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For Want of a Nail

We have another word for contingencies, or luck, if you will: Hashgachah


recent years, Northwestern professor Gary Saul Morson, perhaps the preeminent student of Russian literature in our time, has devoted a series of articles to Leo Tolstoy’s strenuous rejection of the idea that rules of human society can be ascertained by reason, as in physics, and those rules applied to perfect society. Tolstoy devoted a full essay, “Non-Acting,” to refuting the claim of French novelist Emile Zola that the man whose work is guided by reason “is always kind,” and therefore mankind could be assured of an “illimitable future” in the coming 20th century, which would witness “the greatest happiness possible on earth.”

As Tolstoy saw it, the exact opposite was more likely to be the case, and the greater our confidence in our ability to achieve the greatest human happiness, the more likely we are to create the greatest human misery. “The ills of humanity arise,” wrote Tolstoy, “not because men neglect to do things that are necessary but because they do things that are unnecessary.”

In physics, it might be true that the complexity of observed phenomena could be explained by a few rules. But with respect to society and individual psyches, “the deeper we delve in search of these [fundamental] causes, the more of them we find. Things do not simplify, they ramify. Whatever regularities there may be are overwhelmed by sheer contingencies.”

Insignificant chance events can have concatenating effects, and so make an enormous difference. As in the old children’s rhyme, “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost / For want of a shoe, the horse was lost / For want of a horse, the message was lost / For want of a message, the battle was lost / For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost / And all for the want of one horseshoe nail.”

Tolstoy’s War and Peace, generally considered the greatest novel ever written, is an extended attack on the absurdity of the “moral Newtonians,” who believe that there can be such a thing as the “science of warfare” leading to predictable outcomes.

No one ever described the fog of war better than Tolstoy, and the necessity for the combatants and those leading them to “make decisions under conditions of irremediable uncertainty.” Under those conditions, commanders issue orders that cannot be executed because by the time they arrive, the crucial circumstances have changed. That being the case, the junior officers, who can detect contingencies as they arise, are more important that the generals.

On the eve of the crucial battle at Austerlitz, the Russian commander in chief, General Kutuzov, dismisses the officers still plotting strategy for the morrow and tells them to get a good night’s sleep, for “before a battle there is nothing more important than a good night’s sleep.” Given that there is no perfect plan, no exact science of war, and that the battle will be decided in the midst of chaos and unforeseeable contingencies, alertness to the changing circumstances of battle is more important than good planning, and for that, a good sleep is of the utmost importance.

Nothing is so important, Kutuzov knows, as the morale of the army, its fighting spirit. But even that cannot be known in advance, for it depends on factors that cannot be predicted, “whether this man or that man is killed.” But no one can know in advance whom a particular bullet will kill. Whether one brave man will rally his comrades, or a coward will demoralize them and cause them to flee.

Juxtaposed to the wisdom of Kutuzov is the pig-headed Austrian general Pfuhl, whom no string of failures can dissuade of the validity of his science of warfare. In his mind, the defeats suffered by his troops in earlier battles only make the case for his theories stronger, and are attributable to the failure of the soldiers under his command to properly follow his orders. He is the precise parallel to those advocates of “scientific socialism,” who are little affected by its unbroken record of failure, and continue to insist that the form of socialism they seek has never been properly tried.

The decisive turning point in Napoleon’s Russian campaign comes after his triumphant occupation of Moscow. The city, however, burns largely to the ground, and Napoleon is forced to retreat in the face of the brutal Russian winter. But if one asks who gave the decisive order to burn the city, the answer, writes Tolstoy, is no one — the fires result from a “non-act.” A city made of wood, where scarcely a day passes without a fire, “cannot fail to burn when its inhabitants have left it and it is occupied by soldiers who smoke pipes, make campfires.... cook themselves meals twice a day.” The destruction of Moscow, then, is not the result of any positive decision, but rather the unintended consequence of its inhabitants’ decision to flee rather than remain under French rule.

Tolstoy was as skeptical of “scientific” agriculture, as of “military science.” Levin, the hero of Anna Karenina, struggles to import machines and methods from England, but his “continued intense effort to change everything to a pattern he considered better” only results in failure. Change, as Morson summarizes Tolstoy’s view, can only take place within the “natural order of things — the sum total of practices chosen by no one and accumulated haphazardly over centuries.”

Levin learns this lesson from a prosperous peasant family, which follows no theory and copies no model, “but works within local conditions and traditional practices to adopt a patchwork of ad hoc fixes, each of which modifies circumstances in ways allowing for other adaptations.”

Tolstoy sounds very much like Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France, who stressed the respect due to the accumulated wisdom of mankind and the necessity to focus on incremental changes, not on the implementation of some grand new theory of mankind.

