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Beating Goliath

March 18, 2012 ・ Blog

Three years ago, The New Yorker published an article by Malcolm Gladwell called How David Beats Goliath, in which he traced the ways in which underdogs often manage to best their competitors.

His entertaining thesis, told in his typically layered and smartly paced manner, centres on the idea that underdogs, with nothing to lose, can break the rules and in doing so transform the terms of engagement in their favour. There’s David, facing Goliath not with a sword but a sling. There’s Lawrence of Arabia, not attacking the Ottomans directly but the railway that served them. And there’s a girls basketball team, which played aggressively to counter its lower skill levels.

Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying” — they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought.

Gladwell seems to admire this creed, and it certainly makes for good stories. But I think he’s missing something - the idea that the battle is only fought on the battlefield.

George Washington … [abandoned] the guerilla tactics that had served the colonists so well in the conflict’s early stages. “As quickly as he could,” William Polk writes in Violent Politics, “devoted his energies to creating a British-type army, the Continental Line. As a result, he was defeated time after time and almost lost the war."

George Washington couldn’t do it. His dream, before the war, was to be a British Army officer, finely turned out in a red coat and brass buttons.

It’s not as simple as that. How do you form a nation if your people has seen you use tactics many of your new citizens would frown upon? Washington was doing more than just to win individual battles. Indeed, Gladwell - tellingly? - seems to focus more on winning than on the overall war, or game.

His main example is basketball, a very formalised game at its highest level. But as much as it’s fun to see a scrappy and less skilled team thrash the best teams by exploiting formality now and then, do basketball fans want to see all games become like that? Probably not - the grand ideal of all sports is to see great players play nobly.