During the NFC Championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, I was hanging out with a group of friends talking about whatever thing was annoying or upsetting or being talked about widely on the internet at the time. I think it was partly American Sniper, and maybe a few other things. These are the kinds of topics that everyone cares about deeply for a few days until a new thing comes along to be angry about.
"I don't have time to be outraged at all of these things," I said. "My outrage meter is finite and discrete, so for any new thing that comes along for me to be angry about, something else has to get kicked out. And none of these new topics are doing it for me."
Robbie, a friend also in attendance at the party, casually inquired what would make the list. I instantly shouted "80% militarization of the police," though I later revised that estimate to more like 20% to make room for the minimum 40% I had reserved for people being okay with torture. (I don't always apportion to 100%, since there may be an aggregate group of smaller things that just piss me off at the time, but don't warrant mention by name). Further, I believe that each individual's capacity for outrage is different. I'm not sure what the relevant independent variables are yet, but suffice to say Al Sharpton's Outrage Capacity is clearly larger than, say, Taylor Swift's.
Thus, Dave's Outrage Meter was born.
I think I'd like to make this a regular thing, so stay tuned for the first update, in which I will explain some of the rationale for current news items that either do or don't make my Outrage Meter Cut. (Quick preview: "Brian Williams War Stories" doesn't make the cut, but the phrase "Fastest Growing" when referring to a statistical measurement does.)
Every year on my birthday I take a few minutes to read Leo Tolstoy's classic story, "The Death of Ivan Ilych." I know I stole this idea from someone, but I can't remember who anymore.
The story, summed up in the pithiest way possible, is basically the following - a man on his deathbed realizes that he's wasted his life. There's also a bunch of religious imagery, criticisms of high society, and the wise peasantry so often seen in Tolstoy's writing, but the theme remains the same - Ivan Ilych cared about the wrong things while he was alive and did not realize it until just before his death at the age of forty-five. Actually, it all pretty much boils down to a single sentence, the first line of the second section of this 60-page novella: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible."
Ilych's final suffering is mourned by no one since the relationships he cultivated during his lifetime were primarily for personal gain or because they were the "right" ones to have according to society's judgment. He takes positions because they are the kinds of positions that people like him ought to take. He gets married and has children because there is no reason not to (though he later discovers these to be somewhat of an inconvenience for his professional life). He does all the things he's supposed to do until he develops a small discomfort in his side, goes to the doctor, and begins to die a slow and painful death which (along with the sage advice of his kind servant, Gerasim) forces him to realize his errors just in time for a spiritual awakening on the story's final page.
This is a good book to read on one's birthday. Personally, I like to use it as a barometer for my own life and compare its motifs to the choices I've made. I get something new out of it each time I read it, which is the mark of great literature. Plus it's short and can be read quickly during the spare moments of a busy day.
So I turned thirty years old yesterday. Thirty is an interesting cutoff age. In your teens, you have promise. In your twenties, you have potential. But once you're thirty, whatever promise and potential you might have had needs to become action. Nobody looks at a thirty-year-old and says, "Wow, that guy sure has a lot of potential." (The exception to this rule might be politicians, since age is often associated with experience and knowledge despite there being no definitive correlation between them.) To borrow from physics, by thirty you should begin converting your potential into kinetic energy. That's a pretty awful analogy, but I can't think of a better way to express the sentiment.
I don't mean to suggest that if you aren't successful by thirty then you've failed. Continued improvement and lifelong learning are important aspects of personal growth, which includes always striving to be better at what you do. But there comes a point on the continuum of age where you will be rewarded and recognized - at least in part - for what you have already done and not for what you might someday do. And, right or wrong, I think thirty is right around that point.
Ivan Ilych's relevance comes in the recognition that life is about more that the accumulation of titles, accolades, and material stuff. This is particularly important for me to remember, since I like all of those things. And I suppose each of them is fine in moderation. But to make any or all of them the object of your life's pursuit will leave you the same as Ivan Ilych; most simple and most ordinary.
