The Fallacy of Metrics


Russia’s Military Was Great Until It Wasn’t (msn.com)

The essay above from The Atlantic is an excellent reminder that those interested in trying to understand war and warfare should stop listening to people who depend on counting and measuring in order to predict the future.  As Yogi Berra famously said, “Predictions are hard, especially when they are about the future.” Naturally, we need to consider what is coming up, we cannot live our lives entirely in a laconic reactive mode; this is especially tru for militaries of all stripes. But it is not all about numbers.

In my personal opinion, we fell in love some decades ago with the American love of statistics.  Statistical analysis, metrics, tracking, quantifying, measuring.  It all gives the aura of infallibility. Someone who is 93% sure of something appears more accurate than someone who is pretty sure. Life is not baseball; and war is not analogous to what we saw in the movie Moneyball.  Put your hand up if you invested in Nortel because your financial advisor analyzed it and raved at what a hot prospect it was; yes, my hand is up. And yes, I no longer use that guy.

The article cites the Battle of France 1940.  It is the gold standard for military predictive failure. Breathtakingly wrong. (sort of like Gulf War I). Ironically, the next best example involves the same two antagonists.  The Franco Prussian War of 1870 saw similar predictions with strikingly similar outcomes.  There is even a story (unverified) that the Kaiser was expecting his army to be beaten and was shocked at how quickly his army got to Paris.  The latter part is both true and verified. After all, France was the acknowledged superpower of its day.  It had a reputedly unbeatable military, they were the heirs of Napoleon.  

Even more ironically, the next best example has the same two protagonists.  In 1806, the heirs of Frederick the Great insulted the upstart Corsican (yes Napoleon) and in the course of a SINGLE battle (Jena), the French army eradicated what many ‘analysts’ considered to be the best army in Europe. Prussia went from being the ‘best’ army in Europe to a lickspittle protectorate under the heel of the French emperor.

What can we make of all of this data?  First, beware of using data.  You cannot quantify leadership, courage, determination, self-sacrifice, and morale.  People try all the time. America (again) has an entire industry devoted to quantifying the unquantifiable: the 4 best habits of successful leaders; the 9 most important paperclips of corporate success . . . The French didn’t lose in 1940 because of their equipment or their numbers; they had unbeatable numbers and superior quality.  What they lacked was unquantifiable.  There are stories of French soldiers at the front weeping because their officers abandoned them, and the soldiers wanted to fight.  One armoured colonel, who interestingly was forcibly retired as a colonel and was a thorn in the side of his bosses, commanding a small tank force, refused to surrender and further infuriated his seniors.  You may have heard of him: Charles de Gaulle.

Time to sum up: War is a human endeavour and although there is a need to count, measure and analyze, it is not like counting rpm and converting it to speed.  There are much more amorphous forces at work and even if we could measure them all, we would still know the square root of SFA.

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