Wednesday, October 22, 2014

HMS Victory and Her Ghosts

Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson's body was on its way to his final drink of brandy (the barreled preservative in which his body was stored for burial) 211 years ago this evening.  Mortally wounded in his victory over the Franco-Spanish fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar, his fabled victory has long been celebrated but not so carefully examined.  A musket round from a marine aboard the Redoutable had found its home through Nelson's back, upper spine and right rotator cuff ending the storied career of this naval tactician.  "They finally succeeded, I am dead," the intrepid Nelson declared as lead and flesh engaged in their fateful resolution.  The engagement left nearly 3,000 dead and over 4,000 morbidly wounded.  Nelson's divide-to-conquer innovation in light winds but rolling seas - out manned and out gunned - had succeeded against the traditional battle line of the French and Spanish.

In the evolution of naval campaigns on the shipping lanes of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Caribbean, naval vans had become the convention for efficiency of communication.  Flying signal colors down the line made the chain of command literally and figuratively visible to the fleet.  In the melee of jumbled skirmishes advantaged by winds and the roll of the sea; fog, smoke and debris could render allied signals obscured or invisible.  When sailing in a line, the likelihood of preserving communication was considerably improved.  All the more important in the allied campaign of the Spanish and French, Nelson knew that he could use this convention to his advantage if he took a series of calculated - and exceptionally costly - gambles.

On approach, the allied broadside focused their guns on Royal Sovereign which succeeded in breaking the allied line while destroying the Spanish flagship.  The Belleisle was far less fortunate as she was engaged by four allied broadsides and was rapidly dismasted leaving her incapacitated.  By sailing into the line as individual vessels, the British fleet was engaged by as many as four allied ships but, by finding a fighting center in the midst of 3 to 4 enemy ships, the British guns had firing and maneuvering advantage that ultimately succeeded in what was one of the most lopsided victories in the war.

I've recently reflected on the metaphor of the tactics of the Battle of Trafalgar.  As a person who has often engaged campaigns with exceedingly long odds, I find the Archimedean principle of engaging inertial masses from the center of mass a welcome confirmation of much of my modus operandi.  Rather than forcing the disadvantage of planar engagement, the advantage of circumferential effect - where all resources can be simultaneously engaged - makes sense.  Additionally, I admire Nelson's confidence in building a battle plan fully dependent on his certainty that the enemy would appeal to a conventional orthodoxy which, if he challenged, he could radically disrupt.  This, however, was only effective by: a) deeply knowing the incumbent practices; b) discerning the environmental conditions in which the engagement was to take place; and, c) convincing others that convention was their enemy and that innovation would carry the day.

As is the case with victor-inspired tales, it is tempting to overlook the considerable disadvantage of Nelson's tactics and justify the means with the disproportionately celebrated ends.  However, this would offer little solace to the ghosts of this bloody, watery campaign.

The individuation of the British campaign placed the unprotected bows of the vanguard line-breaking ships at considerable peril.  Once a single ship sails into a line of 4 to 5 broadsides, the costs can be devastating.  Two forward deck guns against a battery of nearly two hundred means that the line of incumbency will have the early advantage.  When individuation of attack is selected or celebrated, odds of significant damage at the front are nearly certain.  Sure, the incumbency can blow through a lot of ammunition but the cost to the intrepid advance is considerable.  Once engaged, an agile individual can have considerable influence but if solo on the approach, the cost can be overwhelming.  I find this metaphor compelling in our increasingly virtualized society.  Over the past several weeks, I've seen many of my dear friends and colleagues strewn across the world suffering in isolation.  While we pretend that the internet and phones connect us, our individuation and isolation is inflicting massive casualties - first as direct harm and second in the form of untimely solace and support.  Had the fleet not come to her rescue at the early minutes of the campaign, the loss of the Belleisle could have demoralized the British fleet at the outset and turned the tide for the allies.

By breaking the convention of naval battle lines, Nelson inadvertently harnessed another advantage.  By adding orthogonal approaches to the enemy, he gained an advantage that few (including him) fully appreciate.  While I would do nothing to diminish his courage and conviction, his tactics were victorious in part due to statistics.  In the face of linear models, orthogonal (perpendicular and uncorrelated) approaches will always offer improvement to predicted outcomes.  In the case of a naval campaign, wind, wave, and tide - albeit subtle factors - serve to add litheness to the uncorrelated performer that linear dependence cannot harness.  In our current socioeconomic paradigms, we bemoan the mean reversion we see in financial products, political quagmires, and social intransigence but we seldom, if ever, choose orthogonal engagement.  If we feel that our problem is monetary, we seek a monetary resolution.  If we feel that we're not adequately appreciated, we seek appreciation.  If we suffer from a lack of labor efficiency, we seek to gain a labor-replacing technology.  In other words, our behaviors easily fall into linear reflexive patterns rather than conscious orthogonal engagements.

Before the end of Trafalgar, Nelson was dead!  While his brandy-preserved remains persisted, his plan did not include his own resilience or persistence.  And this is not to be overlooked in his celebrated heroism.  Living for the next campaign is actually vital if we seek to effect our world in meaningful ways.  And it's here where the greatest lesson of Trafalgar is often missed.  The semaphore flown as the engagement commenced read, "England expects that every  man will do his duty."  The less romantic version of this storied battle is the most important insight for our efforts.  While Nelson's tactics provided the advantage to the day, the victory was secured by 17,000 people who were having ordinary days leading up to their extraordinary engagement.  Ten percent of them fell - 90% made it.  From the Roman Legion to Trafalgar, decimation is a frequent price for apparent victory.  And it's this point that bears the most scrutiny.  We continue to acquiesce to models of engagement that are based in conflict and require decimation as their tariff.  And while convention suggests that this is simply a human condition, I wonder if we can, on this chilly October day consider an approach to our world that doesn't come at the price of extinction.  My guess is that it will take a couple core elements that we were offered at Trafalgar: collective discernment; integrity of purpose; and, embedded action.


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave