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December 1944

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen‘]

On 16 December, 1944, after two prior delays, Adolf Hitler launched his last supreme gamble, Operation Autumn Mist, throwing 200,000 Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS soldiers and 600 tanks into the American front line at the Ardennes, catching the Allies completely by surprise. The 101st Airborne Division, commanded by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe was surrounded at Bastogne. This led to the legendary exchange between McAuliffe and the local German commander, General of Panzers, Heinrich von Luttwitz:


To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander.

To which McAuliffe responded:

To the German Commander.


The American Commander

Thus carving a place into history  for himself and the now storied 101st Division.

When I was at Arlington National Cemetery this fall, I watched a bus of honor flight veterans from WWII disembark at the Tomb.  Many of the veterans were frail, even fragile and took the tour in wheelchairs; but others were surprisingly spry and were pushing their comrades along, cheerfully greeting children and shaking hands with other visitors and veterans of other wars much younger than themselves. Most were clad in caps or colorful jackets emblazoned with details of their service and a few wore their medals. For many of these veterans, the trip was undoubtedly a final pilgrimage.

It is common to refer to the men who fought in WWII as “the Greatest Generation”. It is an almost universal expression, but because we forget the sheer enormity of the stakes involved, the sacrifices in blood like a river and the privation and hardship faced by ordinary GI’s, we seldom pause to recall how true that phrase really is.

The 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge is an appropriate time to remember.


Grothendieck’s mathematics and Child Born of Water

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — two approaches to mathematics, two types of heroism, and their respective complementarities ]

I wish to propose a clear analogy between the mathematician Grothendieck‘s two styles of approach to a problem in mathematics, and the Navajo Twin Gods, Monster-Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water.




Steve Landsburg‘s post, The Generalist, compares two approaches to mathematics, as practiced by two eminent mathematicians:

If there was a nut to be opened, Grothendieck suggested, Serre would find just the right spot to insert a chisel, he’d strike hard and deftly, and if necessary, he’d repeat the process until the nut cracked open. Grothendieck, by contrast, preferred to immerse the nut in the ocean and let time pass. “The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months — when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough.”


In the paras leading up to this one, Landsburg gives us the insight that these two approaches can be generalized as “zooming in” and “zooming out”:

Imagine a clockmaker, who somehow has been oblivious all his life to many of the simple rules of physics. One day he accidentally drops a clock, which, to his surprise, falls to the ground. Curious, he tries it again—this time on purpose. He drops another clock. It falls to the ground. And another.

Well, this is a wondrous thing indeed. What is it about clocks, he wonders, that makes them fall to the ground? He had thought he’d understood quite a bit about the workings of clocks, but apparently he doesn’t understand them quite as well as he thought he did, because he’s quite unable to explain this whole falling thing. So he plunges himself into a deeper study of the minutiae of gears, springs and winding mechanisms, looking for the key feature that causes clocks to fall.

It should go without saying that our clockmaker is on the wrong track. A better strategy, for this problem anyway, would be to forget all about the inner workings of clocks and ask “What else falls when you drop it?”. A little observation will then reveal that the answer is “pretty much everything”, or better yet “everything that’s heavier than air”. Armed with this knowledge, our clockmaker is poised to discover something about the laws of gravity.

Now imagine a mathematician who stumbles on the curious fact that if you double a prime number and then halve the result, you get back the number you started with. It works for the prime number 2, for 3, for 5, for 7, for 11…. . What is it about primes, the mathematician wonders, that yields this pattern? He begins delving deeper into the properties of prime numbers…

Like our clockmaker, the mathematician is zooming in when he should be zooming out. The right question is not “Why do primes behave this way?” but “What other numbers behave this way?”. Once you notice that the answer is all numbers, you’ve got a good chance of figuring out why they behave this way. As long as you’re focused on the red herring of primeness, you’ve got no chance.

Now, not all problems are like that. Some problems benefit from zooming in, others from zooming out. Grothendieck was the messiah of zooming out — zooming out farther and faster and grander than anyone else would have dared to, always and everywhere. And by luck or by shrewdness, the problems he threw himself into were, time after time, precisely the problems where the zooming-out strategy, pursued apparently past the point of ridiculousness, led to spectacular, unprecedented, indescribable success. As a result, mathematicians today routinely zoom out farther and faster than anyone prior to Grothendieck would have deemed sensible. And sometimes it pays off big.


I no longer have — alas — a copy of Where the Two Came to their Father, the first volume in the Bollingen Series, with its suite of 18 sand paintings beautifully rendered in silkscreen by Maud Oakes, but their respective black and blue colorations lead me to suppose that the illustration at the head of this post, taken rom that series, shows the twin heroes, Monster Slayer (black) and Child Born of Water (blue) whose journeys and initiation are the subject of the rituasl “sing” recorded in that book.

The theme of two male hero twins is central to the mythologies of the American continent, according to Jospeh Campbell, who contributed a commentary to Oakes’ recording of Jeff King‘s performance of this ceremony, and lacking both the King > Oakes > Campbell book and Gladys Reichard‘s two volumes on Navaho Religion, I must draw on brief quotes from miscellaneous web sources to dramatize the differences between the twins.

Monster Slayer is the doer of deeds, similar in nature to other masculine, not to say macho, heroes — while Child Born of Water is the contemplative of the pair:

The Sun [Jóhonaa’éí] gave them prayersticks and then told them that the younger of the two (Born for Water) would sit watching these prayersticks while the older (Monster Slayer) went out to kill the monsters. If these prayersticks began to burn, this would signal that his brother was in danger and that he should go to him to help.

Reichard explains:

Monster Slayer (na’ye’ ne’zyani) (I) represents impulsive aggression, whereas Child-of-the-water represents reserve, caution, and thoughtful preparation.

