Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps

Summary:  The outline for today’s post comes from the youngest member of the FM website’s staff, a Marine Corporal.  He’s completed one tour in Afghanistan and will deploy again in early 2011.  Here he describes a dark side to one of the most popular science fiction books of the past 20 years, widely read by members of the US military.  Ender’s Game contains inspiration for both the best and worst leadership philosophies in today’s USMC. See the follow-up post The little-known dark side of Ender’s Game.

Ender's Game


The USMC professional reading program includes Ender’s Game, perhaps science fiction writer Orson Scott Card’s greatest work.  It contains a powerful dramatization of current Corps doctrine, but it also holds a hidden vision for many Generals.   See Wikipedia for a summary of the book.   Go here to see the full text of the original short story (Analog, August 1977); the book-length version was published in 1985.  It won the Nebula and Hugo awards.

From the USMC discussion guides (here and here):

Ender’s Game is more than about the difficulty and excitement that competition provides in preparing for combat. There are lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics as well. Such richness in range and treatment has made Card’s book an oft-read and re-read title for many years; Ender’s Game has been a stalwart item on the Marine Corps Reading List since its inception. then Captain John Schmitt, author of FMFM-1 Warfighting (a foundational book on Marine maneuver warfare doctrine, now published as MCDP 1) used it to teach.

… Winning wars depends on the quality of the people you put into battle. Start with smart people, train them in imaginative and challenging ways, and ensure you force decision making authority down to the person with superior awareness of the tactical situation.

… Ender’s Game was published at the same time Marines started reading The Maneuver Warfare Handbook.  We have since institutionalized maneuver warfare into the Marine Corps. The challenge to every generation of Marines is to continue to live up to what Maneuver Warfare philosophy demands of them.

The discussion guide minimizes the aspect of Ender’s Game that appeals to many generals:

The least interesting part of the story was Ender’s computer games. The role playing games with the giant and playground seemed a distraction from the more interesting portions about training and preparing to lead.

Unfortunately some Generals would like to be Ender, directing battles at their desks.  Commanding ships with a keyboard, instantly seeing “every enemy ship and weapons it carried.”  Perfect information in the hands of a brilliant chessmaster, supported by his brilliant staff sitting before their screens — moving drones at the other end of the wire.  Logic, order, planning, victory.  The opposite of real war.  Scharnhorst, Clauswitz, or von Moltke (either one) would laugh at such folly.

General Screwtape (USMC) describes the dream in the first of his enlightening series of letters (links appear below):

When confronted with a task, and having less information available than is needed to perform that task, an organization may react in either of two ways. One is to increase its information processing capacity, the other to design the organization, and indeed the task itself, in such a way as to enable it to operate on the basis of less information.   It is obvious that maneuverists would rather accomplish the latter while we attritionists have long sought to pursue the former.

You will note with pride that fellow attritionists have worked ever so diligently to ensure that billions of dollars are invested to procure the latest technologies with the primary objective being the elimination of disorder and uncertainty on the battlefield. C2PC (command and control personal computer), CPOF (command post of the future), AFATDS (advanced field artillery tactical data system), and other like systems (as well as their interface) promise an unparalleled clarity on the current battlefield.

Similarly, intelligence preparation of the battlespace is becoming extraordinarily focused on product development in order to provide the commander with the answers for any possible data requests. From your reading of Napoleon, you will recall that he would implore intelligence staffs to find “any information I might find of interest” and subsequently leave it to their initiative.

How pathetic! Today’s commanders can—and therefore do—rightfully demand ever-increasing amounts of quantitative information with which to eliminate uncertainties and disorder on the battlefield. For only when the highest echelon commanders are provided all of the information can they determine the appropriate course of action and issue forth appropriate tasks for subordinates. You can see that current technology has eliminated Clausewitz’s “fog of war.”

In letter #3 General Screwtape describes a battle of the future.

As we further our agenda, we can clearly imagine a combat operations center (COC) 5 years from now:

A battalion commander walks into his COC and sees a “troops in contact” unfold on the plasma touch screen operations monitor. The zoomed in live satellite feed provides him eagle-eyed observation of the situation unfolding in realtime. He sees the blue icons displaying his friendlies — thanks to global positioning system tracking devices embedded in the rifles — moving north along a road. He also sees the enemy platoon attempting to flank his lead units.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, the battalion commander double taps on the trace squad leader’s icon and slides it approximately 200 meters north. The commander selects an ambush graphic icon from a dropdown menu and double taps the screen at the desired location. Almost immediately, he sees the squad leader halt his movement, glance downward — no doubt at the liquid crystal display screen strapped to the squad leader’s forearm — and make a few blurred hand gestures directing his men toward the identified ambush position. The battalion commander looks on with satisfaction as he sees the squad set out.

No matter how delusional the goal, our Department of Defense has billions to spend attempting to achieve it.   Military contractors will promise to build it.  Our enemies will eagerly test it.

Unfortunately the hard work of recruiting, training, and retaining good people generates few profits and less applause — and so gets inadequate attention at the highest levels of the Pentagon.  When that changes our combination of tools and people will create armed forces like the world has seldom seen.

About the author (updated)

A Staff Sergeant in the National Guard, this young man served five years in the US Marines (two tours in Afghanistan, one in Kuwait).

In the 1938 novel Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, Joe Bonham was a young soldier serving in World War I, who awoke in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an artillery shell. He gradually realizes that he has lost his arms, legs, and face, but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body, and embarks on a struggle to communicate, and to retain his own sanity.

About The Attritionist Letters

An introduction from Editor in the May 2010 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette:

In 1942 the English author, C.S. Lewis published a novel in epistolary style titled “The Screwtape Letters.” The novel took the form of series of letters of advice from an experienced devil named Screwtape to his young nephew Wormwood. His protégé was having a difficult time in tempting and ruining souls. The novel is a thinly veiled postulation of faith and morals.

We have had a group of Marines, who I have allowed to remain anonymous, compile epistolary articles they have titled “ The Attritionist Letters.” They write provocatively about what they see as the ongoing clash between maneuver warfare advocates and attritionists. It is our hope that they will engender a spirited debate over the next several months as we publish their letters. I do not agree with every thing that they assert, but they also make points that are valid and well worth considering. One of the most important points I discovered soon after becoming the editor of the Gazette was that you will have the opportunity to publish points that you may or may not agree with and hope that the readers will take up the debate.

Read the Attritionist Letters here.

For more information

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  3. About military leaders in the 21st century: “Theirs Is to Reason Why”.
  4. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
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  7. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!.
  8. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  9. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  10. William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.



2 thoughts on “Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps”

  1. I know that this is an old article, but I place my comments anyway. I see the fear of future battlespaces behind the keyboard, but were Ender and his allies really hidden from battle. The book Ender’s Game seems a bit ambiguous here. While Ender’s leadership certainly were hidden from danger, Ender seems the one doing the real act of Commandering and leadership there. I may be corrected, yet I read the work not long ago and went through as thorough of a study as I believed necessary.

  2. I’d be interested in what military officers think about the follow up series “Ender’s Shadow” and its sequels. In that series, the other great military genius of “Ender’s Game”, Bean, learns how to command troops by leading them into battle and develops a small but very smart tactical unit that specializes in being able to do almost anything.

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