There is no Combat without Movement: Ender’s Game as Maneuver Warfare Primer

Posted: January 28, 2013 by blogtarkin in Uncategorized
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Guest author Kyle Mizokami blogs on defense issues at Asia Security Watch and Japan Security Watch. He can be found on twitter at @KyleMizokami.

In the early 1980s, a series of books were published that explained what came to be called “maneuver warfare theory”. Maneuver warfare theory was presented as an alternative to what advocates dubbed attrition theory. Maneuver warfare postulated that warfare conducted with an emphasis identification of enemy “centers of gravity”, superior organizational flexibility and battlefield agility, among other things, was superior to attrition-based warfare. Maneuver warfare avoided costly force-on-force engagements to concentrate on enemy vulnerabilities.

The first, Maneuver Warfare Handbook by William S. Lind, was a hard-to-find book best located in university libraries. The book was written with the U.S. Marine Corps in mind, and illustrated theory with tactical problems. Next came Robert Leonhard’s The Art of Maneuver, a post-Gulf War meditation on maneuver warfare and the future of U.S. Army doctrine. The Marine Corps’ manual FMFM-1 Warfighting explained the Corps’ vision of maneuver warfare theory and practice. There have also been countless articles and explorations of maneuver warfare in various military journals, anthologies, and presentations.

Despite this aggregation of martial thought, the best book on maneuver warfare is in fact a 30 year old science fiction novel. Although incomplete in addressing all aspects of theory, Ender’s Game is one of the best books on maneuver warfare ever written.


Battleschool Arena

The Battle School Arena, rendered in LEGO by Mason Lindblad. Note the corners of the gate, they’ll matter later.

Ender’s Game was first published in 1985. A science fiction novel, it is the story of a young boy that saves mankind from an alien menace. Earth has twice been attacked by insectoid aliens called “The Buggers” or “Formics”, the second invasion having been a very near-run thing. Earth’s government, acknowledging the fact that it needs every advantage against the aliens it can generate, decides to try and breed military geniuses that can lead human space fleets to victory.

I first read Ender’s Game in 1986, in high school. Since then I’ve been continually surprised at it’s popularity. These days, Ender’s Game is particularly popular with geeks and hipsters. My wife read my high school copy, nearly thirty years old, which would have delighted my fifteen year old nerd self.

Ender’s Game follows child genius Ender Wiggin as he undergoes command selection and then training, first participating zero-g laser tag-like sim combat, then commanding platoons of other prodigies, then simulated fleets of Earth ships against buggers. Wiggin’s keenly observant mind, and his ability to innovate new tactics makes him mankind’s best bet. It’s those tactics he innovates that are of relevant interest to us.

Ender’s first taste of combat is in Battle School, where equally-sized “Armies” of 40 students fight battles in zero gravity using training lasers much like the modern-day MILES system. Once a student is hit he or she becomes immobilized and out of the fight. It’s conventional wisdom at Battle School that victory is achieved through killing off the other side. After that, the winning side takes touches the four corners of the enemy’s entrance gate, and passing one soldier through it. This is seen as more of a ritual than anything else.

As a lowly foot soldier in Salamander Army, Ender has an epiphany. The last soldier alive in a battle against Leopard Army, outnumbered 9-1, Ender freezes enough enemy soldiers just as they are about to touch the corners to prevent Leopard from controlling all of them. The battle, just moments before seen as a sure victory, ends in a draw.

Controlling all the corners of and passing through the enemy gate is not just ritual, it’s what wins the battle. Ender realizes that the traditional grinding battles of attrition are meaningless, and that in the end the only thing that matters is fulfilling the conditions of victory. It occurs to him that it is not the raw force that wins the battle, but rather the proper application of force that wins. In actuality, one side doesn’t even have to “freeze” any soldiers on the other side in order to win. Destruction of the enemy is irrelevant.

Ender has also discovered that the Focal Point of each battle (or as maneuver theorists like to put it, schwerpunkt) is the enemy’s gate and the four corners surrounding it. Ender’s predecessor, International Fleet commander Mazer Rackham, beat the Buggers in the Second Invasion by attacking their focal point. During the decisive battle of the invasion, with the human fleet vastly outnumbered, Mazer Rackham had figured out that there was one ship in particular–carrying an invading queen–that the Buggers were attempting to protect. Rackham made the ship his focal point and destroyed it, not realizing that the ship was directly acting as command and control for the entire Bugger fleet.