A measure of their respective strategies, and of the ways in which the insights of Child Born of Water can succeed where the brute force tactics of Monster SLayer fail, can be gleaned from this section of their story, also I believe taken from Reichard:

When The Twins visited Sun the second time, he said he was willing to help them, but this time he wanted them to return the favor: “I wish you to send your mother to the west that she may make a new home for me.” Whereupon Monster Slayer, believing himself equal to any task, replied, “I will do so.I will send her there.” Then Child-of-the-water reminded them both: “No, Changing Woman is subject to no one? we cannot make promises for her. She must speak for herself? she is her own mistress. But I shall tell her your wishes and plead for you.”


One commentator glibly suggests that the joint presentation of the hero as twins is “a clever reminder that progress depends upon cooperation between our mind and our heart” — but the psychologist Dr Howard Teich offers a far more depthful interpretation: that the two twins represent two forms of masculine heroism, one the familiar macho hero of war movies, and the other wiser and subtler, the possessor of traits commonly attributed to the feminine — and hugely undervalued — in our culture.

Dr Teich suggests we must (urgently) abandon the division of virtues into “male” and “female” types, reognize that these types are complementary rather than rivalrous, that both are necessary functions of both males’ and females’ psyches, and begin to integrate the wholeness that both strategies together represent, in our own approaches to our lives in general, to the natural world around us, and indeed to warfare — unsurprisingly, since we first encounter the twins in the ceremonial specifically devised by the Navajo to protect young warriors on their way to battle, and to reintegrate them in harmony and balance on their return.

As Teich puts it:

Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water, as these Twin Heroes are called, are the most sacred of all the legendary heroes in Navaho mythology. It is rare for the Navaho even to speak of the twins; their presence is to be felt rather than observed, and their lessons absorbed rather than applied. Although the lessons the twins hold may be countless, their particular manifestation of a deeper, more complex image of masculinity deserves the reader’s especial attention.


I’d like to suggest that in the same way that there are “zooming in” and “zooming out” styles in mathematics, and “monster-slayer” and “born of water” styles of heroism, there are in fact twin traditions of understanding the world which we might term scientific and poetic, or in Teich’s terms — and those of the alchemists — solar and lunar.

A unified or “solunary” vision will encompass the virtues of both.


Dr Teich’s review of the King > Oakes > Campbell book under the title A Dual Masculinity was irst piublished in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1995. He now has a book out treating these themes: Solar Light, Lunar Light.

Oh, and please don’t expect me to know anything more about Grothendieck’s mathematics than I read in Landsburg’s article.

New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

Read the whole thing here.

Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

Two from the Comments Section on Wylie

Thursday, November 21st, 2013


Grip, the post by Lynn Rees generated comments linking to two further posts on the topic of Rear Admiral Joseph Caldwell  (J.C.) Wylie, Jr. and his  Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control which I suspect are of interest to many readers here:

Seydlitz89 – Towards a General Theory of Strategy: A Review of Admiral JC Wylie’s “Military Strategy” 

….I will introduce and discuss six specific areas of Wylie’s book. The first regards the nature of strategy itself including his view of what strategy should be able to accomplish and the nature of strategic theory. Second is his actual definition of strategy and some of the assumptions behind it. Third is the methods of studying strategy including his comments on cumulative and sequential strategies. The fourth is one aspect of his commentary in regards to Mao, and the fifth pertains to his second assumption in regards to “control over the enemy” and the final point regards his overall view of a general theory of strategy which ties all the points together. 

One of Wylie’s most valid points is that military and naval officers who command and plan our military operations use certain patterns of thought which are essentially strategic without even them being aware of it:

An idea is a very powerful thing, and political ideas or religious ideas or economic ideas have always affected and often controlled the courses of man’s destinies. That we understand and accept. So also have strategic ideas influenced or controlled man’s destinies, but too few men, including the men who had them, have recognized the controlling strategic concepts and theories hidden behind the glamor or the stench or the vivid, active drama of the war itself.(page 9)
Not only that, but a soldier, a sailor and an airman look at the same operation in very different ways, the airman especially “stands apart in basic principle from them both”. For this reason Wylie sees a general theory of strategy necessary in order to bring these different perspectives together in a way that makes sense of the whole: “what is necessary is that the whole of the thing, all of war, be studied” (p 12). The project he takes on is daunting in that “the intellectual framework is not clearly defined, and its vocabulary is almost non-existent” (p 11).

NerveAgent – J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz? 

….To formulate his own theory, Wylie starts from four guiding assumptions:

1. There may be a war, despite all efforts to prevent it. The reasoning behind this point should be self-explanatory, but alas, liberal internationalists consistently fail to grasp it.

2. The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy. This is one of Wylie’s most important points. With it, he explains the strategic object of war itself, above the operational focus of the Clausewitzian dictum of disarming the enemy. After all, as Clausewitz himself acknowledges, destroying the enemy’s army is a means to an end. The end is control. What “control” is will differ depending on the war itself and the value judgements of the parties involved. For the West, control usually involves the defeated being accepted back into the world community, but not as a threat.

3. We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves.Wylie would certainly take issue with all the rhetoric today that would have the U.S. abandon “obsolete Cold War thinking” in favor strategies geared primarily for irregular warfare. His point is that strategists must be provided with all the necessary tools from which they can craft plans to deal with individual contingencies, especially if official U.S. policy is to have full-spectrum capabilities.

4. The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This acknowledges that, if all else has failed, only land power can impose control upon the enemy.

From these assumptions, he develops the statement that is the core of his work:

The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

The successful strategist is the one who controls the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the centers of gravity of war, and who exploits the resulting control of the pattern of war toward his own ends.

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