Different Degrees of Victory … or Defeat

I’m releasing a new book very soon, a nonfiction volume entitled Elements of War (in fact, I released the e-book version today). I worked on this book on and off for decades: I started it while on active duty in the Air Force (some of its embryonic form was published in the USAF online magazine), and continued after I retired. I originally planned to release it nearly five years ago, but life events interfered.

To adapt an old phrase, I’ve cut bait long enough and it’s time to fish. So by way of introducing the book, I offer this excerpt from chapter twenty-four, “The System of War”:

It may seem odd to categorize war, which is not a discrete thing but rather an abstract notion describing events, as a system … a collection of interrelated and interacting parts that operate together toward a common purpose. A box of odds and ends is not a system; nor is a box of computer components until those components are assembled in working fashion. It seems that such a definition would not describe an abstract notion such as war….

Our purpose is not to apply any single methodology to break down war into its component parts, but to understand more of the whole by using a variety of different methods. By way of analogy, we can compare the art of war to the art of painting. In the case of historical wars, the painting is complete (though we may occasionally encounter a forgery, a reproduction, or a hidden masterpiece); in the case of current wars, it is being painted even now. We evaluate the paintings to determine if they are masterpieces—or if they even qualify as “art.” We must investigate light, shadow, color, and texture to practice our own art, but we need not chemically analyze the paint to learn what makes it burnt umber; instead, we consider the painting as a whole….

For the system of war, the purpose is to achieve victory (i.e., to seize the objective) by force or by the threat of force…. Failure to keep that objective in mind is usually the fault of the political rather than the military machine. Since the mid-1980s the US in particular has searched for “exit strategies” too vigorously, when it should have searched for victory strategies…. We should not be content to stop at a quick military victory unless we are reasonably sure that victory will gain us the long-term, overall victory we really need; however, we cannot know what that overall victory should look like if we have not taken the time to define it and figure out how to achieve it.

It is important to remember that, “there are degrees of victory, some better than others.” Planners and commanders might consider using the Victory/Defeat Space model shown in Figure 7 to determine the shape of the victory to be sought. By deciding beforehand the definitions for the minimum acceptable victory, the maximum anticipated defeat, etc., decision makers would not only approach any coming war with open eyes but may also be able to discern ways to move from the potential for defeat to the probability of victory. Our definition may, in fact, change as the conflict unfolds. And how we define the victory we want will determine the resources and tactics we need to prosecute the war—no matter what that war may be.


(Victory/Defeat Space. Figure 7 from Elements of War.)

You may have noted that the figure was adapted from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission handbook. That handbook was the text for a system safety and reliability short course I took at the University of Washington in the late 1980s (a temporary duty assignment from my post at Edwards AFB). I don’t recall exactly when I thought of the idea of using the Success/Failure diagram from the text to illustrate different degrees of victory and defeat, but I think it’s an appropriate application — even if it is a bit unusual. (Then again, I seem to have a track record of coming up with unusual things.)

With respect to things going on in the world today, how do you think Russia and Ukraine would define their respective maximum tolerable defeats or maximum anticipated victories? Or, given that China recently deployed forces in military exercises near Taiwan, how would those two countries — and, given our interests, the US as well — define those scenarios to cover an eventual Chinese invasion of the island?

It seems to me that planners and politicians on each side of a conflict would do well to place their different potential outcomes along the continuum, so that even if they cannot achieve total victory they might avoid total defeat.

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If you think this sort of approach is interesting, or has any value whatsoever — whether in this context, or in the context of negotiations (minimum acceptable salary?), investing (maximum tolerable loss?), or some other aspect of life — I’d be pleased if you would share it with friends! And I’d be even more pleased if you’d pick up the e-book today and/or consider ordering a copy of Elements of War when it becomes available.

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Oh, Those Savvy Ancient Greeks

A couple of years ago, I got on a kick of reading through some classics that I’d never read before. I wrote about that in a couple of posts at the time — Epicurus, Seneca, and Jesus, and More from Seneca: Unhappiness, and Grief — and recently I dug up some notes I made on a few more gems that seem quite appropriate to today’s world.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from The Nichomachean Ethics (Book III, section ii) by Aristotle:

… our characters are determined by our choice of what is good or evil, not by our opinion about it.

Let’s stop right there, before we get to the rest of the passage, and focus on the last phrase: not by our opinion about it. In this age when opinions are shared frequently and widely in all manner of social media, it’s good to be reminded — by someone who lived about 2300 years ago, no less! — that our opinions do not form our characters. Rather, our choices do: Our choices of how we do our jobs, whether well or shoddily; of how we treat people, whether with respect or with disdain; of how we live, whether nobly or basely.

Aristotle continues,

… a choice is more properly praised for choosing the right object than for being correct in itself; but an opinion is praised for being in accordance with the truth. Also we choose what we know very well to be good, but we form opinions about things that we do not really know to be good. It seems, too, that the same people are not equally good at choosing the best actions and forming the best opinions; some are comparatively good at forming opinions, but … fail to make the right choices.

Far be it from me to say that Aristotle was wrong here, but he may give us too much credit when he says we “choose what we know very well to be good.” Rather, in my experience — i.e., based on my personal choices and the choices I’ve observed others make — we choose what we believe will be good, in the sense of being beneficial. But that’s not the most damning thing about this passage.

The thing in this passage that finds us lacking is his assertion that “an opinion is praised for being in accordance with the truth.” Certainly we should strive to make sure our opinions reflect truth, and I’m enough of a fan of humanity to believe that most of us think our opinions accord with truth as we know it; certainly, we should praise those opinions which most closely align with truth; but these days many opinions are praised not because they represent the truth but because they align with the hearer or reader’s perhaps petrified beliefs.


(Image: “Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition,” from Wikimedia Commons.)

Moving on,

I mentioned social media above, and in Book III, section iii we find something that, if we adhered to it a little bit better, would make our lives much more peaceful. After stating, “what we deliberate about is practical measures that lie in our power,” Aristotle continues,

Not even all human affairs are objects of deliberation; thus no Spartan deliberates about the best form of constitution for the Scythians; each of the various groups of human beings deliberates about the practical measures that lie in its own power.

Oh, how quiet X (nee Twitter) would be, and how uplifting our Facebook and other feeds would be, if each group only deliberated about things in its own power, instead of deliberating about other groups and the things that lie in their power. The wider world itself might be a bit quieter, if nations likewise deliberated about their own dealings more than others’.

To a certain extent, the same could be said of each of us as individuals — as my mom used to say, we should tend to our own knitting. I have been guilty of it myself, more times than I care to admit. I have been guilty of it on this blog, and on the socials, and probably will continue to be. But I will try to be somewhat more aware of it — and perhaps I can reform myself.

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A Tale of Two Cancers

Yesterday began with bad news and ended with good, and left me pondering the randomness of life.

Yesterday morning came a message that a high school classmate had lost his battle with cancer. Yesterday evening came a social media post that a friend had beaten her cancer to the point that she needs little further treatment.

I feel a bit like Scrooge, pondering a Christmas yet to come that mixes great sorrow with great joy. How capricious life can be! Is it any wonder it may seem meaningless at times?


(Image: “Fuck Cancer,” by Myriam von M, on Wikimedia Commons.)

We, and those we love, and those we don’t even know, are afflicted with pains and sufferings and difficulties too numerous to count–TNTC, a phrase doctors applied to the tumors filling my spleen back in the mid-1990s (tumors which thankfully turned out to be benign)–and it is impossible to know who will be next, and when, and where. Yet, we have it within ourselves to make meaning out of even the worst things, if we can find the wisdom and the courage and the strength to do it.

At this moment, however, I am at a loss. I must say goodbye to one friend, while I wait to see another and greet her with a congratulatory hug. And it all seems so terribly arbitrary.

So fare thee well, my friends, whatever trials you face. May the meaning you find in them, or the meaning you make out of them, light the world a little more.

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Happy Explorers Day

Or Discoverers Day, if you rather.

I know some folks have Christened this “Indigenous Peoples Day,” but that has always seemed a cop-out to me. Making Christopher Columbus a scapegoat centuries after his accomplishment — and it was an accomplishment — is emblematic enough of this age of sensitization in which we live, but celebrating people who stayed where they were and lived out ordinary lives in place of those who risked life and limb in pursuit of their dreams is emblematic of something deeper, and sadder: a loss of drive, of purpose, of spirit. It’s a surrender. A capitulation.


(Banner illustration from “10 Great Explorers in History,” at https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/10-great-explorers-in-history/.)

So on this day I celebrate all who ventured forth in pursuit of something new, someplace different, whether grand and glorious or smaller and more personal. All the explorers and discoverers, whether in the wider world or in the confines of the laboratory, the library, the studio.

Perhaps even you, in your pursuit of your best life. As I wrote on this subject nearly ten years ago: May You Find What You Seek.

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Another Memorial Day Rhyme

Occasionally, on days like today, I get the urge to express myself — an urge that often manifests in verse of questionable quality (though sometimes also in blog posts of questionable quality).

