The man who is not in a hurry will always see his way clearly; haste blunders on blindly.
—Titus Livius (Livy). Ab Urbe Condita. (From the Foundation of the City.) Book 22.
Just inland from the Adriatic coast, northwest of Bari, lies the little village of Canne. In Italian, the name means “reeds”; a non-descript name for a non-descript town. But the name has outlived at least one language, and will likely outlive another, all due to one August day more than 2000 years ago, where two ways of thinking collided; the conversation marked by that day has continued until now, and likely will outlive us all. One line of that conversation was taken up recently by a magazine likely as obscure as the village to most readers: Parameters, the quarterly publication of the U.S. Army War College. The article that continues the conversation whose earliest landmark may be found near the little river of Ofanto is entitled “Intellectual Capital: A Case for Cultural Change,” and the argument of the piece’s three co-authors—all professors at West Point—is that “recent US Army promotion and command boards may actually penalize officers for their conceptual ability.” It’s a charge that, if true, ought first to scare the hell out of Americans (and everyone else on the planet), because it means that the single most fearsome power on earth is more or less deliberately being handed over to morons. But it ought, second, to scare the hell out of people because it suggests that the lesson first taught at the sleepy Italian town has still not been learned—a lesson suggested by two words I withheld from the professors’ charge sheet.
Those words? “Statistical evidence”: as in, “statistical evidence shows that recent US Army promotion and command boards …” What the statistical evidence marshaled by the West Pointers shows, it seems, is that
officers with one-standard-deviation higher cognitive abilities had 29 percent, 18 percent, and 32 percent lower odds, respectively, of being selected early … to major, early to lieutenant colonel, and for battalion command than their one-standard-deviation lower cognitive ability peers.
(A “standard deviation,” for those who don’t know—and the fact that you don’t is part of the story being told here—is a measure of how far from the mean, or average, a given set of data tends to spread: a low standard means that the data tends to cluster pretty tightly, like a river in mountainous terrain, whereas a high measure means that the data spreads widely, like river’s delta.) The study controlled for gender, ethnicity, year group, athleticism, months deployed, military branch, geographic region, and cumulative scores as cadets—and found that “if two candidates for early promotion or command have the same motivation, ethnicity, gender, length of Army experience, time deployed, physical ability, and branch, and both cannot be selected, the board is more likely to select the officer with the lower conceptual ability.” In other words, in the Army, the smarter you are, the less likely you are to advance quickly—which, obviously, may affect just how far you are likely to go at all.
That may be so, you might say, but maybe it’s just that smarter people aren’t very “devoted,” or “loyal” (or whatever sort of adjective one prefers), at least according to the military. This dichotomy even has a name in such circles: “Athens” vs. “Sparta.” According to the article, “Athens represents an institutional preference for intellectual ability, critical thinking, education, etc.,” while conversely “Sparta represents an institutional preference for motivation, tactical-ability, action-bias, diligence, intensity, physicality, etc.” So maybe the military may not be promoting as many “Athenians” as “Spartans”—but maybe the military is a more “Spartan” organization than others. Maybe this study is just a bunch of Athenians whining about not being able to control every aspect of life.
Yet, if thought about, that’s a pretty weird way to conceptualize things: why should “Athens” be opposed to “Sparta” at all? In other words, why should it happen that the traits these names attempt to describe are distributed in zero-sum packages? Why should it be that people with “Spartan” traits should not also possess “Athenian” traits, and vice versa? The whole world supposedly divides along just these lines—but I think any of us knows someone who is neither of these, and if so then it seems absurd to think that possessing a “Spartan” trait implies a lack of a corresponding “Athenian” one. As the three career Army officers say, “motivation levels and cognitive ability levels are independent of each other.” Just because someone is intelligent does not mean they are likely to be unmotivated; indeed, it makes more sense to think just the opposite.
Yet, apparently, the upper levels of the U.S. military think differently: they seem to believe that devotion to duty precludes intelligence, and vice versa. We know this not because of stereotypes about military officials, but instead because of real data about how the military allocates its promotions. In their study, the three career Army officers report that they
found significant evidence that regardless of what motivation/diligence category officers were in (low, medium, or high) there was a lower likelihood the Army would select the officers for early promotion or battalion command the higher their cognitive ability, despite the fact that the promotion and selection boards had no direct information indicating each officer’s cognitive ability. (Emp. added).
