When Organizations Refuse To See Reality

Robin Hanson exposes how military-run war games, which are ostensibly used to train the U.S. armed forces to deal with real life challenges and contingencies, are regularly rigged in their design such that the Americans inevitably win (and that they do so overwhelmingly). Hanson uses this illustrative example of organizational pathologies to pose the question to readers about their own organizations’ resistances to confronting their weaknesses:

You might have thought that because in the military most everyone’s freedom and lives are on the line, the military at least would try hard to create realistic estimates of the outcomes of their policies. But you’d be wrong. Organizational disfunction plagues them as well. Apparently military leaders think it is more important to instill confidence in the troops and citizens than to actually find out how wars would go.

Now ask yourself: since your freedom and lives aren’t on the line in your organization, just how much more dysfunctional might be your outcome estimating processes?


Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • schmeer

    The focus on setting up the participants to easily succeed in a training exercise seems consistent with having the world’s largest military budget. We also try to set up the real wars for easy success as well. Although, it doesn’t look like this has been a successful approach. There is a lot of interest in events like “Blackhawk down” and the “unfair” tactics used by insurgents in Iraq. It’s fascinating to people who have been led to believe we will easily succeed in military conflict that the “less civilized” troops have such success giving the US a tough fight.
    Maybe a change of focus in training might be better for the US military. Maybe not pretending to be the white knight saving the world from the bad guys might also be better for the US.

  • StevoR

    Saw theheadline and immediately thought you were talking about the Heartland Institute here.

    Or maybe the Tea Party.

    Durnnit! I used to *like* tea parties – y’know come along, dress up, drink tea with friends, etc .. Sigh.

  • unbound

    I think it is simply an artifact of being human. How often do any of us (even in the skeptical community) admit to being wrong about something very significant? Seriously.

    Our leaders aren’t all that different. One of the hurdles I had to get over in life was to erase the notion I was taught in school that people get ahead in life due to hard work as well as being very smart and well educated. While those things will get you pretty far along, those are not the attributes that make the top leaders in politics, the military or in corporate America.

    I have yet to meet a single C-level executive (I have worked with several dozen in my life) that I can honestly say was extremely smart or well-educated. Some do indeed work hard, but that really isn’t an attribute that is required. They have all been very aggressive and driven, but thoughtful is as hit or miss as any other person you’ll meet on the street.

    I see this with the leaders of my own organization as well. Blatantly obvious issues continue to be ignored in the pursuit of the true American god (i.e. money). They refuse to make necessary investments but are then surprised at the result…but it still isn’t their fault as they look for a scapegoat, or simply announce the issue was unavoidable.

  • Ryan Jean

    The 2002 “Millennium Challenge” war game described at the link was made pretty famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s early-2005 book “Blink” as the topic of Chapter 4 (http://www.amazon.com/Blink-The-Power-Thinking-Without/dp/0316010669). In my circles (Army Intelligence Analysis) it is taught to pretty much everyone, and though your excerpt doesn’t mention the exercise by name, it was my first thought before even clicking through to confirm. I guess the takeaway is that there are people who take the question seriously, even if the brass often appear not to.

  • The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs)

    Well, what do you expect? The U.S. military understands a lot more about its purpose than you seem to think. Some non-explicit rules:

    1. The U.S. military will never fight an enemy which has nuclear weapons. Not even North Korea, which pretty much everyone else in the world hates and which is basically a failed state waiting until it loses enough momentum to fall over.

    2. Because the U.S. military will always be fighting a non-nuclear enemy, it is always understood that the use of nuclear weapons can be held in reserve as a threat. (That’s the real reason so many right-wingers are terrified of Iran getting nuclear weapons. They aren’t worried about a first strike, they’re worried we might lose the ability to act with impunity.)

    3. The main purpose of the modern U.S. military is to ensure military spending (now more than half the discretionary budget, not counting appropriations bills passed after the fact, which raise the figure even more). Pretty much everyone in the entire command chain wants to get a well-paying job in the defense industry upon retirement, which won’t happen if they expose military spending as useless. A war game must always show that such spending is worthwhile, even when it palpably isn’t.

    4. Any time troops are deployed, it is expected that the U.S. will build permanent bases on captured territory. This despite the fact that these bases are hugely expensive (every single one represents a net outflow of millions of dollars on an annual basis) and are gradually bankrupting the country. It’s part of the U.S. foreign policy to be able to threaten people, and we can’t do that if we don’t have bases near everyone. (Watch for an invasion in South America soon.) For this reason, a clean, fast victory is not even desired. A slow, bloody fight makes an ideal excuse for building a huge fortified base.

    • minxatlarge

      And 5. (The most important reason)quid pro quo for campaign contributors. Give $10 million (thanks SCOTUS!), get a $100 million contract. Why go to Iraq for oil, when billions can be made on no-bid contracts? We’ll just look the other way when global multi-national corporations, who may not have the sovereign interests of the US at heart, jump in, really ramp up the ‘defense’ spending and drive the economy into complete collapse. I’m almost certain that there are some other contractors who are available to de-fang our nukes, when the time comes.

