Monday, January 4, 2010

Rational vs. Traditional Warfare: the Mongols and the Shawnee

The historical origin of the phrase "on the warpath" in American English is underappreciated; in fact, you can go for a stroll on literal, physical warpaths around the eastern United States. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America, there already existed in a network of footpaths used for trade, communication, or warfare between nations. Certain of the paths were traditionally used more often than others for war, especially by the well-traveled Shawnee - hence the name, in Shawnee, Athawominee - path where they go armed.

The Great Warpath ran along the Great Valley of the Appalachians (the light pink band on this map).

It's critical to recognize that the warpath was not necessarily the easiest path between two warring nations, but a traditional path used during military conflict. It was a system of war that even enemies agreed on. Traveling the warpath signaled to friend and foe alike that you were going to war. By obeying the same set of mores, this means that enemies had made an inter-cultural agreement of sorts, a Geneva convention for pre-contact America.

It should seem strange that such a tradition would persist. War results when the interests of two nations have become so estranged that at least one party abandons the sub-optimizing but non-zero-sum agreements of civilization to achieve its ends through zero-sum violence. At this stage, there is no negotiation or mutually agreed restraint to be had; adherence to rules when rules are being discarded in favor of brute self-interest would seem to make survival more difficult; and those so naive as to follow some code of conduct would swiftly perish from the Earth. Sometimes in violent conflict, both parties behave themselves (sub-optimize) in ways that obviously and immediately benefit them both; for example, trading prisoners, not shooting at medical personnel, etc. - but even those are quickly tossed out in times of desperation. So how could the idea of a traditional warpath survive?

To a modern military mind, it's bad enough that your army might have to travel through a single pass or over a single bridge, because that means your route will be predictable to your enemy, and they can attack you at your most vulnerable. But to voluntarily use a traditional route only because it's the traditional thing to do seems like sheer folly. If you're a Shawnee chief, it seems the best tactic would be to spread false rumors that your men have been sighted on the warpath, but meanwhile sneak over a ridge and attack your Cherokee foes in their predictable location on the path. The Cherokees might be scandalized by your dishonorable behavior, but who cares? They're dead, and you won.

Traditional Warfare vs. Rational Warfare

Traditional warfare may best be summarized by anthropologist Warren Morrill's comment regarding "wars" in the New Guinea highlands: "It's more like football. They won't fight in the rain because then their make-up would run." You would think that any neolithic people with such a preoccupation with cosmetics would quickly perish from the Earth; not only is this untrue, but until recently in history, traditional warfare was the norm.

And that is exactly the mystery. For the majority of human history and prehistory, the conduct of warfare probably resembled the puzzlingly cooperative military endeavors on Appalachian warpaths more than it did the rational war that modern armies conduct. By "rational" I mean warfare that is characterized by clear goal-setting, critical thinking to achieve those goals, and disregard of traditional mores in the pursuit of achieving them. Rational war can be, but is not necessarily, total war (involving the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure as military objectives). A hallmark of rational war is the adoption (even from the enemy) of innovations based on their effectiveness, and the elimination of military practices involving systems of custom, tradition and honor. It should be emphasized that as "rational" is used here, rational and moral will often be opposed - World War I was a major step forward toward rational war. More often than not rational warfare results in more death and suffering.

Rational War Comes to the Americas All On Its Own

It's important to emphasize that rational war is not an invention of evil Post-Enlightenment Europeans who dragged the world out of Edenic traditional innocence. In eastern North America, immediately to the north of the aforementioned warpath was the Iroquois Confederacy, who at least twice in the seventeenth century practiced total war and genocide in the pursuit of territorial expansion and elimination of adversaries (the Huron and the Susquehannock). It's clear that the Iroquois did not feel any need to avoid dishonor by keeping to the warpath, which is why they earned harsher-than-usual epithets from their neighbors, helpful nicknames like "black snakes" and "penis heads". And they didn't care, because they won.

Sometimes indigenous North Americans did have tricks that the European colonists didn't. When a 22-year-old Colonel Washington fought the French at Fort Necessity, he faced a combined force of French and Indians who used guerilla tactics - hiding behind trees, jumping out to take a shot, then hiding again. While this seems like common sense today, the French had just learned it from the Indians, and as a good British officer, Washington was of course shocked at their cowardice. After all, the honorable European way to fight in the eighteenth century was to stand in rows, fire, then kneel while you reloaded. The French and Indians didn't care, because they won (at least that battle). A little over two decades on, now-General Washington had learned his lesson, and fought his former commanders using the same tactics that had cost him Fort Necessity. The British considered his behavior cowardly, but you know where this is going. While this is far from an exhaustive survey, it certainly seems - and makes sense - that if all other things in battle are equal, if you cheat and throw out honor and tradition while rationally pursuing a clear goal, you win.

Rational War in Eurasia

The Aztecs had wheels on toys, but never thought to use them for actual work. Reading the military history of ancient Eurasia presents innovations that to us seem blindingly obvious but that nonetheless had to start somewhere. In the West at least, there was no such thing as the use of, and training in, standardized weapons and tactics (at least consistently) until they were introduced by Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar's uncle. Accounts of warfare in the ancient world often read more like confused gang-fights with 20,000 on each side than like battles.

Critical thinking about warfare was still surprisingly slow to get off the ground, and like the Eastern American woodland nations, Eurasians were ripe for exploitation. It's been said by military historians that the thirteenth-century Mongols behaved strikingly like a modern army set down in medieval Eurasia. Among other things their officer-equivalents were promoted based on - who knew - meritocracy, rather than family connections or whether they were popular with the local witch doctors and medicine men. There were no warpaths for the Mongols, though they did allow themselves to become sentimental when they executed royal enemies. When the armies of this same people encountered medieval Europeans, encumbered as they were with notions of Christendom and battlefield etiquette, the results were predictable. The Mongols didn't care, and not only did they win, they established the largest land empire ever to exist on Earth.

Game Theory: Traditional Warfare and the Long Term

Hulagu Khan, grandson of Jenghiz, whose army sacked Baghdad in 1258.

One criticism of game theory is that it tends to focus on "winning" isolated contests in the here and now at the expense of the long-term. In extreme cases these are called Pyrrhic victories. This is one limitation of individual reason in general - we employ simplifying abstractions that allow us to solve problems considered semantically in short-term memory. This has proved powerful for humans but results in unintended consequences over longer time periods than the individual's lifespan (and which are therefore more difficult to anticipate.). It's necessary to make simplifying assumptions to develop theories; but a simplifying assumption that a game is one-round or defined-length is anything but trivial to applications of game theory. In real life, games with a clearly defined number of "rounds" are very rare.

For many organisms including humans, most competitions for resources (money, food, territory mates) not only go on continuously for life, they involve frequent contact and even cooperation with conspecifics. Furthermore, game outcomes are not either-or. An aggressive animal always willing to fight may in fact win every fight, but will still accumulate injuries that a more docile animal might not. Always optimizing every round will not necessarily win the game.

The difference between traditional and rational warfare is the application of critical thinking. Humans are the only animal with a brain powerful enough that we can confuse ourselves by being able to solve short-term problems rationally instead of performing instinctive ("dumb") sub-optimization. War is a high-stakes instantiation of game theory, and players who follow traditional warfare rules would seem to handicap themselves by limiting their moves and making themselves more predictable; then again, they're behaving more like our pre-rational ancestors.

So if the Mongol model is so much more effective than the Shawnee model, why do we ever see warpaths, in eastern North America or anywhere else? Why retain any traditions in warfare when it's plausible that they're actively pernicious to the retainers?

To this point there are four possibilities that leap to mind explaining the persistence of traditional warfare. First is that traditional vs. rational models of warfare have no long-term outcome on the success of the culture that holds the associated values; they're just noise. Second, it's possible that this small survey is non-representative and there there is no problem, that just as game theory predicts there really is a global species-wide bias toward rational warfare, and that this small sample is masking it. Third is that it was just a matter of time, and we happen to be in a transition period toward rational warfare; that is, all those remaining traditional-warfare cultures in New Guinea will either have to adapt, or will be assimilated/destroyed by neighbors in the near future.

The most intriguing possibility is that there is actually pressure against rational warfare for reasons which aren't immediately obvious. An immediate parallel to game theory comes to mind, that it's better in Prisoner's Dilemma to forgive single defectors (but not double or worse defectors); otherwise the game turns into a string of mutual recriminations, to the benefit of neither player.

