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Posts from the ‘disaster’ Category

Tiger Woods and the two impostors

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. You’re making me … re-write my manuscript.

My book, as a reminder, is about success and failure and how the two can be, as Kipling put it so poetically, impostors. The main character is Hannibal, and his story introduces the various themes that come up in the course of a life, each of which is then illuminated with other lives, ancient or modern.

Here is how I went about it:

  • Mainly I chose relatively obscure people for my characters studies, which is to say people who are interesting or known for a good reason but not ‘famous’.
  • When I did include somebody conventionally famous (and there had to be a good reason!) I focused on an obscure or non-obvious aspect of that person’s life.

Well, Tiger falls into that latter category. I examined one aspect (I won’t say which) that he shared with Hannibal, and one that he didn’t, both of which made him unbelievably successful.

And now… the babes. So many of them. They’ve started keeping a cheat sheet to keep track of them. Plus: Wives swinging golf clubs after mid-night car crashes; cable-TV know-it-alls pontificating about morality; coy mea culpas and a career inter- and perhaps dis-rupted.

What can I say? I notice that everybody suddenly has a strong opinion about this young and immature genius. Tragic hero? Victim of hubris? Pervert?

Somebody from Pakistan informs us that it is entirely normal to have lots of women if you can. Somebody else explains why black women are not mad at Tiger. And so on.

My own default position in these matters is to be cavalier. But Tiger’s self-immolation now looks to be epic in scale. And tragic if the flames sear his children.

Among athletes, Diego Maradona comes to mind–the best in his sport, only to waste it all in decadence. Among politicians (well, where do you start?), perhaps Eliot Spitzer.

Yes, they were successful. Yes, their success was an impostor, by goading them, psychologically, into self-destruction. Is it simply the old Greek theme of hubris? Was it a character flaw? More subtle?

One thing is clear: I have to adjust my manuscript.

And one other thing should not be forgotten: Kipling said triumph and disaster are impostors. Tiger is young, as is his wife (not to mention their kids). As a great advertisement featuring Tiger (before his fall) once put it:

It’s what you do next that counts.

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How crisis leads to progress (aka the Cloud)

Here is an admittedly tiny and prosaic example of a big and poetic idea–the idea in Kipling’s If and in my book that disaster can be an impostor (as can triumph). The disaster in this case is more of a nuisance, but you will get the point.

1) The nuisance

My (youngish) Mac Book Pro has had a boo-boo. The screen started going black (why do “screens of death” have to be blue anyway?).

I happen to be in the Apple elite, equipped with all sorts of plastic cards (Apple Care, Pro Care….) that allegedly bestow privilege upon me. So I went to the Apple Store, itself famous for allegedly being at the cutting edge of retail savoir-faire, to get the laptop fixed. I brandished my cards and, after a stressful wait, succeeded in persuading a helpful staff member to …. schedule an appointment, two days hence, for me to come back and get my laptop fixed.

Two days later, I dutifully returned (traffic, parking garages….) to the famous store. Another stressful wait. Somebody took my laptop. The next day, they called to say that they needed another part (the RAM). They called again two days later to say that they needed yet another part (the logic board). Then they left a voice mail (Apple’s iPhone, which I also own, had not rung as it ought to when a call comes in) to say that it would be faster (sic) to send the laptop to a distant part of the country where logic boards are more plentiful, but that they needed my approval. I called back, but they had left for the day.

I called again the next day–at 10AM, when they start work–and gave my approval. The laptop, I was told, would now be en route “from 5 to 7 days”. This was 5 days after my original visit to the famous store with my fancy cards. My lap has been, and remains, untopped.

2) Why I expected this to be a big deal

I am a nomadic worker, and my laptop in effect is my yurt, or office, and thus one of the two West Coast Bureaus of The Economist (the other bureau being the laptop of Martin Giles in San Francisco, who replaced me in my previous beat). So I assumed that no laptop meant no bureau, no articles, no work. I assumed this because this was my experience in 2005, when another laptop of mine died.

300px-Cloud_computing

3) Why it’s not

But things have changed since 2005. Something called “cloud computing” has come along, diagrammed above. It’s an old idea newly implemented: that information and intelligence reside in the network, to be accessed by “appliances” or “terminals” which we nowadays call web browsers. If you use web mail, Facebook, WordPress, Flickr, YouTube etc etc then you are computing in the cloud. You are not longer storing and crunching data in the machine on your lap. Instead, you are doing it on the internet.

