Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone and welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. I’m JLS, your usual host. I am joined by Xander Snyder, and Xander I believe you are all the way in Iceland, aren’t you?
XS: Coming at you live from Reykjavik.
JLS: How about that? And today, we want to do something a little different than we’ve been doing. Instead of going around the world and recapping some important part of something happening in geopolitics, we want to take a little bit of a different direction. So George a couple weeks ago wrote a piece about the Battle of Midway and thinking about what would’ve happened if the Japanese had won the Battle of Midway and the United States had lost it.
And one of the reasons George wanted to look at this particular battle, and one of the reasons he talks about this battle all the time, especially to us, other employees on GPF staff but just in general if you ever meet George because for him it’s a major challenge to everything we do at GPF. Our whole premise is built on the fact that you can predict things because there’s a certain order and logic to how geopolitics develop. There are imperatives and there are constraints, and the broad impersonal forces of history are what shape events.
But then you have things like the Battle of Midway in the middle of World War II. Probably World War II would have worked out the same way in the end. But the Battle of Midway was really decided by chance, by nothing that you could have predicted or nothing that was completely rational. The Japanese outnumbered the United States and even with the U.S. breaking the Japanese code, there’s some argument there to say that this is a moment where all the broad impersonal forces that we deal with on a daily basis in our writing and when we talk on these podcasts, didn’t mean that much.
I think this is actually a moment that all people who are in this line of work have. I know that when I was talking to Xander right when Xander started, one of the things Xander you brought up was that for you the Battle of Waterloo was this thing that always fascinated you. For me, it was the Battle of Gettysburg and I actually just wrote a piece that will be coming out on July 3 that sort of talks about that thing.
So what we thought we’d do on the podcast today is that Xander and I would spitball a little bit about, you know, Xander telling us a little bit about the Battle of Waterloo and me talking a little bit about the Battle of Gettysburg and then trying to take a step back and thinking about how the geopolitical model that we work with deals with events like these, whether it’s understandable or not or whether this is just something that we have to somehow build in to how we’re thinking about the world.
So Xander maybe the first question that I could just start you out with is why Waterloo? Why was Waterloo a battle that caught your attention and made you want to learn more about it?
XS: Yeah, when I was first discussing with George Midway, the way he describes the evolution of the battle was a moment when this one air squadron, I think Torpedo 8 is what it was called, had you know a couple minutes basically to fuel up before they could turn to try to figure out where the Japanese were in the Pacific near Midway and the squadron commander decided to turn one way and found basically the entire Japanese fleet. And that let one squadron distract some of the fighters, the Torpedo squadron dove down, distracted the fighters and basically all got annihilated but that left the high-altitude bombers basically completely wide open to begin to just annihilate the Japanese fleet.
And if that hadn’t happened, if Japan had in fact been able to basically win at Midway, that would’ve put a lot of pressure on Hawaii because they would’ve been able to station long-range bombers and that could’ve radically changed the way the war on the Pacific developed and therefore how the entire war developed.
So I started thinking about Waterloo which is the battle that I’d studied somewhat recently, and basically this battle evolved after Napoleon came back from exile in Elba in 1815 and all of the French troops that were sent by the Bourbon king to arrest him ended up joining up with him because he was their emperor. And he decided that the only way that he really had a chance to break the allies, which were Britain, Prussia, Russia, the Dutch, was to attack them quickly so that he could divide their forces, drive the British back to the sea and hopefully at that point sue for some sort of settlement that worked in France’s favor because in the long run if it turned into a battle of attrition, he was going to lose. He didn’t have the forces to compete with the massive Allied military of something like 800,000 troops.
So he went north very quickly, he fought the Prussians at a place called Ligny, I am probably mispronouncing that. But this was several days before Waterloo. He drove them back, he won that battle and the Prussians kind of retreated and tried to regroup. And Napoleon though they were going to go to the northeast. And so he sent this one guy named Marshal Grouchy with a detachment of about 33,000 French troops to pursue him. Turns out the Prussians actually regrouped much further to the north, which was important and I’ll come back to that.
