Lessons from anthropology: Dominate with small teams
By Captain RM
In his series of books, lectures and podcasts on anthropology, Yuval Noah Harari reminds us that humans are embarrassingly similar to other animals at the individual level. He emphasises the key factor allowing humans to excel over other animals and dominate the planet is cooperation and how this has expanded to deliver exponential gains. This article will discuss how we can learn from this observation to inform how we design our force structure and why.
Using social insects, like ants, as an example of group effectiveness Harari highlights how they are regimented in their cooperation which produces their effectiveness. However, he highlights that they are inflexible. So, whilst they are able to operate effectively in large groups, they are inflexible to unforeseen events. This means they cannot reinvent their system to counter threats or exploit opportunities so easily. In contrast social mammals, like chimps, are much more flexible and can adapt to scenarios. However, they can only do this at a small group level, as they are reliant on intimate knowledge of each other, to form trust which is reinforced through the objective realities (trees, rivers etc) in the world. Therefore, we see social mammals operate in troops of chimps, or pods of dolphins etc. Interestingly, this observation highlights that humans have excelled by cooperating on a large scale through networks and storytelling. This goes a long way in explaining the exponential enhancement of human kind in the last century, as we have become more connected through technological means. Telling stories of our experiences and what we have learned gives our increasingly networked troops/societies a better baseline understanding to learn and develop from – especially the next generation. This highlights the usefulness of ‘troop’ collective talent and sharing our experiences through storytelling.
Harari explains that fundamentally humans can communicate, understand and believe in fiction, which enables us to do more beyond the objective realities of other animals. Telling convincing stories gives us belief, faith, motivation, inspiration, meaning etc and offers another dimension to our progression over other animals. Networks have enabled this cooperation of storytelling on a larger scale, which pervades and creates a growing understanding of more information – known as fictional reality. Key to this is effective human networks – supported by technology – balanced with the right people, allowing ‘storytelling’ to happen effortlessly between the ‘whole team’. This explains the limit of social mammal’s dominance compared to humans.
Harari uses money as a prime example. As a worthless sheet of paper, a chimp would not care. Contrastingly, through storytelling and fiction, humans value it more than all else. This fiction has motivated humans to do things that another animal would not do, as it is outside of their objective reality. Therefore, a key enabler of human dominance is fictional realities, like money, corporations, nations, gods etc. To dominate we (the Royal Marines) must identify a fictional reality to convince others of our value. This is where story-telling becomes important and using the networks (both human and technological) to purvey a message, alongside the foundation gains of networks enabling organisational cooperation to spread wider.
Our innate nature to form troops and be successful is supported by Sports Psychiatrist Steve Peters’ book, The Chimp Paradox. This offers some science to the arguments. His premise is that everyone has a primitive ‘chimp’ which uses emotion to wrestle for control in your mind with a rational ‘human’ side. He explains that people need a troop for both ‘human’ and ‘chimp’ reasons. The ‘chimp’ seeks safety and will therefore strive to impress, to maintain the protection of the troop. The ‘human’ is compassionate and wants to share and work with others for broadly similar reasons of inclusiveness. Both can be used for good. The ‘chimp’ motivates individuals to develop, to ensure they maintain their status and reputation within the troop for safety; they must be as fit as the rest of the troop! The ‘human’ motivates us to share and develop as a team/troop, using cooperation which Harari notes as key for success; education and support to develop and succeed! Peters expands that we must listen to both our ‘chimp’ and our ‘human’ when selecting our troop. A balance of the emotional ‘chimp’ focusing on superficial factors (who is strong and attractive) and the logical ‘human’ drawn to the humanity of individuals will offer a better balance over just listening to one – this is a big consideration for the Royal Marines who have a reputation swaying towards superficial values… Using just the ‘chimp’ or the ‘human’ will select the wrong people for the troop and will cause internal disputes, which fractures the troop. Similarly assigning them to the wrong roles in the troop will cause frustration and bitterness, which can be destructive. Both can be seen in team dynamics and within the Royal Marines, especially with traditions of hazing and the Direct Specialisation Scheme; making commandos into clerks, storemen etc. We must therefore be more conscious of how we select our troop through recruiting. This must consider protection/safety for troop members – ensuring the organisation protects them – motivating them to develop and impress, while also ensuring the right people are in the right roles with suitable consideration for superficial and moral humanity factors. Data should be tied to science – including social science. Outside of recruiting, this points to the possibility of the Royal Marines needing to be more Joint in capability, to harness the skills and create an effective blend of skills within the ‘troop’. Importantly, this will create more efficacious networks, as the human talent will be bespoke for role, region, task etc, all underpinned by the commando core element to ensure trust across the networks.