After my previous laptop disaster in 2005, I began to train myself (I am a technophobe by nature) to start using the internet instead of perishable machines. Gmail, Google Calendar (which I share with my wife and a few other people), Google Reader, Facebook, and so forth.

Slowly, I started migrating more and more activities into the cloud. This was slow because of inertia. But I kept at it. My phones (Skype and Google Voice) are now online, as are many of my photos.

So it occurred to me, before going back to the Apple Store, to complete this process. I put all of my current or important documents on Google Docs. This was surprisingly quick and easy. I had never understood why I was using Microsoft Office in the first place, since it was bursting with features that I never use and that confuse me.

Now, instead of emailing my editor a Word doc, I “share” a Google Doc with him.

So now my digital life is entirely in the cloud. As some of you have noticed, even though I have not had my laptop, I have been “on”. Nothing has changed. I use my wife’s laptop, or somebody else’s, or my iPhone, which is almost as good. I no longer really care about my laptop.

4) Progress = Bye bye, Steve, bye bye Bill

At some point, I may yet get my snazzy Mac Book Pro back from this famous Apple Store. Will I care? Enough to go to the store one more time to pick it up. Barely.

The truth is that this slight nuisance, this mini-crisis, nudged me to do what I should have done long ago. It forced me to liberate myself from Microsoft’s software and Apple’s hardware, neither of which I need any longer. Yes, there are some new vulnerabilities (there always are). But I am, if not free, a lot freer.

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Death in Tehran: a story about fear

I’ll have much more to say about Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, which I recently finished reading. But today just one little story that Frankl, a psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, tells in the book.

He calls it Death in Tehran (Kindle locations 846-51) and uses it to suggest that we are often our own worst enemies, that our very fear of something can make it come about:

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

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The rape of Melos: Thucydides as great thinker

Thucydides

One of the most important dialogues in all of literature, all of history and all of political philosophy (and yes, I am aware that this is a bold statement) is the so-called “Melian dialogue”. Its subject is power.

Its author was Thucydides (above), whom I’ve introduced before. He was a contemporary of Socrates, a general in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and of course the preeminent historian of that war. He is also considered the world’s first Realist.

I’m using that word in the context of International Relations and Political Science, as distinct from Idealism. All later Realists, from Thomas Hobbes to Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger, owe an intellectual debt to Thucydides.

So the purpose of this post is:

  1. to include Thucydides in my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers, and
  2. to try to give you a short and easy intro to that famous dialogue.

1) Background

The dialogue is supposed to have taken place in 416 BCE, roughly in the middle of the long war between Athens and her allies (mostly the islands and ports around the Aegean) and Sparta and her allies (mostly the land-locked cities of the Peloponnese).

One life time earlier, the Athenians, Spartans and other Greeks together had kicked out several huge Persian invasion armies. This was the beginning of Athens as a superpower. Democratic and idealistic at first (parallels?), Athens quickly became nakedly self-interested and arrogant and dominated its allies as though they were vassals. That alliance was called the Delian League but was really an Athenian Empire. Here is a map of it, before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War:

Athenian Empire.svg

If you click through to enlarge the map, you will see the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean, just outside the line demarcating the Athenian Empire. Melos was a Spartan colony but otherwise neutral. It was, in short, a tiny Switzerland. It wanted to stay out of the troubles.

The premise of the dialogue, then, is simple: The Athenians send a fleet to Melos and flatly demand that Melos bow to Athenian power and become a vassal or else be ethnically cleansed. (!)

The Melians appeal to higher ideals (hence Idealism) such as justice.

In the course of the dialogue, excerpts of which I am about to give you, the Athenians and Melians use all the arguments that Realists and Idealists have been using ever since.

And then, Thucydides ends with one of the most abrupt–but, I believe, intentional and genius–codas in literature. But let’s wait till we get to that.

2) The dialogue

Notes:

  • You can read the full version here, but I have cut it for ease of use
  • Glossary: Lacedaemon = Sparta. (Laconia is the area around Sparta, whence “laconic”, since the Spartans didn’t apparently say more than necessary.)

