The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Napoleon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Napoleon. Show all posts

Monday, October 10, 2022

Mind Control as a Strategic Weapon. How to Destroy Your Enemies from Within


The "Zombie Fungus" Cordyceps kills an ant after having taken control of its neural system. Could something like that happen in human societies? That is, is it possible to destroy a country by taking control of its leader? This idea has obvious implications for the current war in Ukraine. 

We all know that history never exactly repeats itself, but it rhymes. One of these rhymes has to do with leaders who do enormous damage to the countries they lead. Let me show you a few examples from the past two centuries or so, then we'll discuss the implications for the current situation. 

1. 1859 - Louis Napoleon and the Italian Campaign. In 1852, Louis Napoleon (1808-1873) became the new French emperor. His first major military campaign was the Crimean war: it was a victory, but also a major blunder. France had no reason to help Britain to put down the Russians, but that was the practical result of the war. In 1859, Louis Napoleon made a much worse mistake by joining Piedmont in a war against Austria. The campaign was successful but costly, and it led to the creation of a new state, Italy, that would forever block the French attempts to expand in the Mediterranean Sea, along the African coast. In addition, in 1870, Italy made an about-face and joined Prussia in a war against France. The French were badly defeated, and France ceased forever to be a major world power. Louis Napoleon ended his life in exile in England. 

2. 1935 - Benito Mussolini and the Italian Empire. In the 1930s, Italy was a growing regional power with good chances of becoming a major player in the Mediterranean Region, possibly even replacing the dominance of the British Empire. However, in 1935, the Mussolini government made an incredible strategic mistake by engaging the country in a major campaign in East Africa to conquer Ethiopia. The campaign was successful, but Italy had made a big favor to Britain by having to keep a consistent fraction of its military forces in a region where they could not be resupplied from the mother country. Then, it gave the British an excuse to wreck the Italian economy by imposing sanctions and a ban on coal exports to Italy. The final result was that Italy arrived at the start of WWII weak and unprepared. The British easily destroyed the Italian contingent in Ethiopia and, from then on, Mussolini couldn't have done better if his purpose was to lead Italy to a humiliating defeat, for instance attacking Greece in 1940 without sufficient forces. Italy was defeated, and Mussolini ended his career hanged upside-down in 1945. 

3. 1941, Adolf Hitler and Operation Barbarossa. In 1940, Germany was at the top of its military power. Only Britain had successfully resisted the German attacks, but it was evident that if Germany were to direct the whole industrial and military might of Europe against the British, only a miracle could have saved Britain from being invaded and defeated. Astonishingly, such a miracle occurred in 1941. The Germans nearly completely abandoned their aerial campaign against Britain and attacked the Soviet Union instead, leaving Britain able to recover and regroup. The German decision truly made no sense if we consider that the Germans were risking everything to obtain something they already had: the oil and food resources of the Soviet Union that were abundantly supplied under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. The result of the campaign was the defeat and the eventual destruction of Germany, while Hitler committed suicide in 1945. 

4. 1978 -- Leonid Brezhnev and the Afghan campaignIn the 1970s, the Soviet Union was still a major power in Eurasia, although its growth had been slowing down. Leonid Brezhnev (1906 – 1982) became secretary of the Communist party in 1964 and, in 1978, he ordered a military intervention in Afghanistan to keep the country within the Soviet sphere of influence. The war dragged on for 10 years and it was one of the factors (although not the only one) that led to the collapse and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

5. 1990 - Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Kuwait.  In 1990, Iraq was a growing power in the Middle East region, owing to its abundant oil production. In 1980, the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, engaged in a dangerous gamble by attacking Iran. After 8 years of harsh conflict, the war ended basically in a draw, although the Iraqi claimed victory. In the late 1980s, Iraq entered a dispute in which it accused Kuwait of using horizontal drilling technologies to steal oil from Iraq's fields. The dispute escalated until, in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, conquering it completely in a few days. The reaction of the Western Powers was "Operation Desert Storm." In 1991 the retreating Iraqi forces were incinerated by a bombing campaign while the US continued bombing Iraq up to 2003, when the whole country was invaded. Saddam Hussein was then hanged by the Iraqi themselves.  

So, let's summarize. We have five cases where we see this sequence of events (there are more examples, but not so evident (*)): 

  1. A regional power, led by a strong leader, starts showing ambitions of becoming an important player in the global domination game. 
  2. The leader engages the country in an attack on a neighboring country, smaller and less powerful. 
  3. The attack looked like a cakewalk, but it turns into a quagmire. It may be successful or not, but it considerably weakens the attacker. 
  4. The Great Powers intervene. The regional power is defeated and destroyed, and its disgraced leader is executed or removed in other ways. 

It is impressive how, in this pattern, history doesn't just rhyme. It truly repeats itself, as if the leaders involved were actors following a script. How can that be? I can offer you two explanations

1 -- The pattern is the unavoidable result of the personality of strong leaders. They are, typically, criminal psychopaths with no moral restraints who tend to be reckless in whatever they do. In addition, they tend to be surrounded by sycophants and adulators. At this point, their brain loses contact with reality, and, eventually, they will make a major mistake that leads them to their doom (and, with them, large numbers of innocent people). 

2-- There exists a standard procedure that can be used to take control of leaders' minds. Considering how standard propaganda can take control of ordinary people's minds, it shouldn't be surprising that the same trick can be played with leaders. Actually, leaders' minds could be much easier to sway and influence, since leaders tend to live in isolated bubbles where the information they receive is carefully filtered by their staff. Take control of some influential members of the leader's staff (e.g. by corrupting them) and the job is done. We call this method "psychological operation" or "psyop"

Personally, I tend to favor the first hypothesis. When a single leader dominates a group, internal dynamic factors tend to appear, leading the members of the group to try to gain the attention of the boss by proposing over-optimistic plans. Those who recommend caution risk being silenced or ignored and, in any case, the optimists risk much less than the boss himself. 

We see this groupthink mechanism very well in the minutes of the reunions of the Italian high command when the attack on Greece was decided, in 1941. At that time, Mussolini was already gone on the other side of criticism and was no more in contact with the real world. So, he was easily influenced by his military staff. One of the most vocal proponents of the attack was general Sebastiano Visconti Prasca (1883 -1961), who repeatedly played down the military risks of the attack and managed to be named commander-in-chief of the operation. The only penalty he suffered was to be relieved of his command after the first attacks failed, then he lived to tell the story and died in his bed. 

Another similar case was that of Leonid Brezhnev's decision to invade Afghanistan. It is said that Brezhnev's health had been deteriorating and that, although not very old (he was 70 in 1976) he was not able anymore to take rational decisions. That may have generated a case of groupthink, where the decision may have been the result of the action of a member of the Politburo, the hardline Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov

But there are cases in which we have evidence of the active intervention of a foreign power to influence a country leader. The classic case is that of Louis Napoleon in France: the first documented case of such an intervention. The Piedmontese Government had sent to France the Countess of Castiglione, Virginia Oldoini, with the specific task of seducing Louis Napoleon and convincing him to help Piedmont to fight Austria. We cannot say how important was the action of the Countess, but we can't rule out that she changed the course of history. It would not be the first time: the "honey trap" strategy is very old. Do you remember the Biblical story of Judith and Holophernes? It is that old.

Perhaps the most fascinating case of influencing a foreign leader's mind using the honey trap is that of Adolf Hitler, who threw away a nearly certain victory for an uncertain gamble. It may be related to the story of Unity Mitford (1914-1948), a British woman who traveled to Germany in 1934 with the objective of seducing Hitler. She was, most likely, a British agent, but she was successful, probably the only non-German person who became Hitler's intimate friend. She may have influenced Hitler with the concept that the Britons were, after all, "Aryans," just like the Germans. So, the F├╝hrer may have been unsure about the idea of unleashing the full German military might on them, preferring instead to turn Germany on those people he considered an inferior race: the Slavic Untermenschen. Mitford is reported to have shot herself in the head in 1939. She survived, but she was crippled and had to leave Germany, never to return. That was two years before Hitler's fatal decision, but her influence on him may have persisted up to that time. 

Finally, in the case of Saddam Hussein, we have no evidence of a honey trap being used, but it may well be that he was the objective of another one-man psyop. The US had helped Iraq in the war against Iran, and Hussein saw himself as an ally of the United States. So, he may have been led to believe that the US would continue to support him against Kuwait. He may have been deliberately misled by the US ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie.

It may well be that both explanations are valid in various degrees in different cases. Some forms of psychological pressure, psyops, work so well because great leaders are especially sensitive to simple human emotions, including stroking their overinflated ego or showing off their manhood. In any case, one thing is certain: Giving all the power to a single man is the greatest mistake a country can make. 

Of course, these considerations tell us a lot about the current world situation. There are two cases in progress that seem to be rhyming a lot with those discussed so far: Taiwan and Ukraine. About Taiwan, the recent visit to the island by the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, may have been a not-so-subtle ruse to push the Chinese to attack. But the Chinese didn't take the bait, at least so far. 

About Ukraine, we have all the elements of the classic pattern of a strong leader who engages a regional power in the invasion of a neighboring country. Initially, it looked like a cakewalk, but it turned out to be a quagmire. The war in Ukraine is still ongoing, and we cannot know if it was the result of a miscalculation generated by groupthink in the Russian government, or if it originates from a one-man psyop directed at the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Or maybe both factors, or perhaps something else. It will take time before we'll be able to evaluate this burst of madness, but history is never in a hurry. In any case, the damage done is already enormous, and we can only hope that history will not rhyme in the same way as it did in previous cases. Otherwise, we face a terribly dark future. 

(*) Other cases. There are several cases of leaders behaving recklessly or stupidly, although following somewhat different patterns. One is that of the influence of the Crown Princess of Norway, Marta, on President Roosevelt during WWII which may have influenced the US policy (h/t Ollie Hollertz). Then, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was surely reckless, but it is also true that it made some sense in strategic terms since it allowed the Japanese navy to move freely in South-Eastern Asia for a while. The USA, in turn, may have fallen in traps with Vietnam and Afghanistan, but in neither case, the resulting quagmire caused the collapse of the attackers. Then, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, handled the Soviet Union to the Western Powers in 1991 in exchange for empty promises. Consider the case of Slobodan Milosevich, the president of Serbia, who, in 1998, was dumb enough to think that Serbia could stand alone against the combined forces of the Western Powers. It couldn't. 

Note added after publication. One day after I published this post, the Business Insider came out with an article proposing a thesis very similar to mine. -- maybe at the UK secret services, they read my blog!

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Europe: the Empire that wasn't


Napoleon Bonaparte in full imperial regalia. He got close to creating a European Empire, but he failed in the end. He faced the same strategic problem that other would-be European Emperors faced: having to fight on two opposite fronts at the same time, against Russia and against Britain. At present, the European Union (another form of European Empire) is facing the same strategic problems And it is being defeated, although in an economic war rather than in a conventional military one.

One of the fascinating things about history is how people tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over. A couple of generations are more than sufficient for leaders to forget everything their predecessors did, and run straight into a new -- but similar -- catastrophe. It is also called "history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme."

Then, among the fascinating sections of history, there is how people tend to get together to form those entities that we call "states" or, if they are large, "empires." They grow, they decline, they collapse, in a dance that lasts for centuries and that normally implies war, exterminations, and great suffering for large numbers of people. But most people seem to think that these purely virtual entities are important enough that human lives can be sacrificed to them. On this, history has been rhyming for a long time. 

Europe was often on the verge of becoming an empire, a single state with a centralized government. But that never happened. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne was perhaps the first to have a go at a European Empire, during the 8th century AD. His "Holy Roman Empire" survived for nearly a millennium, but never included all of Western Europe. Then it was the turn of Napoleon Bonaparte, then the German Kaiser, then the German Nazis, and, recently, the European Union that, for the first time, didn't rely on military might. They were all failures, including the European Union -- an entity that nobody seems to want any longer. 

How should we see these events? A failure or a blessing? Of course, empires are not benevolent entities, and sometimes they do great damage. But a central European government might have avoided at least some of the bloodiest episodes of internecine European wars. It might also have injected some rules into the otherwise lawless worldwide expansion of the European states. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) enacted laws designed to stop the enslavement and the extermination of the Native Americans by the European colonists. Charles V ruled only part of Europe and these laws were ineffective. But we may imagine that, if they had been backed by a strong central authority, they could have helped the Native Americans to survive the European onslaught. 

So, why couldn't Western European states create a central government? After all, when it was a question of making some money by military conquest, they didn't find that it was so difficult to fight together. It happened during the crusades (12th-4th century), the attack on Russia by Napoleon in 1812, the Crimean war (1853-1856), the attack on China during the Boxer rebellion (1899 -1901), and a few more cases. But, normally, the European states preferred to carve their own empires and destroy each other in internecine wars. 

One major problem for a European government is simply geographical. Europe is a peninsula of Eurasia that ends with the Urals, but that's just a convention. Are the Russians Europeans? In many ways, yes, except when their Western neighbors decide that they are barbarians to be exterminated (as during WW2) or, at least, people whose culture is to be rejected or annihilated (as it is happening nowadays). So, where is the Eastern border of Europe? Nobody knows, and that's a sure recipe for war. 

Then, on the Western side, is Britain part of Europe? Geography says that it is, but do the British consider themselves Europeans? The best that can be said is that they normally do, but only when it is convenient for them. During WW2, there was a common saying in Italy that went as "che Dio stramaledica gli inglesi" (may God heavily curse the British). A bit nasty, sure, but it highlights a certain feeling that continental Europeans have for Britain.

