How to become a Mentat

How to become a Mentat

This is a translation of Comment devenir un Mentat (originally published 2013-05-06) by retired Colonel Michel Goya. I am grateful for his kind authorization to translate and publish here.

In the Dune universe, Mentats are masters in the use of any means, generally violent, to reach a strategic goal while facing adversaries that often resemble them. They are the fictional equivalent of the greatest captains of the past centuries, of the chess grand masters, or of go 9th dan masters. By extension, a Mentat designates here a super-tactician of international class. To join their rank is not an easy task.

is a super-tactitian intelligent?

As a first hypothesis, one could imagine that Mentats benefit from an intelligence quotient very superior to the average, considering IQ as the measure of the capacity to use one's working memory to solve combinatorial problems. The support for this hypothesis is slightly shaky. Various studies about chess players don't show a clear correlation between IQ and level of expertise in chess. Some of them show a negative correlation for beginners, the smartest of them having a tendency to train less. It's only at the highest Elo ratings that a link emerges, but it doesn't tell if the combinatorial abilities are indispensible to reach that level or if it's the intense practice of chess that developped those abilities. The two factors, intelligence and expertise level are simply not independent.

Still from the cognitive point of view, it is known since the 1960s that chess or go experts do not stand out by an ability to play many moves in advance, but by organizing their knowledge to analyze a given configuration and to orient their thinking towards the best moves. In 1973, Wester Chase and Herbert Simon asked chess players of various levels to look for five seconds at pictures of chess configurations. The configuration were either random or taken from real chess games. The players were then asked to restitute the configuration from memory. In the case of random configurations there were no notable differences between the various players. Novices, club players, and masters could place correctly an average of 4 pieces, corresponding to the capacity of the working memory (manipulation of a maximum of 7 objects). In the second case, configurations taken from real chess games, novices were still placing 4 pieces, club players were placing 8 pieces and the masters 16 pieces. The appartion of "meaning" in the configurations transformed the master vision, they were not considering pieces anymore but groups of 2 to 5 pieces linked by necessary relations and named "chunks". Compare memorizing and giving back 32 random digits and doing the same with 4 well-known and categorized phone numbers.

Chunk recognition implies evidently having previously memorized those chunks. Their sheer number may prove problematic. Another study of Simon concludes that you cannot reach the level of chess grand master unless knowing at least 50,000 of them. Chunks are almost always assimilated thanks to played or learned games, they are often organized in static networks or series. The art of the chess master lies thus in the judicious invocation of series that match the situation currently faced and in their shrewd adaptation. Under time pressure, this tactical heuristic pairs an inconscious lookup process in deep memory and a conscious analysis process. The inconscious process gets faster with experience and, in a more subtle way, with success. Antonio Damasio work showed that any memory has an emotional marker (in fact a chemical marker). Memories tied with pleasure emerge more easily than memories tied negatively and those tend to be repressed. Success supports memory, thus it supports success.

In the end, in an average chess game, a player plays approximately 40 moves and takes at most a dozen of true decisions. That corresponds to the decisions taken by a general in a day of battle. Depending on the flexibility of his army, the ancient leader took rarely more than two decisions (up to four for Alexander, one of the first great Mentats), while the commander of a modern large armored unit has to go through 6 or 7 decisions. A similar decision process could be observed in other domains, like sport, music or medical expertise.

In support of the working memory, memory and work have to be mobilized, a lot of memories and a lot of work.

Glory gives itself after 10,000 hours of work

In his study on the pupils of the prestigious Hanns Eisler musical academy in Berlin, Anders Ericsson distinguished three groups of musicians according to their level. Ericsson determined that the members of the elite group had an average of 10,000 hours of practice, the second group had 8,000, while the third group had 4,000, with minimal standard deviation for each group. Ericsson applied the process to other discipline and concluded that ten years of daily work are necessary to become an expert. To be an expert at the international level, even more work is required. Nikolai Grotius analyzed the careers of 40 chess grand masters in 1976 and showed that it took them an average of 14 years to reach their level, with a deviation of 4 years. When asked how he became the world champion, Gary Kasparov, one the six men having since 1970 reached the 2,800 Elo points threshold, usually answers that he had to learn 8,000 games by heart. It took him ten years since his inscription to a chess club to become international grand master and it took him fifteen years to become the world champion.

The necessary investment to become an expert at an international level is huge and brings challenges of its own. It often necessitates to start at childhood and that implies a favorable environment. Should Mozart be born in a peasant family, there would never had been any Don Giovanni. Like Johan Sebastian Bach, he was born in a family of musicians and largely benefitted from the help of his father. Leopold Mozart quickly discerned his son's gift, gave him exposure to multiple instruments, and helped him compose since six. However, the first of Mozart's personal work to be considered a masterpiece (number 9, K.271) was composed at the age of 21, ten years after his first concerto.