Athenians: … we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying … that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Melians: … you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right….

Athenians: … We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.

Melians: And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?

Athenians: Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.

Melians: So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.

Athenians: No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.

Melians: Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?

Athenians: As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection…

Melians: … if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? …

Athenians: … it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.

Melians: … it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.

Athenians: Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.

Melians: … to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope

Athenians: Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources … [But] you, who are weak … hang on a single turn of the scale…

Melians: You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust…

Athenians: When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do

Melians: … we now trust to [the Lacedaemonians'] respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.

Athenians: Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible.

Melians: But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake … as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.

Athenians: Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others. … now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?

Melians: But they would have others to send…

Athenians: … we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. … Think over the matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.

With that the Athenians left the Melians to make their decision. Let’s just summarize the dialogue briefly:

  1. A: Cut through the crap: might makes right. Don’t waste our time. M: We have a right to invoke justice!
  2. A: We would prefer to let you live, so submit! M: How exactly would submitting be in our interest?
  3. A: Were you not listening? Because you would live! M: Why can’t we be neutral? We would not bother you.
  4. A: Somebody somewhere might think we are weak. M: If you exterminate us, all other neutrals will hate you.
  5. A: Let us worry about that. M: We are not cowards and we want to stay free.
  6. A: For you it’s not about freedom but survival. M: We still have hope.
  7. A: Hope is for the powerful. And you are not. M: The gods are on our side because our cause is just.
  8. A: The gods are just like you and us: They do what power lets them. M: The Spartans will come to our aid.
  9. A: No, they won’t. They know they would lose at sea. M: We think they would send somebody.
  10. A: Enough of this silly nonsense. You make up your mind. Submit or die.

The Melians decided not to submit and to fight. Thucydides then describes at some length the Athenian siege. Eventually, the Athenians overpower the Melians.

And then, in perhaps the most abrupt final sentence in literature, Thucydides simply informs us that the Athenians

put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.

3) Exegesis

  • Style: Thucydides writes the dialogue (admittedly, with my cutting I have accentuated this) a bit as Hemingway does: This is a staccato back-and-forth, not a treatise. We are not teasing out a subtlety of argumentation here. We simply have two sides who are talking past each other, and one side has power whereas the other does not.
  • Style: Any modern editor would have forced Thucydides to provide more “color” at the end, to make the true horror of the extermination more vivid. Thucydides has none of that. He wants the atrocity to be a mere afterthought. This is the way the world is, he is saying.
  • Content: Does Thucydides approve of the Athenians? We have no idea. Probably not. Who cares?, he is saying. This is reality.


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Clausewitz on 9/11 and all that

A strategic moment

A strategic moment

What might Clausewitz say today about America’s double-war in the Middle East during this decade?

I was very tempted not to write a post on this. After all, in my forthcoming book I am ‘only’ using success and failure in war (ie, the one Hannibal and Scipio fought) as a primal metaphor for other contexts in life such as sports, love, business, relationships, exploration, reproduction, art and thought.

Ditto Clausewitz: I am interested in life strategy; but that is still strategy, and Clausewitz happens to be the sage on that subject.

(Incidentally, I’m impressed by the feedback I’ve gotten from that little post. Clausewitz is very topical, it seems. For instance, Mike Lotus emailed me to point out his recent roundtable on Clausewitz, which will become a book this fall.)

I am also aware that there is little to be gained from yet another analysis of where we went wrong in responding to 9/11. Everything has been said. Worse: in contrast to, say, the Korean War or the Second Punic War, our current wars are still going on and our society is still split, so it is too early to talk dispassionately about them.

But I’ve decided that if I bring up Clausewitz and strategy, I would be chicken not to take a stab at Iraq and Afghanistan. So here goes.

The situation as it appeared on September 12, 2001

Al-Qaeda attacked us; 3,000 of us are dead; 300 million of us are shocked, angry and scared.

1) From Al-Qaeda’s point of view

Student of Clausewitz?

Student of Clausewitz?

For Al-Qaeda, this was an ideal alignment of tactics and strategy: With little effort and cost, it caused disproportionate levels of terror (hence ‘terrorism’) in the Western world that appeared (politically and psychologically) certain to provoke us to go on an offensive. (Notice ‘an’, not ‘the’.)

