Posted by David Deutsch on the TCS List on Sun, 13 Oct., 1996.
[A poster] wondered whether TCS can be a fully general theory of education, given its apparent incompatibility with the needs of military education and organisation:
This may be an appropriate opportunity to mention the single area where I find TCS educational theory to be implausible: military organisation. I am not yet able to imagine a military force in which which the fighters learn and organise along TCS lines and have the whole achieve the effectiveness required to pose a credible military threat.
Historically this difficulty is represented by the overall success of regimented armies over tribal armies. Regimentation, such as gave the Romans their important military edge, was accomplished through institutionalised coercion.
And in a later post:
If TCS is adequate as a general theory of education – which it does seem to claim – then it must apply to the learning required for military organization just as it would to any other learning. But TCS relationships appear to be irreconcilable with the basic form relied on for military organisation. This is the tension I'd like to help resolve.
In the long run I hope that individual autonomy becomes pervasive and consistent in our society, even in solutions to military problems. But these must be real solutions, not just applications of individualism which result in a critical loss of military readiness. Until a military organisation which relies on unlimited personal discretion can be better, in military reality, than organisations which rely on coercion, it would seem we must rely on coercion for adequate solutions.
In this last sentence, I think, there is implicitly the answer to [the poster's] question. We must surely distinguish the organisational and political problems involved in reforming institutions to make them more consensual, from any inherent problems with consent – ways in which the very fact of being non-coercive might make military organisation or education less effective. I would readily agree that there are many problems of the first kind. It may well be unrealistic to expect the military to lead the rest of society in changing to non-coercive relationships and organisation. But as for inherent problems, I strongly dispute that there are any.
I was surprised to see [this poster], who has so often championed the idea of spontaneous order, drawing the wrong conclusion from “historically ... the overall success of regimented armies over tribal armies”, and that this “was accomplished through institutionalised coercion”. Organisation wins over chaos – that is unsurprising. This does not imply that tyranny wins over freedom! Historically many things have been accomplished through institutionalised coercion that are nevertheless far better done through free cooperation. The pyramids were built by slave labour. But people would have been wrong to conclude from this that there there is an inherent problem in envisaging a volunteer-only skyscraper-building system.
However, it is true that to get from their building system to ours they would have had to undertake a great deal of institutional reform, which would require creativity. (For instance, as a bare minimum they would presumably have had to institute a free market in labour and commodities, and some sort of banking system too.) Similarly the way we defend ourselves militarily cannot be reformed by fiat, overnight. Better solutions have to evolve, and this requires creative thought and (preferably) the intention to make things less coercive, which is of course absent at the moment. Such creativity will only be applied in earnest when the theoretical understanding becomes prevalent that there is something – including increased military effectiveness – to be gained from reducing coercion.
So what are the alleged inherent conflicts between non-coercion and military effectiveness?
[The poster] mentions individuality. Soldiers, to be effective, have to subordinate themselves to the overall plan.
The most obvious difference between a family situation and a military situation is how much default from assistance can occur before a person is effectively outside the group.
I think he means that, for instance, a child can refuse to fetch the towel from the swimming pool when asked to, without in any way risking destroying the family, but a soldier who refuses to fetch the shells to reload the gun when asked to has committed a massive betrayal and would have to be expelled from the group at the very least.
But as I have mentioned before, the degree of conformity expected from members of an orchestra is even greater than that. A single moment of inattention (let alone crass disobedience) to the precise instructions of the conductor can spoil the whole performance for everyone. Moreover, traditional music teaching has always been highly coercive. Yet that is not an inherent feature of music. There are, and have always been, people who devote themselves passionately and voluntarily to the appropriate forms of discipline. And in many orchestras there is a strong atmosphere of joint responsibility, of finding common preferences, rather than blind obedience to one person's interpretation.
Notice that even today, in elite military units, such as the SAS, there is a similar atmosphere, and a studied deviation from the standard traditions. To a great extent they do strive for common preferences. It is taken for granted that everyone's opinion is valuable, that the commander's opinion can be criticised and may be false. Ranks are not used (except for the commander, who is known as the “boss”). Everyone is on first name terms. Everyone feels both jointly responsible and personally committed to the success of each mission. The creativity released by this more consensual form of organisation (I'm not saying they are fully non-coercive!) is directly responsible for the increased military effectiveness of such units.
Another supposed problem is the lack of time to arrive at common preferences in emergencies.
Indeed I anticipate that reviewing the decisions of different members would be an important difficulty in a non-coercive military – if such a thing has any viability.
Certainly it would be an important preoccupation of such an army. Finding common preferences would be the engine of such an army's organisation, just as maintaining deference, obedience and chains of command are in today's military. But why would it be a problem? They would not do much of this decision-reviewing on the battlefield, any more than an orchestra interrupts its performance to reach agreement on disputed issues of interpretation. But the quality of the performance, indeed the very precision and enthusiasm of their devotion to a common goal, is a direct consequence of their having reached common preferences during their preparations.
But what about the necessity for charging mindlessly into the enemy's machine gun fire, without question, when ordered to? Well, it may be received opinion that war – or at least success in war – is characterised by such mindlessness, but I am sure this is a myth. I am reminded of General Patton's speech to his soldiers: “You're not here to die for your country. You're here to make the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Success in war, like success in all other human endeavours of any value, is primarily a matter of creativity. Everything else flows from that.
Of course there are moments in war that call for heroism and risk, and even sacrifice. The same is true of many other human activities where no one would dream of suggesting military style organisation. Many medical researchers, for instance, have tried out a new drug or treatment on themselves, because it is deemed too dangerous to try even on volunteers. Many explorers have sacrificed their lives in the cause of science, or to save each other in situations very similar to those that call for sacrifice on the battlefield. No one ordered them to do it, and they did not have to be trained to mindless obedience. On the contrary, it was the very fact that the common purpose was also their own personal purpose – made so by institutions of consent, which enabled them to create common preferences – that made such behaviour natural. Even everyday activities can call for moments of sacrifice. Which of you parents would not jump in front of your child, ready to take the bullet, if a gunman suddenly appeared when you are in a bank?
So in summary, there is every reason to believe that there is room for great improvement in military education and organisation, that would make them consensual as well as increasing military effectiveness. This cannot be done by fiat, but there is no inherent limit on how well it can be done by creativity. If we had any seriously threatening enemies I would say that such reforms were a matter of urgency. As it is, I'd say they can wait on the back burner.