thread: 2006-03-05 : No, THIS is the perfect medium

On 2006-03-06, Sydney Freedberg wrote:


The problem with studying the military is that it's easy to get hung up on all the fiddly numbers—an RPG has X range, but an M1 has Y armor, but an RPG costs Z.... Screw it. It's like people discussing the relative merits of different kinds of power tools for home construction without know what the difference is between "floor," "wall," and "roof."

So let's get back to basics, which no one ever teaches you, because War Iz Bad 4 Puppies & Other Livin Thingz, so young boys are left to learn about it on the street like sex before the sixties.


There are three things you can do in a fight:

1. HURT THE OTHER GUY—how hard can you hit the other guy with your rock/RPG/railgun?
2. PROTECT YOURSELF—how hard are you to hit, and how hard a hit can you take?
3. MOVE AROUND—how fast can you move, over whatever ground?

The core dilemma: Anything you do to make yourself better at one of these things makes you worse at one or both of the others.

That applies on all scales:
1) "As long as I stay in this ditch, they can't shoot me! But I can't shoot back, unless I stand up—which makes it easier for them to shoot me, too—and I can't move except back and forth in the ditch—unless I get out and run—which makes it easier for them to shoot me and I'll be moving too fast too aim."
2) "Men, form a square! Excellent, now Napoleon's cavalry cannot hope to overrun us. But with men facing all four directions instead of in a line, we can't concentrate our musket fire against any one target, and if we wanted to march anywhere, we would really move faster in column formation."
3) "This new tank has impenetrable armor! But that means no engine we can put in it will move it very fast. And if we want to put a bigger gun in it, it'll be even slower, unless we get rid of some armor...."
4) "Our clan has always been safe in the mountains! If those filthy lowlanders try to attack, we just slaughter them like sheep in the narrow passes! Of course, if we try to attack the lowlanders, they just slaughter us coming out the other end of the passes. And even in a year with little snow, we can barely move warriors from one village to another."

See how the same iron triangle of tradeoffs repeats itself? The only way out of the dilemma—sometimes!—is higher technology, but even then, once you get the more powerful engine for your tank (or whatever), you just move from your old trade-space to a new, slightly better trade-space.


Three functions:
Hurt the other guy.
Protect yourself.
Move around.

Three combat arms:
Infantry. (In ancient times, this means specifically your spearmen, axemen, swordsmen, whatever).
Artillery. (In ancient times, this means your archers more than your siege engines, which aren't much use in open battle).
Armor. (Until the invention of the tank, cavalry).

Okay, everybody: Which of the three arms is best at which function? I don't know how to do the funky "this text only shows up when highlighted thing," so the answer's just out there nekkid below. Don't scroll down yet—think about it for a moment before looking.

[imagine me humming Jeopardy theme]

Okay, ready?

Pencils down....

Artillery is best at... hurting the other guy.
Infantry is best at...protecting yourself.
Armor is best at...moving around.

"But it's armor!" I can hear someone yelling. "It's got, y'know, armor on it! And a big gun! Yeah!"

Yes, it does. But it is also a big, noisy target.

Here's the basic thing about the human body: It's pretty small. It's pretty light. It's even compressible, within limits. Human bodies can crawl through tiny, narrow tunnels (a Viet Cong favorite), or hide behind trees (think American Revolution vs Brits), or live like rats the rubble of a ruined city (e.g. Stalingrad), or pack into flimsy boats and wade to shore, or pack into airplanes and jump out to drift down on a piece of silk (an 82nd Airborne favorite), or stand literally shoulder-to-shoulder in a dense mass holding pointy spears or pikes or muskets with bayonets towards an enemy (everyone from the ancient British to the redcoats).

You can't get a tank to do any of those things, or, in early ages, a horse: Can't fit in the tunnel unless it's made really huge; will throw a track (or break a leg) in the rubble unless you go really carefully; can't pack into the same tiny boats; can't pack into planes, unless the planes are really big, and can't jump out without tremendous prep work; can't pack as close together.

The advantage of infantry is not that they're cheap. The advantage of infantry is that they're small.

