Lessons of history

Thanks to an end of season snow fall (I wont’ classify it as a snowstorm, although local traffic certainly thought that’s what it was) a little while back, I had the opportunity to finally finish a book that I’d been trying to go through for a few months.   The book, “Engineers of Victory” by Paul Kennedy, is about how five major challenges of World War II were overcome by the Allies, and how that process was not a single solution but a family of solutions.  There were two things that stood out to me, one obvious and intended, and the other obscure and likely unintentional.

On the obvious level, the challenges (for example of winning the Battle of the Atlantic, which was crucial for the supplies that kept Britain in the war) were enormous both in terms of the technical size and in terms of the consequences to the outcome of the war.  The solution for all the challenges turned out, in every case, to be a confluence of forces, situations, people and equipment.  There was no single, simple solution; the battle was won because (in the Atlantic case) of strategy, new planes, improved ships, deployment of equipment (radar) and time.  Too often we look for the “silver bullet” that will solve an issue.  At work, I tend to tell people “there’s always a simple solution and it’s always wrong”.  Issues and challenges are never simple, and it’s unreasonable to expect solutions to be simple.  What creates problems is complex, so the solution is at least equally complex.  We tend to not realize that.

The less obvious item that struck me was how our current military leadership doesn’t seem to realize or apply the lessons from the past that might help our current issues and myopic vision.  The first one is the obvious one….  “If an overall judgment had to be made, it would be to caution against our instinctive human desire to simplify.  Wars are complex endeavors.”    Somewhat less obvious is the author’s modification of Churchill’s phrase about war being won by the “proper application” of force, when it is more likely to be the “intelligent application of force”.  We seem to be struggling with the intelligent application portion.  Even more interesting to me (in light of the GWOT), was the discussion of age-old Clausewitz’s “…stress upon the importance of focussing upon the enemy’s “Schwerpunkte” (centers of gravity, or key points…” I look at the current strategy in Afghanistan, against ISIL, against jihadists, and wonder if we have any clue what their key points are, much less how to focus our efforts against them.

Finally, there was a discussion about Churchill, and a statement (that I might agree with) that “…there probably was never another war leader with his talent-spotting skills and capacity to inspire and encourage”.  While we remember his inspiration and encouragement, there is admittedly a tendency to not realize how well he was able to find great talent in odd places (Hobart, Ramsey, Wingate, Freeman, etc.  Even Mountbatten would qualify).  How do we find great talent these days?  I’m not sure.  Leaving aside the possible example of  Petraeus, to me it’s clear we have administrators, not leaders.  Managers, not innovators.   And to some extent, Roosevelt also had a talent for finding great talent where he needed to, like Hopkins, Marshall, Eisenhower (no, I’m not going to include McArthur in this World War II list)

I hope that our inability to find talent, skill, ingenuity, brilliance, hasn’t been lost.

But I have doubts — lots of doubts — these days.

engineers of victory


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