Small Wars Journal

If You Ain’t First, You’re Last! Why We Should Cheat

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 8:58am

If You Ain’t First, You’re Last! Why We Should Cheat

Jamie Schwandt

We have always been taught to stick to the rules or to color inside the lines. In life and in the U.S. military, we have all been taught some sort of code of ethics and not to cheat. However, our adversaries do not possess these restrictions. We must change this mindset and start thinking like our adversary. We must lose these self-imposing restrictions we place on ourselves. Or as Gregory Conti and James Caroland comment in Embracing the Kobayashi Maru: Why You Should Teach Your Students to Cheat, “For both the attacker and the defender, a devious mind is equally as important as a beautiful one.”

To be clear, I am not advocating for a mindset that lacks ethics or encourages breaking the rules. What I am discussing here is a mindset that teaches us to develop an adversary mindset to be able to look where no one else is looking and spot anomalies. Conti and Caroland propose that we teach ourselves and our students to cheat – to stop coloring inside the lines – to stop sticking to the rules. In their writing and video-lectures, such as Lessons of the Kobayashi Maru: If You’re Not Cheating, You’re Not Trying, they propose helping students develop an adversary mindset by adopting the Kobayashi Maru training exercise employed in the fictional Star Trek universe. The intent here is to discuss 3 key takeaways I found from their writing and lecture.

Let’s first examine what the Kobayashi Maru exercise is and how Conti and Caroland use it. The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise and no-win situation designed to test the character of a person. In the fictional Star Trek universe, the primary goal is to rescue a civilian vessel called the Kobayashi Maru in a simulated battle with the Klingons. The vessel is stuck in the Klingon neutral zone and entering the zone would cause an interstellar conflict. A quick decision must be made to either: a) attempt to rescue the Kobayashi Maru crew and passengers – leading to interstellar war and the likely death of yourself and your crew; or b) abandon the Kobayashi Maru to prevent interstellar conflict – leading to the inevitable death of the crew and passengers.

There is another option. James T. Kirk took the test three times. Prior to his third attempt, he cheated and reprogrammed the simulator to rescue to Kobayashi Maru without causing conflict. He was able to think like the enemy and step outside the rules of the game.

Conti and Caroland used this idea to develop a course called the Joint Advanced Cyber Warfare course. The goal was to ensure students had a good grasp of the adversary mindset. They developed a test with little notice telling students they were to be tested to memorize Pi to a hundred digits. They instructed their students not to study, but to cheat. Yet, if they get caught, they fail. Conti and Caroland found their students enjoyed the task and came up with some innovative ways to cheat. For example, one student placed the answer on a soda can that he concealed with his hand when the proctor would walk by. He also created a false book cover for a course text and replaced portions of the text with the answer, matching the text color, font, and size. Conti and Caroland point out that the student then used hair spray to lightly tack the false page into place, where the result was all but indistinguishable from the original book.

From my perspective, there are 3 key takeaways from the Kobayashi Maru exercise.

  • Exploit predictability. Conti and Caroland found that, because we are lazy and predictable, humans are often the weakest link (and most predictable) in a system. His students intuitively exploited this fact.
  • Exploit trust. Despite their awareness to the fact that their students were cheating, they still inadvertently let their guard down. For example, they said that they wouldn’t have stopped any student from using the restroom during the exam. This thought didn’t even cross their mind.
  • Look where no one else is looking. Conti and Caroland remarked, “The dissonance between how our adversaries operate and how we teach our students is a distinct disadvantage when faced with real world opponents who inevitably don’t play by the rules.” Therefore, by learning to look where no one else is looking, we can better anticipate the actions of our enemies. As Kirk stated in Star Trek II in response to an accusation of never facing a no-win scenario, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”

If we desire victory against our adversaries, then we must stop coloring inside the lines. We must be able to think like our enemies and step outside the rules of the game. As Conti and Caroland posit, “We must not tie our hands – and our intellects – at the same time.

Categories: Science Fiction - ethics

About the Author(s)

Maj. Jamie Schwandt, USAR, is a logistics officer, red team member and lean six sigma master black belt. He holds a doctorate from Kansas State University. This article represents his own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army.


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