Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI and Warfighting - A Thought

Marines and sailors with the 24th MEU erupt into cheers and bouts of
disappointment in the ship's chow hall as the New York Giants secure victory
in the Super Bowl, Feb. 5, 2012.
A few days ago my beloved New England Patriots were defeated in Super Bowl XLVI. While disappointing in its own right, it did get me thinking of maneuver warfare and Carl Von Clausewitz of all people. There are certainly no shortage of analogies between football and warfare – such as speed, maneuver, and timing – but as I lay awake that night, I thought of something else. Rather, I thought of chance, luck, and fundamentals. I thought that if such things could derail a professional football team that doles out millions of dollars to win games, why couldn’t such things happen to Marines in the much more serious environment of combat?

Restless, I thought of how the game came down to a few key plays - a defensive penalty negating a forced fumble, failure to jam a receiver on the game’s winning drive, a well-timed defensive penalty that traded space for time, and so on. Interestingly, at the time, one would be hard pressed to call those plays decisive or critical, particularly when considered against the sheer number of total plays throughout the game. Feeling more restless now, I opened up MCDP 1, looking for a particular sentence – and I found it in Chapter 1, beneath Uncertainty: “Outcomes of battles can hinge on actions of a few individuals, and as Clausewitz observed, issues can be decided by chances and incidents so minute as to figure in histories simply as anecdotes.” 

My restlessness relieved, I fell back asleep. Unfortunately, I couldn’t shake that thought the next morning. So what exactly did it mean? Perhaps in an act of catharsis – forcing me to capture my thoughts, what it meant was that the proximity between failure and success lay in something as small as luck (or chance), but in the end, those who execute best and capitalize on the opportunities presented will win. That as well prepared as a football team may be, small acts – some by players, some by chance could lead to defeat or victory. And thus, while I have come to terms with my team’s disappointing finish – I figured there has to be another lesson. 

Quite simply – in a game such as the Super Bowl where every piece of film is studied, every player is analyzed by countless coaches, scouts, and analysts – we still don’t know how the game will play out. Thus, in war, in a far more fluid, uncertain and unconstrained environment, do we really think we can predict what will happen? Certainly not – the salient point is that while we cannot control chance, we can control our execution and ensure we are fundamentally sound. With that in mind, what did we do today to prepare ourselves for uncertainty?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "but in the end, those who execute best and capitalize on the opportunities presented will win."--That's life. Have you read "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, he speaks of the same thing.

  3. Anon,

    Yes, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the book. I had thought of writing a post about dealing with uncertainty, particularly as it pertains to warfighting and I did plan on mentioning Gladwell and Nassim Taleb's Black Swan as well. However, I think the example above captures the idea rather succinctly so I went with that instead.