Friday, February 5, 2010

Statistical Fronts

Ah for the halcyon days [see below] when we could track on maps the progress of our victorious armies advancing on foreign soil to their inevitable victory at last. In these latter days we’ve substituted statistical fronts for lines that mark territorial gains. The earliest signs of the new definition began to appear during the Vietnam war. In that time we started hearing about body counts, and the bad news could also be recorded by counting body bags shipped overseas empty and returned to these shores filled. The perfection of this new front began in earnest in Iraq and continues now in Afghanistan. And all this, of course, is the welcome sign of our growing sophistication in every possible category of the meaningful, not least in armed conflict. With unmanned (or should I, with more sophistication, call it unpresonned) drones we have now achieved some likeness to Zeus who, sending dread bolts from on high can kill with zigzagging laser beams at random. This means that we can be anywhere and nowhere—much as our mythical opponent who is both alive and dead, invisible but sometimes heard, and whose voice we analyze deploying fervent and pious hermeneutics by using ultra-modern sound equipment. In this sort of environment, actual territorial gains, dated concepts like pacification and control, and obsolete notions like victory are inappropriate. Instead we use the probabilistic approaches offered to us by higher math to calculate on computers whether or not we’re succeeding or just approaching success. Failure is also a non-starter, and even if we do approach suboptimal outcomes, we have a more sophisticated language to describe it. This came to mind as my eyes encountered the following headline in the New York Times this morning: TOP U.S. COMMANDER SEES PROGRESS IN AFGHANISTAN. I wondered what General McChrystal could possibly be seeing. Then it dawned on me. Numbers and graphs. Yes. Numbers and graphs.


  1. Yes, our approach to warfare. Well, our approach as long as the warfare is not taking place on our soil, in which case we view things quite differently...

    Thanks for the explanation of halcyon days. Very interesting.

  2. For a different angle on war, watch for the film "Lebanon", this year's winner of the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion. Thierry and I saw it Thursday afternoon. Despite some weaknesses, it certainly brings home what chaos war really is. Statistics just won't do the trick!