Geography dominates politics, and the result is that all the attempts to create a stable coalition of European states faced, and still faces, an unsolvable strategic problem. At Europe's borders, on the East and the West, there are two powerful states, Great Britain (now largely replaced by the US Empire) and Russia (for a period, in the form of the Soviet Union). Neither has an interest in seeing a strong Europe arising, and they normally consider avoiding that as one of their strategic priorities. Neither Russia nor Britain ever were interested in invading Europe. The case is slightly different for the US Empire, which does keep its military stationed in Europe. But, even so, the US occupation is more a question of political, rather than military, control. In any case, during the past few centuries, emergent European Empires usually found themselves fighting on two opposite fronts, on the East, and on the West. An impossible strategic situation that always ended with not just defeat, but catastrophe. 

It was Napoleon who inaugurated the challenge of fighting Britain and Russia at the same time. The resulting disaster led to the disappearance of France from the list of the world's "great powers." Then, it was the turn of the German government to do the same mistake. As a remarkable example of the stupidity of government leaders, they managed to do it twice, in 1914, and in 1939. Note, incidentally, that Adolf Hitler himself, wrote in his Mein Kampf (1933) that Germany should never find itself fighting on two fronts. And then, he led Germany exactly into that! The mind of the "great leaders" is often imperscrutable, but you may be justified in thinking that they are not as smart as their followers think they are. 

After the catastrophe of World War 2, Europeans seemed to realize that the attempt to unify Europe by military means was hopeless. So, they tried a combination of diplomatic and economic actions. It was not a bad idea in itself, but it failed utterly as the result of several factors. Mainly, it was because the leaders never really believed in the idea of a United Europe and consistently tried to manage the European Union in such a way as to gather the most they could for their countries, without much regard for the collective good. In time, the higher layers of the EU fell into the hands of traitors bought by foreign powers. As a result, the attempts to create a European military force were sabotaged. During the past few decades, Europe was effectively defanged and declawed, and, to use an appropriate euphemism, "neutered" in military terms. (image below from "The Economist"). 

In the end, the EU went through the same sequence of failures that had doomed the previous attempts at unification. The "Brexit," the exit of the UK from the Union in 2020, was the economic equivalent of the military defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar (1805), and of Hitler at the battle of Britain (1940). But the true disaster came with the current attempt of bankrupting Russia with economic sanctions. That was the equivalent of the disastrous dash to Moscow of Napoleon's army (1812) and of Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa" (1941). History does rhyme!

The economic war is still ongoing, but we can already say that Russia is surviving the sanctions while Europe has been badly damaging itself. No matter what the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be, Europeans now face a cold winter without a sufficient supply of fuel, and a probable economic disaster. The same outcome of Napoleon's and Hitler's campaigns -- even though not in military terms.  

And now? Disasters beget disasters, it is one more rule of history. The European relentless rejection of everything that has to do with Russian culture and traditions is a human disaster that cannot be measured in economic terms. The last thing Europeans needed was an enemy on their Eastern border. Now they have created it, and they will have to live with it, just as they will have to live with the climate disaster that they lost the capability to fight. And, most likely, the idea of a United Europe is now buried forever. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Saddam Trap: Winning by Checkmate


The game of chess is not supposed to be a realistic simulation of a battle. But, on one point, it may provide a fundamental hint: wars are mostly a question of command and control. Killing or neutralizing the leader (the king) may cause the collapse of the country's military forces. But, in modern times, country leaders are rarely killed by their enemies, rather, they are controlled, sometimes in subtle ways that involve them engaging in foolish or counterproductive actions. 


If the world is a giant chessboard, then the leaders of the major powers are equivalent to the "king" in chess. It is a common perception that whatever is being done in the giant struggle, is done by specific orders from the great leader, be him Putin, Biden, Xi Jinping, or whoever controls -- or is said to control -- a country.  

This perception opens up a chess-like strategy that consists in eliminating the enemy leader. But that is rarely a good idea. Unlike what happens in chess, a dead leader may be turned into a heroic figure by propaganda, and then replaced by another one who may be even more warlike. So, a better strategy could consist in controlling the enemy leader(s), something that you cannot do in Chess. If you can convince your enemy to make poor strategic choices, you are halfway to victory (Sun Tzu never said that in his "The Art of War", but he could have). 

So, let's see if we can find historical examples of this strategy having been successfully applied in the recent past. I can propose at least three. 

1. Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), 1808 – 1873. The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, turned Emperor of the French, is such a fascinating figure that I dedicated at least four posts to him (see below). The fascination about him derives from the fact that he was thoroughly, completely, and hopelessly incompetent. All his major decisions seemed to be aimed at ruining the remaining chances for France to become a world power, as it had been during the reign of his uncle, Napoleon 1st. One of these decisions was especially disastrous: when Louis Napoleon helped the Piedmont King, Vittorio Emanuele II, to defeat the Austrians and then unify Italy into a single kingdom. The result was the creation of a state that forever blocked all the attempts of France to expand in North Africa. Was Luis Napoleon controlled by the Piedmontese? It seems that he was: the control took the form of the work of the Countess of Castiglione, aka Virginia Oldoini, one of the most beautiful women of the time. She was sent to France by her cousin, the Prime Minister of the Piedmontese government, with the explicit purpose of becoming Louis Napoleon's lover and influencing his decisions. It is hard to say how effective Ms. Oldoini was, considering that Luis Napoleon took plenty of bad decisions even before knowing her. But we may at least suspect that she had a role in shaping the world as it is today. 

2. Benito Mussolini, 1883 – 1945. You could say that his first years of leadership went reasonably well. The turning point for him seems to have been the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Still today, we may wonder how it was possible that the Italian government engaged the country in the conquest of a territory that held nothing of interest for the Italian economy and that, much worse, was a gigantic burden for the state's coffers. It should have been obvious that the military forces stationed there could not be resupplied in case of a major conflict and were destined to be defeated. Which was precisely what happened. Was the idea of invading Ethiopia "planted" in Mussolini's mind by the British secret services? If that was the case, it was a remarkably successful trick that considerably weakened Italy's military power at the start of World War II. How could that have been obtained? It is hard to think that Mussolini could be controlled using women: he was a renowned womanizer and had plenty of them. But we know that the British secret services had paid him to push the Italian government to join the Allies during WWI. Then, in 1925, Britain had agreed to sign a treaty known as the "Anglo-Italian Agreement" that said, essentially, "if you want to invade Ethiopia, go ahead, we won't move a finger to stop you." That opened up for Mussolini the road to put into practice a mad idea of his: that of rebuilding the ancient Roman Empire, maybe with him becoming emperor. Instead, he ended up hanged by the feet, but that's the way history works. Incidentally, Mussolini's removal from power in 1943 is a remarkable example of a Chess-like decapitation strategy in modern times. Without a leader, the Italian armed forces disbanded and ceased to fight in days. 

3. Saddam Hussein, 1937 – 2006. Hussein was another remarkably incompetent leader who engaged his country in a disastrous war against neighboring Iran, probably thinking of himself as the heir of the Arab leaders who had conquered Iran during the 7th century AD. His doom came when he took another disastrous decision, that of invading Kuwait in 1990. It is well known that, before invading, Hussein met the US ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, and discussed with her his grievances with the Kuwait government. We have the transcripts of their discussion: while she never explicitly encouraged Hussein to invade Kuwait, she also didn't mention that the US would have been strongly displeased. Then, surely, not everything that was said was also transcribed, and we may imagine that Hussein would not have invaded Kuwait if he had imagined the US reaction. On the contrary, he may have taken what the ambassador said as a green light. After all, the US had supported Iraq in the war against Iran, so Hussein could easily imagine that the US would continue to support him. We will never know, but we may at least suspect that Hussein was framed and pushed into making the mistake that would eventually lead to his death and the destruction of Iraq. 

There are surely more examples of absurd decisions taken by country leaders. That may be the case with Stalin's decision to invade Finland in 1939. It looked like an easy task, but it cost more than 300,000 casualties to the Soviet Union. Then, some people argue that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was, at least in part, a trap created by the American diplomacy to put them in a position from which they could not back down anymore. But the three examples I listed, I think, are enough to indicate that a strong leader can be pushed to take bad decisions by foreign forces, although the methods for doing so are not straightforward. 

Neither money nor intimidation can do much to control top-level leaders: they are riding the tiger, so, they afford to appear weak, or -- worse -- as traitors to their countries.  Sex may be a more effective tool, and the recent story of Jeffrey Epstein tells us that many politicians may have sex-related skeletons in their closets. But truly powerful leaders can intimidate their critics and afford to be womanizers or sexual perverts. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is a case in point. 

