Hercules And The Apple Of Athena

One of the fables of Aesop concerns Hercules and Athena.  One day, Hercules was proceeding along a pathway in the mountains when he spotted an apple lying on the ground.  Irritated at its presence, he decided to smash it with his club; and when he tried to do so, the apple doubled in size.  Shocked, he swung his club at it again, this time determined to crush it completely.

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Fury Is Good

A few days ago I had a chance to see Sylvester Stallone’s 2008 remake of his 1980s film Rambo.  It was two hours of mindless violence, and I loved every minute of it.

Few actors throw themselves into the action as fearlessly as does Stallone.  He’s in his 60s now, and he’s as pumped up as ever, doing nearly the same things he was doing in the 1980s.  Incredible.

You can say what you want about Sylvester Stallone.  But he is a very driven man, with a singular sense of purpose.  I respect that.  I admire his audacity.

Toujours, l’audace.

I know, I know.  You’re going to tell me that he uses all sorts of “performance enhancing” drugs, and what not.  Maybe.  I don’t really know.  And I don’t think it really matters, for my purposes here.  The point is the ethic, and the spirit.

And the fury.  I love the fury of speed, action, and movement.  It creates its own poetry.  It carries its own logic.  It forces upon us the necessity of decision.   And the necessity to be decisive.

Speed, action, and movement.  Get action.  Get movement.

Some men are born for conflict.  Some are born for struggle.  It’s in their blood.  This is the sentiment of the movie, expressed repeatedly in the voice-overs.

I wrote about one such man in my book Thirty Seven.  His name was Ernst Junger, and his book Storm of Steel is a flowering of cathartic violence.  And this is good.

Sometimes, violence is necessary.  Anyone who ever said that violence never solved anything doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

There are times when violent struggle cuts through, clarifies, and crystallizes the essence of an issue.

I was reminded of this recently when watching a video of a man getting beaten up on a subway in St. Louis.  He was accosted by a group of punks, and then assaulted.  He did not defend himself.  He curled up into the fetal position, and then proceeded to give interviews to the media about how “nobody helped me.”

Well, why didn’t you help yourself?  What did you do to defend yourself?

He was preyed on because he communicated weakness and defeat.  And the aggressors sensed this.

If you don’t take steps to defend yourself, no one else will.  The only person who cares about you, is you.

Conflict is all around us.  Conflict and struggle are the fulcrums of our earthly existence, and the existence of every other sentient form of life here with us.  We can either deal with it, or we can curl up into the fetal position.  Just like the sorry specimen on the subway.

When we adopt this as our ethic, we notice that our capacities for deterrence are enhanced.  We communicate, in silent form, the message that we are not to be trifled with.  Aggressors can sense this, on some animal level.  And you have to mean it.  You have to be prepared to fling yourself into action, when such threats materialize.  The moment of truth comes for all of us.

You will know if you have the soul of a fighter when that feeling of transcendent radiance comes over you, in the midst of violent conflict.  Everyone around you will be dithering and running here and there.  But you will be in your zone.  Your conflict zone.

It is a mystical feeling.  It is an inexplicable feeling.  But it is there.  And it is real.

A man finds his true essence at such moments.  It is a moment of clarity.  A moment of transcendent, mystical truth.

And it is glorious.

When someone assaults you, and when someone intends to do you harm, you don’t sit there and hold your head in your hands.  You don’t give interviews to the press.  You don’t expect others to do your fighting for you.

You attack with a fanatical fury until the threat is neutralized.

Fury, in all its transcendent forms, has a goodness that is distinctly its own.


Read More:  On Conflict

Good Facts Are Not Enough: The Material Requirements Of Victory


By trade, I am a practicing attorney and a partner in a law firm.  In my fifteen year legal career, I have tried a large number of criminal cases in federal and state courts.  I have also litigated an equally large number of complex business and consumer bankruptcy matters in federal bankruptcy courts.  This background, combined with my previous career as an military officer, has taught me a few things about conflict and its management.

Conflict has a trajectory.  It begins, simmers, crescendos, and then approaches a climax.

It is one thing to read about a subject in a book.  One can read about the theories of Sun Tsu, Jomini, Clausewitz, or any number of military theorists.  And this is a productive use of time, worthy of time and effort.  One can also read about jury trials, or see movies about them, however imaginary or misleading many of them are.

And so many of them are laughably misleading.

But it is quite another matter actually to be in the hot-seat.  To handle a jury trial alone, from start to finish–from voir dire until the final verdict–is not something that can be imparted by the written word.  Writing is incapable of expressing the emotions, the stress, the exhilaration, the anger, and the eruption of intensity that comes with this experience.  There is nothing else like it.

There are law school graduates.  There are people with diplomas on their walls.  There are people who spend their legal careers safely ensconced in some corporate or government office, afraid to get their hands dirty.  There are those with opinions about everything, without having done anything.

And then there are the few who actually fight it out in the real world.  The few who are actually capable of doing what trial attorneys do.  Those who have actual clients, actual businesses, and actual victories.

In an earlier post, I discussed some aspects of conflict.

One aspect in particular deserves additional mention:  the need for material support.  Or, we could call it logistical support.  I was thinking about this today in my office.

This is what I have seen time and time again:  good facts are not enough.  If you wish to be successful in the arena of conflict, you need the tools to do the job.  In the legal world, these tools are generally twofold:  (1) the financial resources to litigate the case successfully; and (2) having a client who is supportive, responsive, and engaged in the battle.

If either of these tools is lacking, victory is in doubt.

Let us discuss the financial issue.  With money, a litigant can hire experts, can fight every motion, and can wear down the other side with discovery.  Money makes a difference.  Money sends a strong message to the opponent.  Money is an asset, just as surely as gasoline and food is an asset to a mechanized army.

Would OJ Simpson ever have been acquitted if he had been indigent, and been forced to use a public defender?


People don’t like to deal with this reality.  But it is there.  Even if you have a good set of facts, or a good case, you need to get that truth out there.  Financial resources are a great asset.  Anyone who thinks otherwise simply has never been in the playing field.

But you also need a cooperative, engaged, and supportive client.  If you client is “dropping his pack”, not answering your calls, being sullen and uninterested, then your job is measurably more difficult.  You cannot drag an unwilling mule to the fight.  Your client has to want to win.  If it is a bankruptcy litigated matter–say, a Chapter 11 reorganization–your client has to want to reorganize.

He must have the willpower, and the tenacity, to see things through to conclusion.

If you turn around, and no one is following you, then victory is in doubt.

One of the most frustrating things in my career is a situation where you see that a client has great facts, but is either unwilling or unable to carry those facts through to a successful conclusion.

But this is the way things are.  This is part of the moral dimension of conflict.  For a successful outcome to happen in a conflict, many different moving parts must come together in the right way.  And you can only control so many of those moving parts.  We cannot manage all aspects of conflict.

Good facts are the raw material to begin with.  But it’s still a long way from there to the finish line.

Read More:  On Conflict

On Conflict


What is the nature and purpose of conflict, and how may it be dealt with?  These are questions that have been considered by many through the centuries.  And rightly so, as conflict–in which I include war as well as any other clash of wills–is at the core of existence.  Whether we speak of Nature or the metaphysical realm, the clash of two opposites is at the heart of the eternal dialectic.  To understand this, and to cope with its implications, is one of our primary duties.

The goal of conflict is for one side to make the other side change its mind:  that is, for one side to impose its will on another.  As two or more opponents clash, what Clausewitz called “friction” is produced.  He defined friction as the force which makes “even the seemingly easy, difficult.”  And this statement captures one of the essential principles of conflict.  In the heat of conflict (whether it be a trial in a courtroom, a contest of wills between people, or warfare), even the simplest things become very difficult.  Conflict feels like trying to run in a dream.  Action becomes slow, plodding, and uncertain.

I have particularly noticed this in two settings.  One setting was in the operation of military forces in the pursuit of some goal.  Military operations never evolve as planned.  Communications will go down.  Radios or signals intelligence will be flawed.  Logistics will be impeded.  Unexpected disasters will happen.

Another setting in which I’ve noticed the operation of friction is in the trial of a legal case in a courtroom.  Small problems become magnified into big problems.  Witnesses will not perform as expected.  Juries or judges will do or say unanticipated things.  Evidence you want to introduce will be denied, or will have a different effect than that desired.

This is the distorting lens of conflict in action.  Conflict magnifies things, making the insignificant, significant. We can try to control some of these elements, but complete control is not possible.  The better way is to learn to use “friction” to our advantage.  We must embrace fluidity, friction, disorder, violence, and uncertainty, knowing that they are inescapable.

