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Posts from the ‘triumph’ Category

Overlapping lessons: Hannibal and Me & The Big Five

Admittedly, this one might be all Greek to you — or rather all German, because that’s what we were speaking.

Uwe Alschner, who evangelizes the “Big Five for Life” concept in Germany (a guide to more purposeful living), had a great Skype chat with me about Hannibal and Me. (And the book’s not even been translated into German yet.)

Thanks, Uwe!

Genius through observation: Alexander & Bucephalus

The other day, I was reading to my kids from a children’s book about Alexander the Great, which caused much merriment and took much time because, as you would expect, I had to embellish every sentence with the real or the full story.

But honestly, what inadequate storytelling! Here is how that book delivered the famous anecdote about Alexander taming his horse Bucephalus:

There is a story about a black stallion that one day started running wildly through the courtyard. Five trainers chased it but were unable to mount it. All of a sudden the horse stopped short. Not a soul dared to approach except young Alexander, who moved swiftly, mounting and mastering the steed. Henceforth the proud horse belonged to Alexander and was called Bucephalos, which means “The One with the Head of an Ox.”

I had to intervene. So I closed the book and said, “OK, kids, here is what really happened, and it is much more interesting.” (And the next day, I checked my memory against Plutarch, as you can do here.)

The real story, and the lesson

Alexander was only 12 or 13 at the time, and he had quite a tense relationship with his father, a bit as Hannibal and Hamilcar later did, and as most successful sons and fathers do.

In any case, Alexander’s father, Philip, was given a splendid horse. But nobody could tame it, and everybody, including Philip, was making rather a fool of himself.

Alexander, meanwhile, was just watching. Really observing. Because that’s what the adults were not doing. They were too busy being brave to observe the horse.

And so Alexander noticed that the horse was not angry, and was not even fighting against the Macedonian men. No, the horse was afraid and panicking. It was scared of its own shadow.*

So Alexander stepped up and dared his dad to let him try to tame the horse. He looked precocious and arrogant, and the men had a good laugh.

Alexander then took the stallion by its bridle (much more gently than the painting above suggests) and turned him to face into the sun, so that their shadows were now behind them. At this, the stallion calmed down a bit. Alexander then (and I quote from Plutarch now), let

him go forward a little, still keeping the reins in his hands, and stroking him gently when he found him begin to grow eager and fiery, he let fall his upper garment softly, and with one nimble leap securely mounted him, and when he was seated, by little and little drew in the bridle, and curbed him without either striking or spurring him.

Philip and his friends

all burst out into acclamations of applause; and his father shedding tears, it is said, for joy, kissed him as he came down from his horse, and in his transport said, ‘O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.’

So, you see, the story is really about Alexander’s finesse and, more, about his genius of observation. (And kids get that! They can handle the real story.)

In this sense, I believe Plutarch chose this anecdote for the same reason he chose the other famous vignette about Alexander: his untying of the Gordian Knot. As I argued in this post, that story, too, was proof of Alexander’s superior powers of observation. In that case, Alexander espied a simple solution to a complex situation.

But we can, as Plutarch would urge us to do, extend this much further. What made Alexander so great?

In his major battles, Alexander was usually the last to arrive at the battlefield. His enemy was already waiting, and had prepared his army for a particular battleplan. Alexander, by arriving late and keeping his mind supple, could observe that situation and infer his enemy’s plan, thereby devising his own, superior, plan on the fly.

In his administration of the conquered lands, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, he again observed the locals and their customs. He observed how they differed from Macedonian and Greek customs. And he observed how the Macedonians and Greeks were reacting to his observation. So Alexander ruled Egypt as a divine Pharaoh, the former Persian Empire as a Persian king, the Greek city states as a Philhellenic “first among equals”, and his own Macedonians as a brother in arms.

The man’s greatness — and the lesson in all these anecdotes — is found in his powers of observation.

Oh, and Bucephalus became Alexander’s beloved charger. When the stallion died from battle wounds (in what is today Pakistan), Alexander named a city after him, Bucephala, and died three years later.


* A famous autistic woman, Temple Grandin, has vividly described how cows and other animals, like autistic people, do sometimes get frightened by such things, whether a colored piece of plastic or a moving shadow.

My other posts about Alexander so far:

The story of Cicero, told well

I just devoured Robert Harris’s Imperium, the first book in what will be a trilogy of historical fiction, or fictional biography, about Cicero. I read it in a couple of sittings, hardly able to put it down. It may be the best way to learn about that great man and that fascinating time, a turning point in world history. I’ve just ordered the second book in the trilogy, and I can’t wait for the third to come out.

In terms of themes that show up a lot here on this blog:

  1. Storytelling: Wow. Harris has Cicero’s slave and confidante Tiro tell the story from his point of view, which works well. All the details of Roman life and of the characters (Crassus, Pompey, Caesar etc etc) come to life.
  2. The “impostors triumph and disaster”: Cicero embodies them (though not quite as perfectly as Hannibal and Scipio do, which is why I myself chose them to tell my own story. ;))
  3. The tension between mobs and elites, republican and democratic power sharing, what ought to be and what is.

Among other things.

In any case, if you like The Hannibal Blog, you’re likely to like not only Hannibal and Me in January but also Imperium right now.

The Alexandrian–nay, Gaussian–Solution

Carl Friedrich Gauss

A year ago, I wrote about “the Alexandrian solution” to the Gordian Knot. I saw this as a metaphor for all instances in which genius lies in espying the simplicity hiding in a complex situation.

It just occurred to me that Carl Friedrich Gauss was, at the age of 10, just such an Alexander the Great. (Alexander was young, too, of course. In espying simplicity, it seems to help to be young — ie, intellectually daring, unspoiled by the complexity of life, et cetera.)

In about 1787, the young Carl Friedrich sat in class when the teacher told the kids to find the sum of the numbers 1 through 100. In other words:

1 + 2 + 3 … + 100 = ?

Think of this as the Gordian Knot. The teacher assumed that the kids would be busy for a long time, practicing their addition skills. Gauss reacted just as Alexander would have (I take poetic license):

This is too f***ing boring. There must be a simpler way.

Did Gauss get nervous as the other kids pulled ahead adding numbers, while he was still at 1, searching for simplicity? I don’t know. But he found it:

He realized that the numbers came in pairs:

1 + 100 = 101
2 + 99 = 101
3 + 98 = 101

(and so on until:)

50 + 51 = 101

So the sum of the numbers is simply (simply!)

50 x 101, or 5,050

You might, if you’re a regular on The Hannibal Blog, be guessing that I’m much less interested in sums of numbers than in, shall we say, Gordian Knots and Alexandrian Solutions in general — meaning in other, preferably surprising, walks of life.

If you can think of any instances in which daring simplicity blasted through mind-numbing complexity, drop me a line.

The Alexandrian Solution

A lot of people have a very famous story … wrong.

The story is that of the Gordian Knot and precisely how Alexander the Great loosened it. Most people imagine Alexander slashing the knot with his sword, as pictured above. But he did not.

In the nuance of how he really untied the knot lies hidden a worldview: the supremacy of simplicity and elegance over brute force and complexity. The true “Alexandrian Solution” was, for example, what Albert Einstein was looking for in his search for a Grand Unified Theory — a formula that was simple enough (!) to explain all of physics.

I’ll give you the background and the nuance of the story in a moment, but first another fist bump to Thomas for reminding us to make the association.

We are, remember, talking about complexity. The Gordian Knot is the archetypal metaphor for mind-numbing, reason-defying complexity; Alexander’s triumph over the knot is the archetypal metaphor for triumphing over complexity. Now read on…

I) Background

a) Phrygia

The Gordian Knot was, as the name implies, a knot in a city called Gordium. It was in Phrygia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (today’s Turkey).

The Phrygians lived near (and may have been related to) those other Anatolians of antiquity: the Trojans and the Hittites. They were Indo-European but not quite “Greek”. Their mythical kings were named either Gorgias or Midas (and one of the later Midases is the one who had “the touch” that turned everything into gold). Later, they became part of Lydia, the kingdom of Croesus. And then part of the Persian Empire. And then Alexander showed up.

b) The knot

Legend had it that the very first king, named Gorgias, was a farmer who was minding his own business and riding his ox cart. The Phrygians had no leader at that time and consulted an oracle. The oracle told them that a man riding an ox cart would become their king. Moments later, Gorgias parked his cart in the town square. In the right place at the right time. ;)

So fortuitous was this event and Gorgias’ reign that his son, named Midas, dedicated the ox cart. He did so by tying the cart — presumably by the yoke sticking out from it — to a post.

And he made the knot special. How, we do not know. But Plutarch in his Life of Alexander tells us that it was tied

with cords made of the rind of the cornel-tree … the ends of which were secretly twisted round and folded up within it.

It was a very complicated knot, in other words, and seemed to have no ends by which to untie it.

Lots of people did try to untie it, because the oracle made a second prophesy. As Plutarch said,

Whosoever should untie [the knot], for him was reserved the empire of the world.

II) Alexander, 333 BCE

Alexander, aged 23 and rather ahead of me at that age, arrived in (Persian) Phrygia in 333 BCE. The knot was still there, un-untied.