The next battle he fought was at a place called Quatre Bras, which was against the British, and he was able to push them back there too. Again he was hitting each army individually before they could group together and he pushed them back. Wellington regrouped at this place called Waterloo. The Prussians, instead of going to the northeast, went north to a place called Wavre. And by the time Marshall Grouchy, the guy who was sent off to Napoleon’s right flank to basically pursue them, recognized where they were, it was kind of later in the game. They were able to regroup, and Napoleon sent later on sort of a follow up dispatch saying, “Ok, yeah, keep pursuing these guys as I initially ordered you to, but try to link up with us to the west so that you’ll actually be involved in this big battle that’s coming.” This is a great summary.
But before he got that dispatch, he was kind of at this moment where he heard the cannons begin to go off at Waterloo, and one of his inferiors basically said, “Look we should march at the sound of the cannons.” And so Grouchy found himself in this position where should I strictly follow Napoleon’s orders, basically just to pursue the Prussians rear and to keep them distracted, or should I pursue them in a way that would allow me to link back up to where I think this battle is going to be.
Now take all of that, and now think just about the Battle of Waterloo where really the tactic for Napoleon was to break the British center at this place called La Haye Sainte before the Prussians could link up on the east, and if you could do that, he could basically win that battle and keep pushing the English or the British north before the Prussians linked back up to him.
And he was finally able to do this at the very end of the battle, but by that point, it was too late; the Prussians had come and linked up and the game was over for Napoleon. Now if Grouchy had been able to link up with Napoleon, many historians think it’s fairly likely that he would’ve been able to break the center earlier.
So the question kind of comes down to either one misinterpreted order or miscommunication, some people say a bad decision by Grouchy but others will defend him saying he was following orders as strictly as he could. But you know, then the question is, if Waterloo is where Napoleon was ultimately defeated, what would have happened had he won that battle? And that’s kind of why that came to mind when George was talking about Midway.
JLS: You raise an important point, and this was one of our colleagues on staff raised this to me the other day, which was that when you are talking about warfare especially in the 17th and 18th century even into the 19th century, you seem to always have these stories about orders that either weren’t delivered or orders that were ambiguous, were not followed directly. And if the regimental commander or whoever it was had just followed the order, then maybe things would’ve gone well.
But the problem of course was there were no cell phones, there was no quick way to get in touch with people. You were dealing with large masses of people and you had to delegate an awful lot of authority and an awful lot to the commanders underneath you. So it’s nice to imagine that Napoleon was this romantic genius sitting on top of this army and that he was pulling all these puppet strings and if everybody had just marched to his beat, everything would’ve been fine. But the reality in battle is that it doesn’t exactly work that way. If you go to Gettysburg and visit the confederate lines at Gettysburg, it will take you the better part of a couple hours to walk up and down what the entire confederate line was. It wasn’t the type of thing where the general who was sitting on top of everything could just go and order everything.
So I think one thing to think about is that, a lot depends in these types of battles where you have large groups of men facing off against each other, a lot depends on the decisions that are made by the commanders and whether the general, the overall commander of the force, has trust in the people that are underneath and whether the people that are underneath him understood what they were supposed to do and when they were supposed to pursue one part of an order or maybe pursue another part of an order.
XS: Right. You can look at Napoleon again. Like you say, he’s supposed to be seen as this romantic military genius and in a lot of ways he kind of was, but he sent these ambiguous orders and that kind of in a way might have been his undoing at Waterloo. Now, we can get into how that particular battle plays into the geopolitics of the Napoleonic wars but I think before we do that, it’s worth talking about your case with Gettysburg because then we can compare and contrast the two and see what we can draw and what we can bring back to this larger theory that we use to broadcast events.
JLS: Yeah before I dive into it, the issue of ambiguous orders and even orders in general figures hugely into Gettysburg at multiple points. First of all, it was the Confederacy’s and Lee’s second campaign into the Union. The first campaign was in 1862 and ended at the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Sharpsburg, and what happened there was famously that General Lee’s orders got lost and the Union got them. General McClellan got his hands on dispatches that showed where the Confederate Army was actually going to be and that was what allowed the Army at the Potomac to find the battleground at Antietam and really caught Robert Lee off guard the first time that he came north.