    • The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs)

      (This is actually a reply to minxatlarge, but either Freethoughtblogs doesn’t do hierarchical comment threading or there’s something preventing that comment from having a “reply” link. Whatever.)

      Your #5 is true, but basically irrelevant to the subject of rigged war games. (The relevant part was already covered in #3.)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      (This is actually a reply to minxatlarge, but either Freethoughtblogs doesn’t do hierarchical comment threading or there’s something preventing that comment from having a “reply” link.

      Each blog is different. I’ve settled on one level of nesting. Too many levels of nesting proves counter-productive. But no nesting doesn’t bracket off sub-discussions well. This way has been the most satisfying and clear (though occasionally it leads to confusion when people expect multi-level nesting).

    • The Vicar (via Freethoughtblogs)

      @Daniel Fincke:

      Fair enough.

      I probably wouldn’t have said anything, but I only just registered here to comment after trying repeatedly to make freethoughtblogs.com recognize my wordpress.com account. I’m not sure what’s broken there, but it won’t recognize the account ID, the URL, or the e-mail address. (And clicking the WordPress icon gives me a window which asks for the account ID as it appears in the URL, but has no blank for a password, and when I enter the ID it tells me I need to log in at wordpress.com first — which would be much more helpful if I hadn’t just done that.) So I was a bit agitated about comments at that point.

  • jaranath

    I know a decent amount about some “games” that are pretty important to the participating organizations and general public. I’d say they were pretty heavily geared toward easy success.  There are a number of vulnerabilities to unexpected real-world variables that are almost certain to happen.

    Realistically I don’t think these flaws make the games useless. In the real-world scenario, I think they would still help a lot (in part by forcing all participants to have useable resources handy), and that the unexpected would not totally derail things.  But it won’t help things, either.

    I actually suspect one reason this happens is that the evaluation system is very fault-intolerant. Minor issues are treated as a Big Deal, and major issues would threaten jobs and cost big money. That may not be the intent, but in practice that is very much the effect of the design, and it creates an incentive to avoid actively seeking flaws.

  • gshevlin

    It is not just the war games that end up being rigged…in actual combat activities, the US has had a track record of over-estimating the damage done to the enemy, often in ludicrous ways. In WW II, when the US 8th Air Force began daylight bombing on Germany with B-17 formations, the gunners on the bombers would claim any number of enemy fighter kills, sometimes several per gunner per mission. Only after a few months, when somebody calculated that they should have already eliminated the entire fighter inventory of the Luftwaffe several times over, did the truth dawn that everybody was double triple etc. overcounting kills, and multiple gunners were targeting the same aircraft and claiming hits. Ditto the claimed North Vietnamese casualty figures in Vietnam.

  • kagekiri

    That reminds me of sci-fi and superhero shows, where the heroes are going through training specifically designed to escalate and force failure (a no-win scenario).

    Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru simulation would be the more famous example I can recall.

    I assumed the military would base their simulations on similar ideas, like giving the opposing force superior numbers, or putting various equipment handicaps on themselves so that they’re more than ready for real combat when things are going wrong.

    I’ve seen firearms instruction videos that assume multiple attackers, an injured main-hand or off-hand limb, solving misfires and jams one handed and behind cover, quick reloads on the move, and all that jazz, and that was for civilians and law enforcement, not soldiers. I’m sure special forces get similar failure-mode training. Why wouldn’t they extend that into larger simulations?

    I guess it’s pricey to set up a big simulation only to reduce confidence in the military by making sure they fail, but false confidence, as others have mentioned, is not a great thing to have.

  • gshevlin

    In the WW II example I cited, the challenge was not so much that the game was rigged (it wasn’t a game any more), it was that the results were misinterpreted in the favour of the USA.
    This is analagous to both the Challenger and Columbia shuttle falures, where in both cases NASA managed to talk themselves to a conclusion that they had non-realizable risks that they had managed.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Back during the run-up to the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq, pro-peace media were abuzz with stories about a war game in which the simulated US Navy got its butt handed to it, piece by piece, from Iraqi suicide squads in speedboats packed with explosives.

    So – perhaps Hanson is wrong about how the games are rigged;
    or scenario design has been Rumsfeldized over the last decade;
    or somebody at UFPJ &/or IAC was smoking too much of the good stuff;
    or a 21st-century Cointelpro op was spreading a hustle to get anti-war activists (&/or Saddam Hussein) to say and do foolish things;
    or your choice: __________________________.

    The later reports that CIA analysts were frantically trying to point out the many things which could go wrong, but were bypassed by Cheney’s “stovepipe” scheme to get pro-war papers to the top ranks without adverse review, indicate that at least part of our “security” system at that time had some adults working in it. The self-defeating nature of Bush-Cheney “reforms” seems to have become quite obvious, but nothing that I’ve seen indicates Obama & Co have learned that lesson. The appointment of blatant yes-man David Petraeus as CIA chief indicates exactly the opposite.