Alexander had already subdued or co-opted the Greeks, and had already crossed the Hellespont. But he had not yet become divine or conquered Egypt and Persia. All that was to come in the ten remaining years of his short life. And it began with the knot, since he knew the oracle’s prophesy.

Here he his, his sword drawn, approaching the knot:

Did he slash?

No, says Plutarch (ibid,. Vol. II, p. 152, Dryden translation):

Most authors tell the story that Alexander finding himself unable to untie the knot, … cut it asunder with his sword. But … it was easy for him to undo it, by only pulling the pin out of the pole, to which the yoke was tied, and afterwards drawing off the yoke itself from below.

III) Interpretation

I leave it to the engineering wizards among you to re-create the knot as it might have been. But what we seem to have here is a complex pattern that was nonetheless held together by only one thing: the beam.

It was, Einstein might say, like quantum physics and gravity: intimidatingly complex and yet almost certainly reducible to one simple reality.

Alexander, being Great, understood this. He saw through the complexity to the simple elegance of its solution, and pulled the peg.

This is how I understand “the Alexandrian Solution.” I intend to look for it in all of my pursuits. ;)

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The 4th (and final?) coming of Steve Jobs

As you regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know, I am fascinated by Steve Jobs. He is a main character in one chapter of my forthcoming book.

He is a man who is hard to like, impossible to hate and easy to admire. Complex, in a word.

And he is a man who has both lived and reflected on Kipling’s two impostors — ie, triumph and disaster. Oh, what ups and downs Jobs has known.

Now he has unveiled what may be the fourth device in his career (the first being the 1984 Mac, the second the iPod, and the third the iPhone) that fundamentally changes the way we live. It’s called the iPad.

This is not a review

Every tech and media blogger and journalist is right now weighing in on the iPad as a device, so I will not. We put it on the cover of The Economist this week, and my colleague Tom Standage adds context on his blog.

So let me just add some disparate and quirky observations.

1. Nobody imagines (and thus inspires) as Steve Jobs does

My Chinese mother-in-law, who only gave up dial-up internet when it ceased being offered as an option, wrote my wife the following email:

Subject: iPad

Is this the one I’ve been waiting for?

Now this is the Confucian equivalent of a gyrating pole dance. Steve Jobs has hereby cleared the highest hurdle in the excitement-generation industry.

How does he do this?

Jobs has always known how to imagine on our behalf. The truth is that people don’t know what they want (hence Henry Ford’s famous quip that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘A faster horse’.) Jobs has the arrogance to understand that and to believe that he knows, and he tends to be right.

2. Nobody feints as Steve Jobs does

Two years ago, when Amazon brought out its Kindle eBook reader, Steve Jobs dropped all sorts of disparaging comments in such a way that he could be sure journalists would repeat the narrative on his behalf. For example, he said that

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

It was catchy because it rang true and caused many of us literati to hyperventilate about this dreadful trend (ie, people no longer reading).

But some of us guessed even then that Jobs in fact believed the exact opposite. And now we know. At the time he said it, he was 80% of the way into developing … his own eBook reader! For that’s what the iPad is, in part. It is Steve Jobs’ stab at reinventing buying and reading books as he once reinvented buying and listening to music.

Let us all pay extra attention to whatever he disparages next.

3. Even Steve Jobs feels his mortality

The man has been facing death for years now. He had pancreatic cancer. He had a liver transplant. He looks gaunt.

Could it be that this notorious perfectionist broke his own rules and accelerated the release of the iPad, launching it before it is really ready so that he could still be there for its birth, not only as father but also as midwife?

At the moment, the iPad is really a large iPod Touch — you can use only one app at a time, for example. Its trajectory, of course, points toward a time when it will indeed become a new “interface” for day-to-day computing. But I feel there is something half-baked about the release as it stands, by Jobs’ previous standards.

I also could not help but notice that Apple’s promotional video for the iPad does something uncharacteristic: It does not feature Steve Jobs, but instead highlights his lieutenants. They have, of course, been there all along, as ingredients of Apple’s secret sauce. But Jobs has never really displayed them, lest anybody might get the idea that he were grooming successors. The corporate message used to be that Jobs was Apple, and Jobs was forever.

Put differently, this may have been the beginning of a Good Bye. Viewed thus, it is especially moving.

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Brute and primal hero: Hercules

Heracles, or more commonly Hercules (the Roman version), is the quintessential and archetypal hero, the one the Greeks considered their greatest and, more importantly, the one my four-year-old daughter names when I ask her who her favorite hero is.

So Hercules must, of necessity, open this thread on heroes and any investigation of heroism.