This latter point is so significant that I highlight it: it demonstrates that the Army is—somehow—selecting against intelligence even when it, supposedly, doesn’t know whether a particular candidate has it or not. Nonetheless, the boards are apparently able to suss it out (which itself is a pretty interesting use of intelligence) in order to squash it, and not only that, squash it no matter how devoted a given officer might be. In sum, these boards are not selecting against intelligence because they are selecting for devotion, or whatever, but instead are just actively attempting to promote less-intelligent officers.
Now, it may then be replied, that may be so—but perhaps fighting wars is not similar to doing other types of jobs. Or as the study puts it: perhaps “officers with higher intellectual abilities may actually make worse junior officers than their average peers.” If so, as the three career Army officers point out, such a situation “would be diametrically opposed to the … academic literature” on leadership, which finds a direct relationship between cognitive ability and success. Even so, however, perhaps war is different: the “commander of a top-tier special operations selection team,” the three officers say, reported that his team rejected candidates who scored too high on a cognitive ability test, on the grounds that such candidates “‘take too long to make a decision’”—despite the fact that, as the three officers point out, “research has shown that brighter people come up with alternatives faster than their average-conceptual-level peers.” Thinking that intelligence inhibits action, in other words, would make war essentially different from virtually every other human activity.
Of course, had that commander been in charge of recruitment during the U.S. Civil War, that would have meant not employing an alcoholic, cashiered (fired) former lieutenant later denounced as “an unimaginative butcher in war and a corrupt, blundering drunkard in peace,” a man who failed in all the civilian jobs he undertook, as a farmer and even a simple store clerk, and came close to bankruptcy several times over the course of his life. That man was Ulysses S. Grant—the man about whom Abraham Lincoln would say, when his critics pointed to his poor record, “I cannot spare this man; he fights!” (In other words, he did not hesitate to act.) Grant would, as is known, eventually accept his adversary, Lee’s, surrender at Appomattox Court House; hence, a policy that runs the risk of not finding Grant in time appears, at best, pretty cavalier.
Or, as the three career Army officers write, “if an organization assumes an officer cannot be both an Athenian and a Spartan, and prefers Spartans, any sign of Athenians will be discouraged,” and so therefore “when the Army needs senior officers who are Athenians, there will be only Spartans remaining.” The opposite view somehow thinks that smart people will still be around when they are needed—but when they are needed, they are really needed. Essentially, this view is more or less to say that the Army should not worry about its ammunition supply, because if something ever happened to require a lot of ammunition the Army could just go get more. Never mind the fact that, at such a moment, everyone else is probably going to want some ammunition too. It’s a pretty odd method of thinking that treats physical objects as more important than the people who use them—after all, as we know, guns don’t kill people, people do.
Still, the really significant thing about Grant is not he himself, but rather that he represented a particular method of thinking: “I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer,” Grant wrote to Abraham Lincoln in May 1864; “Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible,” Lincoln replied to Grant a few months later. Although Grant is, as above, sometimes called a “butcher” who won the Civil War simply by firing more bodies at the Confederacy than the Southerners could shoot, he clearly wasn’t the idiot certain historians have made him out to be: the “‘one striking feature about Grant’s [written] orders,’” as another general would observe later, was that no “‘matter how hurriedly he may write them in the field, no one ever had the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time to understand them.’” Rather than being unintelligent, Grant had a particular way of thinking: as one historian has observed, “Grant regard[ed] his plans as tests,” so that Grant would “have already considered other options if something doesn’t work out.” Grant had a certain philosophy, a method of both thinking and doing things—which he more or less thinks of as the same thing. But Grant did not invent that method of thinking. It was already old when a certain Roman Senator conceived of a single sentence that, more or less, captured Grant’s philosophy—a sentence that, in turn, referred to a certain village near the Adriatic coast.
