False Prophets, Manly Empathy, and Eyes in the Darkness

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 

– Matthew 7:15 (KJV)

…as shown in the first figure, entitled “Change in Real GDP,” the committee expects that the pace of economic recovery will pick up over coming quarters. Specifically, participants’ projections for output growth have a central tendency of about 2.7 to 2.9 percent for this year and 3.3 to 3.7 percent for next year, growth rates faster than we have seen so far in 2011.

However, committee participants have also generally responded to the recent slowing by marking down their growth projections for 2011 and 2012, which are nearly a half percentage point lower than our April projections.

Looking further ahead, the central tendency of the growth projections for 2012 — 2013, sorry — is 3.5 to 4.2 percent, essentially the same as in the April projections. As shown in the second figure, entitled “Unemployment Rate,” the unemployment rate is expected to resume its gradual decline toward levels that the committee judges to be consistent with its dual mandate.

In particular, the unemployment rate is projected to edge down over coming months to 8.6 to 8.9 percent in the fourth quarter of this year, and then decline gradually over the subsequent two years to a level of 7.0 to 7.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, still well above the central tendency of participants’ longer-run unemployment projections. In short, we expect the unemployment rate to continue to decline, but the pace of progress remains frustratingly slow.

 – Benjamin S. Bernanke, Chairman, U.S. Federal Reserve, June 22, 2011

Thirst for certain knowledge of future events is innate. Early Stone Age artifacts like Stonehenge may mirror the observed motions of the heavens. It’s probable that a strong contributing motive behind such observation was following these starry messengers in the hope that they’d unveil a shrouded future.

Thirst for prophecy is a strong undercurrent of military history as well. The fable of Publius Claudius Pulcher of the clan Claudii Pulchri during the First Punic War is notorious:

…sources such as Cicero claim that Pulcher performed the inspection of the omens for the battle, according to Roman religious tradition. The method ascribed for the situation was investigating the feeding behaviour of the sacred chickens, on board for that purpose. If the chickens accepted the offered grain, then the gods would be favourable to the battle. However, in that particular morning of 249 BC, the chickens refused to eat – a horrific omen. Confronted with the unexpected and having to deal with the superstitious and now terrified crews, Pulcher quickly figured an alternative interpretation. He threw the sacred chickens overboard, directly into the Mediterranean, saying, Let them drink, since they don’t wish to eat. (Bibant, quoniam esse nolunt)

Claudius lost the battle for a variety of reasons. The distinguished Conscript Fathers of Rome blamed his defeat on abuse of sacred poultry and threw Claudius under the bus:

[Claudius] was recalled to Rome and ordered to appoint a dictator; his nomination of his subordinate Marcus Claudius Glicia was overruled. He was tried for incompetence and impiety and was fined, and died soon afterwards, possibly by suicide.

The moral of the story for aspiring strategists is straightforward: don’t mess with sacred chickens.

People want their prophecies.


If fashion demanded that economists like Dr. Bernanke wear capes, put on a turban, and mumble in tongues as they prognosticate “future” economic metrics, they would do so. Fashion’s real dictates are the inverse of this: economists that wore capes like Joseph Schumpeter were deviant. However, economists that wear capes are no more ridiculous than the spectacle of economists making predictions about next week’s economic metrics, let alone next quarter’s or next year’s.

The chance that economist’s predictions will pan out is a few degrees left of nil. The ritual intoning of such predictions, whether delivered in the convoluted cryptic whisper of Dr. Greenspan or the earnest whine of Dr. Bernanke, has no redeeming social value. Dr. Bernanke wearing a stylin’ cape like Karzai would have more social value.

Yet the thirst for certainty about the future is insatiable. Even supposed sophisticated media types like the Mouth of Sauron incessantly pepper their supposed sophisticated guests for prophecy. This thirst endures despite a long and nearly unbroken history of failed prophecy.

Seleucid gesticulator Nassim Nicholas Taleb once proposed that professional prophets (cape wearing or not) have their success rate prominently posted every time they venture to prophesy about anything. Similar measures such as a prominent disclaimer being displayed such as FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY, a flashing LAUGH sign for the live studio audience, or even a strong dose of canned laughter would be a strong addition to such measures.