Here’s today’s offering:

You are more of a hero than I will ever be
You stood your post and did your most so that others could be free
Or ran into the danger when you could’ve run away
Just the sort of hero that we need with us today

Rest in peace, all of you who paid the greatest price
Rest in peace, and may you feel our gratitude in paradise
Rest in peace that you yourself never lived to see
Rest in peace, more hero than I will ever be

Tomb of the Unknowns ("Unknown Soldier") - U.S.
(Image: “Tomb of the Unknowns,” by Tony Fischer, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

For comparison, here’s one I wrote five years ago and posted, like many of my little semi-poetic musings, on Facebook:

To the Heroes Looking Down on This Memorial (28 May 2018, Memorial Day)

Can you feel some of the gratitude I have for you,
And all you did to secure this life for me?
Can you hear me simply saying, “Thank you,”
For all you gave to the cause of liberty?

Can you see the tears I shed because I miss you
And wish you had not fallen in the fray?
Can I ever truly show how much I owe you,
Unless I keep your memory alive today?

Can one day on the calendar suffice to
Plumb the depths of the thankfulness I feel?
Can I count the cost of the living debt I carry
And pay it forward though I’m always in arrears?

All I do today is salute your mighty sacrifice
And raise my glass to you, until we meet in paradise.

It’s not much to offer, I admit, but it’s all I have.

May your Memorial Day be peaceful, and may we always remember those to whom we owe our freedom.Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

History is Not on Our Side

That title may be a bit uncharitable, because history surely is full of people accomplishing great things, making monumental discoveries, and generally advancing the human race from savagery to civilization. History is also, unfortunately, rife with examples of people being terrible to one another.

Some of that “being terrible” began as “being natural,” because the natural world is a frightful place — the phrase “red in tooth and claw” is literally the natural state of things for most creatures on the planet. Seriously, that’s why our ancestors worked so hard to rise out of savagery and to tame the world around them.

By the time Ogg the caveman decided to brain his fellow caveman Uldarr with a rock because he wanted Uldarr’s share (or Uldarr had stolen Ogg’s share) of the wooly mammoth they’d killed, their ancestors had scratched and clawed — literally clawed, in the days before tools — their way up to a point of some sophistication compared to where the human race started. Fast forward to any point in history, anywhere on Earth, and you’ll see the same things: scarce resources driving people to eliminate rivals; slights and insults provoking people to wrath; and personal conflicts growing into family feuds, tribal battles, and even global wars. Aggravation, escalation, devastation.

Because of all that shared history, and the animosity that pervades human life and culture, it’s a wonder we get along with as many people as we do, as well as we do. Here in the U.S., a lot of that shared history has to do with race, and racial tension is one of the most persistent and pernicious ways these conflicts have manifested.

What, then, does history offer to help us?

History tells us a great deal about what happened in the past: who did what, how they did it, when and where it took place, the kinds of things we can document and present as facts. Some aspects may be disputed, from major elements of events to minor details, and subsequent research may turn up new facts that change our understanding of what happened.

Why things happened, however, and especially why the people involved did the things they did, can be a lot harder to determine.


(Image: “History wallpaper/desktop image,” by Eric Turner, on Wikimedia Commons.)

Why something happened in history may seem evident, in the way that why a hurricane forms is evidently because an area of low pressure developed over warm ocean water; but the cause(s) we ascribe to human events may be too simplistic and may not tell the whole story. Why an historical event happened the way it did is more akin to figuring out why a particular hurricane hit a particular place on a particular date — or, to use a more erratic weather metaphor, to postulate why a tornado (perhaps spawned by a hurricane) destroyed one house and left the house next to it undamaged. It’s much more difficult to explain, and the reasons we come up with are usually not as precise as we would wish. And because such things are erratic, the reasons we put forth don’t lead us to being able to predict future “storms” with great precision.

Unlike hurricanes and tornados, of course, sometimes the people involved in historical events leave records — diaries, reports, memoirs; letters, articles, perhaps blog posts these days — which are subject to scrutiny and interpretation. But those records can be considered tainted by inaccurate observation or unclear memory, or even corrupted by agenda or ideology or passion. All of which combines to make historical analysis difficult, and history-based speculation sometimes unreliable.

Therefore, history is not on our side. It does not offer us a trustworthy guide to the future, and the marks it’s left on the present are often indelible and ugly.

But we don’t need history to be on our side. In fact, having now written all this, it seems silly to think it ever would be. To say that history could be on our side is like the terribly imprecise saying from a few decades ago, “Information wants to be free.” It’s nonsense. Information doesn’t want anything — it is noncorporeal, and has no needs or desires to satisfy. Some people want information to be free, but that’s another matter.