The road to that village is, however, a long one; even now we are just more than halfway there. The next step taken upon it was by a man named Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrocusus—another late bloomer, much like Grant. According to Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives sought to compare the biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, as a child Fabius was known for his “slowness in speaking, his long labour and pains in learning, his deliberation in entering into the sports of other children, [and] his easy submission to everybody, as if he had no will of his own,” traits that led many to “esteem him insensible and stupid.” Yet, as he was educated he learned to make his public speeches—required of young aristocratic Romans—without “much of popular ornament, nor empty artifice,” and instead with a “great weight of sense.” And also like Grant, who in the last year of the war faced a brilliant opponent general in Robert E. Lee, Fabius would eventually face an ingenious military leader who desired nothing more than to meet his adversary in battle—where that astute mind could destroy the Roman army in a single day, and, so possibly win the freedom of his nation.
That adversary was Hannibal Barca, the man who had marched his army, including his African war elephants, across the Alps into Italy. Hannibal was a Carthaginian, a Phoenician city on the North African coast that had already fought one massive war with Rome (the First Punic War) and had now, through Hannibal’s invasion, embarked on a second. Carthage was about as rich and powerful as Rome was itself, so by invading Hannibal posed a mortal threat to the Italians—not least because Hannibal had quite a reputation as a general already. Hence Fabius, who by this time had himself been selected to oppose the invader, “deemed it best not to meet in the field a general whose army had been tried in many encounters, and whose object was a battle,” and instead attempted to “let the force and vigour of Hannibal waste away and expire, like a flame, for want of fuel,” as Plutarch put the point. Instead of attempting to meet Hannibal in a single battle, where the African might out-general him, Fabius attempted to wear him—an invader far from his home base—down.
For some time things continued like this: Hannibal ranged about Italy, attempting to provoke Fabius into battle, while the Roman followed meekly at a distance; according to his enemies, as if he were Hannibal’s servant. Meanwhile, according to Plutarch, Hannibal himself sought to encourage that idea: burning the countryside around Rome, the Carthaginian made sure to post armed guards around Fabius’ estates in order to suggest that the Roman was in his pay. Eventually, these stratagems had their effect, and after a further series of misadventures, Fabius retired from command—just the event Hannibal awaited.
The man who became commander after Fabius was Varro, and it was he who led the Romans to the small village near the Adriatic coast. What happened near that village more than 2000 years ago might be summed by an image that might familiar to viewers of the television show, Game of Thrones:
On the television show the chaotic mass in the middle is the tiny army of the character Jon Snow, whereas the orderly lines about the perimeter is the much-vaster army of Ramsay Bolton. But in historical reality, the force in the center that is being surrounded by the opposing force was actually the larger of the two—the Roman army. It was the smaller of the two armies, the Carthaginian one, that stood at the periphery. Yet, somehow, the outcome was more or less the same: the mass of soldiers on the outside of that circle destroyed the force of soldiers on the inside, despite there being more of them; a fact that was so surprising that not only is it still remembered, but it was also the subject of not one, but two remarks that are also still remembered today.
The first of these is a remark made just before the battle itself—a remark that came in reply to the comment of one of Hannibal’s lieutenants, an officer named Gisgo, on the disparity in size between the two armies. The intent of Gisgo’s remark was, it would seem, something to the effect of, “you’re sure this is going to work, right?” To which Hannibal replied: “another thing that has escaped your notice, Gisgo, is even more amazing—that although there are so many of them, there is not one among them called Gisgo.” That is to say, Gisgo is a unique individual, and so the numbers do not matter … etc., etc. We can all fill in the arguments from there: the power of the individual, the singular force of human creativity, and so on. In the case of the incident outside Cannae, those platitudes happened to be true—Hannibal really was a kind of tactical genius. But he also happened not to be facing Fabius that day.