URI KAUFMAN’S Eighteen Days in October: The Yom Kippur War and How It Created the Modern Middle East could almost serve as the prooftext for Tolstoy’s view of warfare. Eighteen Days is military history at its best, a page-turner of the first order. Thumbing through my volume this morning in preparation for this column, I was seized with a great desire to sit down and read it again, only three months after the last time.

Though this is Kaufman’s first book, he is a natural storyteller, and he writes with verve and humor, particularly in his portrayals of the main players and their rivalries, which played no small part in the unfolding action. Neither is he a trained historian, but he demonstrates a thorough command of all the available material, to which he devoted over 20 years of research.

Even the dramatic preemptive strike at the outset of the Six Day War that tipped the balance decisively in Israel’s favor was not an example of perfect human planning. True, Israel had hacked Egypt’s radar system and could see its vulnerabilities in tracking incoming planes. But the decision to strike was born of panic as much as cool-headed planning: the IDF chief of staff had experienced a mental collapse, the nation’s leaders were debating the resort to nuclear weapons, and General Ariel Sharon had even dropped a suggestion of a military coup.

Had anything gone wrong with the initial strike, Israel’s skies would have been completely undefended for two hours and the nation vulnerable to counterattack, as pilots returned to base, refueled, and took off again. A computer model gave Israel no more than a 30% chance of success.

In the Yom Kippur War, huge mistakes were made in both strategy and tactics. The 14th Armored Brigade was sent to clear a road for Israeli tanks to the Suez Canal, but not provided with available reconnaissance photos that would have shown how well dug-in Egyptian forces were, and the need for prior air support to soften up the enemy. The commander, Amnon Reshef, would later term the failure to supply that crucial intelligence “criminal negligence.”

Crucial battles, and even the eventual outcome, were determined by contingencies that could not have been predicted. The Israeli tank corps was being devastated by a new weapon: Sagger wire-guided missiles that could be fired by a lone soldier lying on the ground at a distance of nearly two miles. Yet in the heat of the battle, Israeli tank commanders improvised a means to limit the Saggers’ effectiveness. Whenever the tell-tale red dot emitted by a Sagger operator was seen, all the tanks would begin swerving rapidly to kick up dirt, and thereby blinding the operator of the Sagger. (This story is told in Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Start-Up Nation.)

A massive metal pontoon bridge, which had to be assembled and unrolled under fire, was the key to getting sufficient Israeli tanks across the Suez Canal. Yet if there had been a breakdown of a single tank or other vehicle in the one-lane procession bringing the bridge to the Canal, with virtual quicksand on either side of the road, it might never have arrived.

Once the bridge was assembled, too many tanks charged onto it too fast and tore it apart. That tear could have become the “nail of the horse’s shoe,” for want of which the kingdom was lost. What saved the day was the idea of an unknown soldier — “someone” in Kaufman’s account — to tie the separated pieces of the torn bridge together using cable and remove the heavy steel plate from a bridging tank and attach it to cover the tear in the bridge.

Other times, unfathomable and therefore unpredictable courage turned the tide against all odds. A small Israeli force, whose only tank was quickly knocked out, found itself facing two full Egyptian battalions near the Egyptian town of Serapheum. A single soldier, Asa Kadmouni, who had lost almost all feeling in his right hand from an old army injury, killed 30 Egyptian soldiers in a truck with a shoulder-fired missile. Then he destroyed another truck before his missiles ran out. Armed with only a rifle and hand grenades, he jumped from place to place on the roof of the house in which his fellow soldiers had taken refuge, killing any Egyptians who came near. By the time he was rescued after four hours, he was down to just seven bullets, with no grenades. An intercepted Egyptian radio message proclaimed that there was a “crazy Jew on the roof” who could not be killed.

In the diplomatic realm, brilliant men made elementary and costly mistakes. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prevented Israeli forces from completing the encirclement of Egypt’s Third Army. But in pushing through a cease-fire resolution at the UN, he neglected to extract from the Saudis and other Arab oil producers a commitment to end their oil embargo and roll back cutbacks in production, in return for restraining the Israelis just hours short of complete victory.

WHY HAVE I devoted so much space to Tolstoy’s view of warfare as largely determined by thousands of contingencies that no “science of warfare” can predict, and provided numerous examples of such contingencies from the Yom Kippur War? Others would call those contingencies “luck.” The first question that Napoleon is said to have asked about any officer was: Is he lucky?

But we have another word for contingencies, or luck, if you will: Hashgachah. The source for the quick-witted improvisation and courage of Israeli soldiers, for all the sometimes incredible mistakes made by our enemies, is Hashgachah pratis, Divine Providence. And we forget that at our peril.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1007. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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