The Internet may be useful for this effort. Many of my own spectacular howlers are preserved like flies in amber. Said Fouche on January 18, 2011:

I caught a snippet of the BBC World News the other day and was informed that some deputy assistant executive vice secretary of State in our elite State department had called in some Tunisian diplomatic functionary and delivered some “frank talk” about the apparently appalling state of Internet freedom in Tunisia. While the U.S. has as much right to meddle in the affairs of other nations as any other sovereign entity, one definition of successful strategy is “the luxury of picking on one enemy at a time”.

After my fit of naïve realism came the deluge.

However, the toils of statecraft are serious. Steps must be taken, however tentative, baby steps or large strides, into the future. It is the doom of mortal man to be subject to the play of chance and probability, for good and for ill.

Quoth noted Clausewizian seydlitz89:

…I think there’s a bit of confusion as to what exactly “strategic theory” is. For me, Clausewitzian strategic theory is strategic theory and it is essentially retrospective, a tool for historical analysis, but not a guide for action. While strategic theory principles can and should be used in military/strategic planning, they have little predictive capacity – simply provide a framework of ways/means/ends. The complexity of two or more political communities in an organized struggle is simply too great to be able to predict the sequence of events in any useful or consistent way. Attempting this is what the great Clausewitzian theorist Svechin labelled “charlatanism”.

Adam Elkus wrote an interesting post late last year which describes the distinction between strategic theory and what I refer to as “doctrinal speculation” . . .

Quoth A.E.:

One of the most pernicious issues, however, is the debate over which strategic theorist is “better,” which is part of how the polarization emerged. The problem with this is that Boyd and Clausewitz, while overlapping, are focused on different areas of conflict. What follows is an obviously simplified analysis, but simplicity is necessary given that both figures involved are tremendously complex.

Clausewitz is mostly remembered not for his thinking about 19th century tactics and operations (which are obviously dated), but his thinking about the nature of war and strategy. Thus Clausewitz is more about strategic theory. This is not to say that he is not prescriptive–his book overflows with opinions as to what should be done, but that’s not the focus of his work. He is focused very much on strategic theory rather than doctrine. Clausewitz is remembered as a person who set ontological parameters for what war is and how why it occurs, virtually creating the “modern” field of strategic studies.

Boyd focuses more narrowly on two areas: the nature of competition and strategic doctrine. The OODA Loop, his ideas about destruction and creation, and his readings of military history are how about men and organizations compete. The Loop is perhaps the exemplar of this–a marvelous and deceptively simple idea that is applicable in everything from the tactical dogfights it was drawn from to grand strategy. Boyd, although very strongly against “doctrine,” also does espouse a coherent set of ideas of his own about what kinds of strategies are effective and how command and control should be organized, both explicitly and through his reading of military history. Thus Boyd is a theorist but more explicitly a proponent of strategic doctrine than Clausewitz.

My crude oversimplification of A.E.’s simplification is:

  • strategic theory is history
  • strategic doctrine is prophecy

The critical approach that Clausewitz advocated in On War is, as seydlitz89 suggests, mostly 20/20 hindsight. Much of Boyd’s work is 20/20 foresight. Clausewitz’s theory, originating in a continent neck-deep in History and Blood and a social milieu in transition from agrarian past to industrial age future, is frequently accused of a Teutonic stodginess unbecoming to a technology and progress haunted future. Boyd’s doctrine, cut from virgin wilderness on the continent that history forgot and steeped in the unshackled spirit of a technologically mobilized society literally jetting into the future, is often accused of a glib lightness unbecoming in a world where primordial violence runs deep and threatening under a thin veneer of civilization.

Yet there is an overlap between where Clausewitz’s doctrine leaks into his theory and where Boyd’s theory seeps into his doctrine. Much of Clausewitz’s method of strategic study focused on rigorous and intensive dissection of well documented historical campaigns. Such an education was not intended to pound prefabricated mental checklists into the brains of future military leaders like the rigid problem and solutions Leavenworth inflicted on aspiring American generals before World War II. Clausewitz never wrote a book like How to Repeat Jena-Auerstadt in 45 Easy Steps. Strategic crassness is more Jomini than Clausewitz.

