Ender’s Game: More Phronesis Than Meets the Eye

Major Ian T. Brown

The first shot across the bow in the “Ender’s Game” call to action has the author taking Ender’s military educators to task for not grounding his training in a historical context. The author seems to think that because the adult teachers of the International Fleet (I.F.) hide the truth of what Ender’s doing behind the artifice of simply playing games, they have denied Ender a certain fullness of experience he would have otherwise gained from the truth.

I’ll confess my first reaction was to pull out my own copy of “Ender’s Game” to see if I had badly overlooked such a gap in Ender’s training. Not filling Ender in on historical lessons learned would be a glaring omission in his I.F. education. However, on review Orson Scott Card, despite his non-military background, evidently appreciated the value of historical study enough to indeed make it part of Ender’s curriculum. There are several instances both at the Battle School and Command School where Card has Ender studying military history and after action reports and video from the First and Second Bugger Invasions (from the 2002 Starscape edition, pages 45, 187, 258, and 265 all describe Ender’s various excursions into the past). We can thus rest assured that, in the face of future alien invasion, our planetary defense force will have a sufficiently robust PME program for its child warriors.

But I think the author’s larger point on the artifice employed to train Ender deserves additional discussion. He argues that Ender “fights a war thinking it’s a game.” While true, this assessment is also incomplete. Yes, Ender doesn’t know that he’s (spoiler alert) really fighting the Buggers. But he’s not treating the simulations like a game, just as Ender didn’t treat his Battle School skirmishes like playground pass-times. While the actuality of what Ender’s doing is hidden from him, Ender is still exercising military judgment and personal leadership exactly as if he’d known what was really going on. He manages and balances his use of subordinates based on their strengths and weaknesses. He adapts and changes tactics based on previous experiences to avoid predictability. Ender even dabbles in logistical considerations, noting in the final battle that he must consider fuel consumption in a gravity well (“cheaper to go down than up,” p. 290) While Ender thinks he’s playing a game, he’s still using the full mechanics of what he’d have to do were the situation “live.”

So the question is, does the artifice matter in the end? In our own Marine Corps, do we consider someone not fully experienced if, say, they’ve only ever done UDPs and MEUs with their associated CERTEXs and allied exercises, but never flown an hour of red time or fired a shot in anger on the ground? This seems an unfair assessment; while an aircraft commander or platoon leader in those situations might not be exercising their judgment or leadership in combat, they are still exercising judgment and leadership. They are still solving problems, balancing use of resources, choosing courses of action— often in conditions which, while not combat, are still attempting to simulate the chaos and friction of combat. Those experiences carry their own value, especially in the aggregate as no one or two or five MEUs/UDPs ever go the same way. There’s always a new wrinkle, a fresh twist on an old problem that requires creativity in its solution. There’s still value in having to grapple with those problems. 

We don’t have a bunch of live combat zones we can cycle the whole Marine Corps through to gain un-artificial experience. We are then left, as Ender was, with the artifice of peacetime deployments and simulated exercises. But, as we saw with Ender, do enough of those and it still builds a wide repertoire of experience from which one can draw on that day when the balloon actually goes up. Solving problems under any kind of conditions is still better than not ever having to solve a problem until combat.

I agree with the author that “the true test is on the battlefield.” But it’s better to have already fought, won, lost, and learned on a thousand virtual battlefields, as Ender did and we attempt to do in our own training, so that we have some measure of confidence that we will win on the day we must step on the real battlefield. I think the I.F. gave Ender all that they could, to include historical context (and access to the victorious commander from the last war, thanks to relativity). And while Graff and Mazer Rackham and all the other grown-ups hid real battles behind the artifice of computer simulations, they taught Ender what we teach our own Marines when we train: everything you do is to orient on your opponent and beat him. Or phrased another way: the enemy’s gate is down.

  1. Maj Brown, thanks for the great reply. I am reminded of the discussion between James Bond and the Quartermaster in Skyfall, “Every once in a while a trigger needs to be pulled. Or not pulled. It’s hard to know in your pajamas.”

    Looking forward to future discussions. Thanks again, definitely uncovered some aspects I overlooked or did not take into consideration.