Friday, November 07, 2008


Reading a mass of stuff right now. Clausewitz' "On War". I've tried to plow through it before but it is dense. The pattern is that I read it and the sheer quantity and quality of information; the concepts he was able to put into words that pure theorists never get; the connections between what he saw in 18th century big war and what I've seen in brawls, blows me away. But the density: between the language, the amount of information... when I catch myself skimming without really understanding, I put it away for a while. I think I will be able to finish it soon.

Also reading a collection of Hadith, and working on the Arabic script (where I have discovered that if I go slow it sticks, but if I try to memorize three letters in one day I lose five). But the lettering is beautiful and I can sound out (approximately, the short vowels are omitted) most of what I see around me.

And "The Unthinkable" by Amanda Ripley. I think it will be a good companion to Lawrence Gonzales' "Deep Survival."

The point- there are a bunch of subtle things that I have found to be more and more important over the years. I've written about concrete thinkers and how they have trouble dealing with force issues and why inexperienced people try to get too much information (or rarely too little); they often don't clearly understand when they should be planning and when they should be moving.

That stuff. In Clausewitz he talks about character. He talks about some pretty specific traits and I've bookmarked a lot of the book. But one of the things he talks about is that in a battle, you have no idea what is really going on. You have reports, but you have no idea how reliable those reports are. The more information you have- and check this, some of the information will be good and some will be wrong and you often have no way of knowing which is which- the MORE uncertainty is inherent.

Clausewitz uses the word 'character' to, in essence say: some personalities are okay with that. Those personalities won't necessarily be great or even good generals, they will make mistakes. But the ones who aren't good with that, who maintain denial that big decisions (or, in personal combat, quick decisions) happen in an information fog, they are effectively paralyzed.

One way to train around that is scripting- 'x means you do y' which is a very good, very reliable system- except that when it fails, it tends to fail catastrophically. And it can be used against you and...

It also, IME works differently at different levels. Magazine changes and immediate action drills can be scripted. Small unit tactics are awesome when they are drilled. But the actual actions, what you are going to do when you get shot at, has too many variables to script. Larger scale group activities increase chaos which increases the role of luck, and adaptability becomes one of the key character traits in a leader.

Clausewitz states that of all human endeavors, war is the one in which chance plays the biggest role. It's big in fast, close ugly stuff, too- and one of the things the aggressor tries to minimize. One of the things that you limit when you are winning and you introduce if you are losing. Managing chaos- that's a deep subject.

Character. I'm only a little way into "Unthinkable" but already it has come up. There are types of people who die and types who survive. For all the allegations in the news, the people who stayed in New Orleans when Katrina hit and defied the evacuation order were NOT disproportionately poor or disproportianately of any ethnicity. They WERE disproprtionatey old. They did not like changes to their routine (as if 5 feet of water wasn't a change). They were inflexible.

How fast you flip out of denial might well determine if you live, and it reflects Clausewitz' writing on war and my experience with bad guys. Flexibility as a character trait. Ability to act with minimal data, as a character trait. Ability to jettison a plan as a character trait. Comfort with unreliability as a character trait.

We see our character, our personality, as 'who we are'. Amanda Ripley points out that very, very few people have ever seen themselves in a major disaster and have no idea about their own 'disaster personality'. So that aspect changes.

The question for me- I see these traits as critical skills. Physical skills are important too, but you need these traits (and some more I will have to list someday) in order to access those physical skills. Can these be taught as skills? In psychology, some of the basic personality traits are considered very 'robust' meaning they rarely change much. Do these fall into that category? Is that category a truth or a convenience? How do you give or awaken these in someone who may never have felt real fear and give them permission to act?


Kai Jones said...

I've spent some time trying to awaken those traits in two classes of people: my children, and already-damaged adults in my family.

And I'm still not sure it can be taught. The strategies that work to teach it are different among individuals.

Anonymous said...

We try to get at this concept via teaching rolls and falls, and then via being thrown. If someone rejects the experience of being thrown, it is obvious physically. The are stiff, and they arch their back away from the throw. Or they turn out.

We encourage them to have the right form, and to do a full layover without hesitation, because the right form cultivates the right mindset.

Furthermore, we don't really push them on this until they've been around for quite a while and seem to have a strong commitment to continuing. Even then, some leave instead of changing.

I don't understand exactly how to teach this to damaged adults, in general. There has to be some impulse from them to be different.

Steve Perry said...

It would seem there is a certain amount of self-selection going on here. Some people will never set foot in a class designed to teach hand-to-hand mayhem. Others will, but they won't stay. Some who stay will do so for reasons that aren't entirely connected to the prime activity.

Some of the students will be wolverines. Those would be, I would hazard a guess, the ones that you would be most likely to reach, because they want to know.

Part of the problem I see with the giving permission aspect is that the man or woman you are addressing has to *want* the permission enough to do what is necessary. If they don't, you won't ever reach them

Cast not your pearls before swine ...

Sonia Lyris said...

Funny you should mention this. Not really. I like to think of myself as someone who can make decisions based on uncertain inputs, but Tuesday my dog was suddenly at the vet and they said she had no chance and was in pain and I should euthanize. When it hits you in the gut like this, when you're losing someone you love, that's a disaster moment. I wanted to know everything, goddamnit; I wanted a vetinary degree, I wanted my dog to answer me in english, I wanted to talk to God. I wanted to know what to do, what was Right, and no one could tell me. You ask, can this be taught, this flexibility in the face of disaster and incomplete information? At some gut level I thought maybe I could somehow maintain things the way they were and keep her alive. That's the flaw, thinking *any* moment is maintainable. Every second is disaster, no moment is maintained, we just don't see it that way. Our control is so much less than we think. Can you teach people flexibility? Maybe, if you can teach them that. You can start with me.

Anonymous said...

Rory, I read your post and then later happened upon this thing about creativity. I don't if or how it applies to what you wrote, but I think it is related.


Anonymous said...

all change has to start small, sometimes ridiculously small......and repeatedly. I spend most of my time at work talking people into wanting to learn to change their behavior in 1 part of their life or another...the common thread that it affects their health and the probability that they will live to be functional older adults. It sounds kind of silly, but sometimes you just have them pick 1 habit in their day and change it, like their route to work, or their wake up routine, even something as stupid as changing how you put on your socks and shoes is a starting point. As you add more and more changes (ah the negotiations) are slowly building mental flexibility. Just like some of the corny exercises to keep your brain working like crossword puzzles. Constantly introducing small changes to habits and routines really does make people less resistant to change in general.(slow as hell, but makes a cumulative lasting impact)

well that was free advice, take it for what it's worth.

Nurse Ratchett

Anonymous said...

It's funny. I was just reading about Grant and Sherman, and one of the things Sherman said to his wife was that he (Sherman) was 'a damned sight smarter than Grant' but he noted that Grant had the ability to make a decision and follow through with it in a way that made him the better general. Sherman said that he didn't understand it, but it consistently worked and he recognized that.