Which is interesting because I put it to you that the myth of Hercules is one of the worst stories of antiquity when you consider the storytelling per se. We today would consider Hercules a brute, a meathead, a boor. He is one-dimensional as opposed to complex. His story is in essence a repetitive list of triumphs that leaves no room for suspense, surprise or sympathy. (I meant empathy, really, but why not alliterate?).

And yet, Hercules is the one my daughter picks. So there must be something primal there. And that’s what this post wants to establish.

The man and his dilemma

Hera (Juno)

Hercules was, like many other Greco-Roman heroes, half god, half human. His father was Zeus, which meant that Hera, Zeus’s sister and wife, was jealous and would forever hate Hercules (some say that she is the Hera in Hera-cles) and make his life difficult. If there is tension in the story at all, it is this fight among the gods (some goddesses, such as Athena, helped Hercules) and between a goddess and a mortal. We’ll encounter this theme all throughout ancient mythology (Hera also fought against Aeneas, for instance).

Hera is thus how the Greeks, in this story, personified adversity and even what we would call our dark side. If things go wrong, even if Hercules himself does wrong, we will blame Hera. She is the Ur-bitch, you might say.

Just so this is clear, the story starts when Hera sends two venomous snakes into the crib of baby Hercules to kill him off. Poor snakes. Baby Hercules strangles them, one in each cute fist.

And thus you have the only other piece of information you need about Hercules, the thing that he is known for, the only thing we can really say about him: He is …. strong.

Strength is probably the first trait of a hero, as Jens has already pointed out. But strength against or for what?

Combine the malign influence of Hera and this awe-inspiring strength and you get a combustible cocktail.

Indeed, we need an explosion to get started: Hera causes Hercules to go temporarily mad. He rages with blood lust, destroying and killing not just anybody but … his own children! (Ask yourself: Could Hercules be a modern hero? Do heroes have to be “good”?)

This sets up a rather complicated and unconvincing double rationale for what must come next–ie, the ostensible “story”. Hercules has sinned and must atone, by doing certain labors of penance.

But penance did not work for the Greeks as a story line, so there is another, simpler layer: a good old power struggle. Hercules was supposed to have been a prince, but Hera (who else?) had played with Zeus’ mind and given the throne to Hercules’ cousin Eurystheus, a caricature of mediocrity. The deal is that Hercules can get his throne back if he completes the tasks that Eurystheus gives him. (Ask yourself how plausible that is. Why wouldn’t Hercules just bash his cousin’s head in?)

I’ve been dwelling on all this only to show you what a “bad” story this is. It should be entirely clear by now that the ancients were not the least bit interested in the why of Hercules’ labors, and arguably only modestly interested in the how. They were interested in the that. Namely, Hercules accomplished twelve amazing feats because … he could.

The labors

I won’t, as it were, belabor the labors, even though they are the myth, because you know them and, frankly, I consider them rather predictable and thus dull. (Compare any one of them to the fiendish complexity and uncertainty of, say, Jason having to get that fleece.) To jog your memory, here is the list:

  1. Hercules kills a monstrous lion and henceforth wears its skull and fur as hat and cape, which is how we picture him.
  2. He kills the Hydra, a monster with many heads. Every time he cuts off a head, two more grow in its place. (Compare this with the monster that Siegfried confronts in Norse myth).
  3. He captures a golden-horned deer that is the favorite of the goddess Artemis. (I think this task was included to show that Hercules also had Fingerspitzengefühl, finesse. He could not kill the doe, lest he piss off yet another goddess, so he aimed an arrow so carefully that it immobilized the doe without killing her. But ask yourself: Why did he have to use an arrow at all?)
  4. Next: a boar. Hercules runs it down in the snow, where the boar can’t run fast.
  5. He cleans the famous Augean stables. The cattle of King Augeas had been pooping uninterrupted for eternity and the entire Peloponnesus was reeking. Instead of shoveling shit, Hercules diverts two rivers to flush out the mess. (An import from the river cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt? Meant to show that Hercules could not be humiliated?)
  6. Next, Hercules kills some terrifying birds who shot brass feathers into people.
  7. Next, Hercules carries the Cretan bull to the mainland. (This is the bull that would father, with King Minos’ wife, the Minotaur that Theseus will later deal with, which theoretically locates Hercules in time as slightly older than Theseus. Probably included to establish a link between the two heroes, the greatest, respectively, of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. Updated and corrected thanks to Bill Frank.)
  8. Next, Hercules deals with the mares of Diomedes, horses that tear apart and devour any guest of their king. Hercules somehow turns the tables and feeds Diomedes himself to his mares, and they lose their appetite.
  9. Next, the belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. We need some sex in the story and this is it. Hippolyte falls in love with Hercules and wants to give him her belt, but Hera interferes again, making the other Amazons think that Hercules is about to kill their queen, and causing a battle in which Hercules and his men kill the Amazons. (Every time he kills children or women, you see, it’s really Hera’s fault.)
  10. Next, Hercules has to steal some cattle from a three-headed monster named Geryon. What’s interesting here is the location: Geryon is in Spain, and Hercules travels back to Greece via Italy (thus allowing the Romans to link him with their locales). Also, he has to cross the Alps along the way, and this was, in the Roman mind, not done again “at scale” until … Hannibal did it. I digress.
  11. Next, Hercules has to get the apples of the Hesperides, in today’s Morocco. He persuades Atlas, a Titan who is holding up the sky on his shoulders, to fetch the Apples for him, holding the sky (strength!) while Atlas obliges. When Atlas returns, he doesn’t want to take the burden of the sky back. Hercules says “Fine, I’ll keep carrying it, just take it for one second so that I can put a pillow on my shoulders.” As Atlas helps him out, Hercules makes off with the apples. (I think this is included to show that Hercules also had wit, besides strength. But that qualifies?)
  12. Last, Hercules must fetch Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the underworld of the dead. This is de rigueur for heroes: Odysseus and Aeneas will also visit Hades and return. I think it is meant to symbolize a brush with death, a transcendence of mortality.