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
That opening paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August influenced me as an aspiring writer more than any other book. The imagery and storytelling elements were different from other histories I had read in the past. For whatever reason, it had never occurred to me that nonfiction did not require sacrificing style for substance, and that enticing the reader to turn the page was as worthy a goal as imparting new knowledge.
Tuchman’s subject is the complex relationships, strategies, and plans of the great European powers leading to the outbreak of World War I. The crisis of July 1914 sets the stage for military mobilizations, diplomatic dealings, and the ultimate clash of forces in Belgium, France, and Russia. The narrative paints a picture of a war that nobody really wanted, but in the end couldn’t avoid. She stops just as stalemate sets in on the Western Front, trusting that her readers don’t need to be reminded of the sad rest of the story.
The book has had a lasting impact on American history beyond a simple retelling of events. President John F. Kennedy based many of his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis on lessons he had drawn from reading Tuchman’s tale of strategic miscalculation and accidental escalation. He insisted that his military aides read it, had copies sent to every military base in the world, and apparently carried his potential decisions far enough into the future that he wanted to ensure that no one would write a book about the U.S. and Russia called “The Missiles of October.”
When I visited Belgium earlier this year on a trip to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, I thought of the The Guns of August often. On my day off, I took a train northwest to Bruges, that famously undisturbed medieval city not far from Flanders Fields, the lands that witnessed so much of the Great War’s killing and death. On another trip, driving south through the city of Mons, my path mirrored that of the initial German advance against the British Expeditionary Force. A few unremarkable signs along the sides of the road commemorated chapters of a story that the people living there would rather forget, forging a connection between the physical reality of war and the pages I’d read in a book.
A few months ago nations across Europe remembered the centennial anniversary of The Guns of August. Several books were published this year that reexamine the complex central thesis of the Great War’s origins, and few scholars today—bolstered by newer documents and evidence that discredit the notion that the war was accidental—ascribe to Tuchman’s reading of the events that changed the course of world history.
But that doesn’t really matter. Readers continue to come to her book not to be told exactly how it all happened, but to marvel at a standard of storytelling unequaled in narrative nonfiction, a standard that places the reader’s attention and interest above spewing facts, dates, and names. In her final paragraph, she tells us that the failure of the German offensive into France was “one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies would ultimate win the war but because it determined that the war would go on.” The sentiment contained within those words is, in my mind, just as emotional as watching a favorite character in a novel reach the final chapter of what we know will be a grueling and terrible future, even if we aren’t told all the details.
A lot of the independent research I've done in the last year has been the application of combat models to analyze battlefield outcomes. There's been a lot written about these types of models, and most seem to point to the Lanchester equations as the first mathematically rigorous attempt to understand battlefield dynamics, even if that means making a lot of assumptions. Other models are even more complicated, treating groups of fighting soldiers as if they were two merging crowds to get a sense of where the instabilities in the lines are, kind of like the motion of fluids around objects.
Okay, that's cool math and all. But my main problem with these types of models is how deterministic they are. The model I've been working with, derived by Stephen Biddle in his book Military Power, gives a set of equations with a bunch of parameters and asks you to plug and chug to get a result on whether or not an attacking offensive force will break through a defense. But that's just it - take the initial conditions and variables, throw them into the model, and get a yes/no answer about the success of an attack. Not the likelihood of success, but a single number that says to an analyst, "under these conditions, an attacker will or will not achieve a breakthrough of the defender's lines."
Wait wait wait. What about Clausewitz's friction? ("Everything in war is simple, but the simplest ting is difficult.") What about variables that are difficult to quantify, like morale or military readiness? In my mind, for a combat model to be analytically useful, it should give results in terms of probabilities, not deterministic yes/no answers. Something like, "under these conditions, an attacker will achieve a breakthrough around 80% of the time." There are remarkably few, if any, situations where an analyst can predict an outcome in war with absolute certainty.
I guess predicting the results of a battle should be less like an engineering problem with a definitive answer, and more like predicting the weather.