One particular topic that Chris Hedges discusses that compels people to fight is the title of his sixth chapter, “The Cause,” of which I would like to discuss in detail and to which we can find a business comparison.
War finds its meaning in death. The cause is built on the backs of victims, portrayed always as innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or the group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. These dead become the standard-bearers of the cause and all causes feed off a steady supply of corpses. (pg 144)
Single events that shake a group or people to action are powerful tools that can be leveraged, either intentionally or accidentally, to conflict. Rarely, if at all, does the event occur in a vacuum. The initiating event; an attack, a massacre, some form of violation, or a random criminal act is viewed as premeditated. The victim sees it as just another event in a series of transgressions. For the one initiating the event; the aggressor, it may be viewed as unintentional, accidental, or even revenge for a previous violation brought upon them.
As a chronological example, here are some of the events that Americans have used to rally themselves to fight.
- Boston Massacre and military occupation (Revolutionary War)
- Mediterranean pirate attacks on American traders (Barbary Wars)
- Impressment of American sailors and other treaty violations (War of 1812)
- Frontier conflicts with native tribes (American Frontier Wars)
- Mexican attack on the Alamo (Mexican-American War)
- Fort Sumter, succession, slavery vs federal favoritism (American Civil War)
- Sinking of the USS Maine (Spanish-American War)
- Sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram (World War I)
- Attack on Pearl Harbor (World War II)
- The Spread of Communism (Korean War and Vietnam War)
- Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait (Persian Gulf War)
- Terror attacks of 9/11 (Global War on Terror)
Some of these events are directly tied to a decision to fight. Some are but one event out of many that led to a decision to go to war. Some are accidental and some are incidental to a greater conflict. But none of these events are isolated; divorced from greater events and geopolitics of the world. They all have their causes that we can evaluate in hindsight, but at the time was a great motivator to action. Similarly, for other nations and groups of people throughout history, they will have their events that compel them to action. This isn’t to say that any of these events should or shouldn’t elicit a response that puts people on a war footing, only that they occurred, were perceived as an attack, and were severe enough to rile up the people to fight.
Once the fighting occurred, once the decision was made to fight, the United States continued its fight until it was able to achieve its objectives, until the violation had been rectified through force. In most instances, the United States has succeeded. In a few, we failed short of our objectives and made the decision to disengage or seek an armistice; e.g. War of 1812, Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. As our wars progressed, we leveraged the loss of our warfighters and the sacrifices they and our partners have made for the cause at hand. We continue the fight, even at the risk of our national objectives, so that “those that have died, will have not died in vain” being a common call to continue to fight. It is a pain of loss that we seek to justify by eventually succeeding.
Indeed we lost many of our people in wars we eventually won, the Union in the American Civil War as well as World War 2. If we (including the Union-perspective) gave up after great losses then indeed those that did die would have been in vain, but with the eventual victory those loses were more palatable. They died in pursuit for a greater good. In conflicts like Vietnam or Afghanistan, those that called for fighting-on so those that died didn’t die in vain only added more lives to the final toll with no victory to make the loss worth it. The question for them would be, if they kept fighting could they have found victory or would the same conclusion still arise only with more casualties when the zeal and motivation finally evaporated?
Regardless of your position on cutting losses we begin to understand an aspect of business that economists know well. The costs of war which we can’t get back are the same as the costs of projects, labor, or services that we spend capital on that we can’t get back. These costs in business, as is the loss of life and equipment in warfare, are “sunk costs” and you can’t get them back. Additionally, we have the “opportunity costs” for things we could have done instead with those lives, equipment, and capital; such as bolstering other partners and supporting other operations.
The sunk and opportunity costs of warfare, as in business, is directly tied and reinforced by the cause in which it supports. The more important the cause is perceived the more likely a people will continue to throw good money after bad, the more they will continue to add more lives to the total tally in a hope that objectives can be met. The difference between whether that was a good idea or bad can only be effectively assessed at its conclusion - whether we win or give up. While we are in the midst of fighting, however, we won’t know. We do know that if we give up then the losses will be in vain, however, if we don’t give up maybe, just maybe, the sacrifice will be worth it if we can pull out a win.
When will a business endeavor, an investment, a military operation, or a major theater war be a failure to which we shouldn’t sink any more costs into? When should we cut our losses? While the author didn’t provide any solutions, only really seeking to inform us of the horrors of war and their causes, I do have a potential course of action, or at least a workaround for this aspect of human nature. And this solution involves the determination of maximum costs we should be willing to sink into a venture so that we don’t need to make these cost-benefit analyses while we are emotionally invested in the conflict or business project - a time when judgment can be clouded by the losses. Real estate investors may have a solution in a tool they use - the MAO.
The maximum allowable offer (MAO) is a calculation that investors use to determine the maximum amount to offer on a real estate purchase. Naturally, any buyer would like to get the property for the minimum amount of money possible, but naturally there will be negotiations by the seller to get the most on their part. Having a pre-established MAO will give the buyer the ability to know ahead of time when a price is getting too high to be profitable - the ultimate purpose of the investment. In other business endeavors, as well as in conflict, it may serve as a useful tool to assess the losses we should be willing to sacrifice and endure in order to support our ultimate goals.
Naturally, in more complex business endeavors and in military operations, during the course of operations, gains may be achieved that get us closer to the accomplishment of objectives, but may see us pushing past our initial MAO. There may be a benefit to having an MAO that is contingent on certain successes that we are able to measure objectively. This will allow us to cut losses quickly if we don’t make headway during initial operations, but will prevent us from giving up when we are mere inches from crossing the finish line because some metric just happens to tick a little higher moments before success. It should be noted that, just like a real estate investor won’t divulge their MAO to the seller, so too shouldn't we broadcast our MAO to adversaries and competitors as it will be knowledge that they can use against us, knowing when we will call it quits will allow them to shape their operations to force us to make that decision.
The specifics of an MAO for your unique purpose I will leave up to you to decide how to implement, but I do hope you realize the potential benefit of having an objective “cut losses” point - an MAO - during times when you or others may be involved in some conflict or business with which you are emotionally invested. A cause of great importance that may temporarily blind you to reality, much like it did for many of the people that the author, Chris Hedges, interviewed and wrote about in his book. This book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, has its value in that the author provides us a perspective into human nature where the call to fight can cloud our judgment. A valuable insight into the human condition.
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