The second time Robert E. Lee comes north to fight, it’s 1863, the war is not going well for the Confederacy, the longer the war went on, the worse it was going to be for the Confederacy. Ulysses S. Grant was putting a great deal of pressure on Vicksburg, and Vicksburg probably wasn’t going to be able to hold and so Robert E. Lee goes to Jefferson Davis and to the Confederate leadership and says, “I need reinforcement so that I can take the Army of Northern Virginia north into the Union once more.” And he does and at multiple times throughout the battle you have this issue of orders being somewhat ambiguous.
On the first day, for instance, Richard Ewell is pushing into Gettysburg and he whips the Union forces. He’s got them pretty well managed and they go into the town of Gettysburg and there’s a chance there where Ewell can send maybe 2,400, 2,500 troops to take some high ground at Culp’s Hill where there were only just a few hundred Union defenders. They were exhausted from fighting all day and Ewell had more people coming in.
He could have very easily taken that ground on Culp’s Hill. And the thing was that Lee sends him an order that says something like pursue the enemy but don’t bring on a general battle because on July 1, the first day of Gettysburg, Lee still doesn’t exactly want to fight at Gettysburg. He hasn’t decided that that’s where he’s going to fight yet and he doesn’t want to again get caught in a battlefield that isn’t of his own choosing. So he gives Ewell what Ewell interprets as a contradictory order. So, “should I actually send my troops to take Culp’s Hill or should I not bring on a general engagement? I don’t know what to do.”
One of the what ifs that historians throw around with Gettysburg all the time was if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t died months before Gettysburg and he had been the one commanding those troops, not Richard Ewell, Jackson would have absolutely understood exactly what Lee meant and would’ve known that that was the moment where, forget about the general battle thing, here was a chance to take the high ground. And they didn’t. And that really defines the rest of the battle of Gettysburg because at the end of the first day, even though the Confederacy does very well, the Union has all the good defensible positions.
The second day, Lee tries to attack again. They get very close to winning. They don’t actually win in the end and then on the third day, Lee commits his catastrophic mistake and maybe this is the one where its different than Waterloo or even different than Midway. Because the way I see it, the Battle of Gettysburg was in the end decided because Lee made a catastrophic error and he let himself not see what was in front of him. He saw what he wanted to see in front of him, and he didn’t see what was actually in front of him.
And this question of questionable orders comes back in a little bit. One of Lee’s top commanders General Longstreet didn’t want to make the assault on the third day and therefore there’s a disconnect because Longstreet thought that Lee was going to tell Pickett to get his troops ready for a charge first thing in the morning, and Lee thought that Longstreet was going to do it. So nobody actually told Pickett, who was supposed to lead the charge and who did eventually lead the charge, that he should be ready in the morning. And because he wasn’t ready in the morning, the Confederate forces weren’t in sync so one group of forces attacked in the morning, Pickett wasn’t even ready in the morning.
So it took them all morning to get to the point where Pickett was ready, and then they get to the afternoon and Pickett’s charge begins and 15,000 Confederate soldiers march a mile over territory that I can’t even imagine. I’ve been to Gettysburg and I’ve walked Pickett’s charge and it’s incredible. It doesn’t make sense that men could march slowly and methodically – which all the history accounts sort of talk about how the Confederates marched on the Union’s positions – through a field with no cover, with artillery coming at you every which direction, straight into a well-defended Union line and the Confederates just get massacred. And it’s the highwater mark of the Confederacy and really it’s even amazing that the Confederacy is able to fight for another two years after that.
But it all turns on Lee ordering Pickett’s charge. He could have withdrawn, he could have taken a defensive posture and let the enemy come to him. I don’t think that the Confederacy would have won the Civil War even if the Battle of Gettysburg had gone differently but certainly a major part of the way the war developed and the way peace developed afterwards all came down to Robert E. Lee’s decision to order a charge that by any logical or rational metric that I could come up, he shouldn’t have ordered.
