On War and Madmen
Mental models for war and real-life
In order to understand the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, we often turn to the News. But the News doesn’t equip us with the tools to think about war or to reason about it. The News gives us information, but not a framework for thinking about the war, what strategies are being used, how things will play out, and the consequences.
My goal, as always, is to dig deeper to find tools that enables us to see the situation a bit more clearly and understand our complex world better.
I am no expert in warfare, but I want to list some of the mental models and tools that I have been collecting and using to understand what’s happening. What’s great about these tools is that they also apply in our real lives, even when there is no conflict.
So let’s get started.
One of the most important tools to think about wars is Game Theory. Game Theory is a framework for understanding how competing actors make decisions. Given a situation, the participants make decisions while considering the action of others as well. The interesting part is that, when I am making decisions, I account for others making decisions knowing they know this. That is, I know you know that I know, and I know that you know that I know that you know that I know, and so on!
The classic example that illustrates the usefulness of Game theory is Prisoner’s dilemma, which sets up a situation where the final outcome is not the best for each player taken individually, but they have to do so mostly because of the fear that the other person can screw over. See this video for a minute-long introduction to Prisoner’s dilemma:
Let’s go back to the cold war era. The USSR and the USA are the competing actors in the game where each actor has two actions that they can take: stay put or amass more weapons. As you may have guessed, the action that each actor chose was to try to outdo the other, and this resulted in an uncontrollable situation called Arms Race. It is a race to the bottom if left unchecked and is very expensive. The Nuclear Arms race costed an estimated $5.5 trillion dollars.
There is also a second interesting example of Arms Race happening before World War I between Germany and Britain:
With the Industrial Revolution came new weaponry, including vastly improved warships. In the late nineteenth century, France and Russia built powerful armies and challenged the spread of British colonialism. In response, Britain shored up its Royal Navy to control the seas.
Britain managed to work out its arms race with France and Russia with two separate treaties. But Germany had also drastically increased its military budget and might and built a large navy to contest Britain’s naval dominance in hopes of becoming a world power.
In turn, Britain further expanded the Royal Navy and built more advanced and powerful battlecruisers, including the 1906 HMS Dreadnought, a technically advanced type of warship that set the standard for naval architecture.
This applies to businesses competing with each other, when they outdo each other to price a product the lowest in order to attract customers.
When there is a madman at the helm, you know you don’t want to mess with him. This, paradoxically, could help prolongate peace. This principe applies to other aspects as well, such as parenting. For example, if the child knows that there will actually be consequences upon crossing a line, they will not cross the line.
Other warfare mental models
Fabian strategy is an approach to military operations where one side avoids large, pitched battles in favor of smaller, harassing actions in order to break the enemy's will to keep fighting and wear them down through attrition. Generally, this type of strategy is adopted by smaller, weaker powers when combating a larger foe. In order for it to be successful, time must be on the side of user and they must be able to avoid large-scale action
Fabian strategy draws its name from the Roman Dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus. Tasked with defeating the Carthaginian general Hannibal in 217 BC, following crushing defeats at the Battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene, Fabius' troops shadowed and harassed the Carthaginian army while avoiding a major confrontation
War of Attrition
This is a more general form of Fabian Strategy.
Attrition warfare is a military strategy consisting of belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and materiel
The above illustration from Charles Joseph Minard shows how Napolean steadily kept losing his soldiers as they march towards Moscow. Due to this attrition, the war was lost by Napeolean without a fight.
This is when winning the war comes at a great cost to the victor, that it is equivalent to losing the war.
Pyrrhic victory is named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC and the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC, during the Pyrrhic War. After the latter battle, Plutarch relates in a report by Dionysius: The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward.
This is when you have won the war but lost the battle, very likely the case for Russia.
In other news:
Science finds that venting doesn’t help
“When we get stuck in a venting session, it feels good in the moment, because we’re connecting with other people,” he says. “But if all we do is vent, we don’t address our cognitive needs, too. We aren’t able to make sense of what we’re experiencing, to make meaning of it.”
So, while venting may be good for building supportive relationships and feel good in the moment, it’s not enough to help us through. If others simply listen and empathize, they may inadvertently extend our emotional upset.
A recent paper finds out that watching videos at 2x speed is a fine strategy. I can’t go over 1.6x typically, what about you?