Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Japanese Daimyo and the Ninja School

About three hundred years ago, Japan was a country fragmented into many small kingdoms or clans, whose leaders were constantly battling among themselves.

Wars were constantly going on between different clans, with each one having to depend on an increasingly sophisticated system that provided the manpower and resources necessary to keep their territories safe and at the same time take advantage of the weaknesses on the other side and expand their area of influence.

War lords were looking for creative ways of getting the most out of all the money they spend. And one of their pet peeves was the cost of their armies. Not only it was a huge piece of their budgets being used to pay and feed the army and its suppliers, but also keeping a permanent army of trained people just in case you need them was a drain on resources for other activities on their territories. A solider that is idle is not harvesting, building, or otherwise producing anything else. Add to that the cost of training them and war was an expensive proposition.

To contain the cost drain of having to sustain an army during peace periods, they tried a few solutions. The simpler one was to treat all the population as soldiers, but only ask them to go to war when necessary. This soldier on demand approach did not looked like a bad idea. Most of the time, during peace periods, farmers could farm, craftsmen could work on their craft and artists could create art. If the need arose, those folks could fight for the kingdom as well, and during the usually short time when they were at war was not a significant interruption of their production cycles.

But soon a problem became apparent. Ordinary people, even trained, did not put too much passion when fighting. They had other interests in life beyond becoming skilled in using weapons or killing enemies. On demand armies were routinely defeated by much smaller, professional armies. Those armies were composed of skilled individuals, specifically trained for that purpose, and more important, that wanted to be soldiers in the first place.

But for the war lords, keeping a permanent army had also a few problems beside the cost. For one, professional soldiers want to permanently improve their weapons, which has a cost. Also, they want from time to time to practice and hone their skills, so they tended to propose war as the solution to every problem the lord had. The lords did not wanted to have their decisions become overridden by the military, and the military wanted to have proper careers where they could climb up the command hierarchy based on their merits in the battlefield.

As the armies got bigger and powerful, the lords also felt that the military were limiting their choices, sometimes even dictating his decisions, based on some arcane military strategy concepts impossible to understand. Oh, and the pain of technology upgrades: each time a new weapon was created they had to pay for expensive retraining. Those tried to save on training costs found too late and in the worst place, the battlefield, that savings in that were offset by much higher costs later on. And don't forget the pockets of resistance, of soldiers rejecting new weapons just because they were used to their classic ones. These group was the worst, for the war lord knew they were going to be killed in the field.

So neither the dedicated army nor the on demand one were a good solution. The lords, clever as they were, still wanted to improve the cost efficiency of their armies, loose their dependence from them and at the same time keep intact their capability of fighting over their neighbourhoods.

It all started with the training. Retired soldiers started to set up small warrior schools that trained the future soldiers. Based on their reputation as former warriors, those Ninja masters established themselves as the reference on combat training excellence. Lords started to send their future soldiers to those schools, as a way to save on training.

Soon, they realized that two things were happening. First, every other lord was sending their soldiers to be trained at the Ninja schools, so they armies were on par in terms of skills with their enemies. But they told to themselves that it was their military command that made the difference, after all, fighting skilla were already a commodity. There's little to learn once you've mastered the martial arts, the sword and the firearms. Second, the training costs were a small part of the overall cost of having an army. They still had to keep their soldiers feed and happy during peace periods.

Until one of them, famous for his forward thinking and proactive attitude, had what seemed to be a good idea. Instead of keeping an army just in case we need it, let's hire one on demand when we need it. That had many advantages. Their soldiers will be well trained by the masters, so the army will be as powerful as it could. And the best of all: no war, no costs. It was a win-win situation.

At first, he was a bit worried because he thought, what if other lords have the same idea? Will that end in a ridiculous situation where a Ninja school will end up engaging in war against himself, and get paid by two different lords to do it? Nah, Ninja masters were honourable enough not to do that, and the conflict of interest would destroy their reputation. Could he lose complete control over war operations? Nah, he had a couple of generals that will kept under his servitude that could override the Ninja master decisions at any time.

It was all well and good at the beginning. The kingdom enjoyed immediate benefits, as more resources could be allocated to grow and prosper instead of fighting in conflicts with other lords. Ninja masters charged a reasonable price and even took in their payroll most of what was the army.

But then, one day, the lord had an idea to expand its frontiers. Of course, it would require applying some force over the neighborhood kingdoms. No problem, he thought. He went to the Ninja master and shared his great idea. But the Ninja master nodded and said, "sorry sir, we don't have enough soldiers to do that" To which the lord said "well, just recruit some more" And the Ninja master answered, "I cannot, good soldiers are difficult to hire, take a lot of time to train and I've a good portion of them already engaged in a conflict in the other side of the country. Nothing that affects your security, of course, but I don't have that many resources"

The lord had to back out from his grandiose plans, but he was still confident that his decision had been the right one. At least he could count on having an army as good and as big as the one that he transferred to the Ninja school.

Until one day, he was attacked from the lord in the southern border. At the beginning of the conflnict, he lost a lot of territory because his on demand army took a lot of time to appear in his defence. The ninja master kindly pointed out that his time to react was agreed in advance and he was under no obligation to mobilize its forces sooner than that.

What should have been a short conflict that should have been settled down fairly quickly transformed into a long agonizing war that took a lot of time to come to an end. The lord realized that the Ninja master was not putting all its resources in his war. Instead, he was playing a delicate cost benefit balance, keeping enough forces assigned to defend the lord so that he would not lose the war. But was not willing to go the extra mile to resolve the conflict sooner. In fact, the longer the conflict, the higher the profit for the Ninja master. Worse yet, most of the soldiers that he transferred to the Ninja school were no longer there. The Ninja master had sent them to other conflicts or fired them according to their own interest. There was no loyalty or passion in the fighting. What the lord believed was saving by externalizing his army was more than lost the very same moment that he needed the army.

Worse yet, he was at the mercy of the Ninja master. He had now in fact the power to surrender the kingdom to the rival neighbourhood if he wanted to. The lord had no choice but keep paying increasingly higher sums for a decreasingly empowered army, with soldiers whose skills were not up to date. The icing on the cake was when he asked the Ninja master to improve their soldier's ability, to which the Ninja master answered "well lord, you know, training is expensive and your fees are not enough for that"

At this point, the Ninja schools were the ones that actually decided when and where conflicts were going to be started. And who will win them. And how much would the lords paid for that. The lords had lost any control over their ability to use force to attain their objectives. The Ninja schools ruled the island, and there was no way for them to regain control.

The lesson? They forgot what the purpose of the army was. Blindly lowering its costs without knowing what compromises are being made is not good. Making your war cheaper is useful as long as you don't sacrifice its purpose.

And, if you've read this far, you are probably wondering, what's your point? Replace in the history the fictional war lord with a modern corporation and a Ninja school with a modern outsourcing software services company.

(N.B: any history references not completely false are due to sheer luck and not attributable to any documentation or fact finding work)