Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

If the ultimate objective of combat is to break the enemy’s will — to foster submission or flight responses — then this comes down to superior posturing, which includes noisemaking, David Grossman (On Killing) reminds us:

Griffith (Battle Tactics of the Civil War) quotes an account of yelling in its finest form in the thick woods of the American Civil War’s Wilderness Battle:

…the yellers could not be seen, and a company could make itself sound like a regiment if it shouted loud enough. Men spoke later of various units on both sides being “yelled” out of their positions.

In these instances of units being “yelled” out of positions, we see posturing in its most successful form, resulting in the opponent’s selection of the flight option without even attempting the fight option. And, of course, this is the biological objective in posturing during intraspecies conflicts: it prevents the males of a species from killing themselves off during ritualistic confrontations.

As soldiers we posture primarily through firepower, and the value of artillery as a means of psychological domination should not be underestimated by the maneuverist. Firepower can have a psychological effect that is far greater than the physical attrition it inflicts upon the enemy, but such firepower-based posturing must be accompanied by a physical manifestation of close-range, human aggression in order for it to cause the enemy to submit or flee.

If we consider firepower to have a significant psychological or “posturing” value, then we may need to carefully consider such factors as the decibels put out by our artillery rounds and our close-support weapon systems (i.e., is it a good idea to replace 7.62mm, M60 machine guns — a truly daunting noisemaker — with the 5.56mm Squad Automatic Weapon in the light infantry platoon?), the realism of the volume put out by blank adapters (could it be that part of the initial resistance to the M16 vs. the M14 was the “wimpy” way it sounds when fired with its distinctive blank adapter?), and the nuances of using a new generation of electronic hearing protection on the battlefield. That is, is it feasible to build an ear plug-type device that would make it possible to hear friendly commands while shutting out most of the sounds of the enemy’s fire, and still have the soldier feel that his fire is a daunting presence on the battlefield? An important element in such a decision may be the degree to which the concussion of a weapon’s firing signature can be “felt” by the firers; anyone who has fired an M60 or has been next to one when it is firing will understand what I mean by “feeling” a weapon fire.

While reading Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, about his experiences in the Great War, I kept thinking about the soldiers living with artillery fire without hearing protection, and how that might have contributed to shell shock.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

As early as the 16th century, French barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré noted that firearms caused noise-induced hearing loss. Today, shooters wear hearing protection, even when shooting relatively low-power guns, like pistols, alone, outdoors, but it wasn’t that long ago that a machine-gunner was supposed to tough it out. The military didn’t address the problem until a new technology made it impossible to ignore:

Even though World War II was a major contributing factor in the evolution of hearing conservation, it was not until after the war that the most significant event occurred. The Army Air Corps became a separate branch of service from the US Army and was renamed the US Air Force. Concurrently, this new branch of service introduced the jet engine aircraft to the military. No sound of that volume and duration had ever before been experienced. It was immediately noted that exposure to jet engine noise caused permanent hearing loss in a brief time. It also made verbal communication impossible and caused a series of physical manifestations described as “ultrasonic sickness.” Symptoms included earache, headache, excessive fatigue, irritability, and feelings of fear. Initially, it was believed that these symptoms were caused by inaudible, ultra-high-frequency sounds being generated by the jet engines. These symptoms, widely reported by air force maintenance crews, triggered a medical study that revealed that the illness was real; however, research attributed it to high levels of audible frequencies.

As a result, the US Air Force published the first military regulation on hearing conservation in 1948. AFR 160-3, “Precautionary Measures Against Noise Hazards,” is significant not only because it was the first enforceable regulation in the history of hearing conservation, but it also placed responsibility for the new program on the medical leadership at air force installations. Some of the preventive measures described in AFR 160-3 include limiting noise exposures in terms of overall sound levels and using cotton wads moistened with paraffin as hearing protection for exposures to hazardous noise.

