Ever See the Dustin Hoffman film from the early 70s, Little Big Man?
There's a great sequence at the end, when Chief Dan George decides that it is time to die, and so he takes Hoffman in the title role off to assist him. They build the death platform, Chief Dan makes some wise pronouncements, says something like "Take me now, Great Spirit!" and lies down to die. It starts to rain, he asks, "Am I still in this world?' Assured that he is, Dan George mutters, "I was afraid of that" and looks at Little Big Man and shrugs, saying, "Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't. Let's go back to the teepee and eat." And so they go.
I saw it in college, and haven't seen it since, but despite over 40 years and a lot of music, films, TV and real life drama, that line has stuck with me. I might riff it a bit more darkly, like "Sometimes the magic works, but most of the time you're screwed!" but that's really being cynical and jejune all at once. Most times, things done well work pretty well according to plan if the plan is worth a damn. When the plan sucks, it may or not matter whether or not things are done well. When the execution is flawed, things might still work out if there's luck or some redundancy built in to the system.
So, when the Union forces at Pittsburg Landing where surprised by Albert Sydney Hall and his merry men, everything on the union side went to hell initially. However, training and commander's intent and valor held Grant's army together and the Confederates were stopped. After dark, Sherman who'd initially been stunned by the attack and pushed out of his position but had managed to get his head together -- a problem "Uncle Billy" had at that stage of the war -- and held on anchoring the Union's right flank, went to see Grant.
Grant set the scene well in his memoirs.
During the night rain fell in torrents and our troops were exposed to the storm without shelter. I made my headquarters under a tree a few hundred yards back from the river bank. My ankle was so much swollen from the fall of my horse the Friday night preceding, and the bruise was so painful, that I could get no rest. The drenching rain would have precluded the possibility of sleep without this additional cause. Some time after midnight, growing restive under the storm and the continuous pain, I moved back to the loghouse under the bank. This had been taken as a hospital, and all night wounded men were being brought in, their wounds dressed, a leg or an arm amputated as the case might require, and everything being done to save life or alleviate suffering. The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy's fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain. -- Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs
Sherman wanted to talk to Grant about the next day. His men had recovered and held, and he was convinced that the best thing to do was to withdraw across the river and regroup. Knowing his commander and friend was a pragmatist and a bulldog of determination, he wanted both instructions and inspiration while being reassured that they were pulling back. Bruce Catton, one of the better and most readable of the historians of the Civil War, describes that meeting, under the tree in the pouring rain out of sight if not of earshot of the hospital and the on-going butchery that passed for battlefield surgery at that stage of military medicine.
Late that night tough Sherman came to see him. Sherman had found himself, in the heat of the enemy's fire that day, but now he was licked; as far as he could see, the important next step was "to put the river between us and the enemy, and recuperate," and he hunted up Grant to see when and how the retreat could be arranged. He came on Grant, at last, at midnight or later, standing under the tree in the heavy rain, hat slouched down over his face, coat-collar up around his ears, a dimly-glowing lantern in his hand, cigar clenched between his teeth. Sherman looked at him; then, "moved," as he put it later, "by some wise and sudden instinct" not to talk about retreat, he said: "Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" Grant said "Yes," and his cigar glowed in the darkness as he gave a quick, hard puff at it, "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though. -- Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South
As we know, Grant was right. His approach throughout the war was to devise a plan, have his subordinates execute it, and to modify if necessary...but you had to convince him that it was necessary. He was hard to convince. He expected the magic -- the training, the preparation, the planning and the execution -- to work, and it normally did.
Lee was much the same way, but the difference between the two was that it was harder to convince Lee he was wrong -- it took the destruction of Pickett's division at Gettysburg to convince him that it was necessary to withdraw. Grant's solution to situations like Day 3 at Gettysburg for Lee or his Day 2 at Shiloh or The Wilderness in 1865 was to hold and flank them.
Of course, when the magic doesn't work, it really doesn't work.
Grant encountered that as President. The realities of greed, stupidity, institutional corruption and the moral weakness of the powerful did him in. Sherman, however, learned a lot from that experience. During the Georgia Campaign, he had more than one devil's own day before the fall of Atlanta, but he'd learned from Grant that if he persevered and flanked Bragg and his Army, he'd ultimately win.
He also learned to not take on challenges that he didn't see having an upside. After what happened to Grant as president, a far more patient individual than Sherman, he famously telegraphed the Republican Convention when he was being touted as a potential candidate for President, that "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve." History, or at least cynical readers of history with warped senses of humor like me, wish the party and the electorate had called his bluff if only for...symmetry.
Stephen Pastis, Attorney, Cartoonist and Wise Man of our Times inspired this line of thinking from me this morning with today's Pearls Before Swine. You see, there are real dangers -- and there are those that are imaginable--and there is some overlap. But not a lot. And if one idiot manages to kill themselves or maim themselves, that fails to excuse the rest of us from using something like some sense in the whole thing. And parents are really great about this sort of thing -- I've run with a rifle with a bayonet on it, and with scissors, and haven't hurt myself with either. Guess which one I heard a lot about? Mom and Dad never told me not to run with firearms or with a knife on the end of a stick. Oddly, the things that can really hurt us, like a Republican dominated Congress or Mitt Romney, they seem to have missed completely.Go figure.
So what the hell...if you drink absinthe while driving a speedboat at high speed on a busy street, wear a condom and you'll be fine. And if the enemy turns up unexpectedly and kicks your ass, hold them, assess and then flank them.
Sometimes the magic works, if you do your part. And sometimes, it doesn't.