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Why America Doesn’t Win Wars Any More and What (Ironically) That Can Teach You About Learning Languages

This entry is part 14 of 17 in the series The Art of War of Learning
This entry is part 25 of 26 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

You like that lame, Buzzfeedy title? Yeah. You know you do.

Based on that title, you may be thinking that you’re about to read an answer to the question of “which language should I learn (in order to maximize socioeconomic returns)?”. And, if that’s what you’re thinking, you would be wrong.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

Stick with me.

So, as you may or may not know, I don’t read or watch the news. I quit in 2005 and haven’t looked back. Even Jon Stewart admitted it — following the news, especially the political material of which it mostly consists, just makes you sad and angry. But I do still know “stuff” from back then. And I still have thoughts. And I still read books. In fact, not watching or reading the news gives you space to have more “big picture” thoughts.

And one of the thoughts is this — why is the US military, easily the most powerful in the known history of the world, so frequently unable to win decisive victories and unambiguously impose its nation’s will on the vanquished?

That is a question I will not answer today, the “answer”, such as there is one, doesn’t really matter. It’s like asking why the Roman Empire fell — it’s as interesting as all get-out, and I own copies of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and SPQR in multiple languages (Chinese, Japanese, English) — but the process of researching and weighing and thinking through answers matters more than the final answer. The journey is the destination.

What’s the best part of making out? All of it, really. Lol.

So, why are these big ideas relevant to little people like you and me? Because we are the US military. We are in the possession of the most powerful machine in the known Universe — the human mind. And we got ours for free. No pork barrel spending. No defense contractor corruption. For free, playa! Unbelievable, isn’t it? And it runs on groceries! 1.

Just like Jhene Aiko’s booty.

Wait, what?

Our brains — our minds 2 — and the world’s strongest military are both powerful, but neither is omnipotent. So it simply won’t do to behave like a lottery winner 3. Being strong, smart or otherwise “full of potential” does not exempt you from the laws of our mathematical universe. If anything, it holds you to a higher standard of behavior — pedestrians can walk and use their smartphones with relative impunity, but the laws of the land and of physics will mercilessly punish the driver of a car for doing the same. With great power comes, unfortunately, great Spider-Man quotes.

So, there’s a lot of discussion out there about America’s military paradox — unprecedented power mixed with shocking ineffectiveness. 4 Much of it silly, some of it insightful. One recurring key phrase, though, really hit me in the nuts. And it is this:

“limited objectives”

The US military has tended to do well when it has had limited objectives 5, based on “clearly articulated and achievable goals“.

You and the US armed forces are limited. No person or group of people has infinite time, money, energy or other resources. This is not a bad thing, it is a good thing, because the limitations, if you know how to use them to your advantage (instead of whining about them and wishing they weren’t there), actually set you free 6. If you want to succeed, you must use your resources judiciously. You must learn to say “no” pre-emptively. You must timebox.

Say “no” to languages other than the one you want to focus on. Yes, other languages are “useful”. Yes, seeming multilingual will impress strangers you don’t even like. But if you want to win hard at anything — at any language at all — you’re going to have to concentrate your forces. That, or, you can go be like Germany and fight on two fronts like an idiot. Your call.

Trying to Bo Jackson it will not make you twice as happy. Two languages doesn’t double the happiness. Three doesn’t treble it. I’m not saying to go monolingual, but I am saying that, pound of pound, joule for joule of effort, depth is probably more rewarding than depth. Just puttin’ that out there. Limited objectives. Limit your objectives. Say “no”.

Say “no” to trying to do more than you have energy to do.

Say “no” to ideas and feelings and actions that do not help you reach your goal.

Say “no” to trying to do and achieve everything all at once, really fast.

Do the little you can, with the little you have, a little at a time, on the little that matters and you will, paradoxically, achieve much.

