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Riddle Me This, Operator

Upon a long march in the wood, I recalled a riddle from one of America’s most famous saunterers, Henry David Thoreau. This 19th century author and Transcendentalist philosopher often presented materials that deeply challenged the worldviews of his audience. While Thoreau was by no means a “warfighter,” I realized that this riddle might be key in resetting our thoughts as we shift our focus from small wars to large-scale combat operations.

The riddle is simple. Two men are to set off for the village of Fitchburg that is 30 miles away. The first man states he will catch a train to the village and be there shortly. The second man says he will walk there and reach the village sometime before nightfall. However, the second man will arrive before the first. How is this possible if the journey of the first man is shorter in duration than the man that walked by foot? (Walden, 1854).

The ability to recognize the answer might truly separate the logistician from the operator. To solve the riddle, you must recognize the true “cost” of the situation. In order for the first man to afford the resources for the train (i.e. the $0.90 fare), he would have to work for a day and a half (a day’s labor being valued at $0.60 per day in that area). Thus, the first man would spend roughly two days’ worth of time to travel the same distance a single day’s worth of walking. Now ask yourself, how many days’ worth of resources have we simply not been accounting for in our modern planning processes?

In the recent small wars that we have engaged in, we have relatively been able to count on resources to be there when we needed them. We typically haven’t needed to account for the extra time to maintain and resource our equipment. While we have faced logistical challenges, and at times, supply shortages, we haven’t had to face the reality to long-term limitations on certain supplies. In a major conflict with armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands, our resources will run thin. We will again have to consider all the cost of our operations.

Looking back at the World War II, it is common for individuals to be awed by Nazi propaganda reels filled with tanks and halftracks only to be shocked that the majority of the German logistics was conducted via animal-powered wagons. Fuel shortages were common throughout WWII and we would be foolish to believe that fuel supplies interruptions won’t be an issue in the next major war. This means we need to start thinking about how we prioritize resources and start accounting for the resourcing and opportunity costs that we haven’t needed to calculate for in the last couple of decades of warfare. This might mean saving our petroleum resources for only the most critical vehicle while others might be forced to move by foot.

While it may seem paradoxical, sending units by slower means of transportation that are less resource intensive may be faster and more effective in the long run. This may help to ensure limited resources are available for the most critical operations and reserves are available in times of desperate need. For example, the use of simple method of moving supplies via bicycles proved to be incredibly resilient by the Vietnamese that might have harnessed this approach on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Thoreau asserts that, “The cost of a thing is the amount of […] life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” (Walden, 1854). Put into an organizational context, we can ask how much of the productivity, time, and taxes of our nation are we willing to trade for specific resources on the battlefield? While we might be able to avoid this question in small wars, in a World War where many resources are stretched beyond their limits having this question in mind might provide a significant strategic advantage. While we might seek to use the latest technologies to support logistics and operations in the next major war, we must know how to prioritize those resources to strategic advantage while utilizing simpler and more resilient means of logistical support in other areas.

While I cannot guarantee that this thought process will win the next war, I will promise you that a thought experiment in this area will help change the way we think about logistical support. I would challenge everyone to take some time to read some of Thoreau’s works including Walking and Walden. Thoreau’s unique worldview may not only give you better ideas on how to look at logistical support but challenge many perspectives in your own personal life. This riddle is but one of dozens of questions that Thoreau will offer to challenge your underlying assumptions of reality and culture. Even if this riddle doesn’t prove to be useful in the next conflict, spending time engaging with Thoreau might help shape you into the divergent thinker better suited to meet the yet unknown challenges of the modern battlefield.

Dr. Franklin Annis is a researcher in the field of military education theory. He has been closely studying and advancing improved theories of military leader development for over 8 years. He created the “Evolving Warfighter” YouTube channel to share his research on Military Self-Development.

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