One of the people who became prominent as the details of the financial crisis unfolded was Nassim Taleb, who’s a former trader who dealt with quantitative analysis and who is an outspoken critic of our current financial system.
His book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable discusses a concept that he calls a black swan described as thus:
“First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries and extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” (page xvii)
Taleb attributes his views to his experience both as a financial trader (particularly during the 1987 crash) and as a Lebanese citizen in light of the Lebanese Civil War, and as such, his ideas are particularly developed around military conflict and finance, which are particularly risky ventures.
All this of course leads the to the topic du jour, Gaza, which is currently embroiled in a rather intense military action known as Operation Cast Lead, wherein the IDF has invaded the Gaza Strip in a mission to essentially destroy the ruling party there, Hamas.
Now, the wisdom of this decision is very much undermined by the insight offered by Taleb, as war is dominated by Black Swans. For instance, there is this story in Gaza of about 60-70 people of a clan in the Zeitoun neighborhood dying from a house collapse after shelling.
Apologists for the actions of the Israeli government and the IDF have made a habit of pointing out dastardly tactics used by Hamas in this conflict and contrasting that with the good intentions of the Israeli forces. But the point here is that knowing the effects of war, as I would hope Israeli commanders would, Israeli leaders were taking action in a way that reflected a lack of regard for Palestinian civilians and given the track record of failure of such actions in the past, their own citizens as well.
There is a question commonly posed of “What would you do if you were in the Israeli situation?” The implied point made is that the current actions (military measures) were the default and/or the correct course of action. But one has to wonder if such apologists were around for such actions in the past. Whether they compared their goals beforehand with the results after, and whether they have any sense of proportion.
Currently, we have hundreds of people dead and thousands wounded. Not only that, but there is massive infrastructure damage as a result. Wars are the ultimate in destruction, risk, and improbability. Do you think that Israeli forces were looking to kill almost 70 people in a single blow? I would like to think not, but the fact is that they did.
War plans in the modern era tend to go awry. One could list the United States action in Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or more recently, the Unites States invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which have gone on far longer with less positive results than originally touted by the Bush administration.
Expecting a positive outcome from a military action such as this one is tantamount to naïveté, and unless you have utterly no regard for civilian life, you are likely to incur massive casualties disproportionate to those that lead one to attack in the first place.
In the end, we can expect that Gaza will be an even more destitute urban area full of rubble, whether Israel withdraws in what they consider defeat or victory (a term that will undoubtedly have a different meaning than it did before this action), and such places are breeding grounds for the nihilistic approach that Hamas offers.
If Israel wants true victory, they are going to have to realize that humanity has innovated past its own intuitions and be willing to take risks that expose them to positive Black Swans rather than the negative we see in Gaza.