Military Rationalities and Irrationalities

by pscheyer1 min read9th Sep 201358 comments


Organizational Culture & DesignWar
Personal Blog

In response to the question

"Does anyone happen to know of reliable ways for increasing one's supply of executive function, by the way? I seem to run out of it very quickly in general."


I posted that my military experience seems effectively designed to increase executive function. Some examples of this from myself and metastable are

Uniforms- not having to think about your wardrobe, ever, saves a lot of time, mental effort, and money. Steve Jobs and President Obama are known for also using uniforms specifically for this purpose.

PT- Daily, routinized exercise. Done in a way that very few people are deciding what comes next.

-Maximum use of daylight hours

Med Group and Force Support-Minimized high-risk projects outside of workplace (paternalistic health care, insurance, and in many cases, housing and continuing education.)


After a moment's thought it occurred to me that there are some double-edged swords in Military Rationality as well, some of which lead to classic jokes like 'Military Intelligence is an oxymoron.'


Regulations- A select few 'experts' create policies which everyone else is required to follow at all times. Unfortunately these experts are never (never ever) encouraged to consider knock-on effects. Ugh.


Anybody else have insights on the military they want to share here? I feel a couple of good posts on increasing executive function might come out of a discussion on the rationalities and irrationalities of the armed forces.


58 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:42 AM
New Comment

I would guess that the military's obsession with cleanliness and neatness also helps conserve executive function. Being in a messy, disorganized, visually unappealing environment probably puts a lot of strain on your visual cortex, which leaves less cognitive resources available for decision-making. Paul Graham wrote something similar:

A cluttered room saps one's spirits. One reason, obviously, is that there's less room for people in a room full of stuff. But there's more going on than that. I think humans constantly scan their environment to build a mental model of what's around them. And the harder a scene is to parse, the less energy you have left for conscious thoughts. A cluttered room is literally exhausting.

I'll second this.

I became hyperaware of this (and many other things in the same space) after my stroke; my available attention was severely constrained and for a few weeks during rehab I would do noticeably better on cognitive tests if I kept my room empty. (Going outside was overwhelming.)

I no longer notice the difference unless I'm paying very close attention to my internal state, because I have cognitive capacity to spare now and I am profligate with it, but the effect remains real.

Keeping things neat and clean also serves as a reminder for a helpful kind of self image. If you're the kind of person who can't even properly keep your house clean, how could you possibly muster your willpower for any other challenges?

The one thing that the military taught me, if you can even consider it "rationality", was to not be paralyzed by indecision if you have insufficient information. This is what I was thinking of when Luke critiques the "straw rationalist" on his Facing The Intelligence Explosion website.

"A 70 percent solution now is better than a 100 percent solution later" ~USMC

(You may disagree, depending on your field).

[-][anonymous]7y 9

In his excellent and completed 'History of Rome' podcast, Mike Duncan said that he once signed up fora class on Roman philosophy. The entire term was on military tactics and strategy - because that was Roman philosophy.

Sounds Klingonesque.

Thomas Ricks and other have argued that the military does not provide senior officers with strong incentives for competence or excellence. (This is usually presented as two overlapping claims: 1) Performance of current officers would improve if they were given stronger incentives; 2) The military's lower competence officers ought to be removed from command so as to ensure that only highly-competent senior officers remain in command.) Paul Yingling: "As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

Measuring success in war related matters isn't easy.

The US army did a lot of bad things because generals got the goal of achieve a high body count of dead Taliban.

I think that statement right there is the crux of it.

I have mixed feelings on Clausewitz, but one thing I that did seep in from my first read of On War was that it is very hard to achieve success (let alone measure it) if you don't have a clear idea of what your goal is. "Kill lots of enemy" is not particularly good goal.

And, ironically, this goal was apparently set by a failed-out Air National Guard pilot.

Removing the less competent officers is obviously a good call, but how does that call get made? How is it different than what is currently being done?

