MEDIA: Scottish Hawks and the Harvard Business School

From: Brian D Williams (
Date: Tue Nov 27 2001 - 12:49:47 MST

The following article was from this Sundays Chicago Sun-Times, it
is reprinted here with the permission of the author.


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Scottish Hawks and the Harvard Business School

A Canadian explains how the Americans will win the war against

Grant McCracken
McGill University

My Scottish brother-in-law and I used to run in the countryside
outside St. Andrews. Every so often, we would come upon a cluster
of feathers, maybe 10 or 12 of them, lying in a confused circle on
the path ahead of us. Finally, I asked him what they were. He
didn't know exactly, but he had heard a local farmer say they were
the result of an attack by a hawk or an owl. They hit with such
force that feathers are knocked off the bird they're attacking.
It's the shock of impact.

Last night, my dinner companions were exploring the case for
pessimism. The Americans could not win the war against terrorism,
they concluded. However successful the Americans were in
Afghanistan against the Taliban, and even if they captured and
punished bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization, they would lose
the smaller engagements of the longer term. Their previous and
present military intervention in the Middle East has set in train
a series of terrorist attacks. Anthrax and other acts of
bioterrorism would continue. Strikes against government buildings,
dams, and power stations would grow. Porous, open, vulnerable, the
US must find itself increasingly battered and destabilized.
Finally, it must discover itself the captive of a vicious circle,
each act of retaliation setting off yet another debilitating attack
by the enemy. Victory was impossible.

I sat listening, pretending to nod sagely, and pretty soon I found
myself thinking about the Scottish hawks I helped train at the
Harvard Business School (HBS). I thought particularly of one of
them, Jack, who used to sit, appropriately enough, on the upper
most row of the classroom, the "sky deck", as it's called. Jack
was amiable in Gary Cooper, Kevin Costner sort of way. In a
roomful of 80 gifted students, he was not the most aggressive or
the most vocal. Occasionally, in the heat of a debate, he would
signal me with the subtlety of someone making a bid at a high end
auction. In the courtly, challenging convention of the school, I
would call on him. "Mr. Dawkins, what do you say?" He would circle
the upper reaches of the classroom once, to show us the geography
of the problem. And then he would strike the problem with such
power and ferocity that it disappeared. Other, less gifted,
students would continue to fight over the remaining "problem
parts," but, really, the class was over. After a particularly
dazzling Dawkins strike, I heard one of his fellow students murmur,
with a touch of envy, "Thanks for coming, everyone. Drive safely."

I particularly admired the elegance of these events. There was no
exertion, no macho posturing, no thumping of the chest, no self
congratulation. It was the American accomplishment, the event
that, in some ways, defines their essence: the application of a
very high order of intelligence with system, rigor and clarity to
a real world problem. Jack would remain his usual, amiable,
Cooper-Costner self. No self advertisement. No false modesty. I
saw him at his HBS graduation and he said he was trying to think of
the best way to sell eye-glasses in the Third World.

"Do you know," he said with an uncharacteristic glint of anger,
"that some people are classified as blind in parts of the Third
World because they don't have glasses?"

"How's the business plan going," I asked.

"It's the hardest problem I've ever had to solve," he

I whistled silently.

Nothing I've seen or heard in the press seems to reckon with this
aspect of the American preparedness for war. But, surely, this is
a key strategic consideration. How smart are they? How well and
with what intelligence will they undertake their war effort? A
second question is germane: how have they been mobilized by this
particular conflict? How will this effort compare to previous

It's worth asking why we ignore this aspect of the American
capacity for war. There are a couple of reasons, I think. The
first is, simply, that most Americans are not going to say it about
themselves. Modesty aside, they suffer the anthropological problem
of living their "excellence" so intimately and constantly that it
is hard for them to see.

Why others have not said it for them, this is harder to know. It
is probably true that we have created a little "culture of denial."

First, some take a peevish pleasure in doubting the intelligence of
American corporate, military and government worlds. Academics and
Leftists, in particular, like to suppose that everyone there is a
numb skull. There was a time, after he took office, when people
seemed to go out of their way to say how dumb they thought
President Bush was. (I would struggle to keep from saying, "well,
he may not be Stephen Hawking, but there's a pretty good chance
he's smarter than you.") Second, people have dusted off their
"ugly American" ideas. Americans are unsubtle war mongers, the
Major T.J. "King" Kong played by Slim Pickens in the movie Dr.
Strangelove, so in love with war they ride bombs to target. The
war machine is a large, clueless bureaucracy run by large,
unsophisticated people rendered stupid and dangerous by blood lust.

When you suggest that this idea is simple prejudice, the "no
victory" camp will sometimes change tack suddenly and triumphantly.

Fine! Americans are capable, efficient, intelligent, and
formidable. In fact, they are steely, soulless, technocrats who are
so concerned with efficiency that they care nothing for the horrors
inflicted by their war machine. This was the argument brought
against people like Robert McNamara and the Rand Corporation during
the era of the Vietnam era and it became, I think it's fair to say,
a staple of the counter-culture. It lives on. These days it

As it turned out, these stereotypes were some of the first
casualties of war. If an American President had cause to launch a
massive and immediate strike against the enemy, Bush was surely so
empowered by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. We
would not have been entirely surprised to hear that American planes
had launched by noon of September 11th and that parts of
Afghanistan now lay beneath a radioactive haze. Was this not the
agenda established by the Major "King" Kong stereotype? But, no,
Bush asked for patience and it was nearly 2 weeks before anything
much was forthcoming.