Fabius himself was not the sort of person who could sum up his thought in a pithy (and trite) remark, but I think that the germ of his idea was distilled some centuries after the battle by another Roman senator. “Did all the Romans who fell at Cannae”—the ancient name for the village now known as Canne—“have the same horoscope?” asked Marcus Cicero, in a book entitled De Divinatione. The comment is meant as a deflationary pinprick, designed to explode the pretensions of the followers of Hannibal—a point revealed by a subsequent sentence: “Was there ever a day when countless numbers were not born?” The comment’s point, in other words, is much the same Cicero made in another of his works, when he tells a story about the atheistic philosopher Diagoras. Reproaching his atheism, a worshipper directed Diagoras to the many painted tablets in praise of the gods at the local temple—tablets produced by storm survivors who had taken a vow to have such a tablet painted while enveloped by the sea’s power. Diagoras replied, according to Cicero, that is merely so “because there are no pictures anywhere of those who have been shipwrecked.” In other words: check your premises, sportsfans: what you think may be the result of “creativity,” or some other malarky, may simply be due to the actions of chance—in the case of Hannibal, the fact that he happened not to be fighting Fabius.
Or, more specifically, to a statistical concept called the Law of Large Numbers. First explicitly described by the mathematician Jacob Bernoulli in 1713, this is the law that holds—in Bernoulli’s words—that “it is not enough to take one or another observation for […] reasoning about an event, but that a large number of them are needed.” In a crude way, this law is what critics of Grant refer to when they accuse him of being a “butcher”: that he simply applied the larger numbers of men and material available to the Union side to the war effort. It’s also what the enemies of the man who ought to have been on the field at Cannae—but wasn’t—said about him also: that Fabius fought what military strategists call a “war of attrition” rather than a “war of maneuver.” At that time, and since, many turn their nose up at such methods: in ancient times, they were thought to be ignoble, unworthy—which was why Varro insisted on rejecting what he might have called an “old man strategy” and went on the attack that August day. Yet, they were precisely the means by which, two millennia apart, two very similar men saved their countries from very similar threats.
Today, of course, very many people on the American “Left” say that what they call “scientific” and “mathematical” thought is the enemy. On the steps of the University of California’s Sproul Hall, more than fifty years ago, the Free Speech Movement’s Mario Savio denounced “the operation of the machine”; some years prior to that German Marxist Theodore Adorno and his co-worker Max Horkheimer had condemned the spread of such thought as, more or less, the pre-condition necessary for the Holocaust: “To the Enlightenment,” the two sociologists wrote, “that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion.” According to Bruce Robbins of Columbia University, “the critique of Enlightenment rationality is what English departments were founded on,” while it’s also been observed that, since the 1960s, “language, symbolism, text, and meaning came to be seen as the theoretical foundation for the humanities.” But as I have attempted to show, the notions conceived of by these writers as belonging to a particular part of the Eurasian landmass at a particular moment of history may not be so particular after all.
Leaving those large-scale considerations aside, however, returns us to the discussion concerning promotions in the U.S. military—where the assertions of the three career officers apparently cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. A reply to the three career officers’ article from a Parameters editorial board member, predictably enough, takes them to task for not recognizing that “there are multiple kinds of intelligence,” and instead suggesting that there is “only one particular type of intelligence”—you know, just the same smear used by Adorno and Horkheimer. The author of that article, Anna Simons (a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School), further intimates that the three officers do not possess “a healthy respect for variation”—i.e., “diversity.” Which, finally, brings us to the point of all this: what is really happening within the military is that, in order to promote what is called “diversity,” standards have to be amended in such a fashion as not only to include women and minorities, but also dumb people.
In other words, the social cost of what is known as “inclusiveness” is simultaneously a general “dumbing-down” of the military: promoting women and minorities also means rewarding not-intelligent people—and, because statistically speaking there simply are more dumb people than not, that also means suppressing smart people who are like Grant, or Fabius. It never appears to occur to anyone that, more or less, talking about “variation” and the like is what the enemies of Grant—or, further back, the enemies of Fabius—said also. But, one supposes, that’s just how it goes in the United States today: neither Grant nor Fabius were called to service until their countrymen had been scared pretty badly. It may be, in other words, that the American military will continue to suppress people with high cognitive abilities within their ranks—apparently, 9/11 and its consequences were not enough like the battle fought near the tiny Italian village to change American views on these matters. Statistically speaking, after all, 9/11 only killed 0.001% of the U.S. population, whereas Cannae killed perhaps a third of the members of the Roman Senate. That, in turn, raises the central question: If 9/11 was not enough to convince Americans that something isn’t right, well—