Tag: Shorthand Abstractions

Asking Big Questions: Containment and Rollback Ride Again

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Back in February, I agreed to write a two-part essay for another website – the first part was published – the second was sort of left floundering. I’d actually forgotten that I’d written something until the other day I came across a neat article about the group Ask Big Questions. It’s an educational/cultural initiative that grew out of Rabbi Josh Fiegelson’s experience with Northwestern University students.  In trying to get them to talk, constructively, about violence in the Middle East – he stumbled onto an important insight.  The more broadly one elevates the question at hand – the discussion can subtly become more constructive.  Here’s how:

“Feigelson established guidelines for the discussion: Everyone was to speak only in the first person; listen to understand, not to judge; keep things confidential; and avoid rushing in to fill the silence. The question was straightforward: “How are you feeling?”

It led to a genuine exchange, rather than a debate about what had happened and who was to blame. Students actually listened to one another. “And they were able to register their complex emotions about the situation,” said Feigelson.

A big part of the problem with public discourse, contends Feigelson, is that we often begin by asking hard questions before we have explored big questions. A “hard question,” he says, is one that requires special knowledge to answer — so only some people feel they can answer it — and it bears fruit only if the participants in the discussion already share a degree of trust or rapport.

A “big question,” by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.”

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Well Met: Two Responses to the Six Word Strategic Challenge

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

I received a few responses to the post I wrote about maximizing our “nano cognitive surplus” (AKA doodling time during long-winded briefings). I proposed answering the question “Why war?” using only six words…here are a couple of the best responses:

*From Major Drew Betson:

“Values, Interests, Strategic Position Threatened? War.”

*Another came via email from First Lieutenant Sarah Grant – it was so good that I asked her permission to post in it’s entirety – which is what follows:


A slight departure from thinking about the causes for which we go to war, to the mental/emotional tipping point that makes war palatable. Hopefully it still fits in the context of the thought experiment you proposed.

In response to the challenge of answering “Why war?” in six words, I propose the following, taken from the cheer originated by my alma mater and recently made famous by fans of the U.S. World Cup team: “I believe that we will win.”

What ultimately enables us psychologically to commit to war is a resolute belief that victory and the achievement of our goals is, somehow, a sure thing. Feasibility of success is a consideration in most “road to war” paradigms, from Just War Theory to the Powell Doctrine, but we don’t go to war when victory is only possible. The risks and costs of war are so severe that we only proceed with violence when we feel certain of eventual success. An absolute sense of self-assuredness is, in that sense, the tipping point between everything-other-than-war and war.

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