Thursday, August 29, 2019

Innovation: The limits of vision

In journalism and media portrayals innovation is all about visionaries and technology (think Steve Jobs). Like David with his sling, a company with a visionary will create cool technology and slay Goliath (think Apple).

Books like Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory challenge those popular preconceptions. Take for example, the experience of Italy in World War Two.

Giulio Douhet was one of the earliest and most influential theorists of airpower and strategic bombing. Italy designed and developed some of the most advanced aircraft in the world in the 1920s and 1930s. Her pilots won international competitions and set world records.

So the Regia Aeronautica had visionaries and the cool technology. Yet Italy lost campaign after campaign between 1940 and 1943.

A key reason, as Kennedy points out, is that Italy lacked the natural resources, economic capacity, and industrial technology to support a modern war against a European Great Power. Vision and a few good ideas could not make up for this systemic weakness.

Resources aren’t everything but they do weigh heavily in the strategic and competitive balance. Vision and advanced technology if used in an astute manner can offset some inferiority in material resources. For Italy between 1940 and 1943, the gap was too great and her strategy too inept. Catastrophic defeat was almost inevitable.

Williamson Murray reminds us that cool technology is often useful but is rarely the decisive factor in victory or defeat:

But technological superiority by itself has never guaranteed success. The Germans had technologically inferior tanks and artillery in 1940; nevertheless, they won one of the greatest operational victories in the history of the twentieth century. In the 1944-1945 campaigns, the Germans possessed by far and away the most sophisticated fighter aircraft, the most sophisticated heavy tank, the most sophisticated medium tank, the most sophisticated submarine, and the best machine gun. And they went down to catastrophic defeat.
Britain’s crushing defeats in Malaya and Burma in 1942 are a reminder that strategic context matters when it comes to the value of cutting edge technology. The British built the first fully motorized army. It pioneered tank warfare and tank development. Japan’s Army moved on foot and on bicycles. By European standards, their tanks were a joke--- little more than toys.

In the jungles of Asia (strategic context) Japan’s “primitive” army enjoyed superior tactical and operation mobility versus the “advanced” British. They were able to outflank British positions and routed the road-bound British time and again.

“Cutting edge technology” ended up hamstringing British commanders.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

West Wing chaos

"Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!"

This sounds like no way to organize a government. OTOH, they did win World War Two so it must have worked.

Jontathan Jordan, American Warlords:

A curious feature of Rooseveltian government was that individuals meant everything and titles meant nothing.
To keep what he said hidden, even from his own military, FDR sent most outgoing messages through Navy channels and received incoming messages through the Army, ensuring that the White House maintained the only complete set of his correspondence with key leaders.
The extraordinary fact was that the second most important individual in the United States Government during the most critical period of the world's greatest war had no legitimate official position nor even a desk of his own except a card table in his bedroom. However , the bedroom was in the White House.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Understanding innovation

Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory is one of the best books on innovation I’ve ever read. Which is extraordinary, really, given that it is a book about World War Two and was written 70 years after the critical events it narrates.

The book grew out of an insight by Kennedy a historian who has devoted his career to the study of grand strategy and geopolitics:

Grand strategists, leaders and professors alike, take a lot of things for granted
When the subject is WWII, what they usually take for granted is the back-story of many of the key technologies that contributed to the Allied victory. To cite one example:

Where did this centimetric radar come from? In many accounts of the war, it simply 'pops up'.
These sorts of blind spots create a bias in our narratives and our historical understanding. They tempt us to over-emphasize command decisions in strategic affairs and to understate the role of organizational culture.

Closing the air gap did not happen because some great person decreed it

The improvements did not arrive according to a grand incremental plan from Max Horton's office; rather, they entered the Royal Navy's tool kit episodically, and some of these newer systems took months before they properly fitted in the whole. Yet the commander of a U-boat that had been sent south in late March 1943 to wreak havoc off Freetown would have been completely disconcerted by what he saw when he arrived back at his base in Brest in July.
This last point serves also as a useful reminder that these vital innovations were not just a question of inventing new weapons; these weapons had to be deployed and used effectively. That meant that organizational learning, training and doctrine all came into play.

The book’s subtitle is The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. Kennedy does not limit himself to the inventors. Weapons, like intelligence, counts for little until it is put to use by the men at the point of the spear. He reminds us that one definition of engineer is "a person who carries through an enterprise through skillful or artful contrivance."