Up until the era of revolutions, the vast majority of Mentats comes from an aristocratic and familial process of formation. Besides his very militarized physical and mental education, the young Alexander follows his father in his campaigns in Greece, and, at 17 years old, commands the cavalry at Chaeronea. He has his masterpiece at Gaugameles in -331, he is 25 years old, but his apprenticeship was a long one.

Mentats of the classical period learn the military thing very early on, and, only considering the french army, with 174 battles foughts during the period, easily find opportunities to illustrate themselves. Turenne, on his demand, is sent at 14 years old in the Netherlands to see the state of the military art. He receives his first command at 15 but his first single commmand of a battle is only obtained ten years later. He receives the title of Maréchal de France at 33 and still has 30 years of service facing him. At 13 years old, Maurice de Saxe already has a special military tutor and visits his first battlefield. He receives the command of a regiment at 15 and fights for the first time the following year. The next 36 years of his life are dedicated to war.

That mix of talent, luck, personal investment, favorable environment, and many fights, allows, despite the small headcount of the aristocratic population, to form many Mentats in the service of the princes. Some of the Mentats might serve more than one prince. In a context close to that of the Dune universe, the classical period sees the rise of great diplomats that may be considered Mentats. Some of them are both generals and diplomats, like the Maréchal de Villars. Mentat prince do exist, there are, for example, Gustav II Adolf and Frederick the Great.

The counterpoint to this familial and monopolistic apprenticeship process is that it does not encourage the establishment of an institutional system of formation working concurrently and open to other social classes. Military schools are thus reserved to small nobles and their sons had initially little prospect of reaching higher offices from there. Napoleaon and many of his marshalls come from these schools.

The winner of 32 battles, able to dictate concurrently 4 letters on different subjects to 4 secretaries, about whom the Abbé Sieyes wrote: "He knows everything, he does everything, he can anything", Napoleon Bonaparte is 10 years old when he entered the Brienne military school and 16 when he joins the cadet school of the École Militaire. He does not stand out with his school results, he's even rather mediocre, except in mathematics, and one could estimate that, should he have lived now, he would not succeed at the Saint-Cyr entrance examination. However, he is an avid reader, he read everything related to war in his school library. When he first knew glory at the siege of Toulon in 1793, he is 24 and knows by heart almost all the battles of his era. He used to say "inspiration is often nothing more than a reminiscence", and he goes on accumulating chunks by reading and by practicing, most often alone, tactical simulation with lead armies. All other things being equal, Brienne's library changed the world.

That library is open to all the students but Napoleon is probably the only one running there at each break. As De Gaulle later says "glory gives itself only to those who dream of it" and accept to dedicate 10,000 hours and more to it.

Keeping acumen whilst facing constant change

With 225 battles for France, the revolution and empire era marks the end of the Mentat golden age. The following era is indeed less favorable to super-tacticians.

Unlike chess, whose rules and materials do not change, the art of war is, like medecine, a discipline whose parameters do change. Until the political and economical revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, those parameters did not change much. One could have a full military career with the same men, the same weapons and almost the same methods.

From that point on, societies and thus armies do transform at pace that has not yet been seen (was it even perceptible before that?). From 1861, the french army changes its maneuver regulations every twelve years on average in order to try to remain in line with the multiple evolutions of the era. From now on, the soldier will not run the war they played at when they were kids and they will have to question themselves regularly, a source of unrest and tension. In an era that disregards the past to consider progress and the future, the slow maturation of a learning based on the study from childhood of the classics is found wanting.

Starting from the political and social necessity to open careers according to principles of equality, but also from the postulate that the capacities to lead are not innate, but acquired, future Mentats are gradually almost all recruited by competitive examination. The problem, and particularly in France, is that those exams only serve to judge school knowledge, like if we selected future chess champions or high-level athletes, at age 20 by testing their french or mathematics knowledge. It doesn't matter much for the scientific mind prevalent in the era. The mastery of "laws" of war, in truth relatively evident tactical principles, and rigorous methods of tactical reasoning, should let one solve all tactical problems.

It is true that with ever larger armies, with an ever increasing firepower for an unchanged tactical mobility, battles tend to expand in space and time. Fronts evolve to hundreds of kilometers but stiffen around each point of contact. The violence of the fighting imposes a dispersion of forces thus a growing decentralization. The capacity to think a maneuver through climbs down progressively from the battalion commander in 1871 to the sergent leading his group in 1917. On the other end of the scale, the rigorous analysis of events and the management of those huge forces impose at the summit the creation of thinking machines called general staffs and of a military technocracy.

The institutional process strives to adapt itself to this increasing complexity. Between the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War, France imitates Prussia and adds levels to its selection and formation system. An officer may spend seven or eight years in formation. That doesn't prevent Colonel de Grandmaison, in his famous 1911 conferences to completely forget things like airplanes or trucks, or new communication technologies, elements that were developed while he was at the École Supérieure de Guerre and in the General Staff and that he knows nothing about. That also does not prevent 40% of the french generals of 1914 to be sacked for manifest incompetence, and among them three-quarters of the corps commanders. The military education of the era, even if it hesitates constantly between training staff officers and decision-makers, did however take into account the necessity for an in-depth tactical learning. Never had officers done as many exercises on map or in the field, but this specialization, beyond a certain threshold, proves to be harmful, as it prevents officers from seeing all that is moving around the discipline and that is going to have an influence on it. This is how, by accumulating knowledge on a given subject we become ignorant or at least not very adaptive.

Only a few months of the Great War suffice to render obsolete all those years of tactical learning. One realizes that senior officers who understand the evolutions of their time are a necessity. Maneuver, once limited to the manipulation of tactical pawns on a battefield, now encompasses the ability to adapt those pawns to changing contexts, whether that is due to innovation or to projection into foreign contexts. Gallieni and Lyautey could have shown the way with their colonial campaigns very different from the "european" way, but they are looked down by purists. General Bonnal mocks the operations of the famous "Balmaceda" or the retreat from "Bang-Bo", while teaching in the War School principles that will prove ineffective and deadly. Pétain had a well adjusted point of view on the evolutions of war in Europe before 1914 and incontestably was the best to adapt to it afterwards. However, he only commands a modest brigade (and on an interim basis) and he is preparing to retire as the conflict dawns. The rest of the twentieth century consecrates the revenge of cultivated and imaginative men over military technocrats.

Mentats and technocracy

The paralysis of the First World War is overcome along two axis that bring a renewal in maneuver thus in tactics. The first axis concerns infantry which retrieves flexibility with decentralized command processes and firepower with new weapons. This axis is the one followed by the Germans with their 1918 assault divisions that have a tempo ten times higher than their 1916 forebears. The second axis is essentialy french, it's the operative art and it leverages the first of the motorized units. Those units allow swift movements from a point of the front to another, and thus bring maneuver back, but the fighting remains a disembarked fight.

The next war sees german units "doped" by motorized combat vehicles and "light" transmission means. Assault divisions become the panzer divisions commanded by the heroes of 1918 while the french operative art, searching for tactical excellence, suffocates. From Rommel to Sharon including O'Connor and Leclerc for the most famous, we thus see the emergence for a little over thirty years of a new generation of super-tacticians able to obtain spectacular victories again, even decisive ones. The development of anti-tank weapon systems and the integration of motorized units give a new shine to operatives like Patton, Slim, Mac Arthur, or, on another scale, Zhukov.

Parallely to these new hussars, the light infantry maneuver school persists in Asia with the communist armies of Zhu De, Lin Biao or Giap. In difficult terrain, like Korea or in northern Vietnam, infantry even prevails multiple times over the motorized "hussars". In reaction, UK and France develop a light infantry with masters like Bigeard. It should be noted that these new Mentats are not the result of an instutionalized process but are amateurs, mobilized or volunteer, that reveal themselves and learn as much in combat as outside of it.

The apparation of atomic weapons disrupts this Mentat renewal. Despite reflections around the "atomic battlefield", one has to face the evidence that this weapon is too overwhelming to allow for a coherent maneuver. It is even confiscated from the military by the politics and freezes for a while the idea of a european confrontation similar to World War II. This transformation is particularly flagrant in France where the armored-mechanized corp is bent in a sacrificial posture and where the concept of tactical victory has to yield to the concept of deterrence. Even as the USSR and the USA brillantly renew their tactical doctrines in the 1970s and 1980s and consider again conventional warfare, the french army refuses to take an interest in it, even while leading numerous but small interventions in Africa.

The end of the Cold War leaves the occidental armies in a relative strength position that they had not known since the beginning of the Great War. While the USA seize the opportunity to consolidate their power, the European Union seizes it to quickly disarm and to satisfy its desire for impotence. Between the two, the french army is on the fence. While anesthesia dominates, it is engaged in peace keeping operations that require no tacticians since there is no enemy. We know the result. When it has to follow the Americans, the french army goes back to a classical conception of force, but may it be in an assymetrical context, like when facing Iraq, Serbia, or Kadhafi's Lybia, where it is more important to manage superior means than to lead skillful maneuvers, or in a more symetrical context, like in Afghanistan where a broader vision of the situations is necessary again. Some officers stand out there but the fragmented structure of the operations practically prevents them from renewing victorious experiences. The modern leader must succeed the first time and the cost must be minimal. Those conditions make it difficult to train audacious and experience-rich Mentats (almost the same thing) and it is very tempting to replace by them by tight remote control from Paris, as if ever smaller arms and legs required an ever larger brain. It is frightening to think that the last french Mentat is called Center for Planning and Operational Conduct.


Previous translations of Colonel Goya's articles: