« From National Securit… | Home | The Bull, the Cape an… »

The Smartest Boy in the Room

(Spoiler Warning: This post describes important plot details of Ender’s Game written by Orson Scott Card.)

Ender Wiggin, the eponymous hero of Ender’s Game, has many characteristics, but his most important characteristic is his intelligence. Ender is the smartest boy in any room he is in, or ever could be in. But it isn’t memorizing facts or excelling in class that make him the best. No, his intelligence breaks down into two primary skills. The first is his ability to see through, break, and replace paradigms (We'll cover the second skill in a future post).  Ender does not become bogged down with staid thinking, thinking like everyone else. He is innovative. If there is a better way to do something, Ender develops it.

When my co-blogger and I were kids, our dad on multiple occasions told us that Generals always fight the last war. Thus, the French built the Maginot Line, knights were killed by long bows, and America designed the F-22 fighter jet--a jet that hasn’t yet flown a combat mission in the Global War on Terror. Ender, on the other hand, never fights the last war. He forces the enemy to fight his war.

How does Ender beat paradigms? How can you?

First, change your perception. When Ender boards a space shuttle, Ender teaches himself the different points of view of space. This way, he can see better than the other boys. When in the battle room--the zero gravity training room for the cadets at Ender's school--he sees the "gate as down." He views the room three dimensionally, and his tactics improve because of it. (To connect to counter-insurgency, I don't believe the US Military gets that the "gate is down" yet.)

Orson Scott Card writes about this in his introduction, saying he had “come to an understanding of history” (pg. xiii) when he saw that great Generals won wars by forcing their enemies to bend to their will, or their strategy. His key example is the difficulty fighter pilots in WWI had look up and down, thinking two dimensionally rather then three dimensionally. The pilot who changes his viewpoint, literally, wins the war.

Second, constantly think of new tactics. Ender uses others to force him to adapt to new modes of battle. In private practice sessions, Ender specifically tasks on his soldiers to develop new ideas for battle. These ideas challenge Ender to in turn develop new ideas.

Third, force the enemy to adapt to something he has never seen. Paradigms are just systems, patterns of thinking. If you disrupt that pattern, you can win. Ender does this when he first enters the video game room. He finds a game about digging tunnels and planting bombs. After watching for few minutes, Ender learns the patterns of the game and challenges a boy to play. The key line comes in the second game, “This time Ender was deft enough to pull off a few maneuvers the other boy had never seen before. His patterns couldn’t cope with them.” The other boy was unable to cope with the new patterns of strategy and loses because of it.

Fourth, ignore "conventional wisdom." It is conventional for a reason. The paradigm breaker ignores convention and beats it. This is also the primary reason that the book portrays someone so young. Ender must be a blank slate, uncorrupted by poor strategy and paradigms, if he is to win. His trainers isolate Ender, explaining, “Isolate him[Ender] enough that he remains creative- otherwise he’ll adopt to the system here and we’ll lose him.”

Fifth, change the value system. Twice in the novel, Ender forces himself to reevaluate his values. In the battle room, Ender performs an unthinkable strategy and wins because of it. For the buggers, he destroys their home world, something unthinkable to them. Each time, Ender changes the value system, and wins because of it.

four comments

1. I perception, I agree, is a key. If you a stuck within your own mind, your own preconceptions, your own experiences, you’re disadvantaged to knowing only what you’ve personally seen. Changing your perceptions, seeing as others see is invaluable. Sun Tzu; “Know your enemy as you know yourself.” To do so, you have to be able to perceive as your enemy does.
2. Innovation: you’re right, we cannot be stuck fighting the previous war. France’s Maginot Line is the best example.
3. Here’s where we step into dangerous territory. Innovation can be good, but it can also lead to more terrible weapons. The problem with showing your enemy something they haven’t seen is that tends to be interpreted as showing them your newest and deadliest and most devastating weapon.
4. I agree in part, conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason; because it usually applies. Don’t ignore conventional wisdom, but don’t be confined by it either.
5. Yes, changing the value system does make it easier for you to claim victory, but it also made Ender a monster. Changing your value system shouldn’t be considered. Confirm it, question it, but don’t alter it to make victory easier. Perhaps you’re more thinking adjust your military goals or be flexible with objectives.

I love your comment about cautioning about technology innovation as opposed to tactical innovation. The larger US military only thinks in terms of technological solutions. That is part of the reason why the moves towards population-centric COIN has been so hard.

And you are absolutely right about changing the value system being a tricky subject. Of course, why assume that changing a value system means only killing more or losing your values? Perhaps it means giving life or peace?

Wow, I feel like I just got took. Matt, you are totally right in that I wrote about the best ways to beat paradigms, but not whether you should.

3. This refers to both technology and tactics. The machine gun changed the battlefield, and knights who didn’t adapt to the long bow became dead knights.

4. Language wise it should be don’t be confined by conventional wisdom. But as we’ve written about, America is bogged down in conventional thinking about war, and we can’t get away from it.

5. America needs to change its value system, to something more beneficial. Ender had to change his to something more monstrous.

With regards to #5, my concern is that in times of war when you specifically see the worst of mankind, it is easier to compromise a set of values when villainizing your enemy. While I agree Michael that there could be a positive value shift and Eric that there needs to be, it’s rarer than the moral compromise.