Clausewitz believed that defense was much easier than offense, because whoever is attacking will eventually reach a ‘culminating point‘ point at which he is overextended and exhausted, and the defender can counterattack with devastating ease. So if we play offense and Al Qaeda plays defense, that helps them. (This is the opposite of what Cheney thinks.) Al-Qaeda was pleased.

Clausewitz also believed that, to win a war, you need to find your enemy’s center of gravity and defeat him there. Defeating him elsewhere is pointless or counterproductive. (For Clausewitz the obvious example was Napoleon‘s mistaking Moscow for Russia’s center of gravity, an error that was the beginning of his end.) Al Qaeda knew

  1. that its center of gravity was not one that we were trained or able to identify militarily, because it had no capital and no army that we could bomb; and
  2. that we were likely to miss its ultimate center of gravity, which is its support among Muslims at large.

Al-Qaeda might have believed (although we might be giving them too much credit) that our center of gravity was … us! If we could be terrorized into compromising our values then we might forfeit any appeal we might have for moderate Muslims around the world.

“War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means,” Clausewitz said, and Al-Qaeda’s overarching policy was and is to defeat moderate or secular or Shia Muslims in Muslim countries. Any tactic (or means) that would weaken the moderates in those countries and strengthen the extremist Sunnis would therefore fit into its strategy (or end).

If we could be provoked into disarming (ie, no longer offering appealing values to moderate Muslims) and attacking the wrong center of gravity (=Napoleon to Moscow), then a Wahabi-Sunni caliphate, united against Shias and the West, would become more likely. Al-Qaeda would consider this victory.

2) From our point of view

Clause which?

Clause which?

For us, 9/11 was a wake-up call. There were people who were trying to kill us, and even though they had only box-cutters (and hence our planes) they might get nukes. We had to keep nukes and other WMDs out of their hands, and to keep our enemies out of our countries altogether. Strategically speaking, so far, so good.

Problem Nr 1: Offense or defense? Clausewitz said that defense was better. Even in this case, he might be right. After 9/11, there was a global outpouring of sympathy for America. In Europe, Asia, even in the Middle East, reasonable people were on our side. For Al-Qaeda, this might have been an early culminating point, an act of over-reaching that could have united us with our allies and even some enemies and estranged moderate Muslims from Al-Qaeda, thus leading to its defeat.

But defense was not an option, for reasons of domestic politics and psychology, and Al-Qaeda knew that. Hence…

Problem Nr 2: Since we were going on the offense, what was the enemy’s center of gravity? The difference between going on the offensive as opposed to an offensive is one of aim: if we hit, it’s the; if we miss, it’s an. So was the center of gravity

  • Osama?
  • Afghanistan?
  • Al-Qaeda everywhere and anywhere?
  • Its sympathizers anywhere?
  • Muslims?
  • The arms, ie the WMD, wherever they were, that might fall into Al-Qaeda’s hands?

You see the difficulty. As it turned out (but we could not have known that then), any item on the list above that seemed easy and straightforward subsequently turned out to be hard and elusive.

  • We thought we could get Osama quickly (but worried even then that he personally was not the center of gravity–correctly, I think). But here we are and he is, well, somewhere.
  • We thought we could do better than the Soviets, and as well as Alexander the Great, and just subdue Afghanistan. And we did. But then we didn’t. Or did we?

What we should have realized even then is that the center of gravity was the rest of that list.

  • “Al-Qaeda everywhere,”
  • “its sympathizers anywhere,” and
  • “Muslims”

were and are three disctinct but fluid and overlapping populations. If we were to “win over” Muslims, then there would be fewer sympathizers, and thus also fewer (new) members of Al-Qaeda.

What would that have entailed? Borrowing a bit from Lao Tzu, we might have done a lot less, because Al-Qaeda is so appalling to most Muslims. (Most of the people Al-Qaeda kills are Muslims.)

We might also have contemplated a full-fledged “Muslim Marshall Plan”, on the scale of the one that we brought to Germany and Western Europe after the war (against our then-new enemy, Communism). The earthquake in Pakistan and events like it were great opportunities, largely overlooked, to show them what we can be and what Al-Qaeda is not.