XS: Yeah now and in this piece that you wrote – and one of the perks of working at Geopolitical Futures is I get to read some of these big pieces before they get published, right? And in this piece, you mention a couple of things that just seem like someone should be aware of this, right? Like Lee did not check his ammunition stores before he ordered the charge across this milelong stretch of field which in theory could have at least provided some degree of cover for the men going across. And up to that time in the war, Lee, really with a great lack of resources compared to the North, had been able to pull off some really astonishing victories.
So what do you think lead Robert E. Lee to make that decision? What could have happened if he had been more collected, if he had thought differently? I certainly don’t want to criticize a guy who was so successful up until that point because, as we’ll come back and mention, one of the great weaknesses of thinking through these events in retrospect as well, all human beings make some errors at some point, right? But how could this have played out differently?
JLS: Yeah so I think there’s two different ways to answer that question. The first is to realize that while we are here talking about individuals and individual choices that happen, those broad impersonal forces that we discuss all the time are still extremely relevant. One of the reasons Lee and the Confederates won the victories they won was because they were much more desperate and they had to take many more risks than the Union had to take and that meant high-risk, high-reward maneuvers.
Now Lee was facing an army, the Army of the Potomac, that the leadership structure was in complete chaos. Lincoln could never find a commander that he really trusted. The top was being shifted around all the time. And you know they were technically fighting on enemy territory, right? They were fighting in the South, they were fighting in Virginia and they were fighting in the places that Lee’s soldiers called home. All of that I think matters a great deal.
But the other thing was that Lee had to take risks that McClellan and the other Union generals didn’t have to take. And so that puts him in a position to win certain battles and go on the aggressive in Virginia that maybe doesn’t work quite as well once he moves into Maryland and Pennsylvania. The second thing to point out though I think – and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about the orders and about what it means to command that many men at the same time – Lee relied on the commanders underneath him to understand his orders. He delegated a great deal of authority to them.
And one of the reasons the loss of Stonewall Jackson was so important to the Confederacy was because Stonewall Jackson understood Lee. He knew what Lee wanted; he knew what he was thinking. Longstreet was another one who really understood Lee. So when he lost Jackson, he lost one of his main lieutenants. And then on top of that he had to replace Jackson with people he wasn’t completely confident in. But this goes back to the artillery question, right? Because there is no way that a general like Robert E. Lee or even Napoleon could know every single thing that was happening on a battlefield. You know, we’re talking about armies that are 100,000 people large, even larger in some cases, and you can’t expect that general to know the disposition of every single company and brigade and how many artillery is in this here and how many artillery in that here.
In some sense, they are supposed to sit on top of it and they are supposed to organize it all. But when Lee is talking to the person who is in charge of his artillery and the person who is in charge of his artillery isn’t very good and says that everything’s fine, Lee doesn’t have time to go check that. Lee has to depend that his subordinates know what they’re talking about and will raise disagreements with him.
This is another part and I wonder if there’s any of this with Napoleon. I think another part of Gettysburg was that Lee by that point had won so many battles and the men trusted him so much and believed in him so much that they lost a little bit of the will to question him. I’m not saying that Longstreet and the others didn’t question him but you know the day before Pickett’s charge, the night before Pickett’s charge, Longstreet’s criticism and his concerns were not nearly as vocal as they were the morning of the actual charge. And once it’s the morning of the actual charge, Lee sticks to his guns.
If Longstreet had felt able to speak up the night before or even some of the other regimental commanders had or Pickett had the sense to say, “General Lee, this isn’t a good idea, there’s no way that we could do this,” maybe things would have been handled a little bit differently. But the ironic thing is that the more battles Lee won, the more the men trusted him and believed in him such that when it came time to order Pickett’s charge, those men were more afraid of disappointing or saying no to their order than they were to marching across a field with certain death at the end of it. Those are two things to think about.
XS: Yeah hubris definitely played a role at Waterloo too. The day of the battle or maybe it was the day before the battle, one of his inferiors said to Napoleon, I think as it related to sending Grouchy off to his right flank to the east, “Is this a good idea? Should we be dividing our forces right now as we get ready to go up against the British?” And I am paraphrasing Napoleon’s response but it’s been recorded and it’s very close to something like, “You’re not listening to me when I tell you this. Wellington is a bad general. He is not a good general.” Like, “Shut up, I know what I’m doing,” right?
