John Nagl

10 things I learned about life from reading about warfare.

In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, John Nagl writes about the difference in counterinsurgency techniques between the British in Malaya and the United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

What amazed me most was that many non-military theories intertwined with counterinsurgency warfare, like; organizational culture, philosophy, disruption theory, and economics.

1/ You have to be there. “General Templer was smart enough to go out into the jungle with the Gurkhas to find out for himself.”

When Samuel Zemurray took over the United States banana industry his rallying cry was“they’re there, we’re here.” His competitor, United Fruit, made their decisions from the offices in Boston whereas Zemurray was on the docks of New Orleans and plantations of Honduras.

When John Chatterton found a U-Boat off the New Jersey shore, he walked through a similar one at a museum to get a feel for the ship. Sarah Tavel said that technology start-ups need to be in Silicon Valley, fin-tech and fashion ones in New York. Stanley McChrystal visisted a vineyard in Afghanistan before he understood the true fighting conditions.

2/ Incentives matter. “Templer required each household to submit a (secret) ballot providing information on Communists or their supporters.” “Harnessing nationalism as an issue for the government against the insurgents was the single most vital part of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population.”

Nagl lists other examples of incentives – like rewards for surrender of yourself or weapons  – but the most interesting part was the spectrum. From local farmers to  guerilla fighters to imperialist troops – everyone was  motivated by incentives, but not the same amounts or ratio. For some it was money, others it was freedom, choice,  or safety. The most valued incentives were a powerful force.

Part-of-the-reason Charles Lindberg had his plane made quickly was because the incentives of the manufactorer were aligned with his.

3/ Strength are weaknesses and weaknesses are strengths. “The demands of conventional and unconventional warfare different so greatly that an organization optimized to succeeding one will have great difficulty in fighting the other.”

This notion twisted the tumbler that opened the lock to  Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory. When a business moves up the value chain to more profitable areas, the theory goes, they often surrender the less profitable areas to other companies. Eventually though they can’t move higher up the chain and have been disrupted from below. What was a strength for a business (high margin areas) becomes a weakness and what was a weakenss (low margin areas) becomes a strength for the compeitors.

This Yin and yang nature is elsewhere too. Jim Chanos said that “short selling is an important check on the marketplace.” Napoleon Bonaparte was an excellent agressive general but couldn’t fight a defenseive battle (to save his life). You can’t be good at everything, and by building up some strength you also create some weakness. Which brings us to the next point, opportunity costs.

4/ Consider the opportunity costs. A major theme in Nagl’s book is difference between traditional theories of warfare to new ones. That is, to shift  resources from the former to the latter. Nagl suggested that this balance transfer was too slow.

Opportunity cost in everything. It’s a central tenent to the XMBA and part of the reason people like Elizabeth Gilbert and David Chang pursued it.

Opportunity cost is also hard to articulate. Dan Ariely found that people are often too narrow about it. When he asked people at a car dealership what else they could buy if they didn’t buy a car, they often just said a different brand of car. Rather, the full opportunity cost was anything that could be done with that money.

It’s a challenge to compute all the opportunity cost considerations, especially when they are unproven. Add to that the system around the decision.

5/ Institutions are systems (and systems have internal rules). “(Edward Katzenbach) discovered that emotional faith in battle-tested systems; the hierarchy of the military culture, the lack of peacetime pressure to make changes whose actual importance to the state becomes clear only in war, and the lack of desire of civilian leadership to spend money on military change in peacetime all conspired to keep horses in the cavalry.”

Systems have well worn grooves that influence certain choices, like a horse cavalry. Sometimes this is good. Nagl noted that certain military branches fought better because their systems were better matches for the conditions. Some worse.

There is also institutional memory in our systems. Sometimes this is good, other times it’s not. Nagl noted that the lack of institutional memory in the British Army meant they tried different things. The United States Army however, had annihilation as part of their memory and acted as such.

6/ POTRT. To succeed in counterinsurgency warfare, you have to align three groups: the people, the army, and the government.

This is part-of-the-reason-thinking (POTRT). It was mental model #04 and introduced by Sanjay Bakshi. Whether in war, finance, or parenthood, every domain has answers with many reason.

7/ Trail markings and path dependence. “These themes…contributed over time to a uniquely British approach to warfare.” “(Hugh Carleton Greene) argued that the policy of ‘string them up, no matter what’ gave him nothing to offered and left the insurgents with no choice but to fight on.”

The first quote referenced why the British were well adapted to the fight in Malaya. The “British approach” was one of experimentation and optionality. The second referenced Greene’s pleas to have more options for his propaganda. In both cases, path dependence worked best when they led to a place with options.

Contrast this with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Historian Jim Blight said that Castro believed attack was imminent when American  warships arrived in the Caribbean. He reached out to the Russians for help. Like a cornered mongoose, the only option left was to attack.

Our takeaway then is to not end up on a path where we get cornered. In areas we know a lot about, we can use intuition to guide us. In unfamiliar areas we should lean on learning from others.

8/ Good ideas come from anywhere. “The British army demonstrated a remarkable openness to learning…bottom-up input was welcomed, from tactical innovations, such as walking backward, through operational ones such as food denial operations.”

The idea of a secret ballot was from a junior officer. Contrary ideas too (like red teaming ) were welcomed. The British succeed – in part – thanks to an openness of ides. They avoided exclusive top-down decision making.

This works when the people doing the work give feedback about the work. At Fenway Park the vendors draft what they want to sell.

9/ Conditions matter. “Economic grievances provided kindling for nationalistic fires in young men like (Ho Chi Minh).”

Wars are the result when conditions tip from peace to violence. Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, was a product of his times.

It isn’t only war though. Music changed from physical albums to digital singles because of the conditions, a story told in How Music Got Free. Investing too. Benjamin Graham’s value system worked best in the 1930’s and 40’s. Charlie Munger noted that the same system don’t work in today’s conditions.

10/ Measure the right things. War needed a measuring stick of some kind, Nagl pointed out just a few. Poor metrics were things like positions or territory. Retreat was a tactic, not a loss for the guerillas. Kidnappings, assassinations, and road safety were all more accurate measurements.

This problem (also) came from the types of systems soldiers operated in. In the World Wars, territory mattered, and so that’s what the Army measured.

We tend to do this too. Look at time and money. Mellody Hobson said that “people undervalue time and over value money.” Seneca wrote much the same thing: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” Seymour Schulich wrote “the word ‘billionaire’ is a very crude and inaccurate measure of how well I have played the game of life.”

The right metrics are valuable to have, but not always so easy to figure out.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

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