Battle Plans, Strategy, and Equilibrium (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 4)

It’s hard to talk about the First World War without at least a nod towards the war plans and strategies that the belligerents carried into the war—and that subsequently went pretty poorly for nearly all of them. Today, following Tuesday’s discussion of the crises that made a general war feel inevitable, we spent some time in the heads of the generals and civilians that would plot out how such a war would be fought. However, rather than look at France’s embarrassment in the Battle of the Frontiers, Germany’s disaster on the Marne, or Austria’s failure to crush Serbia to judge war plans, we looked at the strategic environment in which the plans were made—which makes even the Schlieffen/Moltke plan look a lot less crazy than folks often think it is.

To illustrate the problem today—that of planning a battle when you’d like to meet an opponent’s attack, while she would like to attack around your defenses—we rely on the Colonel Blotto game, which looks something like this:

blotto

The first thing we establish is that, if we’re looking at pure strategies (that is, choosing one with probability one given some action of the other player), there’s no obvious way to play the game: 1 wants to attack the right (left) if 2 defends the left (right), while 2 wants to defend where 1 attacks. As a result, each possible pair of choices has a profitable deviation; one player wants to change her action at any possible equilibrium.

How, then, should players (read: military planners) approach this problem? Technically, we say that players solve the problem by playing mixed strategies—that is, randomizing over their actions at a specific rate—but the essential idea behind it is being unpredictable: by making it difficult to guess where I’ll defend or attack, I can blunt any advantage my opponent would have by knowing the placement of my army, and vice versa. Since one’s opponent isn’t sure of where the attack will come from, she assigns probabilities to each one, which is what gives the “mixing” part of the strategies their substantive bite. This, of course, is why planners try to keep their strategies secret, why states work so hard to uncover one another’s plans, and why successfully learning another side’s battle plan can play such a critical role in the outcome of battles.

So what’s the relevance of the Blotto game for military planning ahead of World War I? I’d say it boils down to a few things:

  • since each side can try to blunt the other’s advantage, no one is going to do as well as possible in expectation
  • in fact, every possible outcome (1 running into 2’s defenses and 1 running successfully around them) occurs with some chance
  • these two facts make it very difficult to judge the wisdom of a military strategy ex post, because being unpredictable, being secretive, etc. opens up a range of possible outcomes
  • the best way to judge a strategy, then, is to look at the strategic environment in which it was formed.

This, I think, is pretty instructive, especially in the complex environment of strategizing before World War I. After walking through the solution to the Blotto game, we took each of the principal belligerents in turn—France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Britain—and assessed the extent to which their plans aimed at (a) blunting potential opponents’ advantages and (b) overcoming opponents’ attempts to blunt their own, and it turned out to be pretty fruitful. When we see battle plans—even the Schlieffen/Moltke plan—as compromises among what are often a lot of bad options…we see them a bit more accurately than we do when judging them only on their outcomes.

Next week, though, we get to see these plans put into action—Germany’s attempted envelopment of Paris, France’s attack into western Germany, the Dual Monarchy’s decision to prioritize Serbia over Russia, and the latter’s attempts to shore up Poland by engaging in both East Prussia and Galicia—as the July Crisis erupts and ultimately turns into the Great War. I, for one, can’t wait.

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3 thoughts on “Battle Plans, Strategy, and Equilibrium (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 4)

  1. Pingback: German aims in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 5) | The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: A look back on exam day (WWI in Real Time, Exam 1) | The Wolf Den

  3. Pingback: The opening of the war in the West (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 13) | The Wolf Den

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