.

    The excerpt you quote is justified in its conclusion, but it’s important to remember the other half of the feedback loop. A worthwhile operations analysis can only be based on a comprehensive and realistic understanding of the equipment and forces involved (limitations, patterns of operation, etc). Its recommendations must be judged by how well they improve performance in the field, using the appropriate measures of effectiveness.

    Historically, the best way to get this up-to-date information for formulating and evaluating the analyses has been to have OR folks stationed well forward at airbases, naval bases, and headquarters where they have access to the people putting the recommendations into action. Modern telecommunications eases this requirement somewhat, but not as much as you might think. The people you need to get a hold of are usually busy enough trying to actually do their job without having to answer a bunch of niggling questions about their procedures (i.e. what they really do, not what’s in the book) and equipment.

    Also, those “appropriate measures of effectiveness” aren’t always obvious. The canonical example comes from the Battle of the Atlantic. Several recommendations, including the increased use of maritime patrol aircraft, were viewed as ineffective at first because they weren’t resulting in more U-Boats being sunk, a seemingly reasonable MoE. Analysts pointed out that while they weren’t sinking many U-Boats, those U-Boats were sinking vastly fewer merchant vessels because they were spending so much more time submerged (i.e. slow and relatively blind) to hide from aircraft.

  2. Kirk says:

    “Historically, the best way to get this up-to-date information for formulating and evaluating the analyses has been to have OR folks stationed well forward at airbases, naval bases, and headquarters where they have access to the people putting the recommendations into action. Modern telecommunications eases this requirement somewhat, but not as much as you might think. The people you need to get a hold of are usually busy enough trying to actually do their job without having to answer a bunch of niggling questions about their procedures (i.e. what they really do, not what’s in the book) and equipment.”

    See, here’s the basic problem: The people who actually do things, in American culture? They’re not, for whatever reason, very introspective and “thoughtful” in the sense of “thinking about the job”. They’re often very good at working out solutions, and thinking on their feet, but documenting what the hell they did, why they did it, and how? It just doesn’t happen. You run into this issue in industry, the military, and in government agencies that actually do things, as opposed to administer them.

    You occasionally run into places/times/organizations where you’re find good “continuity books”, and a strong culture of documenting stuff that goes into doing the mission. But, you’re almost inevitably going to eventually observe someone take charge of that organizational entity who discounts and denigrates such activities, and then… Well, it’s over.

    You can find a lot of examples in US history where this effect has taken place. I personally believe that the 7.62mm NATO/M14 fiasco can be blamed on the fact that the people who’d actually done most of the fighting in Northern Europe did not manage, for whatever reason, to “institutionalize” what they learned in combat, and the post-war efforts to modernize our small arms suite wound up being run by people who’d never actually “been there, done that” in modern combat.

    In a healthy “learning organization”, there should be a functional feedback loop between the effectuators and the people who do the institutionalization of the knowledge gained by the effectuators. In US Army practice, there’s sadly a hell of a disconnect between the two roles. The guys out on the ground are adaptable to a degree that is almost frightening, but the people who are supposed to be gathering the information to make changes to things like doctrine and the written “institutional memory” don’t seem to ever be in communication.

    I ran into that a lot when I was doing a bunch of research on US Army countermine/IED stuff dating back to Vietnam. Much of what was in the manuals of the era was not what the guys who were doing it for real were actually doing out in the field, which is something I’ve seen time and time again throughout my own service. You can also pick up traces of this syndrome going back to the Civil War…

    I would hesitate to describe the root of this problem as “anti-intellectualism”, but that’s a term that kinda-sorta gets to the root of what may be going on with much of this. Doers do, and the rest of things can just go to hell.

    Which leads to leaving an open door for that other problem we have, with false experts like the MBA class, taking over and then running things into the ground. I dare say that there’s a damn good chance that this is all part of an interconnected cultural/social problem, and one that we’d better figure out how to fix.

  3. Kirk, have you taken a look at the posts Isegoria got out of Changing an Army, the document about Gen. DePuy (of the eponymous fighting hole)? It seems to echo some of your observations about the US Army.

  4. Kirk says:

    DePuy was an inspiration to me, and has been since I first started paying attention to his work back during the 1980s.

    Biggest problem I see with him is that there’s only one of him, and that he unfortunately exemplified the old-school mentality of what the enlisted leaders could and should be doing. DePuy wasn’t a guy who would have listened to a mid-level NCO telling him something about what was wrong with doctrine or his own ideas. I knew a genius-level senior NCO who’d interacted with DePuy on a couple of issues, and his experience wasn’t entirely positive.

    DePuy did an awful lot of good, though, and we need more like him. I don’t think they are out there, though, and the majority of his sort of officer…? Most of them are saying “Screw this. I’m tired of the BS,” and getting out long before they even make field grade, let alone flag rank.

    Huge problem with today’s Army officer corps is highlighted by this recent deal with the Communist at West Point. Rapone was a known issue, with multiple field-grade officers discussing his “issues”, and raising them with the West Point “system”. Only, guess what? Not a damn thing was done, either to Rapone, or the ass-clown who was his mentor, a civilian instructor in the history department.

    Ask yourself two questions: How did Rapone manage to get commissioned, and how is it that he’s got a “mentor” on the staff of West Point, who we were paying to educate and influence Rapone? What. The. Actual. Fuck?

    And, the bright lights in the officer corps who passed this dipshit on to be a troop leader, out in the wilds of New York, in the 10th Mountain? Inflicting him on some innocent platoon and the senior NCOs that go with that?

    LOL. You wonder why the hell nobody is loyal to the institution anymore, and there’s your answer: The institution saw fit to make Rapone the rater of some poor bastard out there who’s probably done multiple tours in combat and has been sucking up Big Army’s shit for at least a decade — and then the people he’s loyal to sent him a POS like Rapone as his rater and platoon leader.

    And, no doubt, that senior NCO has probably been called in to “talk” with the CSM and the battalion commander on multiple occasions about how he’s failed to “control” the POS Second Lieutenant he’s been saddled with, and I would bet good money that in the CSM and commander’s minds, that poor platoon sergeant is entirely responsible for the whole mess that Rapone represents.

    How do I know that, you ask? ‘Cos, that’s how it worked for the 25 years I was on active duty as an NCO and enlisted soldier. That poor bastard platoon sergeant is probably getting off of work at around 21:00 every night, going home to whatever hovel he can afford after his divorce, and drinking heavily.

    Meanwhile, the incompetent and worthless fucks at West Point and DA who saddled him with Rapone? They’re sleeping soundly in their relatively palatial homes after finishing a hard day’s nine-to-five routine, and having kissed their kiddies goodnight.

    The institution is in a bad, bad way, right now. Hopefully, it won’t take a Task Force Smith or a Vietnam to wake them the fuck up. But, I suspect it will.

  5. Isegoria says:

    Oh, Scipio, you just had to go and add to my tsundoku, didn’t you? That said, if you know any more good military Operations Research books, I’m all ears. (It’s much easier to find the same mathematical techniques taught as Management Science, etc., but the military anecdotes are far more interesting.)

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