We did neither of those things. Instead, we got more active than Al-Qaeda, and blew up more than we built up. That was a strategic mistake, but not nearly as big as the following:

  • The arms (ie, the WMD)

No, I am not talking about merely getting our intelligence about Iraq wrong (as tragic as that was). At the time (defined as: after Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN) we all thought that Saddam was making WMD.

But so what? The strategist (Clausewitz) would step back and look at the overall situation:

  • a risk of loose nukes in the former USSR. Must secure as fast as possible!
  • Pakistan, which is Muslim and next to Afghanistan, having nukes. Must support and stablize country! Check back in often.
  • North Korea, which was on the verge of getting nukes, but still had our (IAEA) monitors inside the country. Must contain and engage! Otherwise consider pre-emptive strike!
  • Iran, which was far behind North Korea in progress toward nukes, domestically complex, our enemy but also Al-Qaeda’s enemy. Must attempt to turn into potential ally against Al-Qaeda!
  • Iraq, which was furthest behind, mostly dabbling in chemical and biological WMD (I’m still quoting what we thought then), which are infinitely less dangerous (harder to deliver, less lethal). Our enemy, but also Al-Qaeda’s natural enemy. Must attempt to turn into tool against Al-Qaeda!

I’m guessing that several of those points caused you whiplash (the bits in italics). But remember that the idea of Nixon going to China would have caused you whiplash too.

What we did not do, but should have done, is to think strategically about the world’s nukes. A clear hierarchy of danger existed, with North Korea at the top and Iraq not even on it.

What we also did not do, but should have done, is to think strategically about enemies and allies (as Nixon and Kissinger did). The biggest enemy was Al-Qaeda. Iraq and Iran were holding each other in check (thanks to Bush senior who, in a masterly and subtle gesture, pulled back in the first Gulf War just at the point that would allow Iraq to keep holding Iran in check.)

More importantly, Iran, being Persian and Shia, and Iraq, being secular and Baathist, were both natural enemies of Al-Qaeda. Duh!

I will never forget the day I came back from the slopes in Whistler on a ski holiday with my fiancee (now wife), turned on the TV and watched the news of North Korea kicking out our monitors. That was it. That was the moment I knew we had screwed up. (And we did not even know yet that Iraq had no WMD.)

Kim Jong-Il was watching what we were about to do to Saddam and decided to make a run for it–ie, for the nukes. Until we invaded Iraq, we had everyone in a tense stalemate: Saddam could not move and had monitors in every orifice, Kim Jong-Il had monitors, and Iran was worried about Iraq as much as us. After we invaded Iraq, North Korea and Iran called our bluff: We were not going to “pre-empt” anybody again.

The rest is history

  • We invaded Iraq and found no weapons, even as we watched North Korea get nukes and Iran follow close behind.
  • We weakened Muslim moderates in their own domestic debates against extremists by becoming what Al-Qaeda needed us to become: torturers, abusers of Muslims at Abu Ghraib, bombers of civilians. We gave them a Feindbild.
  • At home, once we realized we were not advancing our strategy–indeed, not even formulating it properly–we began confabulating other war aims. Suddenly, it was about “democracy”, and bringing it to a region at gun point. This was somehow going to solve everything. This is when I became disgusted.

Summary: We kept sympathy for Al-Qaeda alive longer than was necessary and allowed nukes to get into the hands of people who might yet trade them to Al-Qaeda. Strategically speaking, an utter disaster.

Fortunately, the story is not over yet and, with luck, we will look back at the Bush years as merely lost time, not an irreversible defeat.

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Tactics vs Strategy: MacArthur vs Truman

Tactician

Tactician

  • Knowing means from ends
  • Knowing tactics from strategy
  • Understanding why the first must always be subordinate to the second

These, as I argued in the previous post, are the greatest and most enduring lessons of Carl von Clausewitz, and the reason why I include him in my pantheon of great minds.

Where I have most fun in my forthcoming book is in fleshing out his ideas in contexts other than war, to show that strategy applies to all areas of life. But today I want to make his ideas a bit more concrete in the obvious context: war.