During the final battle at Command School, Ender made the planet his focal point. Ender equated the planet with the gate from Battle School, and poured everything he had at destroying it. Ender was unaware that the planet was actually the Formic homeworld, and that it was the focal point of the entire war.

Dislocation: Another maneuver warfare principle, dislocation is another discovery of Ender’s. Robert Leonhard, in his book Maneuver Warfare Handbook, describes what he calls “The Alcyoneus Principle”. According to Greek mythology, Hercules was unable to slay the giant Alcyoneus, who would spring back to life each time after being killed. Hercules only beat Alcyoneus when Athena whispered to him that the giant could not be defeated on his home soil of Pallene. Hercules proceeded to pick up the giant and carry him to a foreign land, whereupon he finally slew him.

Ender fights his own giant. Like other students, Ender plays video games in his spare time, games run by the Battle School computer that are veiled extensions of the school curriculum. Ender plays “The Giant’s Game”, a video game in which Ender faces off against a giant that kills players in particularly gruesome ways. No matter what the players do, the giant always wins.

Ender thinks “The Giant’s Game” is unwinnable until, in a moment of frustration, he attacks the giant by burrowing through the monster’s eyeball. Ender has learned that the only way to win the giant’s game is not to play, and force the giant to play his own.
Ender attacks the giant through his face, killing him, and there is peace in his video game land.

The two lessons, that of Hercules and Ender Wiggin, are virtually identical: dislocate the enemy by refusing to play to its strengths, while going to the enemy weaknesses.

John Boyd in Space: In Battle School the focus on attrition strategy has stalled innovation in tactics. Army commanders instead focus on unity of command and training. In response, Ender uses maneuver to achieve an advantage over the enemy. He hurries his troops out into the battle arena to gain the initiative; when that trick has been used he makes the enemy wait. And so on. Ender keeps the initiative by continually thinking up new tactics and retiring them before his enemies can adapt. The lack of innovation among other army commanders has lengthened their decision cycle, and they are unable to respond effectively when presented with new tactics. This is the Boydian decision cycle of maneuver warfare theorists.

Combined Arms and Presenting the Enemy With a Dilemma: By nature, combined arms is supposed to present the enemy with an unending series of dilemmas, alternating types of force. At one point in Battle School, deprived of cover to mask his soldiers’ advance, Ender even improvises combined arms by creating “tanks” made out of a frozen soldiers, complete with gunners, and sending them toward the enemy’s gate. The tank/infantry combination presents the enemy with a dilemma that they had never seen before, and which they are unable to solve in time.

Speed = Power: Speed is another. A small, fast force can achieve a decision through maneuver more rapidly than a large, slow force — particularly if it is faster than the enemy. Ender experiments with using ropes to send troops out at velocities the enemy had never seen before. In the final battle, with two armies pitted against his one, Ender uses speed to hurl a small force — with little margin for error — directly at the enemy gate.

Organizational Flexibility: Ender continues to inadvertedly explore maneuver warfare territory. Ender breaks down his 40-student army into five toons of eight soldiers, instead of the traditional four squads of ten. With each toon further broken down into half toons, that meant he could assign ten different maneuvers to his Army, more than any other army. This gave Ender more options in the deployment of his forces than his enemy, an organic organizational advantage over others. Organizing units for broader tactical flexibility, and the advantages it gave a commander, is something that Robert Leonhard discusses in The Art of Maneuver.

Delegation of Initiative to Subordinates: In a break with unofficial Battle School command philosophy, Ender gives increased initiative to his toon leaders. This harkens back to his experience as a foot soldier, where he saw opportunities to alter the battle go squandered as commanders attempt to preserve unity of command. Ender outlines his concept of operation and is in charge of the main effort, but allows his individual toon leaders to fight their own battles. The delegation of initiative to subordinates is yet another tenet of maneuver warfare philosophy.

Not all precepts of maneuver warfare are explored in the book. The concept of surfaces and gaps, for example, is notably absent. Certain events in the book ascribed to maneuver philosophy could be analyzed differently. Nevertheless, there are enough examples in the book to make a credible case for the book as a primer on maneuver theory.

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  1. Rebekah L says:

    This is a great post! I loved Ender’s Game, but I wasn’t aware of how much of it represented maneuver warfare. Thanks for the education. I love the Lego Battle Room pic too. I would have liked it even better if it had depicted the “enemy gate as down” :)

  2. J.W. Wartick says:

    Ender’s game is such an excellent book, and it’s good to learn that it also accurately reflects some realities about tactics. I found this a really insightful post. Thanks for posting!

