Paul Sztorc
September 24, 2017

Note: fix backlink

The technique for “moving together without a ‘first’“… is called “marching” and it is one of humankind’s deadliest military technologies. Those in the front are most likely to die, and hence also most likely to flee. To counteract this, a formation is designed to make this impossible. They may try to weasel out of their marching duties by going just a little slower than their neighbors – hence the concept of square formations, the crime of “breaking rank”, and (possibly) the significance of the drummers (who are spatially dispersed and must remain musically in sync with each other). Setting aside the flanking units for the moment, those who wish to flee have no where to go, unless they want to stumble into someone else (making their collective odds of survival even lower). By the time a central solider has reached the front-lines, there is nowhere for him to flee. The units in the rear are always most able to flee, but always have the least reason to do so (they should at least wait-and-see how the battle is going first). Hence the formation unifies the incentives of each individual solider, and a forward march allows this unity to take offensive action.

The question of what to do about the flankers, is a timeless military puzzle. Sometimes people dig trenches, or fight in a valley / mountain pass, where the length of the vanguard fills the entire navigable area. Otherwise, commanders try to put the strongest / most loyal units there. Alexander the Great (undefeated), used a version of this with light calvary on one side for defence (possibly, to keep his own flank in line?), and tremendous weight on his own other flank, which he personally led (ie, from the front). His nearby heavy calvary attacked in wedge formation (so that they simply would not have a flank).

Obviously, if one side is going to flee, the battle will be over in the next 5 or so minutes. So, if you ask me, the entire military obsession of flanking is mostly about disrupting the enemy’s ability to mantain formation – specifically, convincing some of the enemy’s rearguard to break rank and run for their lives. In this way, military action can be seen as an attempt to ‘persuade’ the enemy soliders that they are better off fleeing (and of persuading your own soldiers not to flee). Hence, it is ripe for game theory.