I disagree with the logic that being given stronger incentives will help senior officers win wars. What kind of incentives/disincentives could be offered? Increasing monetary rewards or job promotions could lead to ethical violations, while at the same time not necessarily helping our performance.

Fear of losing their job? I would guess that the most common reason for a senior officer gets kicked out is sexual harassment and/or adultery and/or fraternization. Namely, all the sexual violations. Somehow, knowledge that if they get caught they will get kicked out (or thrown in the brig) has not seemed to affect people's actions very much.

I agree with Yingling's quote, although losing a rifle is almost always your fault; losing a war, however, is a much more complex issue than "I left it outside while I was using the head..."

Double Edged: Strict Heirarchy. More 'qualified' individuals give orders to others and such orders must be followed. This frees subordinates to expend mental function on how to carry out orders, and frees superiors to watch the big picture. Unfortunately promotion is not based on ability to convert a bigger picture into effective orders, and difficulties in coming up with good promotion criteria lead to it becoming largely a gerontocracy and promotion of highly unqualified technical experts out of areas of their domain-specific expertise.

In fact, it's worse than this. Job A is subordinate to job B. You get promoted to job B if you are better at job A than your peers, even though the skill sets may be entirely unrelated. This lowers the average performance on job A, and puts someone new in charge who may not be good at job B.

This isn't an entirely fair analysis, because often being good just means being willing to put in an actual effort to the job, which is transferrable. And this is basically how promotions work everywhere. But it's still a worrisome model.

Edit: I talked to my friend who's father is in the military, and she says this: "In the military, my dad says you want to be the guy they can replace. You want to streamline things as best you can, fill your role, and do what you can to make the whole system run better, but without YOU specifically. Because they don't want to promote someone who they need where he is"

Ah, the old Peter Principle and its opposite, the Inverse Peter Principle.

Peter Principle: If you're competent, you get promoted. If you're not competent but not bad enough to fire, you stay where you are. Therefore, all positions will eventually become filled with incompetent people.

Inverse Peter Principle: Anyone who is competent soon becomes irreplaceable and therefore ineligible for promotion. The only people who are promoted are those who aren't good enough to stay in their current position but aren't bad enough to fire outright.

Both patterns have been seen in large organizations.

I first heard of the second one as "the Dilbert Principal": in any organisation, incompetent individuals are systematically promoted to the position where they can do the least damage: management. Funny (darkly funny if you've come across it personally), but I'm not sure ow true it really is.

Or "Percussive Sublimation" as Peter and Hull called it. Also colloquially called being kicked upstairs, which apparently goes back to 1684. (Warning: TVTropes link. Interestingly, although it has the usual list of media examples at the end, the content is all about real life. Is TVTropes extending into LifeTropes?)

And there are earlier echos:

There is a phrase in Latin: Promoveatur ut amoveatur - "Let him be promoted to get him out of the way." It was apparently a pretty common one, not unbelievable considering the nepotist bureaucratic nightmare that was the Roman Empire.

the nepotist bureaucratic nightmare that was the Roman Empire

One of my goals with this thread is to figure out how to avoid such nepotist bureaucratic nightmares, which have historically dominated the long-term outlook of empires from China to Rome to, increasingly, the US.

The traditional solution is periodic revolutions.

I'm not sure you're focusing on the right problem.

The Roman Empire's biggest problem wasn't nepotism, it was that the office of Emperor had no clear rules for succession. This tended to result in civil wars between the most powerful generals whenever it came to be vacant.

Inverse Peter Principle: Anyone who is competent soon becomes irreplaceable and therefore ineligible for promotion. The only people who are promoted are those who aren't good enough to stay in their current position but aren't bad enough to fire outright.

A useful data point: one thing they repeatedly emphasized to me in management training, was that if someone was irreplaceable, FIRE THEM IMMEDIATELY. Do not promote them. Do not keep them around. FIRE THEM. Otherwise they will become a challenge to your leadership, and you will continue to have to make larger and larger concessions to their idiosyncracies. People must be just competent enough to get the work done, but not competent enough to dictate terms, or the entire leadership hierarchy breaks down.

