Winston Churchill, like most statesmen, was known to have little patience for pettifoggery and pirouetting around a problem. His mind instinctively sought the core of a problem, and was able to slash through brambles and thickets to find it. His biographer William Manchester wrote, “[He] cared little for obtuse political or social theories; he was a man of action: state the problem, find a solution, and solve the problem.”
This did not mean, however, that Churchill failed to inform himself on all facets of a problem. Quite the contrary: he was extraordinarily well-read, and consumed books—both fiction and nonfiction—voraciously all through his life. “Reading, for Churchill, was a form of action,” says Manchester. “After a lifetime of reading—from the sea-adventuring Hornblower novels to the complete Shakespeare and Macaulay—he possessed the acumen to reduce complex intellectual systems and constructs and theories to their most basic essences.” When Churchill was present at one dinner, the topic of socialism came up; after enduring some banter back and forth, he suggested that those present read the work of an entomologist entitled The Life of the White Ant. “Socialism,” he announced, “would make our society comparable to that of the white ant.” The discussion then ended.
This skill—the ability to cut to the heart of a matter—was one that both Julius Caesar and John F. Kennedy also possessed. No one, for example, who has read Caesar’s Commentaries can fail to be astounded by the adroitness and flexibility with which he shepherded Gaul’s complex ethnic, military, and geographical challenges to favorable outcomes. And yet this is a leadership trait that seems to be lost on many today. We have accumulated, like vast banks of silt clogging the arterial flow of a river, institutions upon institutions, organizations upon organizations, and bureaucracies upon bureaucracies—all with the alleged purpose of simplifying and solving problems. Yet they do precisely the opposite. Too often the form is preferred to the substance. Endless maneuvering is seen as a substitute for the direct attack; and the result is that problems fester, and persist.
What matters more than anything is one’s objective: all else must be made subordinate to this. I believe Colonel C.E. Callwell’s classic Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice stated this principle quite cogently:
And so we arrive at a great broad principle which stands out clear and well defined amid the vague uncertainties which enshroud all operations of this class. Since tactics favor the regular troops while strategy favors the enemy, the object to be sought for clearly is to fight, not to maneuver, to meet the hostile forces in open battle, not to compel them to give way by having recourse to strategy…Then again, there may sometimes be a choice between attacking the enemy, and embarking on an elaborate strategical combination which, should it succeed, will achieve a brilliant and far reaching success, but the execution of which bristles with difficulties. Profound plans carefully worked out on paper in advance are very apt to miscarry when they come to be put into practice in irregular warfare, which is often carried on in a difficult and not very well known terrain.
These words were written in 1906, and they remain as valid today as they were in the early twentieth century. What Col. Callwell is telling us—indeed, what he entitles the chapter from which the above quotation is taken—is that the object is to fight, not to maneuver. This is a principle that is as applicable to life and work as it is to war. There are many people who confuse the mechanics of solving a problem, with the actual solving of the problem; there are many who confuse maneuvering and pirouetting around a problem, with actually solving the problem. Likewise, we observe that many confuse learning about a language, with actually learning a language; and many of our “leaders” believe that endless discussions about a problem will suffice in place of actually solving the problem.
This disease is something we encounter over and over in the modern landscape. The reasons for it are not difficult to discern. The first reason is pure cowardice: no one wants to take responsibility, no one wants to “offend” anyone else, and no one wants to bring down the hammer on those heads that are, frankly, in acute need of being hammered. We have created a culture where being “non-offensive” is seen as the pinnacle of virtue, when in fact it may be the acme of cowardice. “Councils of war,” Douglas MacArthur’s father once told him, “breed only timidity and defeat.” There are times when hard, direct, and ruthless action must be taken; this is a leader’s responsibility and his sacred duty.
The second reason behind this modern preference for maneuver over actual problem-solving is ignorance. It is nothing but a sophisticated way of dodging responsibility, of hiding from one’s obligations. Many of those who hold positions of responsibility today are neither well-educated nor well-informed. We elect mediocrities; we elevate knaves and dunces, and then expect a reasonable level of competence. The third reason is simply organizational inertia: we have accumulated far too many committees, groups, organizations, experts, and overlapping bureaucracies. All of these structures need something to do; all of them need to justify their often useless existences. And so they study, debate, discuss, recommend, and submit; the net result is that nothing ever changes, and nothing is solved. But this is how they want it, because solving a problem would mean bringing the hammer down on an eminently deserving head.
The truth is that maneuver can assist in the attainment of an objective, but it can never replace the objective. The best commanders have an instinctive feel for this truth. Ulysses S. Grant was one of the few Union generals who grasped that the Confederacy could not be defeated by endless flanking and maneuvering. He understood that McClelland’s deft maneuver antics were no substitute for direct, relentless action. The only way to win a modern war, he grasped, was to batter, bludgeon, and pound the enemy into an exhausted submission: there was no other way. It was a dark and brutal truth, but it was a truth nonetheless; and time proved him to be right. Most major wars since then have seen this same dynamic: they require far more of a commitment than originally anticipated, and a far more strenuous exertion.
We are living in a state of collective delusion and denial, a surreal world where we can pretend problems do not exist if we simply rename them; where action to deal with problems can be postponed indefinitely; and where derelict leaders can smugly escape punishment for their negligence and crimes. Perhaps it is only fitting that Facebook (now “Meta”) has chosen this moment to inflict its “alternate reality” projects on a benumbed public. The price of all this will be very high, and it will be paid in due course.
So we must concern ourselves with the tasks at hand, those that are in front of us. Our nation is in severe crisis, and we cannot afford to dance around the castle’s moat: we must bridge the moat by whatever means available, and take the castle by force. We must see things as they truly are, not as we wish them to be. We cannot maneuver our way out of crises: we must grapple with them, these multi-headed Hydras, slash off their heads one by one, and cauterize the malignant stumps without delay. Of what use is it to fixate on arcane irrelevancies, when we are stared in the face by pressing and momentous difficulties? Along these lines, the philosopher Philo of Alexandria said, in his essay On Dreams (I.53):
Why, again, do you seek to understand the nature of the rest of the stars, of their motions, of their sympathy with one another, and even with earthly things? And why, while walking upon the earth, do you soar above the clouds? And why, while rooted in the solid land, do you affirm that you can reach the things in the sky? And why do you endeavor to form conjectures about matters which cannot be ascertained by conjecture? And why do you busy yourself with sublime subjects which you ought not to meddle with?…My good man, do not trouble your head about things beyond the ocean, but attend only to what is near you: and be content rather to examine yourself without flattery.
Check out the audiobook edition of the new translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations