[Ed. Note: This reads like a report, because it is. This is what I turned in for my expository essay in my Writing 101 class. I got a 93 on it, and I’ve been trying to write this more as a blog. But, it’s already written, so why am I reinventing the wheel? And so here it is: How I finally began to truly understand the rank structure in the military and where the tactical fades into the strategic.]
There is a quote I frequently see while playing Rome: Total War attributed to Julius Caesar, “[i]n war important events result from trivial causes.” I had always considered the quote cogent and well said. But, more recently, I came across a new (to me) terminology for a type of event called a Black Swan. Once I had made the connection in my mind between Caesar’s quote and a Black Swan, I found myself thinking about another work by General Charles Krulack, USMC (ret) where he spoke of the importance of junior leadership in modern conflicts. Between Caesar’s quote, Black Swans and General Krulak’s work, there is a coherent theme explaining rank structure in the military and the synergistic relationship that exists between the tactical and strategic levels of warfare.
Caesar’s quote strikes me as a tacit understanding of “Black Swans” and their implications for military campaigns. Nassim Taleb introduced the terminology for a “Back Swan” in his book The Black Swan. Taleb defines a Black Swan as an event denoted by its “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.” Meaning that a Black Swan is an event of great significance that was never expected nor predicted to happen. According to Taleb, Black Swans explain why things occurred in history and our personal lives.
Caesar’s words intersect with Black Swans in that Caesar describes the causes of “important events” as “trivial.” Caesar
, states there to be causation between the “trivial” and “important” while also denoting a qualitative difference between cause and effect in his words. It is logical to conclude that if one has a series of trivial events, that their sum would be trivial as well, or that there is a linear relationship between trivial events and their effects. However, by Caesar’s words, this is not the case. Rather, it is the sum being greater (important versus trivial) than the whole—a nonlinear relationship. To individuals looking at a series of trivial events and attempting to predict the outcome, it is hard to see how they could predict anything important deriving from the trivial–Such “low predictability” is a key aspect of a Black Swan.
Caesar’s words come from a strategic perspective. As the leader of the Roman Legions marching through Gaul, Caesar was responsible for subjugating 300 tribes and destroying 800 cities, in all affecting three million Gauls, killing close to a million of them. But, what was trivial to Caesar may not have been so trivial to one of his Centurions—it is a matter of perspective. Such perspective is inherent in the duties between those who are charged with leading tens of thousands and those leading hundreds (or less). Does the fact that there are two different perspectives mean that Caesar was wrong in calling such causes trivial? In a word, no. He is correct based on his perspective and context in-which he performed his duties. Caesar did not confuse his duties and station with those of his cohort commanders. What’s more is that his Centurions would probably call the duties Caesar carried out as trivial in comparison to the harsh realities of fighting hand-to-hand.
As events transpire, the implications of what causes Black Swans are of importance at the tactical level, and the Black Swan itself is important at the strategic level. However, at any level it is of importance to have an understanding of previous Black Swans (their causes and the event itself) that are not limited by post hoc narratives.
General Krulak is well known for this article titled the “Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War.” His work concerns a fictitious conflict occurring in a few blocks of a city. He describes the tactical actions of Corporal Hernandez and their possible strategic implications. Caesar’s “trivial causes” are described. But, the General goes beyond merely describing decisions and their ramifications in stating that junior Marines have an intuitive—intuitive, not explicit—understanding of their “trivial” actions resulting in “important events.”
The General explains how Cpl. Hernandez’s decisions were made in such a manner that it, in essence, prevents a Black Swan type event from occurring. Cpl. Hernandez took the training he had been given, and imbued with an intuitive understanding of the implications of his actions and made the right decisions, thereby preventing the tactical situation from evolving into a situation with “strategic implications.” Where Caesar does not, in a single sentence quote, comment on the role of his Centurions in battle or their ability to prevent Black Swans, Krulak does by describing the challenges faced by Corporal Hernandez. Caesar is describing events from a ‘big picture’ perspective, and General Krulak described them from a ‘smaller picture’ perspective, Taleb’s Black Swan is the concept that ties the two together.
From the age of the Roman Empire to today the military has been facing the same types of challenges. It is from these challenges that we have decided how best to partition responsibilities, delegate decision-making authority and deal with the unexpected. Black Swans will never allow perfect predictability.
The challenges of leading men into battle do not change, only how we chose to describe those challenges. With Taleb’s words we find a common vocabulary that bridges thousands of years. With this common vocabulary we can better understand what is said by other writers and find the other truths that have endured through the centuries.
- On Midrats 19 April 2015 – Episode 276: “21st Century Ellis”
- John Quincy Adams — The Grand Strategist: An Interview With Historian Charles N. Edel
- 4 Reasons Not to Resign Your Commission as a Naval Officer
- About Face: A Return to Marine Corps Innovation
- On Midrats 29 March 15 – Episode 273: Partnership, Influence, Presence and the role of the MSC