Before the machinegun, the main way smallness became an advantage was in that packing problem: You may be able to line up 10 horsemen, charging knee to knee, to attack me, but I can line up 20 footmen in the same space, plus another 20 right behind them sticking spears over their comrades' shoulders. After the machinegun, the main way smallness becomes an advantage is taking cover: You may be carrying foot-thick armor plate, but I can dig a hole and surround myself with six feet of dirt.

So why does anyone ride in a tank, or on a horse?

Because victory in battle is not about charging headlong into the other guy and seeing how our weapons compare to their armor and vice versa. Victory in battle is about going around the other guy and killing something he cares about while he's not there: his family, at the ugliest; his headquarters, if you're more refined. If you have to fight someone, at least go around and hit him from behind.

The main advantage of a tank is not its tons of armor, or its gigantic cannon. The main advantage of the tank is the ability to move.

The importance of the armor is that it lets the tank keep moving even if someone's shooting a machinegun at it and dropping artillery shells near it—conditions under which horses cannot keep moving and survive, which is why World War I forced people to invent the tank. (Which is another of our triple dilemma tradeoffs: Yes, the tank is higher technology than the horse, so it's both much better protected and much more powerful at hurting the enemy—but its mobility is arguably worse on many kinds of terrain).

Then we've got "artillery"—which, as a theoretical construct, can mean "an enormous howitzer" or "an English longbowman at Agincourt." It's all the same function. They can't protect themselves as well as other combat arms (compare longbowman to a mounted knight or to an armored footman with a big shield, or the howitzer to a tank or an infantryman who's hit the dirt). They can't move as fast (even a self-propelled artillery piece generally has to stop to fire, which a tank doesn't). But they are optimized to hurt the other guy as badly as possible at the longest distance, which is a damned handy thing.

In modern warfare, artillery is often the biggest killer. (Unless you have ethnic militias slaughtering each others' villages....). But here's the thing: deadly is not always decisive.

If I just have artillery (the power to hurt you), I can pound you endlessly and slaughter you...until you come up and destroy my vulnerable guns.

If I just have infantry (the power to protect myself), I can survive all sorts of pounding...until you move around me faster than I can keep up and destroy what I've left unguarded.

If I just have armor/cavalry (the power to move), I can keep outmaneuvering your most dangerous forces, keeping away from your power to hurt me and not testing your power to protect yourself...but I can never force a decision.

The combinations are left as an exercise for the reader, because I'm tired. Think about it, though: Infantry + Armor with no Artillery, Artillery + Armor with no Infantry, etc. etc. You're always missing something essential.

Coming at some damned point: Dislocation, culmination, and why even the best military unit is unready for battle most of the time.


This makes TLR go "Didn't learn in school?"
I think everyone has learned how to play Paper-Rock-Scissors. The ulitmate wargame.

This makes NinJ go "My answers and reasoning, in the interest of full disclosure"
HtOG: Infantry. You've got a lot of guys and they can only hide behind things in so many directions, assuming a modern, 3-d battlefield, not a you-start-at-your-side-I'll-start-at-mine.
PY: Artillery. They're at the back for a reason.
MA: armor. They've got the armor because they're in the front, so the self-protection and armor cancel themselves out.

Nonetheless, I see what you mean, given the idea that infantry can dig in and artillery hits from far away.

This makes SF go "J, close but backward"
The artillery's at the back because it can't protect itself. And oh, you'd be amazed at the places an infantryman can find to hide in the most unlikely places -- and if you can't hide, you can at least shrink the size of target you present, which vehicles can't: and my one paintball experience taught me "prone as as good as partial cover, standing is as good as dead."

This makes SF go "TLR - it's non-arbitrary rock-paper-scissors"
Imagine how the game would be different if winning with "rock" meant something different than winning with "scissors," which in turn mean something different from winning with "paper" -- and if each of them was easier or harder in specific conditions.

This makes NinJ go "Oh, that's an interesting model for a game there, Sydney."

This makes KSb go "Agincourt"
Just to be pendantic, but some peole say it was the terrain that defeated the french cavalry at Agincourt, not the longbow man. But it still serves your point, mobility - aka strong asset - denied = slaughter.

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