(This concept was a major contributor to my walking away from future management opportunities)

Are you sure it actually was management training and not a PHB (pointy-haired boss) tutorial?

Can you describe an empirically detectable difference?

Generalizing a particular experience to the entire world is perilous :-) Yours sounds particularly bad.

Management is a necessary skill, a lot of smart people do management, some of them are willing to train others.

Generalizing a particular experience to the entire world is perilous :-)

True, but that wasn't what I was doing. And if you can describe an empirically detectable difference, I WOULD appreciate it.

However, the specific adage "if someone is irreplaceable, fire them immediately" was repeated to me many, many times, by many different consultants and managers, even before I started that training.

(The original argument for it was apparently different - "anyone who is irreplaceable must spend more time defending their territory / looking for opportunities to be irreplaceable than actually doing their job, therefore they must be unproductive and contentious, therefore firing them will improve company culture" - but it evolved reasonably quickly into "anyone who understands things better than you is a threat to your power base")

And if you can describe an empirically detectable difference, I WOULD appreciate it.

I am not quite sure what are you asking. What is proper management training? How to recognize it? Are you doubting that management training is a legitimately useful activity?

By the way, having irreplaceable people is bad, but not because they are a threat. The issue is the "hit by the bus" problem (will your organization survive if the irreplaceable person is hit by a bus tonight?) and the solution is to train more people to the same skill/competency level.

Oh, and, of course, anyone you can fire is not really irreplaceable.

By the way, having irreplaceable people is bad, but not because they are a threat. The issue is the "hit by the bus" problem (will your organization survive if the irreplaceable person is hit by a bus tonight?) and the solution is to train more people to the same skill/competency level.

Absolutely. My proposed solution was to reassign the 'irreplaceable' to training potential back-ups, and only firing those that refuse to do so. (A lot of people found this idea problematic, because it could lead to them creating unofficial coalitions and favor networks that did not respect the command structure).

What's up with the fetish of "the command structure" in your organization? The preoccupation with power politics seem very dysfunctional.

It wasn't a single organization; these were consultant seminars, which is why I felt comfortable making somewhat broader generalizations about the corporate environment.

Note that at the time, the subset of consultation I was involved with had something of a hero worship for "Neutron Jack" Welch and was rather obsessive about "innovative business and accounting practices" of the sort that Enron had just been hit hard for.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

This can explain plenty of network behaviour I have seen. Thanks for that explanation!

[-][anonymous]5y 1

One factor that may explain this is that critical thinking is in a sense compartmentalised in intelligence functions.

Air Force Intelligence Officers do analysis, and their soldiers do analysis. However, in the Navy, intelligence sailors do analysis but there the officers are drawn from a common pool of naval officers under complex selection criterion (and not advertised to the public. This further emphasises that job design occurs as a crude greedy algorithm where the first generation of Officers where assigned the general job of defence and designed subordinate functions and roles from there, who in turn delegated responsibility downward without propogating information back up (which would be more like a neural network).

I want to take this opportunity to discourage any LessWrongers from joining the military, intelligence or not: In a year, a garison'd armu unit of 338 personnel sustained 242 neck, low back, ankle, patella and knee ligament injurie. It's the only public study of its kind AFAIK. And they weren't even infantry soldiers. That's an obscenely high rate of injury. Joining the military, even if you're not in combat, is probably bad for your health. The author doesn't go into categorising the injuries into chronic and acute, but presumably some of them are chronic. I wouldn't want to endure that after discharge. I already have chronic pain. I don't want you to want this.

