Your Brain on War

“War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate.”—Robert S. McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War.

Reading the obits of McNamara today, I am struck by his (atrociously belated) assessment of the brain’s limitations when it comes to modern warfare.

It is a view shared by many people who study risk, as well. Nassim Nicholas Taleb spent 20 years as a trader in New York and London. He is an author and a professor now, in addition to holding a large stake in a hedge fund.

Taleb and I met for tea in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, and I interviewed him for THE UNTHINKABLE. That afternoon, he had come from the Pentagon, where he had briefed officials on his theories about uncertainty. The Pentagon was a strange place for him to be, since Taleb is a self-described pacifist. “I am a peace activist simply out of rationality,” he said.

Taleb grew up in Lebanon, a country haunted by war’s unintended consequences. He has concluded that human beings are unable to handle 
war in the modern age. “We’re not really able to assess how long wars will take and what the net outcome will be.” The risk is too complex for our 
abilities. Once upon a time, we were better at war. “In a primitive environment, if someone is threatening me, I go kill him,” he says in his 
clipped, matter-of-fact way. “And I get good results most of the time.” He calls this environment “Mediocristan,” a place where it is hard to kill many 
people at once; a place where cause and effect are more closely connected. Homo sapiens spent hundreds of thousands of years living in Mediocristan. We rarely needed to understand probability because, most of the time, life was simpler, and the range of possible events was narrower.

But today, we live in a place Taleb calls “Extremistan,” subject to the “tyranny of the singular, the accidental, the unseen and the unpredicted.” Technology has allowed us to create weaponry that can strafe the planet in minutes. Lone individuals can alter the course of history. People kill each other every day without much physical exertion. And, at the same time, we have become ever more interdependent. What happens on one continent now has consequences for another. World War I, Taleb points out, was expected to be a rather small affair. So was Vietnam. In fact, the twentieth century was, and now the twenty-first century is, characterized by wars of unforeseen results.

Risk is often counterintuitive in Extremistan. Our old tricks don’t work. Survival may ultimately depend on understanding our brain’s limitations.