Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Risk: Everyone thinks they know what it means. But they don’t! And that’s why we nowadays wage wars of dwindling assets.

I was glad to see Michael Mazarr tackle the subject of risk the other day in “War on the Rocks.” Among other interesting things, he notes that paying attention to risk is a good way to assess consequences of one’s actions.

588px-AT_YOUR_OWN_RISK.svg
588px-AT_YOUR_OWN_RISK.svg

I was glad to see Michael Mazarr tackle the subject of risk the other day in “War on the Rocks.” Among other interesting things, he notes that paying attention to risk is a good way to assess consequences of one’s actions.

Everybody thinks they know what it means, but I doubt it, because we so talk about it so little. For example, I think that we failed to take enough risks in Iraq and Afghanistan. This partly was because a lot of officers didn’t believe in missions, so made it their priority simply to “bring home everyone alive.” Secondly it was because many officers don’t know how to take calculated risks, and so avoid all risks. And third it was because there are few incentives in the U.S. military to take risks.

Risk has come to be think of as a pure negative. That’s worrisome, because (I believe) if you are not taking risks, you are not pursuing a strategy. Or you are just marking time and letting the enemy call the tune. A risk should been seen as an investment of your time, energy and people. Not all risks will pay off. But if you take none, your assets simply will dwindle. I think that in Iraq (except for 2007-08) and in Afghanistan, we more often that not simply waged wars of dwindling assets.

I was glad to see Michael Mazarr tackle the subject of risk the other day in “War on the Rocks.” Among other interesting things, he notes that paying attention to risk is a good way to assess consequences of one’s actions.

Everybody thinks they know what it means, but I doubt it, because we so talk about it so little. For example, I think that we failed to take enough risks in Iraq and Afghanistan. This partly was because a lot of officers didn’t believe in missions, so made it their priority simply to “bring home everyone alive.” Secondly it was because many officers don’t know how to take calculated risks, and so avoid all risks. And third it was because there are few incentives in the U.S. military to take risks.

Risk has come to be think of as a pure negative. That’s worrisome, because (I believe) if you are not taking risks, you are not pursuing a strategy. Or you are just marking time and letting the enemy call the tune. A risk should been seen as an investment of your time, energy and people. Not all risks will pay off. But if you take none, your assets simply will dwindle. I think that in Iraq (except for 2007-08) and in Afghanistan, we more often that not simply waged wars of dwindling assets.

Mazarr also mentions that much of what we know about risk today comes from the financial markets. This worries me because I think our markets are tremendously skewed, partly because of the influence that campaign finance has given Wall Street. The result is that profits remain private but risks are socialized (that is, too big to fail). So heads, the banker wins; tails, the taxpayer foots the bill.

Motoi Kenkichi/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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