My story is that I underreported medical symptoms, mental health in particular when I first wanted to sign up for the ADF, then after putting my application on hold to study more, when I had to redo a medical form, I reported more issues (I overreported things which I didn't quite had - self diagnosed). The nurse wasn't happy about this. The biggest issue was the second time I DID report the mental health issues, but when the nurse interviewed me about these due to her concerns over the discrepencies betweeen the first time and the second time, I lied out of shame and said I only saw a psychiatrist twice, just went on one antidepressant for a short time and no other medications, and that was about it. And that my back pain was just temporary and not a big deal. She asked for details of these in writing from my GP to confirm. Unfortunatley I had already disclosed the identity of my GP and location of the university health service, so I really would have to go back there and ask for them to send their summary to the military who would see that I've clearly lied. I'll no doubt get blacklisted straight away from the job, but also from like any security clearance. I reckon I could probably still get a job in a foreign military partner of Australia, like the United Kingdom or something. However, I reckon that the intelligence sharing agreemnts could possible mean they also share personnel security info. Its unlikely, but mite bite me sometime in my career - and I've demonstrated I'm shit at lying and would probably fail a serious security clerance thing anyway! I just have to hope that the foreign allies will be cool with my honest mental health admissions and such, and go for jobs that don't require any serious clearance! I made a mistake, but I've learned a lot!

Call me a pussy but becoming say a medic in new zealand, while extremely appealing for the low barriers for entry, in-demand qualifications and practical skills I'll gain, not to mention cash, community and respect, may not be worth it given how cold NZ is in the Winter!

Update 2016: I still haven't squashed my military adventure fantasies. I need to remind myself that I'm not likely to be much more fit about military experience because I would like to become injured, particularly because of my history of muskeletal injury. 'Osteopath Paul Raw agrees: 'I've seen a lot of ex-soldiers with bad backs because the idea of military-style training is to push yourself beyond your limit. This means the likelihood of eventual injury is high. It's a British thing I think, to assume that exercise must equal pain.' I really ought to cut out my option by telling the recruiters about my chronic pain, so I don't do something rash, gradually. Or, perhaps if I just push this idea aside I'll stop compulsively thinking about it. Maybe intrusive thoughts on the matter should be indication enough that it's an unhealthy idea.

Legion is out too. It also seems that the minimum 2800-meter (1.7 mile) run in 12 minutes cooper test score for the legion is harder than a level 10 beep test so I ought not to try for the Legion, given my weak fitness!. Comments like this make it seem even less appealing: '....are not very sanitary, so watch as you are in the marching and chow line to the people that are blowing snot-rockets bare-handed or coughing into their hands and plunging them into the huge bread baskets, this is probably how I became sick. '

Interesting effect of that last point: it improves the military's robustness to taking casualties.

One interesting implication of this is that if you're really good it's possible to have quite a wide impact.

Mmm. There are qualifications. First, your orders are enforced by other people- and limited by their ability to understand and adapt your orders. As time goes on and your orders are outdated, they will not be updated until someone of equal or greater rank devotes both attention and personnel to updating them, and it is rare for this to happen until something definitively proves they are outdated (an incident of some sort).

So, yes, a wide impact. But not a wide impact at your top quality level, a wide impact at the level that manages to percolate through your chain of subordinates and a persistent impact (for better or worse) until an incident causes a policy update.

Enforced sleep schedule: I've probably never slept better than in the military. As a downside passed out exactly at 10pm at late night social events. I also learned to nap in the most uncomfortable environments.

That last part would help me. I used to have horrific insomnia and sleeping issues, but I've since resolved most of the issue with ridiculous amounts of change to my environment (blacked out my room, got an AC, heater, humidifier, etc., and learned how to use them to always make the temperature and humidity perfect, got an extremely comfortable setup with my bed etc., clean regularly to remove as many potential allergens as possible, and a ton of other things). So now I can fall asleep...unless I'm at someone else's house. Then I'm screwed.