Death and meaning

And that’s it, a smooth ride from one triumph to the next. If there is a twist, it is only in Hercules’ death.

Hercules and his wife crossed a river once and Hercules let a centaur, half man and half horse, carry his wife across (why did Hercules himself not carry her?). The centaur tried to elope with her, so Hercules shot him. As the centaur lay dying, the beast whispered to Hercules’ wife that she should keep his blood and soak Hercules’ clothes in it, which would prevent him from straying with other women. She did as told, but the blood was really venom. And thus she inadvertently killed her husband.

And yet, Hercules, alone among heroes, did not totally die. Zeus, his father, made him immortal and brought him to Mount Olymp. Another indication that Hercules was special.

So what is Hercules to us?

He represents the idea, once universal and now arguably fading, that heroes are somehow beyond morality and the law, beyond ordinary standards, “beyond good and evil”. That happens to be the title of a book  by Nietzsche, and I think Hercules might have fit Nietzsche’s idea of an Übermensch. It is what Dostoyevsky examined in Crime and Punishment: Can the hero be beyond morality? The ancients believed Yes. We have opted for No. Today, we would lock Hercules up or, if he happened to be president, appoint a special prosecutor.

But back to the point: Hercules may have got rid of some nuisances for his fellow men–a boar here, a monster there–but that was not why he did his labors.

Hercules was simply a strong man at a time when nature was ever-threatening and as arbitrary as a jealous woman (Hera), when our frightened ancestors yearned for one among them, whatever else his flaws, to stand by at the gate with a bludgeon and brawn.

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Inspiration in a baton, a helmet, a sword …


In January I recommended to you a talk at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference that I had attended. It was by Itay Talgam, an Israeli conductor who asks us to see in the styles of the great conductors (Karajan, Kleiber, Muti, Bernstein…) the dos and don’ts of leadership, the ways to elicit or inhibit the creativity and collaboration of individuals in a group.

Talgam can make us see in a conductor’s manner of holding a baton our own experience as, or with, leaders.

He has now given essentially the same talk again at TED. (If I may observe: TED, Zeitgeist and Poptech, who are rivals, are essentially the same conference these days. As soon as a speaker does well in one, the other two pick him up too.)

So why would I recommend Talgam … again? Because his talk is so incredibly good! So watch all 20 minutes of it, below.

But I’d also like to make another point, one that might seem oblique. One thing I like about Talgam’s approach is that he draws from one area of life (orchestra music) and role (conductor) to inform another area of life (business) and role (boss).

In my very humble way, I try to do the same thing. When I think about writing, I like to think about painting–the way Rembrandt uses color so sparingly and thus effectively, for instance. I see in the highlights of a helmet the touches of good storytelling.

And in my forthcoming book, I take the story of Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio, whose role was commander and whose context was war–the sword, if you will–and I extend it to sex, science, business, sports, exploration, art, politics and intellect–and the ways we succeed and fail in them.

Sometimes, when I give my “elevator pitch” (ie, the book idea compressed into a sentence or two) I get blank stares. I imagine that Talgam does, too. But then I watch Talgam’s talk, and I leaf through my manuscript, and I realize that this … works!

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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



  • 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


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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