Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Why We Fight

John Bedell

Malcolm Gladwell'’s latest essay is thought-provoking but, I think, misguided. Misguided in an interesting way, though, which I have been intending to write about it since I read his piece.
It's called "How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break the Rules." The thesis is that if weaker combatants use traditional strategies, they lose, but they can often win by adopting unfamiliar strategies. One of his examples is a girl's basketball team without any talent to speak of that made it far into national championship tournaments by using a full-court press on every play. Another concerns a fellow who won a naval wargaming tournament by building fleets that made no sense in real world terms but worked wonderfully under the rules of the game; one of his fleets consisted of a vast swarm of completely immobile boats, each carrying no armor and a single large gun. The most significant examples come from the history of warfare. Weaker combatants often defeat stronger enemies using guerilla tactics, but they sometimes choose to fight toe to toe and get clobbered. Why would they do that?

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful – in terms of armed might and population – as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

. . . Arreguín-Toft found the same puzzling pattern. When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David. Of the two hundred and two lopsided conflicts in Arreguín-Toft’s database, the underdog chose to go toe to toe with Goliath the conventional way a hundred and fifty-two times – and lost a hundred and nineteen times. In 1809, the Peruvians fought the Spanish straight up and lost; in 1816, the Georgians fought the Russians straight up and lost; in 1817, the Pindaris fought the British straight up and lost; in the Kandyan rebellion of 1817, the Sri Lankans fought the British straight up and lost; in 1823, the Burmese chose to fight the British straight up and lost. The list of failures was endless. In the nineteen-forties, the Communist insurgency in Vietnam bedevilled the French until, in 1951, the Viet Minh strategist Vo Nguyen Giap switched to conventional warfare – and promptly suffered a series of defeats. George Washington did the same in the American Revolution, abandoning the guerrilla tactics that had served the colonists so well in the conflict’s early stages. “As quickly as he could,” William Polk writes in “Violent Politics,” a history of unconventional warfare, Washington “devoted his energies to creating a British-type army, the Continental Line. As a result, he was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.”

Now, this is very interesting, but it begs the question of why people compete in the first place and what it means to win. Consider the example of George Washington, who comes in for a lot of mockery here and elsewhere. Washington, a conservative scion of the Virginia elite, abandoned the irregular militia tactics that overwhelmed the British at Lexington and Concorde and tried to build a European-style army. Which the British defeated again and again. Why did he do that? Was he too hide-bound to see the folly of his actions? Gladwell is not the first to question Washington’s tactics, which were controversial at the time. Future President John Adams thought Washington was making a mistake, and radicals like Thomas Paine suggested he was trying to lose the war. But I submit that Washington built the Continental Army because he was after something other than just winning the war. As far as he was concerned, the war was effectively won before it was even begun. If the goal was for Americans to rule themselves, they had already achieved that, and there was nothing the British could do about it. They simply did not have the resources to conquer and rule North America. So as long as the Americans remained committed to independence – willing to live with trade embargoes and the occasional British raid – they would be independent. Washington fought, first, to make the British and the other Europeans recognize American independence and, second, to shape the kind of America that would emerge after the war. For America to live at peace, they would have to get the British to give up trying to rule them, and the easiest way to do that was to inflict on the British the kind of defeat which they would have to recognize as one. Lexington, Concorde and Bunker Hill did not get the British to recognize the United States, and it might have taken decades of similar small losses to get them to give up. Yorktown did it at a stroke. Yorktown converted America, in the eyes of the European elite, from a bunch of rebellious farmers into a real nation with whom treaties could be signed and the like. Washington, as a would-be member of that elite, understood its rules better than Malcolm Gladwell ever will. Washington knew that beating the British at their own game would have an effect guerilla warfare never could.

Washington was also thinking, from the beginning, about the kind of America that would emerge after the war. He wanted it to be unified, and he wanted it to be led by educated, rational men, not demogogues and rabble. By building the Continental Army he created the nation's first unifying institution, and by making the nation something the elite could be proud of he ensured their participation in the government. Washington and Tom Paine did not just disagree about military tactics, they disagreed about ends. Paine wanted a decentralized, highly democratic society without a dominant elite, so militias using guerilla tactics were a perfect means to achieve it. Washington wanted a centralized, elite-dominated nation, so he built a conventional army, knowing full well how difficult it would be to ever beat the British in a traditional battle.

Besides the question of goals, there is the problem of cost. When guerilla warfare succeeds, it is often at a terrible cost to the guerillas and their allies. Why did the Vietnamese communists keep trying to fight the French and then the Americans in conventional battles, which they always lost? Because the burden of fighting an unending guerilla war was terrible, and they were desperately seeking some way to bring the war to an end. They did eventually win as geurillas, but at the cost of a million lives lost and three decades of their nation's history wasted. Their tactics did, in Gladwell's terms, change the terms of the battle, from one of money and technology to one of simple staying power, but the cost they paid for their victory ought to keep anyone from blithely recommending such tactics. The Romans eventually managed to beat Hannibal’s Carthaginians by avoiding open battle with his army, but for them the cost was also extraordinary.