So allow me to introduce the two archetypes:

  1. Douglas MacArthur and
  2. Harry Truman
Strategist

Strategist

Here is their story (from one of the best biographies ever written):

Nuke to win, nuke to lose

In June of 1950, Communist forces from North Korea poured south across the 38th parallel in an all-out attack on South Korea. Harry Truman, having come to power late in life, was the American commander-in-chief and had already made history by dropping the first and only two atomic bombs on Asian cities just five years earlier. He knew immediately and instinctively that this Communist attack had to be reversed or contained. And there to execute this purpose, in theory, was Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the United Nations forces in the region, as well as a certified American Hero from World War II and a notorious prima donna.

MacArthur began true to form, with a swashbuckling landing at Inchon in South Korea. He took the enemy by surprise, liberated Seoul in eleven days and, by October 1st of 1950, brought UN forces—primarily composed of Americans—back to the 38th parallel that the North Koreans had crossed. MacArthur now wanted a “hot pursuit” , and Truman authorized him to cross the 38th parallel.

Truman, however, added a crucial strategic condition: Do not to provoke the Chinese to enter the war, lest that should spark World War III and possible nuclear Armageddon!

Right around then, things began going wrong, not only in the war effort but also in the relationship between MacArthur and Truman.

When the two men met–for the only physical meeting of their lives–on  a tiny coral islet in the Pacific, MacArthur tellingly greeted his commander-in-chief but failed to salute. The two men then met alone, before inviting others to join them. Truman made clear his overarching concern, one that Clausewitz would have approved of: to keep this a “limited” war,  meaning a war to meet one single objective—rebuffing Communist aggression in Korea—without risking an escalation into what Clausewitz would have called an “absolute” war.

But the following month, Truman’s fears came true and the Communist Chinese attacked with huge force. Suddenly, MacArthur, who had been dreaming of another glorious military victory, was trying to avoid a humiliating defeat. He demanded:

  • huge reinforcements,
  • a wholesale naval blockade of all of China and
  • immediate bombing of the Chinese mainland.

MacArthur wanted to broaden the war and to burst any remaining “limits” on it. For MacArthur, there was only one objective: victory. At all costs!

Truman thought the exact opposite. His first fear had already come true, and he now worried that the Chinese were the advance guard of a Soviet Russian intervention, what he called “a gigantic booby trap”  that could lead to the explosion of World War III.

Truman and MacArthur started issuing competing press releases. MacArthur began publicly blaming Washington for everything that was going wrong. He disobeyed specific orders. He called on Truman

  • to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on the cities of China (!) and
  • to “sever” Korea from China by laying down a field of radioactive waste all along the Yalu River.

MacArthur appeared to have lost his mind. He even issued his own ultimatum to the Chinese government, as if he were president.

Big Man vs Little Man

At last, Truman took the inevitable measure and fired MacArthur. This was an obvious step, but not an easy one. MacArthur, to ordinary Americans, was still a war hero, whereas Truman’s approval was at an all-time low of 26%. (Hard to remember today, but true.) Time Magazine wrote that “Douglas MacArthur was the personification of the big man” whereas “Harry Truman was almost a professional little man.”  In a poll, 69% of the country backed MacArthur. There were calls to impeach Truman. (Never underestimate the capacity of a democracy, whether Athenian or American, to run amok!)

In time, minds cleared. Truman settled for a stalemate in Korea that continues to this day and is as tense and unsatisfactory this week as ever. He chose a “defeat” of sorts that has brought lasting peace. Communism would be contained for another four decades and then crumble, leaving American as the only superpower. Parts of East Asia, like Western Europe, would prosper in relative safety.

Had MacArthur prevailed, America might well have achieved “victory”, at the cost of another world war, nuclear annihilation of millions, and perhaps nuclear counterstrikes on America from the Soviets, who were fast catching up to the Americans in the technology. It would have been the ultimate impostor of a triumph, with nobody left to march in the victory parade through the radioactive planet.

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Croesus learns about success and happiness

800px-Claude_Vignon_Croesus

I mentioned that A.E. Housman might have got the idea for his poem, To An Athlete Dying Young, from his study of the classics, in particular Herodotus. I had one particular story from Herodotus in mind when I said that. It is the story of King Croesus.

(The story almost made it into my coming book about success and failure in life, but then it got a bit crowded and I cut it out.)

1) Croesus the happy

In the sixth century BCE there was a king named Croesus in Lydia (today’s Turkey). He was so rich that we still today say “rich as Croesus”. But he always wanted confirmation from others that he was indeed the richest, the most successful, the happiest man alive. Why would he need confirmation? One wonders. But people always do.

