The Long Tail (the Other One)

Now here's an interesting heresy: Scrivener's Error says,

In every declared symmetric conflict in the gunpowder era, the side with the higher tail-to-teeth ratio has won the conflict. Not every battle; not every asymmetric or undeclared conflict, although even there it's statistically significant in favor of the big-tail forces. But every “war” has been won by the tail, not the teeth.

The short version of this is “Brave soldiers win battles; brave REMFs win wars.”

It just has to be the right sort of tail.

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5 Responses to The Long Tail (the Other One)

  1. Altoid says:

    I don’t read this statement quite the same way as you evidently do, though I’m not completely sure. The qualifiers “declared,” “symmetric,” etc harken to WWI and WWII, where indeed logistics and productive capacity were decisive. But the same can be said of the Falklands war, sort of (maybe not quite so symmetric, to be sure). So far it seems kind of conventional and almost a truism; most important, unable to deal with Vietnam, where logistics and productive capacity were turned into liabilities by clever and ruthless use of terrain, distance, and ethnicity. Is that the kind of “tail” you mean? A bad omen for Iraq and Afghanistan, then, and perhaps for Israelis in south Lebanon against Hezbullah. Generally, not so good for any military operations in what Barnett calls the “gap.”

  2. Boyd says:

    You might want to familiarize yourself with some of the stuff over at

    Modern assymetrical warfare strategy is far more advanced in its thinking than things like “tails.” It’s a study of human nature more than anything else. Not how many bullets are in what rifle and who put them there.

  3. Adam says:


    Interesting claim. It’s too bad that Scrivner doesn’t cite any sort of source, or talk about how he’s quantifying “tail.”

  4. C.E. Petit says:

    In sort of a reverse order…

    Adam, “tail” was quantified by comparing either total expenditures on non-front-line personnel and equipment (when data was available) or total personnel considered noncombatants in contemporary practice. The supporting data is about 900 pages, and it resulted from original research as a military historian in the early 1990s.

    Boyd and Altoid, you’re both homing in on a critical question for which there simply isn’t enough data available yet to draw a statistically valid conclusion: Does the changing nature of warfare in the post-total-war era change my conclusion? As you both indicate, it depends partly on what means by “tail.” I’m willing to be convinced either way; my point was that historically, the evidence is very much against the traditional argument that we need to focus on the teeth and not on the tail, Wellington’s aphorism notwithstanding.

  5. Boyd says:

    Well what you suggest is not new (it’s quite ancient, actually). The idea became officially part of the US Military as far back as the 60’s (though it was not used properly in Vietnam for various reason, not least of which was Pres. Johnson). But it formed the basis for the first Gulf War. It worked again in the current war. The problem come in when people who DON’T understand it change the strategy halfway through and turn decisive victory into wastage.

    The main issue in 4th generation warfare waged by the US is civilians who neither understand strategic warfare, nor believe wars started by the “other party” should ever be supported. So the ability to wage actual war gets nipped in the bud by the well-meaning, who turn a quick but dirty victory, into a long protracted semi-victory, or even loss, and the inevitable bloodbath afterwards. (Look at what happened in SE Asia after the protesters in the US “stopped the war”). Add to that a president who is unwilling to do what needs to be done, and you’ve got Vietnam & Iraq II.

    But what you’ve found is well known among certain circles. (I hope you realize you are standing firmly in Dick Cheney country, so don’t be at all suprised if Michael boots you out quick! Of course, he didn’t know that either, so…)

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