‘Ender’s Game’ and Maneuver Warfare
How the famed sci-fi novel reflects a revolution in military thinking
In the mid-1980s a theory of warfare gained new prominence. The idea is to avoid large force-on-force attacks, use speed instead of firepower and strike at the enemy’s vulnerabilities. Proponents describe it as fighting smart. You attack the enemy’s thinking, forcing on him an unending chain of hard choices.
Practiced sporadically in ancient times, used heavily in World War II and still practiced today, it’s called “maneuver warfare.”
At the same time the concept was gaining new popularity, an award-winning military science fiction novel was released. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is now a sci-fi classic.
By some strange, serendipitous coincidence, Ender’s Game is the best book on maneuver warfare ever written—and a contemporary of the theory’s renewed prominence. If you've ever read the novel, you've been exposed to some pretty smart ideas for waging war.
The novel and the doctrine
Ender’s Game was published in 1985. It’s the story of a boy who saves humanity from an alien menace. Earth has been twice attacked by insectoid aliens called “Buggers.” Earth’s government, acknowledging that it needs every advantage against the aliens, decides to breed military geniuses to lead human space fleets to victory.
The novel follows child genius Ender Wiggin as he undergoes command selection and then training, first participating in zero-g simulated individual combat and later commanding platoons of other prodigies and simulated fleets of Earth ships. Ender’s keen mind and his ability to innovate new tactics make him mankind’s best bet.
Warning, spoilers ahead.
Ender’s first taste of combat is in Battle School, where armies of 40 students each fight battles in zero gravity using training lasers. When a student is hit, he is out of the fight.
It’s conventional wisdom at Battle School that victory is achieved by killing off the other side. After that, the winners take the four corners of the enemy’s entrance gate and pass one soldier through it.
As a foot soldier in Salamander Army, Ender has an epiphany. The last soldier alive in a battle against Leopard Army, outnumbered nine to one, Ender freezes enough enemy soldiers just as they are about to touch the corners to prevent Leopard from controlling all of them.
The battle ends in a draw.
Ender has discovered that the focal point of each battle is the enemy’s gate and the four corners surrounding it. 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 is not raw force that wins the battle, but rather proper application of force that wins. You don’t even have to freeze any enemy soldiers in order to win. That idea is encoded in the very DNA of maneuver warfare.
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, Rackham figured out that there was one ship in particular—carrying an invading queen—that the Buggers were attempting to protect.
Rackham realized the ship was somehow important, made it his focal point and destroyed it. The humans later learned that the ship controlled the entire Bugger fleet.
The invasion was defeated.
In the final battle at Command School, Ender makes the enemy planet—not the fleet protecting it—his focal point. Ender equates the planet with the gate from Battle School, and concentrates everything he has on destroying it. Ender is unaware that the planet is actually the alien homeworld, and that it’s the focal point of the entire war.
Robert Leonhard, in 1991's The Art of Maneuver, describes what he calls the “Alcyoneus Principle.” It’s another key tenet of maneuver warfare.
According to Greek mythology, Hercules was unable to slay the giant Alcyoneus, who would spring back to life each time he was slain. Hercules only beat Alcyoneus after 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, he plays video games in his spare time—games run by the Battle School computer that are veiled extensions of the school curriculum.
One of these is the “Giant’s 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 initially believes the Giant’s Game is unwinnable until, in a moment of frustration, he attacks the giant by burrowing through the monster’s eyeball. The only way to win is to not play by the giant’s rules—and force the giant to play by Ender’s rules.
The two lessons, those of Hercules and Ender, are virtually identical: dislocate the enemy by refusing to play to his strengths.
Be faster, more often than the enemy
Battle School’s focus on attrition strategy has stalled innovation in tactics. Ender realizes this, and varies his tactics to gain the advantage. He hurries his troops out into the battle arena to gain the initiative. When the enemy begins to expect this trick, Ender inverts it—and deploys slowly, forcing the opposition to wait.
And so on. Ender maintains the initiative by continually thinking up new tactics and retiring them before his enemies can adapt. This is the so-called “observe, orient, decide and act” concept promoted by maneuver warfare theorists. The faster you can observe the enemy, orient yourself to react to him, decide what to do and act on your decision, the more likely you are to win.
At one point in Battle School, deprived of cover to mask his soldiers’ advance, Ender even creates “tanks” out of a frozen soldiers and sends them toward the enemy’s gate with “live” soldiers as escorts. The tank/infantry combination is an echo of U.S. Army combined arms doctrine that is central to maneuver warfare.
For anyone who thinks military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz is a bit too stodgy, philosopher Sun Tzu a bit too ancient and 1980s warfare doctrine too jargony, there’s Ender’s Game. Millions of people have read the classic sci-fi novel and absorbed advanced military theory without even realizing it.
Revised to reflect reader comments. A version of this essay originally appeared at Grand Blog Tarkin. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.