In 1952, the Office of Naval Research reported the results of extensive interviews with hundreds of returning frontline soldiers who indicated that in combat, “sound was more important than all other means of equipment identification.” Combat-relevant sound sources included aircraft, mortar and artillery rounds, rifle and machine gunfire, and various other weapons. According to the report, “The men regarded the sound of enemy weapons as such an important means of identification that they rarely made use of captured equipment because it resulted in their being fired upon by friendly troops.”

Ordinary riflemen have only been issued hearing protection recently:

The combat arms earplug was introduced into the military at the start of the war in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom). However, as with most hearing protection, it was shunned for operational use and, at approximately $6.00 per pair, was considered prohibitively expensive by individual army units. The device allows soft sounds to flow unimpeded through a filter but blocks loud impulse sounds, such as an explosion or a rifle discharging. This allows effective communication, enables situational awareness, and provides protection from hazardous weapons firing and explosions. With units’ strength decreasing because of hearing loss, commanders began to recognize that hearing readiness is an extremely important factor of a unit’s performance in combat. All deploying soldiers were therefore issued the earplugs in 2004. In fact, the US Marine Corps was so convinced of the effectiveness of the combat arms earplug that it ordered over 20 000 pairs, thereby temporarily depleting the entire national stock in 2003.


The problem of protecting hearing while enhancing soldiers’ communication ability and situational awareness was solved with a new generation of hearing protection. This new category of equipment was called tactical communications and protective systems (TCAPS). In 2007, TCAPS were introduced into the army as a possible solution to an age-old problem. TCAPS compose a new category of electronic hearing protection that uses active noise reduction to soften noise and enhance speech discrimination while at the same time reducing noise by up to 40 dB. In addition to being light and rugged, TCAPS provide protection and let soldiers monitor environmental sounds, communicate, accurately gauge auditory distance, and localize sound sources without hindrance. Further, the devices allow radio connections specifically used by the military to be processed without interrupting the signal when the TCAPS are actively blocking environmental sounds. Although this category of device is still being studied and protocols for use are being created, it represents a new era in the history of hearing protection.

Making Bets All Along

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Henry Blodget interviews Jeff Bezos, opening with, what the hell happened with the Fire phone?

First of all, it’s really early. We’ve had a lot of things we’ve had to iterate on at Amazon. You may remember something called Auctions that didn’t work out very well. Z Shops morphed out of that. Then we launched Marketplace, which became our third-party seller business, which now represents 40% of units sold on Amazon. That’s a great business.

If you look at our device portfolio broadly, our hardware team is doing a great job. The Kindle is now on its seventh generation. The Kindle Voyage, the new premium product, is just completely killer. Fire TV, Fire TV Stick — we’re having trouble building enough. Amazon Echo, which we just launched. So there’s a lot of activity going on in our device business. With the phone, I just ask you to stay tuned.

So, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Move along.

Bezos segues into how one of his jobs is to encourage people to be bold:

It’s incredibly hard. Experiments are, by their very nature, prone to failure. A few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work. Bold bets — Amazon Web Services, Kindle, Amazon Prime, our third-party seller business — all of those things are examples of bold bets that did work, and they pay for a lot of experiments.

What really matters is, companies that don’t continue to experiment, companies that don’t embrace failure, they eventually get in a desperate position where the only thing they can do is a Hail Mary bet at the very end of their corporate existence. Whereas companies that are making bets all along, even big bets, but not bet-the-company bets, prevail. I don’t believe in bet-the-company bets. That’s when you’re desperate. That’s the last thing you can do.

Riflemen Won’t Shoot

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

According to S.L.A. Marshall’s research — which has been questioned — 80 to 85 percent of riflemen won’t shoot at the enemy, and other sources do corroborate this, David Grossman (On Killing) finds. For instance, Paddy Griffith (Battle Tactics of the Civil War) found musket fire oddly ineffective:

Even in the noted “slaughter pens” at Bloody Lane, Marye’s Heights, Kennesaw, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor an attacking unit could not only come very close to the defending line, but it could also stay there for hours — and indeed for days — at a time. Civil war musketry did not therefore possess the power to kill large numbers of men, even in very dense formations, at long range. At short range it could and did kill large numbers, but not very quickly.

Combat casualties don’t match non-combat estimates:

Griffith estimates that the average musket fire from a Napoleonic or Civil War regiment firing at an exposed enemy regiment at an average range of 30 yards would usually result in hitting only one or two men per minute! Such firefights “dragged on until exhaustion set in or nightfall put an end to hostilities. Casualties mounted because the contest went on so long, not because the fire was particularly deadly.”

This does not represent a failure on the part of the weaponry. John Keegan and Richard Holmes in their book, Soldiers, tell of a Prussian experiment in the late 1700’s, “in which a battalion of infantry fired [smoothbore muskets] at a target one hundred feet long by six feet high, representing an enemy unit, resulted in 25 percent hits at 225 yards, 40 percent hits at 150 yards, and 60 percent hits at 75 yards.” This represented the potential killing power of such a unit. The reality is demonstrated in their account of the battle of Belgrade in 1717, during which “two Imperial battalions held their fire until their Turkish opponents were only thirty paces away, but hit only thirty-two Turks when they fired and were promptly overwhelmed.” Sometimes the fire was completely harmless, as in Benjamin McIntryre’s observation of a totally bloodless nighttime firefight at Vicksburg in 1863:

It seems strange however that a company of men can fire volley after volley at a like number of men at not over a distance of fifteen steps and not cause a single casualty. Yet such was [sic] the facts in this instance.

(Cannon fire, like machine-gun fire in WWII, is an entirely different matter, sometimes accounting for over 50 percent of the casualties of the black powder battlefield, and artillery fire has consistently accounted for the majority of combat casualties in this century. There is reason to believe that this is as much due to the enhanced psychological effectiveness of these systems — due to group accountability processes at work in a cannon, machine gun, or other crew-served weapons firing — as it is to their increased mechanical killing potential, i.e., their contribution to what artillery officers like to call the “metal density of the air.” This critical point will be addressed in detail later.)


Monday, December 22nd, 2014

The French neo-reactionnaire has his own style:

The term “neo-reactionnaire” is an exonym. In other words it is a description applied to the group by outsiders. Insiders say they come from both camps — right and left.

“The big division today is over the nation state,” says Mihaely. “Is the state’s historic role finished, or is it still a major actor in the political, anthropological and cultural arenas?

“The question is not if you are left or right but if you believe in the nation.

“Our position is that the nation is still the only framework in which politics has any meaning. It is the only arena in which things can get done, where people can vote for change and change happens.”

None of the neo-reactionnaires — not even Camus — claims allegiance to the FN. Many of them are Jewish.

Nonetheless they stand accused, by expressing such strong views on Islam, identity and the nation, of promoting the cause of the far right.

Zemmour says he is fed up with being asked about the FN.

“Can’t they understand that the FN is not a cause, it is a consequence. It is a consequence of the disintegration of France.

“People vote for the FN to say to their elites, ‘Stop doing what you are doing!’ But they never do.

“It was Stalin who first realised how effective it was to turn the enemy into a fascist. That is what they are doing to us today.”

A Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Don’t let logistics drive strategy, Max Boot warns:

The U.S. military created a massive logistical footprint in Afghanistan and Iraq, erecting a series of heavily fortified Little Americas that offered troops everything from ice cream to large-screen TVs. These compounds proved staggeringly expensive to resupply. In the summer of 2006, when both conflicts were going strong, U.S. Central Command had more than 3,000 trucks delivering supplies and another 2,400 delivering fuel to its bases, and these convoys had to be protected by either troops or contractors. The military thus became what soldiers sometimes called a “self-licking ice cream cone” — an organization that fought to sustain itself rather than to achieve a mission.

