A lot of things don’t make any sense.
The numbers don’t add up, the explanations are full of holes. And yet they keep happening – people making crazy decisions, reacting in bizarre ways.
Over and over.
Historian Will Durant once said, “logic is an invention of man and may be ignored by the universe.” And it often is, which can drive you mad if you expect the world to work in rational ways.
A common cause of everything from divisive arguments to bad forecasting is that it can be hard to distinguish what’s happening from what you think should be happening.
Two short war stories to show you what I mean.
The Battle of the Bulge was one of the deadliest American military battles in history. Nineteen thousand American soldiers were killed, another 70,000 missing or wounded, in just over a month as Nazi Germany made an ill-fated last push against the Allies.
Part of the reason it was so bloody is that Americans were surprised. And part of the reason they were surprised is that in the rational minds of American generals, it made no sense for Germany to attack.
The Germans didn’t have enough troops to win a counterattack, and the few that were left were often children under age 18 with no combat experience.
They didn’t have enough fuel. They were running out of food. The terrain of the Ardenne Forest in Belgium stacked the odds against them.
The weather was atrocious.
The Allies knew all of this. They reasoned that any rational German commander would not launch a counterattack. So the American lines were left fairly thin and ill-supplied.
And then, boom. The Germans attacked anyway.What the American generals overlooked was how unhinged Hitler had become.
He wasn’t rational. He was living in his own world, detached from reality and reason.
When his generals asked where they should get fuel to complete the attack, Hitler said they could just steal it from the Americans.
Reality didn’t matter.
Historian Stephen Ambrose notes that Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley got all the war-planning reasoning and logic right in late 1944, except for one detail – how irrational Hitler had become.
But that mattered more than anything.
A generation later, something similar happened during the Vietnam war.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara viewed the world as a big math problem. He wanted everything quantified, and based his career on the idea that any problem could be solved if you obeyed the cold truth of statistics and logic.
One of the key measures of success during Vietnam was body count – how many Viet Cong did American troops kill? Are more Viet Cong dying than Americans? It was easy to track, easy to show on a chart, and became an obsession.
Then there was the logic: If enough Northern Vietnamese were killed, you could break the spirit of the enemy who saw their chances of victory diminished.
More enemy bodies was equated with being closer to winning. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces, explained in 1967:
We’ll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations. Then they will have to reassess their position.
The war was turned into a math equation.
If enemy dead outnumbered American dead, Americans would win. Ice-cold logic.
But the bodies piled up, and the war went on. And on. And on.
The “equation” would work only if the North Vietnamese leaders were calm, rational actors who would “calculate costs and benefits to the extent that they can be related to different courses of action, and make choices accordingly,” as one paper put it.
But they weren’t.
Edward Lansdale of the CIA once told McNamara that his statistics were missing something.
McNamara said, “What?”Landsdale said, “The feelings of the Vietnamese people.”You couldn’t capture that on a chart. But it meant everything.
In 1966 New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury wrote:
I seldom talked to any North Vietnamese without some reference coming into the conversation of the people’s preparedness to fight ten, fifteen, even twenty years in order to achieve victory. At first I thought such expressions might reflect government propaganda … but … I began to realize that this was a national psychology.
Ho Chi Minh put it more bluntly: “You will kill ten of us, and we will kill one of you, but it is you who will tire first.”
That’s exactly how it played out in America, where statistics meant nothing against feelings.
Westmoreland once told Senator Fritz Hollings, “We’re killing these people at a rate of 10 to one.” Hollings replied, “The American people don’t care about the 10. They care about the one.
"That was hard to reconcile in the statistical mind of someone like McNamara. It was like defying the laws of physics, or a typo in a math equation.
But that’s how the world works.
Some things just don’t compute.