Things that probably helped:

  • no caffeine or alcohol whatsoever
  • constant slight sleep deprivation
  • you couldn't choose how you slept so there was no point in obsessing about it
  • you were often physically uncomfortable, so even having a chance to lay down made a big difference
  • if you wanted to sleep or nap, there usually was only a small time frame to try it (had to learn tricks to go to sleep quickly)
  • light physical activity most of the time, lots of time spent standing upright
  • sleeping was many times the most exciting you could do, it worked as escapism
  • had the same routines every evenings
  • 1min after waking up had to be outside and running

Cultivating a sense of perfectionism in the most mundane aspects of life is probably what most militaries employ. This includes overlearning everything from folding bedsheets and shining your boots to complicated drills and executing all kinds of personal maintenance with minimal amount of time. Apply long enough, and winging it won't even cross your mind anymore. I think this is a very useful idea if correctly and moderately applied. Strict hierarchy helps the practice, obviously.

The well meaning idea didn't get that well applied during my conscription. I learned to fold my bedsheets like a pro, but hardly learned how to shoot a weapon.

The reason while you had limited instruction in shooting a weapon was probably due to a related problem I observed.

The military spends lavish sums on expensive capital equipment and human resources, but it seems to pinch pennies on the small stuff. For example, I recall being assigned numerous times to various cleanup details, and noticed we would never have any shortage of manpower - often 10+ people, but there would be an acute shortage of mops, cleaning rags, and chemicals.

Similarly, we all had rifles, but live ammunition to train with was in very short supply. I would mentally compute how backwards this was. It costs the government several hundred dollars in pay and benefits to have each one of us standing around for a day, yet they were pinching pennies on ammo that cost maybe 10 cents a round.

I don't know what causes these backwards situations, where you would be drowning in expensive equipment and people yet critically short of cheap, basic supplies, but I've seen many references to the problem.

It costs the government several hundred dollars in pay and benefits to have each one of us standing around for a day, yet they were pinching pennies on ammo that cost maybe 10 cents a round.

This is pretty standard everywhere, not just in the military. To an accountant payroll is a fixed expense they have no control over (hiring and firing decisions are made by a different department). So they save on what they can control.

Also, there's often value to having people available to work, over and above the value of having them working right this moment. Firing people the first day there's no work for them to do (or even the first week, or the first month) isn't necessarily optimal.

So even if they had control over hiring and firing, they wouldn't necessarily want to change anything. In other words, it might be a legitimate fixed cost, not just something being treated as one by a bureaucratic mind.

Of course, it would be still better to use people maximally efficiently once they're hired.

Agreed, and to expand i would say that the level of capital devoted to a task is how much it actually needs to be done. Cheap, basic supplies are for tasks which are really not important and if they were, they could be done by people other than military personnel more cheaply. A few token mops just shows that you need something to give the E-2s or their morale goes in the shitter. Mission-essential bases have janitorial contractors.

I'm not sure it would be better to use people maximally efficiently once they're hired! That is an interesting question. Personally i would rather have them idle and available to be tasked with important missions that may come up than 'busy' all the time for the sake of busyness, which is how 'use people maximally efficiently because we have them' tend to play out.

Availability for tasks is a valuable task, but it needs subtle thinking to evaluate (option pricing for one).

The difference between efficient and effective is relevant here.

If there are no useful things ("important missions") for people to do, filling their time with busywork might be efficient but is hardly effective.

Part of the money for expensive equipment goes to lobbyists who are responsible for those things being brought.

There not as much money to lobby for buying more mops.

For both you and hyporational, which countries are you talking about?

Finland. Please don't scheme to invade us or we'll mop you to submission.

I was exaggerating a bit. What I mean there was no hope of becoming any good with the minimal training. I have fired and know how to handle a pistol, an assault rifle, a machine gun, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, a bazooka, an antiaircraft gun and have thrown a live grenade once. Can't really hit anything with them...

I'm not sure if the lack of training was because of pinching pennies on ammo, but I wouldn't be surprised because of all the other kinds of nonsense. We had an abundance of mops, though.

American Air Force is the same.

Hahaha, exact same thing here. The US Air Force makes a big thing out of attention to detail- a single errant fold in a bedsheet or T-shirt results in the entire 50 person unit's crap being thrown everywhere and all of you have to do it again.

In contrast, we went to the shooting range once and had to hit the target a single time out of 40 shots to pass. In fairness, if the AF is using rifles everything is pear-shaped anyway.

Guys can make their wardrobe more uniform like by figuring out a few useful permutations in a brand/size that fits you and then getting various colors that go well together. This probably works less well for women, who are expected to differentiate more.

Meh. I've never felt that wardrobe variety is particularly expected of me. I suspect a similar approach would work well for women who just want to get clothing out of the way.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

My decision rule works like this:


To minimise attire decision fatigue


Get attire that:

  • maximises mobility, thermal comfort, decency and accessibility

  • minimises cost and components

Nike techfleece jumper + Chanel (yes, men's) dress pant + Nike Runners for casual wear and any kind of formal dress shoes cause they're all bad for your feet, bad for running, and not that great looking anyway + Uniqlo Collared shirt switched for a tshirt when sleeping and another tshirt to wear underneath to keep the sweat away, or a stripped down combination of that, appears to be the most versatile, minimal, comfortable, warm but mobile and professional mix I can find. I've convinced many people in my city to go with that combo somehow.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Not sure if it involves supply of executive function , but I'm reminded of Kaj_Solata's own post to like each other, sing and dance in synchrony . He specifically mentioned military drill as an example.

I suspect that "executive function" as an individual is very different from executive function in the context of a highly collective institution like a military unit.

The collectiveness itself conserves executive function of the individual by making bad decisions very costly. Doing the right thing becomes a no-brainer.

Screw up once, your whole unit is punished. Screw up twice, everyone hates your guts.

Wish I had a study group watched over by a drill sergeant...

On a semi-related note, I hear that certain elite elements of the military are more or less the best (only?) game in town for being surrounded by extremely competent people.

Are they extremely competent as a result of having gone through the training programs for these extremely elite branches, or do the extremely elite branches select for extreme competence?

Also, what is generalized "competence"?

Both. Let me explain using a concrete example of how it happens using the elites from my own field, military computer security.

First, a problem is pointed out. Usually because an adversary pearl harbors something (like a base network goes down.). A commander (usually general level, this is really all they do besides give speeches) picks someone recommended by their staff and their staff's friends. The person picked is usually one of the few very competent people in the military. This person is given absolute dictator-level power and responsibility over the subject area wherever it does not interact with subject areas controlled by a higher-ranking person.

This person's first task is to pick people to make a training program for more people in the field (the 'single point of failure' policy). They pick their friends, who are also likely among the few very competent people, and they get together and actually consult with training experts, have complete authority to make training programs (SERE training includes torturing/beating people and forcing them to eat live animal parts to prepare them for being captured and living in the wild, as an example.)

The person's second task is to requisition people for the field as a 'special duty.' In order to be eligible for special duties you always require basic competence (if your pt scores are bad or you have any poor marks on your record, no go), but you can also require advanced competence (pararescue has a swim test, cybersecurity requires S+ and is moving toward CISSP certifications.)

The third task is to remove the threat using the people and the training program, and they are personally responsible and accountable for making sure the threat is removed. There are no excuses, not even reasonable ones like 'no human being knew that was possible!' or 'there is not enough money in the world to solve this.' The commander comes up with an effective, efficient way of addressing the threat, or they are removed from command.

So, you have training programs which are effective at improving competence (domain-specific competence), and you have personnel entering them who already display a modicum of this DScompetence and a basic level of generalized competence (they have followed the basic military rules like pt, get to work on time, do what you're trained to do, don't break the law.). You get your pick of the applicants, including for training and the people who make regulations.

Over time this urgency fades and you're left with enforcing the (however outdated) legacy of those effective people from whenever the last pearl harbor incident was.