In an odd turn of fate, the military action taking place in
Afghanistan at the moment has the look of the guerrilla action that
proved so hard for Americans to contain in Vietnam. Small groups,
traveling light, striking particular targets and disappearing into
the darkness. Now it is for Taliban forces to wait for the enemy
to present itself in a fixed engagement of standing armies. It
turns out this "big, clueless bureaucracy" learns as it goes. And
it's now teaching itself how to be less big and more mobile.

The war cabinet has also proven false to form. With the exception
of one or two moments of rhetorical bravado, Bush resists
vainglorious language. Rumsfeld and Powell counsel patience, show
gravitas, always resisting the bellicose gesture for the
statesman-like one. In the place of Rambo-like posturing, there is
almost a dry dedication to purpose, as everyone works through the
sheer scale, intricacy and dynamism of the problems before them.
And what evidence of the heartless technocrat? We hear instead of
the hours spent in cabinet thinking about how to prevent civilian
casualties in Afghanistan.

All of the arguments against US victory suffer a fatal problem.
They refuse to grapple with the fact that Americans are good at
what they do, and that they are getting steadily better at it.
This government as a decision making machine is better than the one
that served Bush's father. This business world is capable and
efficient in ways that are impossible to think about 10 years ago.
The diplomatic skills of the civil service are adroit and strategic
in ways were not available to Kissinger's organization. Finally,
the present military makes the force that served in Europe, Korea
or even Vietnam look primitive by comparison. Cultures of denial
are, of course, designed to perpetuate themselves in the face of
countervailing data. But it takes very robust denial indeed to
survive the evidence that now accumulates.

Were it not for a chance to teach briefly at HBS, this might be
mysterious to me, too. But having been there for a year, some
things are clear. This institution is single minded in its
devotion to teaching. One image comes to mind in particular. It
is of an HBS professor, a South Asian, a man reputed to have made
fundamental contributions in math and logic, a difficult man, if
truth be told. He is arguing with a colleague about what the
"second board" should be for the class they are going to teach that
afternoon. They are arguing with such concentration that they do
not notice the elevator they are waiting for has come and gone 5
times. There may be institutions in the EU and Canada that care
this much about teaching. I have never heard of one.

This ruthless concern for quality shows on the student side. One
can see class pictures in the HBS hallway of a time when the school
was the preserve of the not-always-very-bright male descendants of
New England families. That time is gone. My class was 30% female
and around 30% foreign. The feeder schools are now more likely to
be Ohio State than Princeton. The test scores are breath taking.
The abilities formidable. Jack was not the only Scottish hawk in
the classroom. Most of them could take him on and hold their own.
Almost all of them, in good moments, could parse problems and
summon solutions as if prescient and not merely smart.

HBS would, I'm sure, like to think of itself as unique. But there
are perhaps 60 great professional schools of business and law in
the American system. Together, these institutions produce
thousands of graduates each year of an amazingly high standard.
All those graduates become professionals, and each year they are
tested and made better by the challenges of early, middle and late
career. As a result, this country has a very deep "bench." Even
if the US were to fill the key positions of government, industry
and the military with people from the second quartile, they would
still have extraordinary resources on which to draw. To put this
a little more forcefully, the US would still be richer in its
problem-solving resources than Canada and the countries of the EU
combined. When a country dedicates itself to high standards over
many generations, the results begin to tell. As one small measure
of this, I remember coming back from one teaching meeting at HBS
and thinking to myself, "This place could care half as much about
teaching, and it would still be twice as good at the nearest
competitor." The Americans have made the "quality" investment over
several generations. The "lead" they now enjoy over other
countries is literally astonishing.

The bin Laden attack has mobilized these abilities. An attack of
this magnitude, on so public and important a target, has changed
the way Americans go to war. It has eliminated the remaining
grounds for skepticism. It has dismantled the argument that
American determination will vanish in the face of the real human,
financial and political costs of battle. In an odd way, bin Laden
guaranteed his defeat when he choose his target and succeeded in
his attack upon it. Among the things he destroyed were American
ambivalence, false scruple, and political hesitation in matters of

We know Americans will win this war. We know how they will do it.
They will win it with a relentless, dispassionate application of
skill and intelligence in the short term and the long. As a matter
of standing policy, they will strike whenever, wherever they must
to ensure a September 11th cannot happen again. The victory will
come from courage, discipline, application, sacrifice but mostly it
will come from excellence. The Americans will win this war because
of the way they teach. They will win because they make better,
smarter, richer decisions that the rest of us. They will win
because they have been dedicated for several generations to
building an economy, a military, and a culture that is deft and
powerful in its ability to respond to change. To be sure, the
complexities of combat in the Middle East and the difficulties of
homeland defense are formidable problems. But I have seen the
problem solvers, and, Mr. bin Laden, I have bad news, that
hawk that's circling is circling for you.

Grant McCracken is a Canadian teaching at McGill University.

He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of
Chicago. He taught at the Harvard Business School as a Senior
Lecturer two years ago. He may be reached at

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