Thursday, February 07, 2013

From Defeat to Victory

I posted this quote from Rick Atkinson (An Army at Dawn - The War in North Africa 1942-1943, p 377) on November 18, 2010:
Having participated in several catastrophic defeats himself, [British General Harold Alexander] should have recognized that defeat sometimes carried annealing and even salutory properties. A great sorting out was under way: the competent from the incompetent, the courageous from the fearful, the lucky from the unlucky. It would happen faster in the American Army than it had in the British.
Mad Minerva's recent post Quote of the Day: Limitations also expressed the belief that failures and mistakes teach:
But I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive.
Last night, I watched a BBC documentary, The Somme From Defeat to Victory, with the same theme that failure is a building block for success.

In British popular culture, the unexpected massive losses on the 1st day of the Battle of the Somme are an enduring testament to the futility of war, the danger of nationalistic jingoism, and the crash of Victorian idealism. However, ending the narrative of the battle with the shocking setbacks of the 1st day overlooks the developmental lessons of the whole battle. The BBC documentary explains that the hastily reconstructed and enlarged British army suffered higher losses than necessary because of the beginner's shortcomings with which they began the contest with the experienced German army. In contrast, the experienced French army fared much better on the 1st day of the battle under the same conditions. In fact, even in the midst of the early disaster, the British army achieved breakthroughs that could have become turning points in the battle had they been expeditiously exploited. As the Battle of the Somme ground on and the British grew experienced, they developed new tactics, techniques, and procedures, eventually defeated the Germans, and accomplished their objective of relieving the German pressure on the French at Verdun. The Battle of the Somme only started with catastrophic failure. Contrary to the popular lesson, the battle was not futile. The British finished the battle victorious with a mature army that eventually helped defeat Germany.

In World War Two, the North Africa campaign served the same developmental function for the newly constructed American Army. It began as a disaster for the Americans. The German desert army led by legendary Field Marshal Rommel routed the inexperienced US forces. But the early catastrophe in North Africa was instrumental in the Americans learning to win in the desert and then in Europe.

The same learning curve played out with the American-led peace operations in post-war Iraq. Our beginner's incompetency at post-war occupation was exploited by the enemy. Despite histrionic calls to surrender Iraq to the insurgents, we stayed and improved, culminating in the counterinsurgency "Surge" led by General Petraeus that turned the tide.

Starting in 2001, Columbia students, alumni, and faculty challenged the University's 30-year effective ban of ROTC, and in 2005, the Columbia University Senate voted overwhelmingly against ROTC. The birth of the advocacy and gaining the first senate vote were foundational achievements, but the lopsided defeat in that vote was demoralizing. The advocates had to choose their course then. They would have been justified to quit after the defeat, and some did. The remaining Columbia ROTC advocates chose instead to consolidate, embrace their failures, stay smart, aggressive, and opportunistic, and learn to win. In 2011, six short years (short in institutional terms, two generations in student terms) after voting against ROTC, the Columbia University Senate voted overwhelmingly for ROTC.

Most hold forth the moral of the story of Icarus as the inevitable self-destruction that results from hubris. They discourage taking risks that reach beyond one's limitations by warning of the fate suffered by Daedalus's son. Senator Hagel, for example, based his defeatist opposition to the counterinsurgency "Surge" in Iraq on his traumatized memory of the Vietnam War. Hagel believed because his generation failed at something a long time ago in a land far away, it couldn't be accomplished anytime anywhere else, rather than allow that another American generation could engineer a solution.

The better takeaway from the story of Icarus, the Battle of the Somme, the North Africa campaign, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the Columbia ROTC movement is to encourage adaptation to overcome setbacks. Interrogate limits. Utilize defeats, mistakes, and failures tactically, and respect the learning curve that may be painful and necessary to journey from defeat to victory.

Add: Philosophy professor Eddie Calasanz's TED talk on the importance of placing micro-actions in the context of the big picture and patience because realizing grand visions, eg, building a nation, may require a lifetime. Simon Sinek's TED talk takes the next step from Calasanz's TED talk with an operational philosophy. Sinek advocates leading with Why, How, What, in that order, because people are drawn to the underlying belief first.


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