So, stroking an overinflated ego may be the best strategy to influence a leader. All country leaders are normally lone men (very rarely women) surrounded by people who have no interest and no convenience in contradicting them. Older leaders may be especially sensitive to this approach and, surely, in getting older, their mental capabilities do not improve. Lev Tolstoy gave us a remarkable description of how Napoleon (the first) made incredible mistakes simply by doing the things that had been doing before and then discovering in horror that these things didn't work anymore (see below). 

In this light, the best controlling technique to defeat a foreign leader can be called "The Saddam Trap" (we may also call it "Saddamization." It does sound bad but, just for this reason, it may be a suitable definition). The Saddam Trap consists in enticing the leader to engage the country in a military adventure that, in the beginning, looks like a cakewalk (what could go wrong with invading Kuwait?) Then, it turns out to have been a trap from which the great leader cannot extricate himself without losing face-- which for him is equivalent to admitting defeat. Leaders cannot admit defeat, they can only double down and hope that making a mistake bigger will turn it into a success. Except that it doesn't always work. And then history moves forward, unforgiving as usual. 

The study of history may tell us much about our present, but we have to be cautious in interpreting current events according to similarities with previous ones. And don't forget that the "great leaders" are few: most of our politicians can be bought on the cheap, we don't need to look for sophisticated strategies. So, we cannot say with certainty how exactly some recent events can be interpreted in terms of one or more leaders being trapped Saddam-style or, simply, paid to sell their country to a foreign power. With time, though, we will know. 


Lev Tolstoy: War and Peace.

Napoleon was experiencing a feeling of depression like that of an ever-lucky gambler who, after recklessly flinging money about and always winning, suddenly just when he has calculated all the chances of the game, finds that the more he considers his play the more surely he loses.

His troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy’s line, and a cavalry attack by ‘the men of iron,’ all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Despite news of the capture of the fleches, Napoleon saw that this was not the same, not at all the same, as what had happened in his former battles. He saw that what he was feeling was felt by all the men about him experienced in the art of war. All their faces looked dejected, and they all shunned one another’s eyes only a de Beausset could fail to grasp the meaning of what was happening.

But Napoleon with his long experience of war well knew the meaning of a battle not gained by the attacking side in eight hours, after all efforts had been expended. He knew that it was a lost battle and that the least accident might now with the fight balanced on such a strained center destroy him and his army.

When he ran his mind over the whole of this strange Russian campaign in which not one battle had been won, and in which not a flag, or cannon, or army corps had been captured in two months, when he looked at the concealed depression on the faces around him and heard reports of the Russians still holding their ground a terrible feeling like a nightmare took possession of him, and all the unlucky accidents that might destroy him occurred to his mind. The Russians might fall on his left wing, might break through his center, he himself might be killed by a stray cannon ball. All this was possible. In former battles he had only considered the possibilities of success, but now innumerable unlucky chances presented themselves, and he expected them all. Yes, it was like a dream in which a man fancies that a ruffian is coming to attack him, and raises his arm to strike that ruffian a terrible blow which he knows should annihilate him, but then feels that his arm drops powerless and limp like a rag, and the horror of unavoidable destruction seizes him in his helplessness.

The news that the Russians were attacking the left flank of the French army aroused that horror in Napoleon. He sat silently on a camp stool below the knoll, with head bowed and elbows on his knees.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Collapse by Doubling Down: How Leaders Create Their Own Ruin


Napoleon won all the battles he engaged in, up to Borodino (1812), which was a non-victory, equivalent to a loss. From then, on it was all downhill from him. Napoleon had engaged in a task too big even for him: invading Russia. It is typical of successful leaders to use the doubling down strategy that leads them to a rapid collapse in their career -- another manifestation of the Seneca Cliff. 

Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) was a very successful leader during the final years of the ancient Roman republic. Isaac Asimov told his story in 1971, noting a curious detail. Pompey was successful in everything he did up to a fateful day, in 61 BCE. From then on, everything he did was a failure until he was assassinated in Egypt, in 48 B.C. Half-jokingly, Asimov suggested that Pompey's reversal of fortunes coincided with having desecrated the temple of Jerusalem, that he had just conquered. 

Even without desecrating anything, it is a constant of history that "invincible" leaders tend to end their days in the dust after a stellar career. Another case, centuries after Pompey, is that of Napoleon Bonaparte. He won every battle he was involved in until, in 1812, his army faced the Russians at Borodino. Maybe it was a victory, but it weakened Napoleon so much that he didn't win any more battles again. 

