Ender's Game: A lack of phronesis

By Maj Ryan Pallas

“Experience was obviously the best teacher, but rarely would the soldier have the luxury of choosing the time, manner, or place of his experiences. In the absence of actual combat experience, Scharnhorst believed that history would provide the officer with a repository of ideas and methods for use in battle.” – Charles Edward White “The Enlightened Soldier”

I am an advocate for military education, now more than ever.  One would think the war games given to Ender would bolster my stance on how effective education through the use of tough, realistic training is.  My take on the novel, although useful for combat training there is a noticeable lack of historical significance and education given to Ender.  Ender is given half of the equation.  He fights a war thinking it’s a game.  His innocence and naivety are his downfall, his tactical prowess and leadership are his strengths.  Ender is an example that without knowledge, the skills taught become useless when implemented.  A larger debate looms, knowledge vs. wisdom.  As the Greeks call it, phronesis (wisdom), is the true guide.  Ender lacks exactly that.

In a recent article by Joe Byerly (https://fromthegreennotebook.com/2019/06/06/the-goal-of-self-development-knowledge-vs-wisdom)  “Wisdom should be the goal of self-development.  Wisdom takes a lifetime.  It comes from the deliberate investment in your development in your development.  It comes from studying the past.  It comes from both success and failure.  It comes from taking the time to reflect on experiences until we find the lessons we need to learn.”  Ender lacks historical significance to make the best possible decisions.  Ender is implemented as a tool by the military, which recruits and trains young children, to battle the buggers, without hesitation.  When reading that last sentence one could argue the military at present, recruits young men and women to do the same thing (buggers can be any adversary the U.S. could face).  So, where is the difference?  The difference lies in our education.  Ender didn’t have a lifetime, just over a decade to develop the requisite skills to defeat and destroy an entire race.

Ender lacks a basic understanding of the consequences his actions will cause and has been misled, through omission, by the army he serves.  Although a brilliant tactician and natural leader, Ender does not comprehend the impact his decisions until the final conflict.  Was this the point?  Were the men who led him to this fate unable themselves to “pull the trigger” and execute the war plan to destroy the buggers?  I am reminded of the sacred relationship between the soldier and the state.  We as an all-volunteer force may not always understand the full impact of the strategy employed in a war time environment. Mazer tells him at the end, “Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn’t know. We made sure you didn’t know. You were reckless and brilliant and young.”

Ender is an example of the lengths which a nation or state will go to in order to win a war, or to impose their will onto another.  The point of military training is to repeat an action to ensure a basic response is initiated without hesitation during the middle of a chaotic and stressful environment, combat.  How do we offset ethical and moral issues while instilling good order and discipline when the ultimate outcome is death?  Again, education.  The law of armed conflict (jus in bello / jus ad bellum) is the foundation which creates a baseline of knowledge or principles for all service members developing an ethical and moral framework for our conduct on the battlefield.

Ender embodies the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  His tactical knowledge is very high, his understanding of the implementation of that knowledge is on the opposite end of the spectrum.  This is not to say Ender is unethical or foolish, but purposefully misled.  The very people who capitalized on his strengths also exploited his weaknesses.

How does this apply today?  Both officer and enlisted educational requirements operating in the current rapidly changing global landscape operating just shy of the threshold of armed conflict requires each Marine to bolster themselves with a larger understanding of tactical military actions with direct strategic impacts.  Events like the Osama Bin Laden raid being broadcast real time on social media require a deeper understanding of the variable domains and complexities which make up the battle space. Recent events with a Russian Naval ship coming within feet of a US Naval ship in the Philippine Sea. Instantaneous decisions which can lead to the next World War–the education of our forces is paramount. One wrong move, one wrong misinterpretation (Didn’t Ender engage about what the buggers wanted prior to attacking?), can lead to a destruction of an entire race or planet.

Ender is a warning to us all.  No matter how gifted, no matter how great our performance in simulators or war rooms, or how talented we think we may be, the true test is on the battlefield.  We must be cognizant as service members that off the battlefield our actions have direct affects even if we are hundreds of miles removed.

I am reminded of the quote from Batman, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  The military is the violent end of diplomacy, the big stick according to Dr. Eliot Cohen.  Unfortunately, Ender was a means to an end, but then again, aren’t we all?  The difference lies in our education when married with experience, our phronesis.