Likewise, some people want history to be on our (i.e., their) side, but that’s another matter.

History isn’t on anybody’s side, and the most we can hope for is that our historical record is as complete and accurate, as accessible and permanent, as possible. Because if we let aggravation lead to escalation and then to devastation, if we find ourselves in a broken society (hopefully not reduced as far as Ogg the caveman’s), it would be good to be able to relearn whatever lessons we can from history, in hopes of not repeating too many of the same mistakes.

But, what do you think?Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

More from Seneca: Unhappiness, and Grief

I don’t mean by that title the small town near Clemson in South Carolina, where we lived in the early 1990s and where our son was born, but Seneca the Younger. Let’s examine a snippet of first century Greek wisdom that particularly spoke to me from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.

From letter seventy-eight, for instance:

A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.

As one who has been battling unhappiness, lack of joy, and even a bit of depression for a while now, I’ve been thinking long and hard about how many of my woes have been, to put it mildly, my own damn fault. Seneca continued,

What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then? What is more, doesn’t everyone add a good deal to his tale of hardships and deceive himself as well in the matter? Besides, there is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant; when some trouble or other comes to an end the natural thing is to be glad.

It is interesting that, because of Seneca’s earlier admonitions against grieving for very long, his reflection here on physical illness — how to treat it and bear up under it — does not include any component of bearing up under grief or other deep, lengthy emotional struggles. I gather from this that Seneca would disapprove of my prolonged grieving, and in particular the up-and-down nature of my grief: its waxing and waning at irregular intervals, its sudden onslaughts and slow, creeping pounces.

But, I don’t need Seneca’s (or anyone else’s) approval for the manner of my grief. We all grieve in different ways, and our griefs are affected by different things we encounter as we go along. My path is my own.

Perhaps Seneca even allows for that, though. I find his phrase “when some trouble or other comes to an end” to be particularly apt, because when does grief end? Some of the stronger emotions may subside, and even the awareness of the absence may fluctuate, but if the separation cannot end, neither can the grief. It may contract, and at times expand, but if grief is the difficulty then it is not a matter of “dragging up sufferings which are over,” but of enduring sufferings which continue.

On the subject of grief itself, something Neil Peart wrote in Ghost Rider (which I finished reading this weekend) struck quite close to home:

I understood that feeling…. Perhaps the first responsibility of a husband and father is to protect his wife and child, and deep inside myself I felt that I had failed at that, too.

I could relate to that because no matter how often people tell me it’s not my fault that Jill died, and also not my fault that I couldn’t revive her, I still feel responsible. And I may feel that way for a long time.

In the penultimate paragraph, of Ghost Rider, Peart wrote,

Sometimes I can almost sustain the high-minded sentiment that it was worth the pain of losing Jackie and Selena [his wife and daughter] for the joy of having known them. I don’t know if I will ever be able to embrace that notion, but the important thing is that I embrace today….

Was it worth the pain of losing Jill, for the joy of having known her? I need to consider that question in more depth. It was worth the pain to avoid her having to go through anything like it; that much, I can say. And the joy of having known her, the privilege of being her husband, were immeasurable. Worth the pain of losing her? That is, better to have never known her than to have lost her? No, not at all. But Peart is right: It is a “high-minded sentiment,” and not one to bear (or perhaps even to think about) for long.

Bust of Seneca
(Image: “3rd century marble bust of Seneca, after a 1st century original,” from Britannica.)

To again return briefly to Seneca, a few notes on some of his other letters: I thought his letter 88, about what constitutes a liberal education, was excellent. Letter 90, on philosophy and the history of mankind, was laughable, and the kind of “back to basics” thing that only someone who has never had to (or tried to) do hard physical labor would write. Letter 114, on literary style, seemed just as true now as it was then.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with his declaration in letter 108 that “The more the mind takes in, the more it expands.” I wish for you immense pleasure as you take in more and more to expand your mind!Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Epicurus, Seneca, and Jesus

Let the record show that I am not very well-read in the classics. I’ve read fairly widely–i.e., on a wide range of topics and in a variety of genres–but not in great depth aside from a few favorite authors. (I should probably not admit that, considering my trade these days, but I’m trying to correct that error–if error it be.)

At any rate, I am, admittedly rather slowly, trying to broaden my reading horizons–especially as regards works of antiquity. So for a few weeks this year I read a selection of Seneca the Younger’s letters, which I found entertaining, challenging, and sometimes enlightening.

Bust of Epicurus
(Image: “Portrait of Epicurus, founder of the Epicurean school. Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original,” from Wikimedia Commons.)