Concentrate your forces. Don’t clean the whole house 7. Divide and conquer. Make your bed. Win that battle. Then move on to another (small) battlefield. Your desk, perhaps. Don’t clean the whole fridge. Cleaning the whole fridge is not a limited objective — you will choke on something that big; you will get sucked into a personal quagmire. No. Pick one shelf. One. 8 Fight there. Clean there. Win there. Then, with decisive victory secured, move on again. Rinse, repeat. The principle applies widely if you let it.

Even in a field as apparently vast and infinite as language acquisition, playing it as a longish series of short, winnable games with, again, limited objectives, turns out to be a winning strategy.

Series Navigation<< How Learning a Language is Like Conquering a Country (But Not in the Way You’re Thinking)The Art of the War of Learning Languages: Sun Tzu on Immersion >>
Series Navigation<< Remember That You Are, Were and Will Always Be Human: Infinite in Possibility and Finite in ActionThe One True Secret to Being Happy, Productive and Sane Forever >>


  1. “The human mind is far more fertile, far more incredible and mysterious than the land, but it works the same way. It doesn’t care what we plant … success … or failure. A concrete, worthwhile goal … or confusion, misunderstanding, fear, anxiety, and so on. But what we plant it must return to us.

    The problem is that our mind comes as standard equipment at birth. It’s free. And things that are given to us for nothing, we place little value on. Things that we pay money for, we value.

    The paradox is that exactly the reverse is true. Everything that’s really worthwhile in life came to us free and our minds, our souls, our bodies, our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions, our intelligence, our love of family and children and friends and country. All these priceless possessions are free.

    But the things that cost us money are actually very cheap and can be replaced at any time. A good man can be completely wiped out and make another fortune. He can do that several times. Even if our home burns down, we can rebuild it. But the things we got for nothing, we can never replace.

    Our mind can do any kind of job we assign to it, but generally speaking, we use it for little jobs instead of big ones. So decide now. What is it you want? Plant your goal in your mind. It’s the most important decision you’ll ever make in your entire life.”
    [Earl Nightingale – The Strangest Secret]

  2. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about the brain without the body its connected to, and indeed without the cognitive tools (like books and writing) that extend its reach, add to that the transhumanist prediction that human minds may not always have organic bodies as a substrate, and it makes more sense to go abstract a bit and talk about minds rather than brains.
  3. “Green Lantern” geopolitics
  4. Operation Restore Hope should have been a slam-dunk. Finding one man in a country with no working government, fully cooperative (and working) neighouring governments, with a (literally) starving population being harassed by mutually antagonistic warring clans armed with little more than second-hand assault rifles and rickety Toyota pick-ups (no air support, no artillery, crappy logistics) should have been easy. Infant. Confectionery. Expropriation.
  5. “Another reason they nearly always lose is the nebulous, unachievable objectives we give them.

    “Democratize Iraq”

    “Modernize Afghanistan”

    “Keep a parasitic absentee landlord class in Saigon and mostly Catholic-staffed local governments in power over Bhuddist peasants”

    A defined, limited objective tells you when you’re done.

    like “Kick the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait”

    You’ll notice that this has nothing to do with ‘The Troops’ themselves, but with an oligarch-friendly regime in DC that likes endless war, and a population that refuses to pay attention to how they’re being bled, both financially and physically.”
    [Does America have the best military in the world? – Fabius Maximus website]

  6. The fact that you can’t do everything sets you free to ignore most things and simply not bother in the first place. Thus, a lack of freedom is, paradoxically, the source of your freedom.
  7. “In the 1960s, Lanchester’s laws were popularised by the business consultant Nobuo Taoka and found favour with a segment of the Japanese business community.[4] The laws were used to formulate plans and strategies to attack market share. The “Canon–Xerox copier battle” in the UK, for example, reads like a classic people’s war campaign. In this case, the laws supported Canon’s establishment of a “revolutionary base area” by concentrating resources on a single geographical area until dominance could be achieved, in this case in Scotland. After this, they carefully defined regions to be individually attacked again with a more focused allocation of resources. The sales and distribution forces built up to support these regions in turn were used in the final “determined push in London with a numerically larger salesforce”.” [Force concentration – Wikipedia]
  8. One beats none, remember?

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