And one of the things that Napoleon really perfected in his military tactics in the 19th century was moving artillery rapidly in conjunction with infantry to support infantry. And a tactic that Wellington had developed and used several times before was just hiding men behind a ridge so that they were out of range of the artillery. They just couldn’t hit them because they were behind.
So by the time the infantry marched up and they had tried to battle these positions with artillery, not much had happened because they were completely protected. So Wellington was recorded as saying afterwards, again paraphrasing something like, “Napoleon marched right in the same old way he always did, and we beat him the same old way we always did.”
JLS: Yeah, there’s a similar thing happening in Gettysburg. I mean, Lee was not wrong to think that the Union commanders were bad. He had time and again beaten the Union because people like McClellan or Burnside just hadn’t done very well and General Meade, who commanded the Union forces at Gettysburg, had only been put in place very recently. Lincoln had removed Hooker and put Meade in place.
So really when Lee went North, he thought he was going to be facing Hooker. It turned out he was facing Meade and he didn’t see there was any great difference between the two. And he was wrong about that. Meade was a solid general and a had good sense of what was going on and in general had made the right decisions there. So there is certainly an element of confidence that has to happen there.
But I would also say that, I think in general for military leaders and things like this, you also have to have that confidence. Once you make that decision, you have to trust that you’ve gotten through everything and you have to act with a certain amount of confidence. You have to have flexibility to respond to changes as they happen on the battlefield.
But it really, in a case like Lee’s or in a case like Napoleon’s, we start talking about things like tragic flaws because the thing that makes them so good also ends up being their Achilles’ heel sometimes in a situation where things aren’t going the way that they did before for them. So I think that’s another thing to think about.
XS: Yeah now when we talk about these moments in history – and I’ve kind of come to call them Midway moments just because George really emphasizes the element of chance in the Battle of Midway – I think that the three that we have talked about in this episode all are slightly different, right?
With Gettysburg, it was really the decision of one man that kind of swung the pivot one way or another. In the case of Waterloo, it was basically the decision of two men: both Napoleon and Grouchy could have acted differently. Grouchy could’ve figured it was his role to – he was delegating responsibility; he could have moved his forces in a way that linked back up with Napoleon. Napoleon could’ve been clearer, right? And in the case of Midway, it was really kind of just chance. Do I turn left or do I turn right? And turning the right way lead them to the Japanese fleet.
Now, I think if we tried to put these Midway moments in the context of some of these larger personal trends that we talk about. Looking at Waterloo, Napoleon let’s say he could have won Waterloo. With some consideration and after a conversation that I had with George on this topic, I really don’t think that there is any way for Napoleon to have won the war that he started in 1815. There was at that point simply too many resources on the other side. Even if he had achieved his sort of midterm strategic objective of driving the British to the ocean, getting them off a continent and blocking off the Prussians from their allies on the west, the Russians were still mobilizing. They were just doing it a lot slower, which is why they weren’t involved in the Battle of Waterloo.
So it was kind of a matter of time before Napoleon was going to be overwhelmed by incredible force and he could’ve at that point attacked the Russians, tried to push them east. But so long as the Prussians retained supply lines all the way back to home, they can pull back and hold a defensive position until the Russians came. So I think in that case the balance of resources was just so overwhelmingly on the side of the allies. They also had more troops available to them. I mean Napoleon was really – France had already been just completely wiped out of military-aged men almost by that point from the first almost 20 years of Napoleonic wars. There just weren’t that many military resources, both men and materiel, that he could pull from at that point. And that was not necessarily the case on the allied side.
So I think we can talk about Waterloo as a Midway moment and still recognize that in that case, impersonal trends probably in this what if scenario probably would have led to a very similar historical outcome. What do you think about Gettysburg?
JLS: Well I think that your point is well taken and I think that even though it’s a lot of fun to talk about these things, and I really do believe some of these things could have turned out differently depending on the individuals that we are talking about, but the side that basically should have won on paper in terms of resources and impersonal forces and geopolitics and all that other stuff, won in each three of these cases. The United States overall was a greater power than Japan in the long run and it prevailed in the end. In the Civil War, the Confederacy was not going to be able to defeat the Union.