The human dimension is found in the operation of moral forces.  Conflict is a human activity, and so we must take account of the behavior of humans.  Wills will fail; exhaustion will set in; passion will cloud judgment; boldness will accelerate the tempo of operations; and frustration will slow down operations.  We must know ourselves, as well as the opposing will.  The purpose of collecting intelligence in conflict is to better manage the moral dimension of conflict.

In conflict, our primary purpose is to know what we wish to accomplish.  Strategy is this knowledge.  You would be surprised how often this matter is overlooked.  Not knowing what one is wanting to do is the beginning of failure.  If you do not know what you are doing, friction will decide for you.

There are two main styles of conflict:  attrition and maneuver.  In attrition conflict, we wish to wear down our opponent by the expenditure of some resource (money, materiel, or lives).  In maneuver conflict, we wish to win by a judicious use of our power, achieving ends in the most efficient way.  Both methods have their uses.  The decision to employ one style over another will depend on the circumstances.

In general, maneuver is useful for parties at a disadvantage in strength.  The Boers in the Boer War, Hannibal in Italy during the Second Punic War, Nathaniel Greene in the American Revolutionary War, Lettow-Vorbeck’s campaign in East Africa in the First World War, the irregular warfare practiced by Michael Collins and the IRA in Ireland in the early 1920s, the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, the German Army in Italy in 1943-1944, are all examples of employment of maneuver.  Many other historical examples can be found of attrition, such as the US military in the Second World War.

The failure to adapt strategy to means and ends is the beginning of failure.  Trying to do something beyond one’s means is the beginning of failure.  Since conflict is difficult and expensive, we must match means to ends.  Winning by maneuver should be the preferred option, as it involves less time and expense than attrition.

There are many examples in history of leaders trying to do things beyond their means, of allowing their ambition to exceed their ability, or of not matching their strategy with their resources.  This is the beginning of failure.

As stated earlier, conflict magnifies everything.  Small problems become big problems.  The best way to manage the job of leadership and command and control in conflict is not to micro-manage everything.  Over-management slows down the tempo of operations.  We must let subordinates, comrades, or employees use their own initiative to solve problems on their own.

All preparation for conflict must take these things into account.  We must train in an environment of uncertainty, fluidity, and hardship.  Adolf Von Schell’s classic treatise Battle Leadership was written after long experience on Germany’s eastern front in the First World War.  He recommended that training be done at night, in the worst conditions, so that men would get used to the disorder and chaos of real-world operations.  We must imitate this advice.

We can try to “manage” friction.  We can try to “shape the battlefield.”  But these efforts always come up a little bit short.  In the prologue to Sun-Tzu’s treatise Art of War, the author describes how he imposes discipline on a group of concubines that he intends to train as a military unit.  The method used is fear.  This is an example of trying to control friction. It can work, in some small ways.  But not in every way, and not comprehensively.

Micro-management impedes this effort.  When someone has to verify everything before doing anything, the pace of operations slows.  Leaders should tell subordinates what they want done, but necessarily how to do things.  Goals should be specified, not means.  The man on the ground should then employ his own training and initiative to get the job done correctly.  The problem with this, of course, is the fact that in real conflict, people often don’t take the initiative.

The use of “mission orders” also presupposes a high level of training and initiative for subordinates.  In practice, this is not often the case.  It isn’t easy to find people with good training or sufficient initiative.  But this is why training, initiative, and vigorous leadership is so important.  They speed up operations, increasing tempo and fluidity.  By swarming a clumsy opponent with a high tempo of operations, we can induce a general collapse of his will.  This is the essence of maneuver.  The opponent is “outcycled” in that his rate of decision-making is overwhelmed by the rate of decision-making of his adversary.

Successful management of conflict comes from an appreciation of these principles.  We must accept the reality of the “magnifying” effect of conflict.  We must accept uncertainty, friction, and the moral problems of conflict.  They can never be eliminated.  It almost seems that there is a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for conflict:  as we try to control one factor, other factors will remain unknown.  We must place our faith in the principle of maneuver conflict:  the use of decentralized “mission orders” that specify ends, and not pedantic micromanagement.

We must focus on training and preparation, in order to minimize the effects of uncertainty and friction.  And we must be responsive to changing facts and conditions immediately.  In this way, a speedy tempo of operations can be produced.  This firestorm of activity can permit us to impose our will, and cause the opposing force to “change its mind.”

For this is the goal of conflict:  to get the other side to change its mind.