New weapons for old" is apt to become a very popular cry. The success of some new devices has led to a new form of escapism which runs somewhat thus-- "Our present equipment doesn't work very well; training is bad, supply is poor, spare parts non-existent. let's have an entirely new gadget!" ... In general, one might conclude that relatively too much scientific effort has been expended hitherto in the production of new devices and too little in the proper use of what we have got.
Patrick Blackett, "Scientists at the Operational Level"
While the British could not match the US in industrial production, during the war they were the undisputed champions of “artful contrivance.” On land, sea, and air they came up with new weapons and new methods that contributed to the final victory.

Part of this was cultural:

It was not surprising that a society brought up on H. G. Wells and Jules Verne novels, the Boy's Own Weekly, and Amateur Mechanics should now produce vast numbers of citizen-based concoctions intended to help beat Hitler.
A key ingredient was leadership. The British were blessed to have Churchill as their war-leader.

The plain fact is that there probably was never another war leader with his talent-spotting skills and his capacity to inspire and encourage.
WSC was the first Prime Minister to appoint a science adviser. He was a devoted reader of H. G. Wells and had a biography right out of Boy’s Own Weekly. In the First World War he had been the driving force behind the development of the tank (a weapon that had appeared in a Wells book in 1903).

Churchill understood that sometimes a leader must prod an organization to get the right men in place and to move the culture in the right direction. He forced the army to find a place for MG Percy Hobart a pioneer in tank warfare and a man with an enormous capacity for artful contrivance.
I am not at all impressed by the prejudice against him in certain quarters. Such prejudices attach frequently to persons of strong personality and original view... We are now at war, fighting for our lives, and we cannot afford to confine Army appointments to officers who have excited no hostile comment in their careers.
Hobart amply repaid Churchill for his confidence. He trained three outstanding armoured divisions and created a series of specialized weapons to defeat Rommel’s beach defenses at Normandy.

Kennedy’s account underlines the fact that G.K. Chesterton wrote the first rule of innovation:

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
Starting from zero, the US Marine Corps created and perfected amphibious warfare. It was neither a short journey nor an easy one. Allan Millett describes their first attempt to put doctrine into practice:

The Navy's coxswains did not reach the right beach at the proper time; the unloading of supplies was chaotic; the naval bombardment was inadequate; and the Navy's landing boats were clearly unsuitable for both troops and equipment. The exercise, however, identified enough errors to keep the Corps busy for fifteen years.
(A. Millett Semper Fidelis on USMC amphious exercises in 1923-24)
Try-fail-learn-improve-try again. When you succeed, keep learning and keep improving. The Marines and the Navy kept at it all through the 1920s and 1930s. They also kept to this cycle throughout the war in the Pacific:

Tarawa II: Learning and doing


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Vindicated by history

Winston Churchill was born into a political family and he was always a political animal. First, though, he was a professional writer; he made his living with his pen long before he won an election.

Anyone who worked under him well understood that if they won an argument the victory might only be temporary. There was the verdict of history to consider and WSC would no doubt help write that history.

Jonathan Jordan points out a classic example of the editorial tensions inherent when a work is both memoir and history.

All through the spring and summer of 1944 Churchill and his top military chiefs were reluctant to commit to the Normandy landings and the Campaign in France.

They opposed weakening the Italian front to mount a second landing in the south of France (Operation DRAGOON). They saw opportunities to make opportunistic attacks in the Balkans and on islands in the Aegean. Churchill (but not his generals) dreamt of a war-winning drive up the Italian boot and into Austria.

By July 1944 the American’s were out of patience. As the largest partner in the western coalition, they brushed aside British objections and insisted that DRAGOON go forward as planned.

Churchill vented his frustration to his top military advisor in July 1944:

I am not going to give way about this for anybody. Alexander is to have his campaign. If the Americans try to withdraw the two divisions still left with him, I shall ask you to send the 52nd division from the United Kingdom to breach the gap. I hope you realise that an intense impression must be made upon the Americans that we have been ill-treated and are furious. Do not let any smoothings or smirchings cover up this fact. After a little, we shall get together again; but if we take everything lying down, there will be no end to what will be put upon us. The Arnold-King-Marshall combination is one of the stupidest strategic teams ever seen. They are good fellows and there is no need to tell them this.
As Jordan notes in American Warlords, Churchill chose not to include the whole memo in his memoirs. He preferred not to declare the American leaders “one of the stupidest strategic teams ever seen.”

Post-victory good feelings are one explanation. So is the need to avoid offense to a vital ally. But even Churchill had to recognize that the American's strategic sense looked pretty good after Germany and Japan were defeated years ahead of schedule.

Jordan makes an interesting point about the role language played in the Anglo-American tensions during the war. The British perspective:

They distrusted the American mindset. Fixated on northern France, the Americans viewed military strategy as an unalterable blueprint, and strategic agreements as binding contracts among lawyers. Marshall and King could not see the value in extemporizing in northern Italy or the Aegean -- extemporization that would aid OVERLORD while lopping off key morsels of the German empire.
The British, especially Churchill, saw strategy as less a matter of time-tables and production schedules and more of a question of seizing opportunities when they presented themselves.

To Americans, this search for opportunities made the British look slippery and unreliable, forever trying to back out of solemn agreements.

Samuel Eliot Morison addressed this point in Strategy and Compromise:

The British Chiefs, especially Sir Alan Brooke, never could seem to understand why the Americans had to have commitments well in advance. They accused us of being rigid and inflexible, not realizing the terrific job of procurement, shipbuilding, troop training and supply necessary to place a million and a half troops in England, with armor, tanks and troop-lift, ready to invade the Continent
Britain and the US were two allies “divided by a common language” in large matters large and small. Jordan again:

Thing necessary for operations, to the Americans, were 'requirements,' while in the British vernacular they were 'demands'. The word 'demands' had an imperious ring to the American ear, and when the British presented 'demands', it sounded like an edict from King George III to his colonists. Similarly, the British might suggest that the group 'table' a difficult matter -- meaning lay it on the table for discussion -- while to the Americans, to 'table' something meant to set it aside for the future.
American strategists were not immune to shaping history through intentional omissions. From Masters and Commanders:

In 1956 Marshall made a terrible admission to Pogue about the lack of proper intelligence before D-Day. 'Don't quote this' he told his biographer, but 'We didn't know we were going to hit such rough country... G-2 [military intelligence] let me down every time in everything. They never told me what i needed to know. They didn't tell me about the hedgerows, and it was not until later, after much bloodshed, that we were able to deal with them.' Later in the same interview, after Marshall had said, 'We had to pay in blood for our lack of knowledge,' he repeated: 'Don't print that.'... The admission that Marshall was not warned about the bocages the deep, thick, ancient Norman hedgerows that gave the German defenders such fine defensive cover-- is a serious one, and a significant failure of US Military Intelligence (G-2). Brooke knew all about them because he had retreated over precisely that ground to evacuate from Cherbourg in June 1940, but his warning were largely disregarded as yet another excuse for not invading.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Raymond Aron

This essay by Roger Kimball is extraordinarily good.

Raymond Aron and the power of ideas

Allan Bloom wrote shortly after Aron’s death, “the man who for fifty years . . . had been right about the political alternatives actually available to us. . . . [H]e was right about Hitler, right about Stalin, and right that our Western regimes, with all their flaws, are the best and only hope of mankind.” He was, Bloom concluded, “the kind of man necessary to democracy but almost impossible in it; one who both educates public opinion and is truly wise and learned.”
It says something about our fatally frivolous culture that Aron is almost forgotten. Of course, if he were taken seriously, most of our public intellectuals and many university professors would have to seek other employment.

As Aron notes, the descendants of Marx and Nietzsche (and Hegel and Freud) come together by many paths. The existentialism of Sartre, the nihilism of Derrida or Foucault, all exhibit a similar intellectual incontinence. What unites them is not a coherent doctrine but a spirit of opposition to the established order, “the occupational disease,” Aron notes, “of the intellectuals.”

George Orwell famously remarked that there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them. The Opium of the Intellectuals provides a kind of Baedeker of the higher gullibility that Orwell disparaged, analyzing its attractions, describing its costs, mapping its chief roadways and pointing out some escape routes.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Television news-- Why it is all fake

Quite good:

Cultural Casualties of Life in the Fast Lane
This is right on the money:

Every night television chat show hosts and 60 Minutes reporters get themselves (and us) worked up over an issue they claim to be “passionate” about. But next week it will be another equally demanding issue, with the previous “vital” one consigned to the memory hole. It’s the need to show we are compassionate that’s the constant, the target issue can easily change. It’s synthetic caring. Because no issues are resolved they are used merely as entertainment. ... In fact serial indignation, getting het up daily, gets one nowhere: it’s a giant distraction, a frustrating, self-crippling state, which builds up resentment at society with no way of resolving the issues, or of fruitfully releasing one’s angst.
We are expected to respect the "news judgement" of the Deciders who determine what is important each day. Yet, those same experts careen from one story to next. On Tuesday a story is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD. On Thursday it is forgotten and ignored.

This is a non-partisan issue. Fox News is as likely to play this game as CBS or CNN.

Wise viewers eventually catch on. As they do, the credibility of the news media evaporates. Over time the brave truth-tellers are unmasked as hypocrites and cynical manipulators. Like Scooby Doo villains.

Or sociopaths.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


On 7 August 1942, the US went on the offensive in the Pacific. The landings in the Solomon islands kicked off a grueling six month land-sea-air campaign that marked the beginning of the end of the Empire of Japan.

The campaign took place in what Murray and Millett describe as a “strategic black hole” a zone that marked

the transition from short war to long war, the period of extemporization in which the belligerent military establishments would fight a 'broken-back' war with forces that survived the initial onslaught, but which did not yet include forces created after war began.
In this black hole, the US Navy faced an enemy which was better trained, better equipped, and which outnumbered them. Victory did not come cheap: the Navy lost twice as many men at Guadalcanal as at Pearl Harbor.

Before Pearl Harbor Japan’s admiral Yamamoto dismissed the US Navy as “a social organization of golfers and bridge players." In the Solomons the golfers and bridge players matched Yamamoto’s samurai in courage and grit. They completely surpassed them as extemporizers and as students of war.

Japan’s navy was spectacularly well-prepared at the start of the war; they were hideously inadequate in dealing with an enemy who did not collapse quickly in the face of defeat. Further, it had no capacity to maintain its qualitative edge.

H. P. Willmott:
One cannot ignore the simple fact that not a single [Japanese] operation planned after the start of the war met with success
Empires in the Balance

In contrast, the US Navy displayed an impressive climb up the learning curve in 1942 and 1943.

Every action-report included a section of analysis and recommendations, and those nuggets of hard-won knowledge were absorbed into future command decisions, doctrine, planning, and training throughout the service
Ian Toll, Pacific Crucible
Related: Tarawa II: Learning and doing

The fight for Guadalcanal was touch and go for months. A crucial factor in that victory was the Coast Watchers force created by Australia at the outbreak of war. Over 100 hundred stations (many of which eventually found themselves behind Japanese lines) provided eyes and ears for Allied intelligence. Their early warnings proved vital to the Marines and the Navy as they countered Japan’s determined efforts to retake the island.

Adm. William Halsey declared that "the Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific." That sounds like hyperbole but there is a lot of truth in that statement.

Sgt. Jacob Vouza, a native scout working for the Coast Watcher Martin Clement on Guadalcanal deserves to be remembered. Vouza was captured by a Japanese patrol in August 1942. Correctly suspecting that he was working for the Americans, they interrogated him:

The guards tied him to a tree and beat him with rifle butts. Still no answer, so they stabbed him in the chest with their bayonets, and an officer slashed his throat with a sword. Again, no answer. Finally, they left him for dead, still tied to the tree, and hurried on west.
Winston Lord, Lonely Vigil
Vouza managed to free himself and headed for the American lines. He arrived shortly before the Japanese attacked. He insisted on making his scouting report before going to the field hospital. His intelligence was critical in the smashing victory at the Battle of the Teneru.

Two great lectures

Saturday, August 03, 2019

How many corporations are really progressive?

A terrific rant by Ad Contrarian

The Only Test Of Brand Purpose

The key to understanding which companies are truly doing the right thing, and which ones are using token "brand purpose" as a PR gimmick is very easy. There is only one conclusive touchstone to knowing who is truly committed to social welfare and who is a cynical poseur...

To what lengths do they go to avoid paying taxes?

American exceptionalism

Orange Man Bad edition

"The Troubles" in Northern Ireland claimed an average of 110 lives annually.

Over the last four years Baltimore has averaged almost 330 murders per year. This in a city with a population that is only 40% of Northern Ireland's.

I don't think any American pundit or politician defended Ulster as Edenic parden spot when the killing was at flood tide.