As it happened, Solon, the man who had given the Athenians their laws and who was the wisest man in Greece at the time, came for a visit. This was exactly the sort of man Croesus wanted to impress.

I paraphrase (the text is here):

Croesus: ‘Welcome Solon. You’re the wisest man in Greece. I’ve heard so much about you. Please take a tour of my palace and look at all the gold and silver, the women and slaves and fruit, and all my splendor. Isn’t it wonderful? Tell me: who is the happiest man in the world?’

Solon: ‘Tellus of Athens, sire.”

Croesus: [Blank look. Silence.] ‘Sorry, but… Who?’

Solon: ‘Tellus, sire. He was this guy who lived when his country was prosperous, and he had two sons and some grandchildren.’

Croesus [still uncomprehending]: ‘Right. So what? What does that have to do with anything?’

Solon: ‘Well, you see, he died on the battlefield, and the Athenians gave him a proper funeral. So he died knowing that everything was good in his life.’

Croesus [rather miffed, irritable]: ‘Well never mind. Who is the second happiest man in the world?’ [smiles and nods, leans forward]

Solon: ‘Cleobis and Bito.’

Croesus [jumpy, shocked]: ‘Who the hell are Cleovice and Vico?’

Solon: ‘Cleobis and Bito, sire. They were these two young lads in Argos. Their mom wanted to go to a festival but couldn’t find any oxen to pull her cart. So the two sons put the yoke on their own necks and pulled the cart to give their mother a ride. The whole town was watching and everybody loved them for it. Their mom was really proud. Later that night, both her sons fell asleep and never woke up. What a wonderful way to die.’

Croesus: ‘You’re supposed to be a wise man, Solon! What is this gibberish you’re talking? I asked you who the happiest man in the world is. Look around, for god’s sake. Look at me! What about me?’

Solon: ‘You? How would I know? You’re doing well right now. But wealth and success don’t last. And what comes next, nobody knows. I will know whether you were successful and happy after you die.’

Croesus thought Solon was a senile idiot and sent him home. Then he went back to enjoying his life.

2) Croesus the miserable

He fell from happiness in stages.

It started with a bad dream. In it, one of his two sons, his favorite, was killed by an iron weapon. Croesus immediately banned all iron weapons and tools from his palace. But his son soon got bored and went with his friends into the woods for a boar hunt. They cornered the boar and one man hurled a spear. It missed the boar and killed the prince. Croesus was devastated.

But he still had his kingdom, his wealth and another son, even though that son was mute. Even so, that was a lot to be happy about.

At this time, Persia was a rising empire in the east, and Croesus wanted to know his future. So he asked the oracle of Apollo some questions:

  • Will my surviving son ever speak? Answer: ‘You will rue the day when he speaks.’
  • Should I launch a preemptive war against the Persians? Answer: ‘If you march, a great kingdom will be destroyed.’
  • How long will I rule? Answer: ‘Until a mule rules over Persia.’

Apollo, you see, always said enough to be interesting and not enough to be helpful. (Ask Oedipus.) Croesus couldn’t figure out the bit about his son at all. He loved the second answer, since he was apparently fated to destroy the Persian kingdom. And he liked the third answer, since the Persians, as far as he knew, did not obey mules.

Off he went to war. The Persians won and stormed Croesus’ city, Sardis. A great kingdom was destroyed.

As the Persian soldiers were running through the streets to slaughter, Croesus took his son by the hand and ran for his life. One Persian grabbed Croesus and flashed his blade. Suddenly the mute boy screamed: “Do not kill him, for this is Croesus, king of the Lydians.” You will rue the day when he speaks.

So Cyrus, the Persian ruler, had Croesus, his defeated enemy, brought before him. Cyrus was half Mede, half Persian–a mutt. A mule.

A pyre was built, and Cyrus took his throne to watch the spectacle. Croesus was about to be burnt alive. The flames were already licking his feet.

Croesus on the pyre

Croesus on the pyre

3) Croesus the wise

Death was near, and Croesus suddenly thought of Solon. He started moaning:

“Solon, Solon, Solon!” “Solon, Solon, Solon!”

Cyrus sat up. What was this man muttering? This was not the name of a god. Just then it started raining. Cyrus looked up. Whatever Croesus was muttering seemed to be effective.

