[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. Black Swans have always existed, and military professionals have been discussing them, the implications and best methods for overcoming them since Caesar. The only difference between what military professionals have had to say regarding Black Swans is the vocabulary used.

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.

Posted by CTR1(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III in Books, History, Training & Education

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  • Grandpa Bluewater


    Your piece brings to mind the old saw;

    For want of a nail
    the shoe was lost,
    for want of a shoe
    the horse was lost,
    for want of the horse,
    the rider was lost,
    for want of of a rider
    the order was lost,
    for want of the order
    the battle was lost,
    for want of the battle
    the war was lost,
    for want of the war
    the kingdom was lost,
    All for the loss of a horse shoe nail.

    There is no corporal in the poem.

    If some one should prove it is a translation from the original latin (or greek) I would be unsurprised.

    Somewhere, today, I’m sure a PO2 is quoting it to a striker.

    “The backbone of the Army is the noncommissioned man”: Kipling.

  • W.M. Truesdell

    The implication of the article is Black Swans happening to us instead of them. WWII in the Pacific is littered with Black Swans that happened to the Japanese.

    An example- Battle of Savo Islands, the worst defeat of the USN ever. The Choki was hit by a single shell of all the ordnance fired that night but it hit their chart-house and the Flag thought his other ships had also been hit which cause his decision, along with worry of being close to US air in the morning, to break off the engagement and not turn back and destroy the transports. Had he done so, even with problems with US air in the morning, it could have set the US back substantially both from the loss of Guadalcanal, but more importantly, a substantive hit on US morale at home.

    All started by a “trivial” hit to the Flagship.

    In essence, the Japanese Flag did not follow another strategic genius, Bill Belechick and “Do your job”, which, as Krulak noted, is the best way to avoid Black Swans.

  • Rich B.

    The problem is while you must avoid the little boy crying wolf; too often within the fleet we are seeing signs of of upper leadership ignoring those junior officers who point out the black swans.

    Each black swan stands out, while not expected or predicted once observed is obvious to even a layperson.

    Ships made of aluminum for instance… We have a Cruiser on the Atlantic coast which had a 7.62mm round pass through the bridge wing and into the radar room through an aluminum superstructure; and yet we build our next generation ships who will be closest to shore and in combat by nature of operation exposed to more small arms, crew served and rpg fire than any other platform in the fleet.

    What do you think one straif of .50 caliber fire will do to the internal COTS (most of which are unhardened) components of LCS?

    Every day I watch ships on the waterfront borrow manpower from their bretheren to meet basic preservation requirements for INSURV as though this was the “intended” method of passing. The “lend lease” program that occurs between ships going through INSURV and her sisters rivals anything that occured during WWII.

    INSURV should be a surprise inspection if you wanted to see the full impact of undermanning, limited parts availability from vendors long since faded, and budgets that strangle fleet readiness.

    We have piers where we cannot even handle ordnance at because they are falling into water.

    A marine riflemen carries his piece everywhere but the sailor has to shoot his once a quarter and if he has an incident we take it away. Have you looked at the matrix for qualifying small arms aboard a ship? The tracking requirements alone fill a spreadsheet in 8pt font that covers an entire wardroom table.

    The sheer volume of training is ridiculous and it doesnt even cover range time for which each ship competes. We lived at the range; practically owned it when in port but we were still failing to meet the qualifications for just watchstanders and yet ships up and down the waterfront were qualified just fine… or were they..

    VBSS training requirements and schoolhouse availability..

    I could go on, but it would seem petty. The difference is each problem was brought up to the chain of command; each problem was “noted” politely by an aid. The result? Ask the LTJG or LT on the waterfront not the COs bucking for command.

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    Well, the point isn’t so much about being able to identify the Black Swans. In reality, a black swan is such a nebulous concept that anything can be argued as being one, as well anyone can argue that an event wasn’t one.

    The point is how to deal with the unexpected, how each person in the chain of command is responsible for dealing with the unexpected. What was the epiphany for me is that we as a military really are designed to deal with the unexpected. We’re not perfect at it (it is impossible to be perfect at it) but we are designed to learn from the unexpected.

    Our design isn’t new. It’s been around for centuries. Yet, we still struggle to get better at learning from and dealing with the unexpected. This reassures me, and lets me know that we’re not going at every challenge blind. That the guy next to me is there for a reason, you know?

  • SwitchBlade

    Taleb defines a Black Swan as an event denoted by its “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.”

    Since a Black Swan can’t be predicted by definition, none of the “warnings” espoused above really constitute one. In other words, if someone sees it coming it doesn’t qualify. It is something that is only seen in hindsight.

    The Titanic was unsinkable. Who would have thought that steaming through an ice burg field at 20+ knots could have caused an ice burg to scrape along the side puncturing as many as five of the watertight sections thereby causing the ship to sink? A Black Swan event!