There are many more examples. Think of Adolf Hitler: successful in everything he did, but he failed to bomb Britain to submission. Then, he doubled down by attacking the Soviet Union in 1941 (same mistake as Napoleon). Disaster ensued. Or of Benito Mussolini. Everything he did was a success until he decided to join Germany in WWII. Some of the early Italian moves in the war, as the attack on France in 1940, could be defined as successes. But they were just a prelude to disaster. Later on, a completely clueless Mussolini bungled from a defeat to another, so much that one wonders how was it possible for a single man to do so much damage. And let's finish with an honorable mention for Saddam Hussein, who must have believed he was the reincarnation of the ancient Islamic warriors when he ordered the Iraqi army to attack Iran in 1980. It was a victory for Iraq, but at an enormous human and economic cost. Then, Hussein doubled down by invading Kuwait, and you know what happened. 

I think there is a certain logic in these stories. It is a basic rule that goes as "success doesn't teach you anything." The human mind is easily deceived by overinterpreting favorable events and successful people become convinced that what was just a stroke of luck was instead due to their superior intuition or intelligence. The result is that they kept doing whatever they found that was successful in the past. And not just that. If they found something that worked, then people tend to repeat it on a larger scale. It is the "doubling down strategy."

In the roulette game, the doubling down strategy is known as the "martingale." You choose a color, red or black, and you double your bet on it until you win. The idea is that you may suffer a series of losses but, eventually, you'll recoup them and make a profit when your color comes out.

It is unbelievable how many people think that the martingale is a good idea. The problem is that it looks easy and it seems to work. Unfortunately, as I discuss in my book "The Seneca Effect," it is a fast lane toward collapse. Eventually, you'll face a string of losses long enough to ruin you and, at that point, you'll be torn to pieces by the claws of the black swan. 

Pompey in Jerusalem, Napoleon at Borodino, Hitler and Mussolini in Russia, Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, they suddenly found themselves facing something that was much larger than they had expected and that led to their rapid ruin: the Seneca Cliff:

Above: the Seneca Curve. For Napoleon, the peak was at Borodino in 1812. 

Now, I think you understand the point I wanted to make, even though I will not explicitly say what I mean (I have already lost a blog to censorship). During the past two years, we have seen our leaders doubling down several times and, so far, they have been successful. So much that they keep doing that, raising the stakes and the threats at every step. 

Will they overextend themselves and create their own ruin? It may well be. If this is the case, we can detect the transition moment when they arrive to a doubling that they can barely afford. Like Napoleon at Borodino, they suddenly see the cost of one more of those victories that, earlier on had seemed to them cheap and easy. 

Are we starting to see that? Maybe not yet, but some signs of fatigue are starting to appear. If we are approaching the peak of the Seneca Curve, their downfall could be rapid. And also very noisy. 


(*) Tolstoy describes the battle of Borodino in his "War and Peace" novel. It does not pretend to be a historical study, but it does make the point that, once the battle was started, Napoleon had no more control over it. He gave orders that were not executed on the basis of information that was already obsolete when he received it. 

[Napoleon's] troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland- yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.  

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy's line, and a cavalry attack by "the men of iron," all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Lev Tolstoy on Afghanistan: "It Happened Because it had to Happen"

When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. (Lev Tolstoy, "War and Peace")

Excuse me if I return to the Afghanistan story. I don't claim to be an expert in international politics, but if what happened is the result of the actions of "experts", then it is safe to say that it is better to ignore them and look for our own explanations.

So, I proposed an interpretation of the Afghan disaster in a recent post of mine, together with a report on the story of how the oil reserves of the region of the Caspian Sea were enormously overestimated starting with the 1980s. Some people understood my views as meaning that I proposed that crude oil was the cause of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. No, I didn't mean that. Not any more than the story of the "butterfly effect" means that a butterfly can actually cause a hurricane -- of course it would make no sense.

What I am saying is a completely different concept: a butterfly (or dreams of immense oil reserves) are just triggers for events that have a certain potential to happen. Take a temperature difference between the water surface and the air and a hurricane can happen: it is a thermodynamic potential. Take a military industry that makes money on war, and a war can take place: it is a financial potential. A hurricane and a military lobby are not so different in terms of being complex adaptive systems.

So, let me summarize my opinion on the Afghanistan conflict. I think that these 20 years of madness have been the result of a meme gone viral in the mid-1980s that triggered an event that happened because there were the conditions to make it happen: the invasion of Afghanistan.

It all started in the mid-1980s, when an American geologist, Harry Cook, came back from Kazakhstan with a wildly exaggerated estimate of the oil reserves of the Caspian area. He probably understood the uncertainty of his numbers, but statistical thinking is not a characteristic of American politicians. Cook's numbers were taken at face value and further inflated to give rise to the "New Saudi Arabia" meme: resources so abundant that they would have led to a new era of oil prosperity. At this point, the question became about how to get the (hypothetical) Caspian bonanza.

Even before the presence of these reserves was proven (or disproved), in the mid-1990s negotiations started for a pipeline going from the oil fields of Kazakhstan to the Indian Ocean, going through Afghanistan. That involved negotiating with the Taleban and with a Saudi Arabian oil tycoon named Osama Bin Laden. Something went wrong and the negotiations collapsed in 1998. Then, there came the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan. It was only in the mid-2000s that actual drilling in the Caspian area laid to rest the myth of the New Saudi Arabia. But the occupation of Afghanistan was already a fact.

Does this story explain 20 years of US occupation of Afghanistan at a cost of 2 trillion dollars and the humiliating defeat we see now? No, if you think in terms of cause and effect. Yes, if you think of it in terms of a diffuse meme in the minds of the decision-makers. I can't imagine that there ever was someone masterminding the whole folly. But there was this meme about those immense oil reserves north of Afghanistan that influenced all the decisions made at all levels. Memes are an incredibly powerful force.

To explain my point better, I can cite Lev Tolstoy's description of what led millions of Western Europeans to invade Russia in 1812, a decision as foolish as that of invading Afghanistan in 2001. Tolstoy says that "it happened because it had to happen."

Tolstoy means that it was the result of a series of macro- and micro-decisions taken by all the actors in the story, including the simple soldiers who decided to enlist with Napoleon. But there was no plan, no grand strategy, no clear objectives directing the invasion. Even Napoleon himself was just one of the cogs of the immense machine that generated the disaster. "A king is history's slave," says Tolstoy.

Tolstoy's had an incredibly advanced way of thinking: what he wrote could have been written by a modern system scientist. You see it in nearly every paragraph of this excerpt from "War and Peace." An amazing insight on the reason for the folly of human actions at the level of what Tolstoy calls the "hive," that today we would call the "memesphere."


From "War and Peace" - Lev Tolstoy Book 9, chapter 1

On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on. Consequently, it would only have been necessary for Metternich, Rumyantsev, or Talleyrand, between a levee and an evening party, to have taken proper pains and written a more adroit note, or for Napoleon to have written to Alexander: ‘My respected Brother, I consent to restore the duchy to the Duke of Oldenburg’- and there would have been no war.

We can understand that the matter seemed like that to contemporaries. It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England’s intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St. Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon’s ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg, that the cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the way was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principes, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed from Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178.

It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.

To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence- apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes- to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.

Had Napoleon not taken offense at the demand that he should withdraw beyond the Vistula, and not ordered his troops to advance, there would have been no war; but had all his sergeants objected to serving a second term then also there could have been no war. Nor could there have been a war had there been no English intrigues and no Duke of Oldenburg, and had Alexander not felt insulted, and had there not been an autocratic government in Russia, or a Revolution in France and a subsequent dictatorship and Empire, or all the things that produced the French Revolution, and so on. Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes- myriads of causes- coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power- the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns- should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes. We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.

Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance. There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him. Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.

‘The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord.’
A king is history’s slave.

History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes. Though Napoleon at that time, in 1812, was more convinced than ever that it depended on him, verser (ou ne pas verser) le sang de ses peuples*- as Alexander expressed it in the last letter he wrote him- he had never been so much in the grip of inevitable laws, which compelled him, while thinking that he was acting on his own volition, to perform for the hive life- that is to say, for history- whatever had to be performed.

The people of the west moved eastwards to slay their fellow men, and by the law of coincidence thousands of minute causes fitted in and co-ordinated to produce that movement and war: reproaches for the nonobservance of the Continental System, the Duke of Oldenburg’s wrongs, the movement of troops into Prussia- undertaken (as it seemed to Napoleon) only for the purpose of securing an armed peace, the French Emperor’s love and habit of war coinciding with his people’s inclinations, allurement by the grandeur of the preparations, and the expenditure on those preparations and the need of obtaining advantages to compensate for that expenditure, the intoxicating honors he received in Dresden, the diplomatic negotiations which, in the opinion of contemporaries, were carried on with a sincere desire to attain peace, but which only wounded the self-love of both sides, and millions and millions of other causes that adapted themselves to the event that was happening or coincided with it.

When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decays and so forth is equally right with the child who stands under the tree and says the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it.

Equally right or wrong is he who says that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander desired his destruction, and he who says that an undermined hill weighing a million tons fell because the last navvy struck it for the last time with his mattock. In historic events the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself. Every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity.

*"To shed (or not to shed) the blood of his peoples.’