Their only chance of defeating the Union, at first, it was to try and inflict a couple really harsh defeats and hope that that would cow them into negotiation. Once the war was going on this long, their only hope was to try and prolong the conflict and make the Union see that it wasn’t going anywhere such that they could get international recognition and maybe some help and some resources from outside and maybe even get a pro-peace candidate to replace Lincoln in the next Union presidential election. But everything was relying on using the battles to influence political conditions to make it more amenable to some kind of settlement. And as you just said in Waterloo, Napoleon didn’t really have the troops to make it work against the allies that he was fighting against.
So yeah, the answer to that is that I don’t think if Lee had won at Gettysburg, I don’t think the Confederacy would have won the Civil War and I also don’t think that we would’ve then lived in this alternate universe where the fighting spirit of the Union had been broken and there would have been some kind of negotiated settlement and you have had a Union and a Confederacy for some amount of time before they joined back together. I think in the end, the odds were very much stacked against – and this is where sort of the sheer-force statistics makes it work. The Confederacy had a very, very small margin for error. It could not afford to make the sort of catastrophic mistakes that happened at Gettysburg; the Union could.
The reason that Ulysses S. Grant succeeded as a general was because he was willing to take the casualties and knew that the Union could replenish itself and the Confederacy couldn’t. And this is actually a concept that we think about often when we’re thinking about geopolitics today. When we talk about American power, the United States has not fared well in many of its recent wars. It lost the Vietnam War for all intents and purposes. I think we can say that the second Iraq War it lost. It will lose the war in Afghanistan. These are not wars where the United States is going to be able to achieve its political objective.
I should say right now that doesn’t mean that the U.S. didn’t fight courageously or that it didn’t win a great number of battles, but if the definition of victory in a war is to carry the political objective that you wanted, the U.S. couldn’t do that in Vietnam, it hasn’t done that in the second Iraq War, it has not been able to do it in Afghanistan and the U.S. can survive that. The U.S. can survive losing wars and making mistakes because of the depths of its power. A much smaller country can’t survive those kind of mistakes. And sometimes if a smaller country makes those kind of mistakes, it ends up in the outright destruction of those countries. I am sure we can think of multiple instances in history where a small country because of whatever reason loses a great deal of its sovereignty because it tries to do something that doesn’t work.
So again in all of these situations, I think that Lee’s decisions and Napoleon’s decisions and Torpedo 8, I think that’s all a part of the fabric of history and one of the things about studying wars is that geopolitics can take you most of the way to understanding how a war was started and why it was started and what the objectives are, but at a certain point, war is complicated and messy and relies on the actions of individuals.
At the same time, even when those individuals’ actions are the most important and everything hangs in the balance, those individuals are still there because the impersonal forces that we always talk about brought them to those points. We can map out exactly why Lee was at Gettysburg and we can even map out why he felt a little bit desperate probably and how that influenced his decision-making. I am sure you can do the same for Napoleon.
XS: Yeah he had absolutely no margin of error just like you said with Lee.
JLS: So at that point it becomes are we really talking about individuals shaping history or is this the broad geopolitical forces that we talked about shaping the individuals and the individuals marched along to their own drum? For me, I think that Gettysburg is such a compelling test case for this because I really do think that Pickett’s charge was just a mistake. It was not the type of thing that you could’ve predicted because it didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t make sense to me with all the evidence that we know that Lee had in front of him, it does not make sense to me why he ordered it.
The only way it makes sense to me is if I can think back to moments in my own life or moments in human history where I’ve been blinded by passions or I’ve been blinded by something else instead of the thing that was in front of me. But if you’re talking about as a sober, rational military tactician, and that was what Lee was, he was a very disciplined general, making that decision, it doesn’t make sense. He let himself get caught up in the moment and he didn’t see what was going on and he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
And for me trying to explain how a man got that far and then makes that mistake is the challenge and in some ways, it will yield an unsatisfying answer because I don’t think I have an answer beyond the fact that he was human and he made a mistake. Maybe a mistake that we can empathize with and understand based on what he was. But at the same time, that particular thing on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg just comes down to Lee making a mistake and his men following orders.
XS: Yeah so in all of these circumstances you can imagine how with a different decision made by an individual or a couple of individuals, the outcome might have still looked somewhat similar. However, the process to get to that outcome might have played out entirely differently. For example, in World War II, if the U.S. had lost Midway, if they wanted to stay in the war, they would’ve beaten Japan in the long run, it just may have taken much longer. It probably would’ve taken many more lives, it probably would’ve taken a lot more resources and it probably would’ve taken a focus away from the European theater to focus on the Pacific theater first.
And what might have happened to Russia while it was basically trying to beat back the Nazis on its own at that point? And would the U.K. have received American arms? It’s hard to tell but it seems likely that the Allies still would have won. It’s just the process to get there would’ve looked entirely different, right?
JLS: Yeah, it would’ve looked entirely different, and this is again one of the things we talk about a lot internally and which I talk about all the time, and it’s one of the more interesting things to talk about which is, the shorter your time horizon, the more the individual matters. I think sometimes in GPF writing, we have a tendency to dismiss the individual and that’s because in the broad scheme of things, we do think individuals are less important.
But when you think about history 50 years, 100 years out, these forces that we’re talking about and just the magnitude of the number of the decisions that have to be made by human beings sort of settles into something of a logic that you can predict. But the shorter and shorter and shorter the time horizon, the more important the individual gets. You know sometimes, people ask us, “Well you didn’t predict X was going to happen.” And I think one of the things to say there is we don’t presume what’s going to happen tomorrow. If you can predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, you have an incredibly high degree of intelligence about what’s going on with a particular set of actors.
What we can say is that, you don’t really need that intelligence to understand the most important things that are going to develop over the course of years and decades and perhaps on the magnitude of a century. But again that’s what makes this all so difficult and what makes this job challenging is that you can’t just sort of plug everything into a formula. You can make a model of it, and you can hope that it works the way it does. And we’ll be putting our 2017 forecast report card which is a really good way of thinking about this tension, right? Because we’ve made a set of forecasts for the year and every day we’re tracking them.
So we have to decide, well this happened today – how good are we doing? How bad are we doing? Should we call this an incomplete? Should we call this a failure? Should we call this a whatever? And that gets back to the exact same questions that we’re talking about here, right? Well this particular thing happened on this particular day. We didn’t see that Saudi Arabia was going to engage in this diplomatic offensive against Qatar and was going to try to isolate Qatar. We certainly though knew that Saudi Arabia and Iran were going to be competing more this year. And we said as much.
So it’s this weird space, and I think we are all individuals, all of us are individuals, so we get seduced by stories like Robert E. Lee and like Napoleon and like Torpedo 8 because we can wrap our brains around that. We can imagine the Civil War is a massive conflagration that happens because of a lot of different geographic and political forces and the same is true with Napoleon. World War II is like the mother of all things in that regard just because of how complicated it was. But it’s very easy to think of yourself as ok, well I am General Lee and I go visit the Battle of Gettysburg site and I can walk the line and I can walk Pickett’s charge and I can put everything in front of me and I can think on a tangible basis, well what did it mean to be here?
And in some sense that becomes very important, and it’s very important to think about that stuff emotionally if you’re going to empathize with the stuff that we’re analyzing. At the same time though, if you let that be all that you’re seeing, you’re going to miss sort of the broad sweep of history.
XS: So if you’re a fan of the Civil War, be sure to check out Jacob’s piece that will be coming out on the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s on July 3, it will be published, right?
JLS: It will and maybe if it does well and if people enjoy this conversation, we’ll let you take a whip at the Battle of Waterloo and maybe we’ll even think about trying to do maybe every once in a quarter or once in a blue moon, doing some of these pieces.
XS: Definitely and on that point, please do let us know, readers and listeners, what you are interested in hearing more of. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We do our absolute best to respond to all of them, and we look forward to hearing more about what you want to receive from us.
JLS: Well thanks, Xander, and we’ll see you out there next week.