It is doubtful that senior commanders ever gave much thought to these logistical requirements; they more or less operated on autopilot. Each base commander would bring in a few more amenities to make life better for the troops, a commendable impulse. But in the process, commanders not only created supply-line vulnerabilities but also cut off troops from the populace, neglecting an essential part of any successful counterinsurgency campaign. In the future, the Pentagon should resist the temptation to build up huge bases unless doing so accomplishes the objectives of the war.

I’m not sure, “don’t let logistics drive strategy,” is how I’d phrase that.

Posture, Submit, Flight, or Fight

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

When two animals of the same species fight, it’s rarely to the death, David Grossman (On Killing) notes:

Rattlesnakes use their poisonous fangs on other creatures, but they wrestle each other; piranha fish bite anything that moves, but fight each other with flicks of their tails; and animals with antlers and horns attempt to puncture and gore other species with these natural weapons, but meet their own species in relatively harmless head-to-head clashes. Against one’s own species the options of choice in nature are to “posture” before and during mock battle, to “submit” by making oneself harmless or exposing oneself to a killing blow, or to take “flight” from the aggressor. The “fight” option is almost never used, thus ensuring the survival of the species.

Most soldiers don’t fight so much as they posture:

The anthropologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt tells us that “One threatens [postures] by making oneself bigger — whether by raising one’s hackles, wearing combs in one’s hair or putting on a bearskin….” Such plumage saw its height in modern history during the Napoleonic era, when soldiers wore high, uncomfortable shako hats that served no purpose other than to make the wearer look and feel like a taller, more dangerous creature. In the same manner, the roars of two posturing beasts are exhibited by men in battle. For centuries the war cries of soldiers have made their opponents’ blood run cold. Whether it be the battle cry of a Greek phalanx, the “Hurrah!” of the Russian infantry, the wail of Scottish bagpipes, or the rebel yell of our own Civil War, soldiers have always instinctively sought to daunt the enemy through nonviolent means prior to physical conflict, while encouraging one another and impressing themselves with their own ferocity, and simultaneously providing a very effective means of drowning the disagreeable yell of the enemy.

With the advent of gunpowder, the soldier has been provided with one of the finest possible means of posturing. Paddy Griffith (Battle Tactics of the Civil War) points out that soldiers in battle have a desperate urge to fire their weapons:

Time and again we read of regiments blazing away uncontrollably, once started, and continuing until all ammunition was gone or all enthusiasm spent. Firing was such a positive act, and gave the men such a physical release for their emotions, that instincts easily took over from training and from the exhortations of officers.

Ardant du Picq became one of the first to document the common tendency of soldiers to fire harmlessly into the air simply for the sake of firing. Du Picq made one of the first thorough investigations into the nature of combat with a questionnaire distributed to French officers in the 1860s. One officer’s response to du Picq stated quite frankly that “a good many soldiers fired into the air at long distances,” while another observed that “a certain number of our soldiers fired almost in the air, without aiming, seeming to want to stun themselves, to become drunk on rifle fire during this gripping crisis.”

I’ve mentioned Grossman’s thoughts on posturing before.

Activist vs. Passivist

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Being a Social Justice Warrior is intentionally uncomfortable, because you’re never outraged enough to solve all of humanity’s problems:

He thinks he’s talking about progressivism versus conservativism, but he isn’t. A conservative happy with his little cabin and occasional hunting excursions, and a progressive happy with her little SoHo flat and occasional poetry slams are psychologically pretty similar. So are a liberal who abandons a cushy life to work as a community organizer in the inner city and fight poverty, and a conservative who abandons a cushy life to serve as an infantryman in Afghanistan to fight terrorism. The distinction Cliff is trying to get at here isn’t left-right. It’s activist versus passivist.

As part of a movement recently deemed postpolitical, I have to admit I fall more on the passivist side of the spectrum — at least this particular conception of it. I talk about politics when they interest me or when I enjoy doing so, and I feel an obligation not to actively make things worse. But I don’t feel like I need to talk nonstop about whatever the designated Issue is until it distresses me and my readers both.

Possibly I just wasn’t designed for politics. I’m actively repulsed by most protests, regardless of cause or alignment, simply because the idea of thousands of enraged people joining together to scream at something — without even considering whether the other side has a point — terrifies and disgusts me. Even hashtag campaigns and other social media protest-substitutes evoke the same feeling of panic.

T. Greer called my attention to this passage:

Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy.

The moral of the story is that if you feel an obligation to give back to the world, participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it.

Moralizing Religions

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Today’s most popular religions all focus on morality:

Religion wasn’t always based on morality, explains Nicolas Baumard, a psychologist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. For the first several thousand years of human recorded history, he notes, religions were based on rituals and short-term rewards. If you wanted rain or a good harvest, for example, you made the necessary sacrifices to the right gods. But between approximately 500 B.C.E. and 300 B.C.E., a radical change appeared all over Eurasia as new religions sprung up from Greece to India to China. All of these religions shared a focus on morality, self-discipline, and asceticism, Baumard says. Eventually these new religions, such as Stoicism, Jainism, and Buddhism, and their immediate successors, including Christianity and Islam, spread around the globe and became the world religions of today. Back in 1947, German philosopher Karl Jaspers dubbed the pivotal time when these new religions arose “the Axial Age.”

So what changed? Baumard and his colleagues propose one simple reason: People got rich. Psychologists have shown that when people have fewer resources at their disposal, prioritizing rewards in the here and now is the best strategy. Saving for the future—much less the afterlife—isn’t the best use of your time when you are trying to find enough to eat today. But when you become more affluent, thinking about the future starts to make sense, and people begin to forgo immediate rewards in order to prioritize long-term goals.

Not coincidentally, the values fostered by affluence, such as self-discipline and short-term sacrifice, are exactly the ones promoted by moralizing religions, which emphasize selflessness and compassion, Baumard says. Once people’s worldly needs were met, religion could afford to shift its focus away from material rewards in the present and toward spiritual rewards in the afterlife. Perhaps once enough people in a given society had made the psychological shift to long-term planning, moralizing religions arose to reflect those new values. “Affluence changed people’s psychology and, in turn, it changed their religion,” Baumard says.

To test that hypothesis, Baumard and his colleagues gathered historical and archaeological data on many different societies across Eurasia in the Axial Age and tracked when and where various moralizing religions emerged. Then they used that data to build a model that predicted how likely it was that a moralizing religion would appear in all sorts of different societies—big or small, rich or poor, primitive or politically complex.

It turned out that one of the best predictors of the emergence of a moralizing religion was a measure of affluence known as “energy capture,” or the amount of calories available as food, fuel, and resources per day to each person in a given society. In cultures where people had access to fewer than 20,000 kilocalories a day, moralizing religions almost never emerged. But when societies crossed that 20,000 kilocalorie threshold, moralizing religions became much more likely, the team reports online today in Current Biology. “You need to have more in order to be able to want to have less,” Baumard says.

The Role of Hate

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Terror bombing — pardon, strategic bombing — failed to terrorize its victims into submission. David Grossman (On Killing) suggests that this is because a fear of danger doesn’t cause psychiactric casualties without a fear of hate:

Airpower advocates persist in their support of strategic bombing campaigns (which are rooted in an attrition warfare mentality), even in the face of evidence such as the post-World War II Strategic Bombing Survey, which, in the words of Paul Fussell, ascertained that: “German military and industrial production seemed to increase — just like civilian determination not to surrender — the more bombs were dropped.” Historically. aerial and artillery bombardments are psychologically effective, but only in the front lines when they are combined with the Wind of Hate as manifested in the threat of the physical attack that usually follows such bombardments.

This is why there were mass psychiatric casualties resulting from World War II artillery bombardments, but World War II’s massed bombing of cities was surprisingly counterproductive in breaking the enemy’s will. Such bombardments without an accompanying close-range assault, or at least the threat of such an assault, are ineffective and may even serve no other purpose than to stiffen the resolve of the enemy!

This is why putting friendly troop units in the enemy’s rear is infinitely more important and effective than even the most comprehensive bombardments in his rear, or attrition along his front. This argues strongly for a doctrine similar to the World War II German principle of the Kesselschlacht (i.e., a constant striving for decisive action in the enemy rear) as an essential element in obtaining decisive victory. In this doctrine the Aufrollen (i.e., rolling up the flanks after making a penetration) becomes a secondary operation which is conducted solely to support the Schwerpunkt or the main thrust, which is flexibly directed into the enemy’s center of gravity by the commander’s intent.

In the Korean War the U.S. Army experienced the psychological effectiveness of an enemy who directed penetrations and surprise attacks behind our own lines. During the early years of that war, the rate of psychiatric casualties was almost seven times higher than the average rate for World War II. Only after the war settled down, lines stabilized, and the threat of having enemy forces in the rear areas decreased did the average incidence of psychiatric casualties go down to slightly less than that of World War II. Later, when U.N. forces were able to penetrate and threaten the enemy’s rear area during the Inchon landing, these same processes began to work in their favor.

Even in the ideal bombing grounds of the barren deserts of the 1991 Gulf War, where for over a month the full weight of American, British, French, Canadian, and Italian airpower was brought to bear on the conscript soldiers of a Third World despot, enemy units did not and would not surrender in large numbers until faced with maneuver units on the ground and in their rear.

The Peripheral

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, explores two futures:

The second future takes place in a 22nd-century post-singularity London, where a recently disgraced publicist navigates a surveillance state ruled by a kleptocracy. Today, the singularity is a theoretical point at which artificial intelligence becomes smarter than us and lies outside our control. According to singularity devotees, we cannot predict what happens at this juncture, but some ideas include mankind uploading our consciousness into computers or causing our own end by runaway nanotechnology. Gibson’s vision of the singularity is a “nerd rapture,” and it’s different and more human than any other singularity depiction I’ve encountered.

“I’ve been making fun of the singularity since I first encountered the idea,” he says. “What you get in The Peripheral is a really fucked-up singularity. It’s like a half-assed singularity coupled with that kind of neoreactionary, dark enlightenment shit. It’s the singularity as experienced by Joseph Heller. We’re people, and we fuck up. We do a singularity, we’re going to fuck it up.”

Indeed, in the novel, we do. An apocalypse Gibson refers to only as “the Jackpot” devastates Earth’s population, and Gibson’s “half-assed singularity” comes along in time to save only the moneyed elite. Gibson’s vision is a multicausal apocalypse, one that refutes the idea of the single-trigger apocalypses (an epidemic, a nuclear holocaust, an asteroid) that have preoccupied man since before the Bible. I asked him why the people with money survived. His response: “Why wouldn’t they?

In The Peripheral, while those with money survive “the Jackpot,” they have no more control over that technology than the poor do. They merely have more access to it.

I’m more than a little curious about his use of neoreactionary and dark enlightenment.

The Telegraph’s Best War and History Books

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

The Telegraph selects the best war and history books ever written, starting with some obvious classics:

The next selection, 1066 & All That — subtitled “A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates” — seems exceedingly English, in a good way.

Whenever I see All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, on a list like this, I immediately think of how Storm of Steel, by Ernst Jünger, rarely makes such lists. The story I’d always heard was that All Quiet was acceptably anti-war, while Storm was too pro-war — but now that I’ve read Storm, I’m not sure I’d call it pro-war at all. It simply feels like a sincere war memoir — although I’ve also heard that different editions had very different tones.

Legion of the Damned, on the other hand, sounds like a very different book from the others on the list:

Written in highly suspicious circumstances by a highly suspicious author (or perhaps his wife, or editor) this is the first in a series of novels that became cartoonish, yet for all that it packs immense power, describing the misadventures of a group of German soldiers on the Eastern Front.

I got a chuckle out of how the Telegraph included the cover for the Warhammer 40k novel of the same name.

Anyway, enjoy the whole list.

Parasympathetic Backlash

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Under the stress of combat, the body shifts resources to the sympathetic nervous system and away from the parasympathetic — for a while, as David Grossman (On Killing) explains:

The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes and directs the body’s energy resources for action. It is the physiological equivalent of the frontline soldiers who actually do the fighting in a military unit.

The parasympathetic system is responsible for the body’s digestive and recuperative processes. It is the physiological equivalent of the cooks, mechanics, and clerks that sustain a military unit over an extended period of time.

Usually these two systems sustain a general balance between their demands upon the body’s resources, but during extremely stressful circumstances the “fight or flight” response kicks in and the sympathetic nervous system mobilizes all available energy for survival. This is the physiological equivalent of throwing the cooks, bakers, mechanics, and clerks into the battle. In combat this very often results in nonessential activities such as digestion, bladder control, and sphincter control being completely shut down. This process is so intense that soldiers very often suffer stress diarrhea, and it is not at all uncommon for them to urinate and defecate in their pants as the body literally “blows its ballast” in an attempt to provide all the energy resources required to ensure its survival.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that a soldier must pay a heavy physiological price for an enervating process this intense. The price that the body pays is an equally powerful backlash when the neglected demands of the parasympathetic system become ascendant. This parasympathetic backlash occurs as soon as the danger and the excitement are over, and it takes the form of an incredibly powerful weariness and sleepiness on the part of the soldier.

This brings us to the criticality of the reserve:

Napoleon stated that the moment of greatest danger was the instant immediately after victory, and in saying so he demonstrated a remarkable understanding of the way in which soldiers become physiologically and psychologically incapacitated by the parasympathetic backlash that occurs as soon as the momentum of the attack has halted and the soldier briefly believes himself to be safe. During this period of vulnerability, a counterattack by fresh troops can have an effect completely out of proportion to the number of troops attacking.

It is basically for this reason that the maintenance of an “unblown” reserve has historically been essential in combat, with battles often revolving around which side can hold out and deploy their reserves last. The reserve has always played a vital role in combat, but du Picq was one of the earliest advocates not only of “holding out a reserve as long as possible for independent action when the enemy has used his own,” but he also insisted on the revolutionary concept that this process “ought to be applied downward” to the lowest levels. He also perceived the technological process of increasing lethality on the battlefield which continues today. “There is more need than ever to-day, for protecting… the reserves. The power of destruction increases, the morale [of human beings] stays the same.” Clausewitz further understood and put great emphasis on the danger of reserve forces becoming prematurely enervated and exhausted when he cautioned that the reserves should always be maintained out of sight of the battle.

These same basic psycho-physiological principles explain why successful military leaders have historically maintained the momentum of a successful attack. Pursuing and maintaining contact with a defeated enemy is vital in order to completely destroy the enemy (the vast majority of the killing in historical battles occurred during the pursuit, when the enemy turned his back), but it is also valuable to maintain contact with the enemy as long as possible in order to delay that inevitable pause in the battle which will result in the “culmination point.” The culmination point is usually caused as much by logistical processes as anything else, but once the momentum of the pursuit stops (for whatever reasons) there are severe physiological and psychological costs to be paid, and the commander must realize that his forces will begin to immediately slip into a powerful parasympathetic backlash and become vulnerable to any enemy counterattack. An unblown reserve force ready to complete the pursuit is a vital aspect of maneuver warfare and can be of great value in ensuring that this most destructive phase of the battle is effectively executed.

Smart People Read Biographies

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Smart people read biographies, Ryan Holiday says, because they’re some of most actionable and educational reading you can do, so he recommends his favorites:

  1. Plutarch’s Lives, Plutarch – Aside from being the basis of much of Shakespeare, he was one of Montaigne’s favorite writers.
  2. The Power Broker, Robert Caro – Like Huey Long and Willie Stark, Robert Moses was a man who got power, loved power and was transformed by power.
  3. Socrates: A Man for Our Times, Napoleon: A Life, Churchill, Paul Johnson – Paul Johnson is the kind of author whose sweeping judgements you can trust, so you leave this book with what feels like a very solid understanding of who his subjects are a people.

He recommends many more.

Real Athletes Throw Knives

Friday, December 19th, 2014

When I saw Christopher McDougall (Born to Run, Natural Born Heroes) claim that real athletes throw knives, I almost dismissed him, because throwing knives are cool, but they’re not at all practical — but he was way ahead of me:

Brewster came to my house one afternoon to teach me no-spin knife throwing. He mounted a slice of log on an easel, pulled out three knives, and — as he whipped them in from all kinds of angles and distance — demonstrated why no-spin might be the answer to one of the great riddles of modern anthropology. It goes like this:

Hitting a target is an amazing act of calculation, because often you’re not aiming where something is; you’re aiming where it isn’t. You have to factor angles, directions, and muscle force, all of it in a blink.

We’re the only animal that can pull it off, and once we did, it changed everything. Learning to throw transformed us from prey into predators. Better hunting gave us more food; more food grew us bigger brains. We also upgraded our software:

Throwing taught us the kind of sequential thought that would become the human imagination and spur the creation of language, technology, medicine, and art.
So explain this: If humans are such natural marksmen, why are the majority of us like Shaq at the free-throw line?

“Yeah, that was me,” Brewster says. “I had all the cards stacked against me. Never played baseball, no real sports background at all. First time I threw a knife, I failed miserably.” He’d seen videos of expert throwers, the kind who send knives flipping end-over-end toward showgirls, but when he tried to copy them, he clanged all over the place. Then one day while working construction, Brewster began monkeying around with a screwdriver. If he held his finger straight up along a screwdriver’s spine, he could fling it perfectly into the ground. Every time. A quick Internet search later, Brewster found himself in the midst of an entire tribe experimenting with the same throwback throw. There was Roy Hutchinson, aka “The Great Throwzini,” and Xolette, a high-school science teacher in Florida who likes to no-spin butter knives across her kitchen.

Brewster explains that the spin technique — the kind of throwing you see at every circus and Vegas show — is inherently flawed. It’s not natural. Spin is terrific for long tosses, and it can be supremely accurate, but only under artificial conditions. For a spin to work, both you and the target have to be stationary, and you can only be a precise number of steps away. Shift even a little and you shank.

But with no-spin, you cash in on the fact that your index finger is neurologically wired to your eyeballs. In fact, you can learn no-spin with startling ease. You’ll need a target, naturally. Any solid chunk of wood will do. I just sawed a round slice off the end of a log and bolted it to an old picnic table turned on its side and braced with a two-by-four. (So easy, it almost took me longer to write it than do it.)

Next up: your blades. One of the beauties of no-spin is that just about anything will do. Steak knives, butter knives, screwdrivers, metal chopsticks, nails — if it’s got a point, you can fling it. For ease and safety, though, Brewster recommends a tempered-steel knife that won’t shatter or feel weird in your hand. He makes his own by hand (and sells them at and brought me a set of three of the simple black shanks he calls North Wind.

The best place to start is so close to the target you could almost reach out and touch it. “The nearer you are, the less you’ll try to overpower the throw,” Brewster explains. “You’ll let the knife sail on its own.” For your first throws, face the target slightly in profile with your left foot forward (opposite for lefties). Then remember these four steps:

  1. GRIP the knife lightly, with your index finger straight up.
  2. EXTEND your arm back and high over your head.
  3. Push your ELBOW forward, not your hand.
  4. RELEASE when the knife passes your ear and the point is still aimed at the sky.

As soon as you get the feel (and don’t be astonished if it only take two or three throws) you can begin stepping back, adding distance each time and experimenting with angles. With a little practice, you’ll soon be letting fly the way your ancestors did: fast, on the move, from any direction.