“Stop the fire. Bring him down. I want to ask him a question!”

Croesus was brought before Cyrus.

Cyrus: “Tell me what you were moaning.”

Croesus: “Solon, sire. He was a man who offered me wisdom and I spurned it.”

Cyrus: “What wisdom is that?”

Croesus: “He said to count nobody happy until the end is known.

Cyrus [thoughtful, empathetic, reflective]: “You may have spurned Solon then, but you seem to be a wise man now. I would be foolish to be the one spurning the wisdom now. I will let you live. I want you to be my adviser.”

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Uncertainty is worse than disaster

Many mysteries explain why triumph and disaster are impostors, which is what my book is about. Here is just one: Success often introduces uncertainty, whereas failure often removes it. And, as researchers are now discovering, people cope far better with disaster than with uncertainty.

The New York Times recently had a piece on a few of these studies:

Sarah Burgard

Sarah Burgard

Sarah A. Burgard, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, has for several years looked at how perceived job insecurity affects people’s health… People who felt chronically insecure about their jobs reported significantly worse overall health in both studies and were more depressed in one of the studies than those who had actually lost their jobs or had even faced a serious or life-threatening illnesses. “Chronic stress is extremely damaging to your health,” Professor Burgard said. “I’m an academic and I’m going up for tenure. I know what uncertainty is. You’re unable to make plans, unable to take action. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”…

Jacob Hirsh

Jacob Hirsh

Jacob Hirsh, a graduate student at the University of Toronto who has studied how different people respond to uncertainty…. found that those considered higher on the neuroticism scale would prefer knowing something for sure – even if it’s negative – than not knowing….

Another psychology professor said that “people who are anxious tend to equate uncertainty with a negative outcome”, even though 85% of the actual outcomes in his studies were neutral or even positive. People also underestimate their ability to deal with bad outcomes.

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Blagojevich dares cite Kipling

Indirectly, I had to discover that Rod Blagojevich, Illinois’s Senate-seat-selling governor, has been quoting Rudyard Kipling’s If. Yes, that’s the same If that inspired me to write my book. What gall that man has.

At least he stopped just short of the two lines that form the core idea of the book: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/and treat those two impostors just the same.” Odd. I would think that he must be hoping that his Disaster somehow reveals itself to be an impostor.

According to William Kristol’s account in today’s New York Times, Blagojevich on Friday, after pledging that he will fight, fight, fight:

quoted the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating …

But Blagojevich carefully cut off his recitation before the stanza’s last line: “And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”

Well, I suppose the poem is public property. Go ahead, Rod. I’ll share.


Endurance

Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton

Earlier this month, I told you how frustrating it is when, in the course of the research for my book, I follow a trail into a dead end. Back then I had been reading about Casanova until I had to admit to myself that he didn’t fit into the chapter that I was re-writing. I swallowed and moved on.

Greg Balco

Greg Balco

Well, the opposite can happen too. Almost a year ago, my friend Greg Balco (who has since proposed that I rename this blog An Inconvenient Kluth) suggested that I look into the life of Ernest Shackleton as one of my subsidiary stories. Shackleton took a ship named Endurance to explore the Antarctic, but got stuck in the ice, lost the ship and found himself and his crew, truly, facing a Disaster. What happened next was all about character!

Anyway, I read the book that Greg recommended and loved it–in part because there is a lot of Greg in it. He is a geochronologist and his idea of fun is to camp in the Antarctic ice and drill for snow, or perhaps rocks; or perhaps they just go sledding. He would know exactly what Shackleton and his men endured when they subsisted on blubber on floes of ice for a year, with no light in the winter and no darkness in the summer.

But as my own storyline was evolving Shackleton didn’t seem to fit. Now, a year later, I am reopening the middle chapters to make them perfect. Suddenly one of them has a gaping hole that cries out for a life, a character to fill it.

This is the chapter about the least known of my three main characters: Fabius, the old Roman Senator who fought Hannibal by not fighting him, until the young and dashing Scipio came onto the scene. That doesn’t tell you about the context of the chapter, or about the hole in it that needs filling. Suffice it to say that Shackleton, suddenly, seems to be a perfect fit. Endurance hereby re-enters my bibliography.


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