Doctrine stifles our evolutionary effectiveness
As useful as doctrine is, it is an area that could be potentially hampering the lessons of evolutionary success. Whilst authors and advocates of doctrine will insist it is a guide and not a dogma, there is an unescapable reality that we will always look for a crutch to protect us from failure -there is a broader topic of failure acceptance which is not discussed here. By virtue, this means we adopt a more regimented approach like ants, and therefore makes us less flexible. To be dominant, we must look to hybrid the two, with a focus on flexibility. Technology can be our pseudo-mass, which is actualised through discipline and training on equipment (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs). If the predictions for the Future Operating Environment are right, it will, ironically, be unpredictable. Therefore, we must ensure we have the flexibility, through networked cooperation, to adapt and overcome. Our connected networks of ‘troops’ will offset weaknesses in another area and enhance strengths, allowing us to aggregate a pseudo-mass to enable greater flexibility to scenarios. We must be connected to achieve this. However, doctrine will encourage more ant-like behaviour which we must guard against. Doctrine in its future form must ensure it is flexible, without unwittingly creating dutiful acolytes.
So what am I saying?
Firstly, if we want to dominate we must create our own fictional reality to supplement or challenge the existing ones. Secondly, we must look to our innate tendency to form small groups (troops) and their proven flexibility, which can be supported by technology to enhance our networked cooperation. Creating our own fictional reality, we can do through storytelling and messaging across networks; human and technology. I am not necessarily saying we should remake the film Act of Valour or publicise a Bin Laden type raid to create a fictional reality which influences the world, but we must recognise that acts like this have made organisations like these well-known on the world stage. As such these organisations are revered and feared – maybe falsely – because of the fictional reality they have created by using communication/storytelling – white lies are often effective for portraying what you want others to think. Crucially, as a result they are often the ‘go to’ for governments to use for important tasks. This is an external method to increase their effectiveness and dominance. We should also recognise that large scale cooperation is more than storytelling. It is about being flexible. Small groups are more flexible to adapt and overcome – a key teaching to Commandos – and large groups are more effective in regimented systems. This suggests the Royal Marines are more suitable to small groups, but must combine the two types to be wholly effective. Creating networks of small groups enables us to be flexible and react to threats and opportunities, but still maintain relationships to cooperate effectively on a larger scale. This is particularly pertinent to the Royal Marines, as Commando Training imprints a degree of trust innately, allowing us to form small groups/troops akin to social mammals, which we can network to cooperate more effectively and create pseudo-mass. I would argue the Royal Marines fails to capitalise on this key aspect.
This offers possible opportunities. With the release of the USMC Commandant’s guidance paper and discussion, along with the direction of the Royal Marines heading towards a Future Commando Force, with Littoral Strike at it’s heart, we can see utility for small, flexible groups. USMC (as the mass) – alongside our own unilateral requirements – will need the expertise of the Royal Marines to provide theatre enablement within A2AD constrained areas. Long range insertion to disable A2AD pockets, will be dependant on small teams surgically inserting into contested areas. This will require small-networked teams, which compliment each other and create a scale we can call pseudo-mass, to enable mass entry of heavy forces. Similarly, the strategic concept of Horizontal Escalation is well suited to small dispersed, but well-connected teams to distract and disrupt an adversary to enable success in the main fight. These suit an adept small force, like the Royal Marines, which is networked using advanced technology. Alternatively, small networked teams offer other opportunities to spread UK influence. Having small networked ‘troops’ persistently deployed either partnered or independent sends a persistent message through story-telling. This message could be a fictional reality we create, or via publicised events. The evidence is compelling, and the demand is obvious. We must focus on small, flexible teams which are widely networked; a team of teams. The mass provided is by the aggregated networks connected by technology and Commando DNA reinforcing trust.