When Tom Paine was castigating Washington for his conservative approach to military affairs, he suggested that even if Washington marched the rest of the army away, the Pennsylvania militia could defend Philadelphia by barricading the streets and fighting house to house. It might have worked. Then again, it would more likely have caused the British to pull back, put the city under siege and lob in red hot shot until every building had burned. They may have been conventional, but they were not stupid, and their conventional playbook included means of dealing with cities that refused to do the gentlemanly thing and lay down their arms. Would loss of the city and hundreds of its citizens have been worth a year or so of "freedom" under siege?

Besides the years of misery and death that waging a guerilla war brings, it can also be very destructive of traditional social arrangements. Why didn't the Confederacy resort to guerilla warfare to fight the Union? Because the southern leadership understood that fighting on those terms would destroy their social and political dominance more surely than defeat, and they were not interested in a "victory" that would thoroughly obliterate their class. I am not well informed about the Latin American and Asian wars that Gladwell mentions, but I suspect similar concerns dictated the behavior of the losers in many of them. Gladwell’s argument seems to assume that winning a war is worth any price, but most combatants would not agree. A colonial power might prefer to hold onto its colonies, but not if it means bankrupting the country; after all, the point of colonies is to make the parent country richer and more powerful, not to drain its resources. Likewise, a colonial elite might prefer independence, but not if it means fighting until all their sons had been killed and all their plantations burned. Those parts of the world considered "ungovernable" by the great powers are those in which the traditional power structure lends itself well to guerilla fighting. The elite of Afghantistan and Somalia is strengthened, not weakened, by unending low-level conflict, so would-be conquerers lack the levers for moving elite opinion they have in other circumstances.
The question of why people are competing in the first place is even more central when it comes to basketball or naval wargaming. I don't play basketball to win. I would generally rather win than lose, but I play for the fun of it, and any strategy that won more games at the expense of the fun would defeat the purpose. For kids, part of the point is also to develop the skills you need to compete at higher levels, and the girls on Gladwell's all-pressure team don't seem to be doing that. Naval wargamers also don't just play to win. They play to imagine themselves as the admirals of past navies, and to do that they want their battles to be as much like those of history as possible. Fleets of odd contraptions that can sail only within the gaming space ruin the game for them. Why compete on those terms?

To assume that people compete to win is to miss most of the point in almost every circumstance. My friend Ted Lendon's marvelous book, Soldiers and Ghosts, lays out how the tactics chosen by ancient armies did not just reflect their technologies or their desire for victory, but the organization of their societies and, more importantly, what they saw as the purpose of fighting and winning wars. Victory, especially in low-level conflicts like those between neighboring tribes or rival city states, was often the third or fourth thing on competitors minds.

I don't mean to dismiss Gladwell's general point about underdogs needing to change the rules. In business, it is hard for new companies to break into well established businesses, but much easier for them to enter new businesses using the latest technology. Weaker armies can beat stronger forces by using guerilla tactics. Less skilled athletes can outhustle elite players.

What bothers me about Gladwell is his dismissive attitude toward underdogs who choose to play by the usual rules in the face of almost certain defeat. He seems to think they are either lazy or stupid. He fails to consider that they may have had other agendas beyond simple victory: personal glory, the honor of their nations, the reputations of their families, their fortunes, their lives. Some of them were playing long games that required them, in the short term, to be defeated. The Irish rebels of 1916 saw their mission as one of self-sacrifice, with the idea that the Irish would be inspired by their deaths to see Irish independence as a cause worth dying for. Most Americans think that the Japanese kamikaze pilots of 1945 were trying to defeat the American navy, and that, therefore, they failed. On the contrary, the commander of the kamikaze force told all his volunteer pilots that the war was already lost. The point, he told them, was to set an example of such purity and sacrifice that they would give their defeated compatriots something to feel proud of during the grim days that would follow the end of the war. The outpouring of stirring kamikaze movies in the Japan of the 1950s suggests that he was right, and that their defeat was a kind of victory, giving the Japanese something more noble to remember about the war than the Bataan Death March and the Rape of Nanking.

As for George Washington, clever people have been trying to destroy his reputation since 1775. Most of them are forgotten, but he endures, not for his conservativism or his battlefield bungling, but for his honesty, his devotion to the cause of American liberty, and his vision of a future far beyond the squabbles of the day. Perhaps he underestimated the difficulty of beating the British army in a set-piece battle, but he understood quite profoundly what it would mean for American to win its independence with a clear-cut battlefield victory. He could imagine what kind of America might emerge from a thirty year guerilla struggle fought mainly from mountain redoubts, using tactics he probably thought of as Indian savagery. He also knew something about building a nation. He knew that service in the unified American army would tie officers from the South and the North together, and he knew that shared sacrifice, shared victory, and shared myths would help America become something more than thirteen separate colonies. At Long Island, at White Plains, at the Brandywine, he fought on British terms and lost. But in losing, he won something much greater than battles. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell should reflect a little on what that might be.

June 13, 200

From the 
Commonplace Book

For them it was a duel of honor, not a war.

--Henry Adams on the Southern elite and the Civil War



Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us



Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Limits of Being Right

Why We Fight

Wild Swans


The Ghost Dance

Changing the World



What is Education?

René Guénon

Which Primitives?

Terrorism and Freedom

Indian Freedom

Susan Haack & Intellectual Integrity

Richard Lewontin


Humanism in the 1990s

The "Wilding"

How the Mind Works

Ba'al Hammon and the Unitarian List of Suggestions