For instance, in letter eleven of the Robin Campbell translation, Seneca quotes Epicurus (whose bust is pictured above) as saying,

We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.

Remind you of anything?

I flashed immediately to the “What Would Jesus Do?” craze: the WWJD bracelets and other accoutrements. Not that Seneca would have had Jesus in mind–the two were contemporaries, but lived far apart and never would have met–nor Epicurus, since he was doing his thing three hundred years before Seneca! But Seneca obviously approved of the idea of fixing our mind on some good person we respect, and acting as if that person could observe us.

For some of us, Jesus fits that description and that role better than anyone else. For others, some other revered person may work better. But it was interesting to see that the idea itself was quite ancient–and who knows if Epicurus didn’t get it from someone else before him? 

And the question this leaves for each of us is, Who will we choose to live as if they’re watching us do what we do?

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Pay No Attention to the Blogger Behind the Curtain…

Consider this fair warning: In the coming days, I may start blogging a little more frequently. Why? Because I’ve got to get this nonsense out of my head.

I mean, sure, I’d love to post things that entertain whoever might stop by. But the entertainment value of these half-formed (and probably malformed) thoughts may be about the level of slowing down to gawk at an automobile accident. If I hadn’t already named the blog “GhostWriter,” I might be tempted to rename it “mental train wreck” or something along those lines.

Anyway, the idea is to get out of my head a lot of weird ideas and unworkable notions, in the (likely vain) hope that they will make room for better, more sensible thoughts. I don’t know how often I will post, and though I make no promises as to quality — they may be well-written or hastily scrawled, cogent and sane or the ravings of a near lunatic — I will try to produce “good words” for all you “good people” who visit.

But I’ve got to get this nonsense out of my head. 

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Broken Cups of Happiness

A couple of weeks ago, I talked with my daughter Stephanie about happiness, and I likened our capacity for happiness to a cup constantly filling and being drained. I suggested, however, that the cup of happiness from which we drink is, unfortunately and all too often, broken and leaking. Thus our capacity for happiness changes from time to time, most drastically with great losses or injuries or failures.

When we are young, after the initial shock of being separated from the warmth and leisure of the womb, our capacity for happiness seems almost boundless. Witness the innocent and all-consuming exuberance of a laughing child, and the difficulty we sometimes have as we grow older letting ourselves feel and express such joy. This is not to say that every child has the same capacity — it is almost certain that each of us has a cup of a slightly different size and shape, such that our capacities for happiness differ person-to-person — but in youth the cup seems more frequently to overflow.

As we grow, that cup of happiness which was so large and so easily filled gets damaged by life. Chipped. Cracked. Even shattered.


(Image by Hans Braxmeier, from Pixabay under Creative Commons.)

The greater the loss, the more grievous the injury, the worse the failure, the more damage our cup of happiness takes. Even if only chipped along the rim, every break means it cannot be filled as full as before — and those rough edges can cut our lips as we try to drink again. We may find ways to patch the holes or fill the cracks, through some gain or remedy or success, but if our cup of happiness has been badly broken it will rarely hold as much, as safely, as it did before.

And here’s the point I made to Stephanie: Even though our capacity for happiness may be less, that cup can still be filled to its new capacity. Because of that, sometimes, almost miraculously, we find that we are simply as happy as we can possibly be — that we can still pursue things that fill our cup, drink it down and let it fill again, and live good and pleasant lives.

In my personal life, I look back on various things that chipped and cracked my cup of happiness. In the aftermath of Jill’s death,* I might’ve said that my cup had been ground to dust. But I find now that my cup has been patched. Even though I wasn’t sure it could or would ever happen, I’ve had times recently when my cup of happiness has been full — and I can look forward to its being filled again and again as time goes by. It may not hold as much today as it did a few years ago, but I can enjoy it to its new limit.

This metaphor implies something else, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear: specifically, that the people we meet carry cups of happiness that have been broken by troubles they’ve encountered in their own lives, troubles about which we may know little or nothing. And the things we do, with them and for them and to them, can mend their cups a bit … or damage them more, perhaps irreparably. Few of us know what wounds people have already sustained, what fractures and fissures mark their cups of happiness that we might carelessly reopen; fewer of us are emotional surgeons, who can injure intentionally in order to heal eventually; and very few of us indeed are psychological potters, able to present others with new, unbroken cups of happiness.

For my part, I am immensely grateful to everyone who has helped me mend my cup. And I am unfathomably sorry for every time I have damaged someone else’s. May God forgive me.

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*See my series, “Unprepared for Regret”, which ended with Unprepared for Regret, Part X: Farewell, My JillianFacebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather