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Best-Laid Plans

March 31, 2003

Tags The Police StateWar and Foreign PolicyWorld History

Explaining why the opening blows in the War on Iraq did not go as planned, General William Wallace offered this revealing, damning, and now-famous comment: "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different from the one we had war-gamed against." 

The remark "ignited the ire of the White House," the Washington Post reports. Why? Wallace broke the cardinal rule of all central planning: never admit error. In the real world, the missteps of the war are not surprising. It's not unusual that a government action did not go as planned, or as "gamed," to use General Wallace's verb.

The game in question was called Millennium Challenge 2002, played over three weeks during last July and August. At a cost of $250 million, the military involved 13,500 personnel from all four services to wage a mock war (in nine live settings and 17 simulations).  In the game, everything was designed to go right for the U.S.: weapons were accurate, soldiers were fast and agile, and the command was all knowing. Enemies rolled over when faced with an impressive military machine. The U.S. won the game.  

But as General Paul Van Riper complained, the game was "almost entirely scripted to ensure a U.S. win." In early runs of the game, Riper was asked to play the enemy and attempt to elude the U.S. planners. When he succeeded in doing so, the game was changed to diminish the role of human volition on his side. Once the game became purely static, the planners won handily. 

War gaming may be the newest term for the static trial runs that government officials use as proxies for a real-world that always surprises them. If we want to call war planning a "social science"—that's how the Pentagon thinks of it—what we have here is a classic error: the belief that government policy and its effects can be modeled in the same way as the physical sciences. 

But as Ludwig von Mises says, "in the field of purposive human action and social relations no experiments can be made and no experiments have ever been made." To the extent that models deal with real conditions, all data used in the model are derived from history. The future is something else entirely. Conditions change. Variables and change cannot be isolated from other variables and changes. 

In the games planners play, the model builder wins by outsmarting an opponent programmed to react in predictable ways. The conclusion is decided by the assumptions built into the system. The more variables in the game, the harder it becomes to win. As for truly unpredictable and unknown variables, the kind we associate with acts of human will, they cannot be modeled. If this is true in peace, it is all the more true in war. 

Nonetheless, the planners never give up. Whether attempting to impose a national "energy plan" or engaging in large-scale war planning, the authorities never seem to give up their models. 

Indeed, the attempt to model the unmodelable dates way back. 

The socialists in the 1930s dismissed Mises's claim that central planning could not work because it does not generate prices necessary for economic calculation. The answer, they said, is to assign prices to goods based on all available information. Get the inputs right, they said, and the outputs would be right too. 

Mises's response was that the games of central planners have nothing to do with the demands placed on the market in the real world. Entrepreneurs must discover the values and priorities of consumers through a real-world process of trial and error. Divvying up capital between competing ends requires property titles, the ability to exchange, and the freedom to choose. The fact of exchange generates market prices that permit profits and losses to be calculated, and hence guide production. 

Central planners who attempt to replicate this process within the structure of an equation or a static game simulation are fooling themselves. They are merely playing a game called "market," and not truly engaging the real world. 

Mises's critique of central planning applies in peacetime or wartime. Central planners are apt to make calamitous mistakes whether the aim is to produce wealth (in peacetime) or destroy it (in wartime). The game called "war" is no better at preparing central planners for real life than the game called "market."

What's especially interesting is how attempts at central planning display a series of highly typical features. Whether we are talking about a Brezhnev-style economic plan, a New-Deal-style antidepression program, or the current war against Iraq, government planners are inclined toward the same failings: 

Overutilization of resources. At the outset, the war planners anticipated that a few strategically placed bombs, and a massive display of human will combined with plenty of psychological operations, would be enough to achieve victory. The same approach has been adopted by all central planners in all times. Faced with the sudden reality that the first round of plans didn't work, the response is wholly predictable: more of the same. 

When one "stimulus plan" fails to revive an economy, the government's approach is to spend ever more money or drive interest rates ever lower. In war, the approach is to drop more bombs and send more troops. If something goes wrong, it is because insufficient resources have been supplied. We are familiar with this line of thinking from the proponents of the welfare state. But the same is true for the warfare state. The rationale behind this approach in war is to convey to the enemy—whether that enemy is a recession or a foreign foe—that planners really mean business. 

In a world of liberty and peace, the economy is always working to do more with less. No entrepreneur has the luxury of just throwing more money and labor at a problem. When the enterprise is not profitable, the capitalist seeks to economize and reassess. The exact opposite impulse drives the socialist planner or war planner. Instead of cutting, capital and labor are overutilized, while the underlying plan remains unchanged, with the result of increased squandering, destruction, and eventual collapse. 

Not accounting for error. Central planners attempt to plan for contingencies but rarely consider that they may have missed something fundamental. It is well established that the war planners made two crucial assumptions in the current war: that the Iraqi government would topple in days and that the Americans would be welcomed by one and all. 

Someone planning the war forgot to consider the reality that has dominated the entire gulf region for ten years: the hatred engendered by deadly sanctions. Hardly anyone in D.C. wants to consider these and their effects on the political constellation in the Mid East. They have ruined the image of America as a force for liberation. But the war planners turned a blind eye to this, even after the September 11th terrorists specifically cited the sanctions as an underlying source of their hate. 

It is evidently the case that most Iraqis are more anxious to be liberated from American sanctions followed by the American invasion than they are to be liberated from Saddam, no matter how bad he is. In fact, the invasion has made Saddam a folk hero throughout a region where he was previously unpopular. This is the big picture that the war planners completely missed. They failed to critically examine the possibility that the Iraqis will resent the invaders even more than their own government. 

Underestimating the will to resist. The great error of all central planners is to assume that there will be no unanticipated consequences associated with their policies. They believe that once people have the merits of the plan explained to them, they will go along with it. The people are the clay and the planners are the masters, so their hubristic minds believe. 

But the truth is that people are not automatons and there are other forces at work besides the will of the planning regime. People resist central economic plans and they resist wartime plans too. The usual response of the planner when faced with resistance is to liquidate those who dare not go along. Once these meddlesome troublemakers are eliminated, they believe, the results of the plan will begin to show. In the Ukraine in the 1930s, and Cambodia in the 1970s, that was pretty much everyone. 

The refusal to admit error. Wallace's open admission that something was amiss was highly unusual. How many times in recent days have we received assurance that military planners have "full confidence in the plan"? Why do they persist in making such radically implausible claims? Do they really expect us to accept the idea that they are infallible, to ignore all the piles of evidence pouring in that events have belied every expectation? And why do they believe that we are going to be comforted in the fact that they are ignoring every bit of this evidence? 

The public might actually be more supportive if the central planners were willing to admit error. But that is not the way of the planners. They believe that they must posture as gods on earth while insisting on total deference. Even more frightening, they might actually believe they are gods on earth and that anything that appears to contradict their plans is mere illusion or must be, by definition, a small menace that is easily overcome. The truth is that if Iraqis do not want the Americans there, we face a choice: either make peace and get out, or administer the entire country as a large-scale prison. 

Assuming that the world is ours for the making. In the simple-minded view of the central planners, society is infinitely malleable. It takes the form imposed on it by bayonets and bombs. The planners are loath to admit that there are forces beyond their control, forces like culture, economics, and the inherent limits of power to accomplish its aims. The people who planned the war on Iraq dismiss suggestions that perhaps not everyone in Iraq is going to be overjoyed at the prospect of gaining freedom through bombing, destruction, and martial law administered by a U.S. military dictatorship. They dismiss the possibility that resources to impose the plan may eventually run out. 

Looking to the future, there are many people in Washington who have opinions on how best to manage a post-war Iraq. They have probably "gamed" this scenario too, and come up with the idea that Iraq needs a military dictatorship for a time. But the advocates of dictatorship always assume that they will be in a position to make all the decisions. They consider the viability of their own plan and not the possibility that someone else's plan will prevail. 

Let's grant the unrealistic assumption that one plan will prevail in a postwar Iraq. What is the big picture that the planners are overlooking in this case? It is that every plan for dictatorship relies on a relentless beating of the population into submission. Only those blinded by ideology can dare call this liberation. 

Persisting in ignorance. F.A. Hayek described the voluntary society as one of continual learning. We might describe government planning as one in which ignorance persists no matter what. The people who gave us Millennium Challenge, in fact, have prepared another war game called Olympic Challenge and Pinnacle Challenge—both are games that build "on what we learn from MC02" particularly as it affects RDO. 

And what is RDO? The very embodiment of the best-laid plan

A rapid decisive operation (RDO) will integrate knowledge, C2, and operations to achieve the desired political/military effect. In preparing for and conducting a rapid decisive operation, the military acts in concert with and leverages the other instruments of national power to understand and reduce the regional adversary's critical capabilities and coherence. The U.S. and its allies asymmetrically assault the adversary from directions and in dimensions against which he has no counter, dictating the terms and tempo of the operation. The adversary, suffering from the loss of coherence and unable to achieve his objectives, chooses to cease actions that are against U.S. interests or has his capabilities defeated.

The world would be a much safer place if the planners would stick to their games and leave real life alone. 

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. (Rockwell@mises.org) is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com.


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