  3. [...] There is no Combat without Movement: Ender’s Game as Maneuver Warfare Primer [...]

  4. AC says:

    Interesting analysis. But why do you not mention the author’s name?
    Orson Scott Card has written many excellent novels and Ender’s Game is only one book of a powerful series…

  5. anon says:

    If you want fun battle simulation stories try “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” at

  6. Samir Erraji says:

    Great post, thanks for the insight!

  7. This is not science fiction, I am sure the pentagon has live feeds of all popular combat online games, and stores and analyses it. I don’t see any of this combat theory as new, it’s just compartmentalizing much of common combat knowlege to fit a currently vogue set of buzz words.

  8. T. Greer says:

    I have always thought that Ender’s Game presented tactics brilliantly, but never could do the same for strategy. Mr. Card is more concerned with a discussing ethics than he is the hard realities of strategic decision. As I argued in a review written over at my place several years ago:

    A Few Thoughts on Ender’s Game
    T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 12 September 2010.

    “For Ender’s Game is just as much a story about agency and morality as it a tale of adventure and war. The focus is not on the methods Ender uses to destroy one enemy fleet after another, but on how Ender is manipulated into doing so. With his crowning victory Ender has committed xenocide. He did not mean to. If he had known the nature of the game he was playing he may never have played it. But Ender did not know the nature of his game. He did not see the destruction of worlds, but the “bleeps” and “bloops” of a video game.

    This is why I have trouble taking the comparisons made between the fascists of Europe and Ender (highlighted by Fabius Maximus in the post noted above) seriously. Ender Wiggins could never be Adolf Hitler. Hitler was not being manipulated by the system; Hitler was the system. He knew exactly what he was doing. Hitler and Ender lived parallel lives and committed parallel crimes – but their desires, intentions, and above all else, the extent of their knowledge was radically different. Condemning Ender is condemning a man for sins he never knew were his.

    This is one of — if not the — overriding themes of Ender’s Game. Can a man who does not know the consequences of his actions commit a crime? This theme pervades the book; it can be seen from its first chapter to its closing page. Ender’s childhood story is one of pain and abuse at the hands of other children. The novel opens with a group of bullies cornering the young child – only to see Ender lash out and viciously attack the head bully, “hoping to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse” (Ender’s Game, p. 5). He leaves the scene, crying because of his own brutality but sure that the bullies will never bother him again. Colonel Graff, commander of the Battle School, visits him that very day to ask why he attacked with such ferocity. Upon learning that Ender acted in self defense the Colonel whisks Ender away to his school among the stars. Ender never learns what the reader knows by the end of the chapter: the bully Ender destroyed died of his wounds. Humanity would be doomed if their super-weapon was plagued by moral demons. Colonel Graff ensures that Ender would never know just how deadly a weapon he is.

    Orson Scott Card wants his reader to question the ethics of this scene. Ender has just murdered, but is he a murderer? His intent was pure and he did not comprehend the consequences of his actions. Does that negate the crime? It is a quandary juries confront every year. The discussion Card seeks is one that every society seeking justice must have.

    But not on the battlefield.

    Soldiers operate in an environment where information is limited but the consequences of their actions are not. This is not the world of Ender’s Game. Ender plays as a prodigy, a superman among supermen, all powerful in the sterile and perfectly controlled BattleRoom. You will find no supermen among the soldiers of our armed forces – our men and women are but mortal beings, and their battlefields are anything but controlled. Some may claim a similarity in position: like Ender, most soldiers are pawns in the larger system. But unlike Ender, every soldier must bear the consequences of the decisions he or she makes. The soldier who accidentally kills an innocent man will have no Colonel Graff to come and hide the body before news of the death is known. That the deed is done in ignorance or by accident does not change that it was done. In times of war the fruits of a soldier’s labors will be tasted. That a soldier had the best of intentions does not lessen the moral shock of killing an innocent man. That a soldier acted without full understanding of the situation does not change the tactical or strategic consequences of his actions.”

  9. [...] maneuver warfare blog post that spawned this [...]

  10. [...] I have a guest essay up at Grand Blog Tarkin: There Is No Combat Without Movement: Ender’s Game As Maneuver Warfare Primer. [...]

  11. […] There is No Combat Without Movement- A very different look at Ender’s Game which explores the use of military tactics in the book. […]

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