The intent of Clausewitz’s method was to instill a “manly empathy” into the aspiring strategist. Through detailed immersion in the reconstituted minds of past strategists, his mind would be habituated to think strategically. He would march unconsciously toward the sound of the guns as if he were Frederick II slouching towards Leuthen or Marshal Grouchy taking the scenic route at Waterloo. This is not because he has been hypnotized to reenact past strategists moves step for step, march for march, maneuver for maneuver, with exacting precision. It’s because he’s absorbed the problem solving mindset of his predecessors by recreating and reliving the atmosphere of crisis that his predecessors were caught up in and how they struggled to overcome it.

While even the most iron-jawed of strategists can barely suppress his innate desire for his own personal prescient poultry, Clausewitz’s 20/20 hindsight can cultivate a mindset that can, as the play of chance and probability unfolds, let his creative spirit roam and strive with contingency. Critical thought cultivates Boyd’s orientation, which Clausewitz called coup d’œil. Mortal man cannot reliably act to short-circuit the future. He can more reliably react to future turmoil. The strength of mind, contingent genius, and quasi-intuitive “glimpse” of coup d’œil that Clausewitz emphasized as the ideal attributes for the strategist are more suitable for this than Boyd’s doctrinal side. However, it’s more amenable to Boyd’s theoretical side with its emphasis on describing the anatomy of orientation.

This Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr. quote that Fred extracted from Boyd’s The Strategic Game of ? and ? captures this spirit well:

Everything man is and does is modified by learning and is therefore malleable. But once learned, these behavior pattern, these habitual responses, these ways of interacting gradually sink below the surface of the mind and like the admiral of a submerged submarine fleet, control from the depths. The hidden controls are usually experienced as though they were innate simply because they are not only ubiquitous but habitual as well.’ … The only time one is aware of the control system is when things don’t follow the hidden program…

Inasmuch as strategic theory takes a tentative stab at acquiring the art of divination, it’s in contributing toward the formation of strategic habit.

Quoth Dwight David Eisenhower:

In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.

No prediction survives contact with the future. Predictions are useless. Mental muscle built up by intensive historical study is not. Strategic theory is not a method for divining the future. It can’t hold a bonfire to the prescient power of predictive poultry. Instead, strategic theory is a method for preparing the strategist’s mind for a swim through the currents of an unknown future as he collides with it. This suggests that strategy is not a rigid wire diagram that uses a strong black line to connect Means A15 to Ends E56:

Strategy is a state of mind.

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About Joseph Fouche

L. C. Rees carefully selected the nom de guerre "Joseph Fouche" to profoundly irritate unnaturally rampant pro-Buonopartist sentiment at Skyline High School, Millcreek, Salt Lake, Utah, United States. The Corsican Ogre once claimed that he would have remained "Emperor of the French" if he'd had two men shot: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Joseph Fouche. SInce Rees bears no resemblance to a club-footed defrocked bishop, Joseph Fouche it was.

3 thoughts on “False Prophets, Manly Empathy, and Eyes in the Darkness

  1. Great post with numeorus lessons to think about, Joe. I loved this:

    “Mortal man cannot reliably act to short-circuit the future. He can more reliably react to future turmoil. The strength of mind, contingent genius, and quasi-intuitive “glimpse” of coup d’œil that Clausewitz emphasized as the ideal attributes for the strategist are more suitable for this than Boyd’s doctrinal side. However, it’s more amenable to Boyd’s theoretical side with its emphasis on describing the anatomy of orientation.”

  2. Doctrine is also a narrative, and I think that Boyd was much more interested in telling a story than Clausewitz was–particularly in his treatment of military history.

    • On War may count as a meta-narrative since it may have been conceived as a broader framework in which Clausewitz’s historical campaign studies could be used for critical inquiry exercises.

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