A mechanism for this is more difficult to construct but if these four hypotheses exhaust the possibilities and the first three are incorrect, than this must be it. Could it be (for example) that any culture willing to ignore inter-cultural military conduct codes inevitably implodes due to its disrespect for tradition (a kind of "rational warfare Fermi paradox")? If there actually is some pressure against rational war, it's difficult to imagine how such regulation is being imposed on its practitioners (that is, the Hurons and the Caliphs weren't in any position to make the Iroquois and Mongols start following the rules of honorable warfare). It's also tempting to draw an analogy between the distribution of the rational warfare meme and the self-limiting spread of a too-virulent pathogen, but the virulence mechanism is entirely different. In any event, this homeostasis-like pressure is likely visible over the extreme long-term, in complex ways, after countless game-theory rounds have elapsed. But even given the surprising persistence in modern times of traditional modes of warfare, in terms of casualties from warfare, far and away the predominant character of warfare on Earth today is rational, and it's unlikely that this will change. This is new in history as of the past century and if there will be long-term effects - ones which tend to eliminate the practitioners of rational war from circulation - we should, obviously, try to find out what they are.


TGP said...

Consider this: 'rational' war is harder to stop than 'traditional' war. Traditional forms of warfare also often come with traditional forms of reconciliation.

The goals may be different as well. The British didn't want to wipe out the Colonies. They wanted to pacify them. The Colonists wanted to kick the British out. Roman centurions wouldn't have had 'shock and awe' power if they didn't come down the hillside like a Borg cube.

If you're a superior force, you may fight in a more traditional way because of the psychological advantage. If you're at a disadvantage, you fight rationally if you want a chance to prevail.

In a battle between equals, it depends on the goal. WWII was a good example of basically equal forces fighting rationally. The Cold War was a good example of equals fighting with traditional restrictions. MacArthur was relieved of command because he wanted to press rational war past the 38th parallel. Truman was counting coup because you don't take scalps when both sides have nukes.

AndyR said...

It seems apparent to me that while we regularly practice rational warfare, we (and the armies of the world) are ever ready to go traditional in a nuclear winner takes all.

Michael Caton said...

First - TGP: regarding fighting traditional vs rational depending on how things are going - I submit that a) there's no existential threat to your culture in most traditional warfare settings and b) until you're expose to the idea of rational war (or total war) it's hard to conceive of; therefore, tactical (dis)advantage won't affect whether one fights traditional vs. rational. You risk losing face and a few warriors being killed, a few women being carried off; e.g., Arikara vs. Lakota. In rational warfare against a superior foe, even if you wipe out the people you're fighting on the battlefield, you're still screwed, unless you're in a position to make a bee-line for their production or political centers; e.g., Lakota vs. Union troops at Little Bighorn (they weren't in such a position). The only rational thing in such a situation is to (probably dishonorably) cede your territory and get everybody out, which is what Chief Joseph did with the Nez Perce when he got all of his people across the border from Camas Prairie in Idaho to Canada. And it's what the Modoc chiefs SHOULD have done when they were holed up in the Lava Beds. It's becoming apparent that I've spent too much damn time driving around the Western U.S.

AndyR, I'm not sure I understand your statement. I would argue that a nuclear winner-take-all scenario is the exact opposite of traditional warfare. It's actually the ultimate expression of "rational" warfare, where one side can literally end the game by the complete destruction of the other. To boil it down, traditional warfare involves indefinite-duration games (they can't be completely ended; you know that after the battle you'll have to live and trade with these funny-talking people across the river) and are driven by instinct rather than semantic reasoning. We're now in a situation where we're smart enough to reason out warfare (science applied to violence) and our technology allows us to win the game. You could even trot out the old saw that international competitions like the Olympics are forms of contrived traditional warfare. Another example of contrived traditional warfare (but with actual violence) is the Aztec Flower Wars.

By your comment you might mean that a nuclear winner-take-all scenario would effectively reduce a large part of the world to the stone age, where the post-war breakdown of institutions to teach critical thinking and history would make traditional forms of warfare more prevalent, which is possible.