Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war. Suppose now a traveller, [sic] who, towards evening, expects to accomplish the two stages at the end of his day’s journey, four or five leagues, with post horses, on the high road—it is nothing. He arrives now at the last station but one, finds no horses, or very bad ones; then a hilly country, bad roads; it is a dark night, and he is glad when, after a great deal of trouble, he reaches the next station, and finds there some miserable accommodation. So in war, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.
-Carl von Clausewitz, On War
As a gadfly, I am extremely fond of reading history. It is one of my greatest passions in my spare time. I think that history has a lot to teach us, and that we don’t take the hard won lessons of history seriously. We are doomed in many ways to repeat history’s mistakes.
One of those mistakes I think is underestimating what seems to be simple. I am actually very critical of Carl von Clausewitz and his ideas on military thinking. Instead, I agree with the works of an American thinker, by the name of John Boyd, who critiqued Clausewitz. In many ways, I think that Clausewitz is guilty of the very mistake that he has critiqued the traveler here for. Boyd criticized Clausewitz for his excessive focus on winning the battle and focusing purely on the tactical level, a flaw which often affected Western military commanders. Boyd contrasted this with Eastern commanders, who were more consistent with the ideas of Sun Tzu on trying to shatter their opponents before the battle, to avoid a long and costly war that could very prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Boyd’s theories developed on Sun Tzu’s, on maximizing an opponent’s “friction” to defeat them.
Why does this matter?
How does any of this relate to our day to day lives? After all, the majority of us (perhaps those in the military excepted) are not fighting a war, and even those in the military are not fighting a large scale nation-state war.
The answer is that we are all fighting little wars in our day to day basis. Whether that is when we face adversity, when we get into arguments with people, or whether we face our own demons. A lot of the time when we face challenges, we think that the problems that we face are not challenges at all. We may think that the problems are simple to resolve, we may mock those (often secretly) who struggle with the problem, or we may grow apathetic about the problem and dismiss it as a problem altogether.
Then we dig deeper. We try to actually solve the problem. We find that we face an unpleasant surprise. Clausewitz was prophetic in regards to his idea that the simplest thing is difficult. We may find problems that had aspects that we did not anticipate, that our solutions created problems, that our solutions may not have solved the problem, or we have somehow made everything worse!
Suddenly, it becomes clear that the problem is not so easy. Solving it seemed so simple, but in reality, was much more difficult – assuming the problem was even solved.
What is the key takeaway from this?
Do not underestimate a problem until it is resolved. You may not know the true situation or all of the facts, facts which could critically affect how you solve a problem. There are problems within problems that you may not know, until you experience it firsthand. That is true of any problem in life, even the ones that you thought may have been similar to the situations of the past.
The very worst thing to do when facing adversity is to come in with a sense of arrogance and contempt, charging, then realizing (often the hard way) that the problem is not so simple. Be less judgmental. Do not assume you are superior. You could be in for a very humbling mistake indeed. I think that we have all learned this the hard way at times.
I think that it is human nature to feel contempt, or to try to rationalize our own superiority. To an extent, yes, building self-confidence is vital. There is however, a large line between having no sense of self-esteem, and being a totally supercilious individual who sees themselves as superior to everyone else.
On that note, I’ll have more on the works of John Boyd in future posts. I think that he is an important thinker and one that is often not recognized for his accomplishments. I would like to explore Boyd’s ideas in greater depth.
What I am interested in is, have you every had a problem that you thought would be simple, that turned out to be difficult due to “friction” or something that you did not anticipate? I believe it happens to us all of the time.