If ever there was a symbol for intimate violence, the razor blade is it. Every day, military men wage a small, savage war on stubble by scraping steel across their faces to meet shaving standards. Yet, as in war, not all cultures see this activity the same way—and the way different cultures view the reduction of facial hair provides insight into (or at least a useful comparative tool with which to explore) the different ways they view the reduction of armed opposition. There are ways of shaving and ways of war; we can profit from understanding both.
Shaving habits reflect culture. And while not all cultures shave the same, most of the daily shaving world uses some type of razor blade. In America, the most commonly used instrument is a plastic-handled, multi-bladed cartridge (usually three to five blades lashed together), which typically costs $3-5 per cartridge (though some lower-cost options are emerging—Harry’s, for example, are $2 each). The estimated lifetime cost of a daily shave for multi-bladed cartridges ranges from $7,000 for a Gillette Sensor3 to $22,000 for a Gillette Fusion ProShield (not including shaving cream!).
Russians and eastern Europeans, on the other hand, shave differently. In that part of the world, common usage is a steel-handled safety razor, designed to lock a single blade with two sides/edges into place—which is about a dime per blade. Estimated lifetime cost: $400.
Why would Americans typically spend 17–55 times as much for a different instrument to achieve the same end? How have Russians figured out a daily shave for literally pennies to American dollars?
Sometimes, we have to stand in another’s shoes to understand our own path. So I bought a safety razor and have used it for the past six months (you can see my choices in the links just above—Merkur handle, made in Germany; Astra blades, made in St. Petersburg, Russia). My observations: it’s not quite as good as a four- or five-bladed cartridge, and I did get a little bloody in transition, mostly owing to adjusting from a movable head to an inflexible steel variant. But the safety razor is at least 90 percent as good at 2–5 percent of the price. Put another way, I dropped 10 percent in performance to save 95–98 percent of the cost. That’s quite a bargain.
So what can this Russian razor excursion tell us about American strategic culture? Even when presented with an effective, simpler, cheaper alternative—Americans reflexively reach for the heavily advertised, more expensively exquisite version. It’s not hard to see this at work in our defense choices. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal documented massive cost overruns on several pricey American defense programs: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (48 percent over budget on a program already planned to cost hundreds of billions of dollars), the DDG-51 guided missile destroyer (619 percent over on a hundred-billion-dollar-plus program), and the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft (44 percent over on a roughly sixty-billion-dollar program). [Note: figures cited in print and not digital edition.] But also recently, the New York Times published a massive cover story on Russian cyber efforts, calling it a “low-cost, high-impact weapon. … For Russia, with an enfeebled economy and a nuclear arsenal it cannot use short of an all-out war, cyberpower proved to be the perfect weapon: cheap, hard to see coming, hard to trace.” Even if contrasting these capabilities is apples to giraffes—the American/Russian strategic spending gap is noteworthy.
What can we learn? Self-knowledge is vital, and having a sense for American and Russian preferences, whether for a precision shave or a precision strike, is useful. For example, if Russians are more comfortable with developing, supporting, and using cheaper, blunter instruments that get a little bloodier than more expensive alternatives (i.e., non-precision artillery and barrel bombs versus long-loiter surveillance and laser-guided munitions)—then that’s something we can use to our advantage. Similarly, our preferences, while more accurate and prettier, often impose high costs in terms of money and time. And as war inputs do not necessarily equal outputs, high investments will not guarantee optimal outcomes. From time to time, particularly in conflicts that appear to feature longer time frames, Americans could seek out simpler, less expensive options for strategic sustainability’s sake.
As with the Merkur handle, there is a shiny, silver-plated lining to this culture contrast: Americans willing to fight through the weight of cultural bias might acquire new tools for strategic success by appreciating the virtues of value and waging war on the cheap.
Great comparison on how we (DoD) are out spending our adversaries by up to 55 times more to gain that extra last 10-15%. Another great example is how the US spent ~500k (MRAP) in an attempt to defeat a 100-dollar threat (IED).
Not to happy knowing that I have most likely spent 10k on razors already.
I know dozens of Soldiers alive because they were in an MRAP versus a UAH during an IED strike. Cost out SGLI plus for that.
It was a bargain in my book in EVERY way.
Whatever happened to nothing is too good for our troops?
The other classic example that comes to mind is the R&D spend that went into NASA’s space pen compared to the cosmonauts use of a pencil to handle note taking in zero gravity.
Sometimes good enough is good enough.
The pen and pencil story is a myth. A broken graphite tip from a pencil would be a massive hazard in a spacecraft.
That story is indeed myth. Today, even the Russians use those Fisher Space Pens. Fisher, for its part, designed the pen with its own money, mostly as a publicity stunt. That seems to have worked.
Great and interesting article and very good point for further and deeper reflections. Nevertheless, accepting about “10% less efficiency” in conflict is not the same as in shaving, and could result in unacceptable outsets. Russia can accept that because their philosophy does not care about casualties as we do: see Aleppo and Syria: months ago US did a mistake and killed 60 of the SDF in a bombing and the entire world arose in scandal. Meanwhile Russia was bombing hospitals in Aleppo and the reaction was not quite the same, at that time. Yes overspending is not a good solution “per se” and does not guarantees results; nor it is sustainable, especially in the long term. The point is that quality cannot be measured in quantity: “est modus in rebus” and we can find that measure.
There is a difference between getting what you can afford and getting what you want. Russians are not, by and large, wealthy. Their consumer market will not bear bear the same price levels as the west. The west is not so hard pressed for money. The people can afford to care.
You may say that’s the whole point, but domestically, if the casualties from foreign interventions were 3 or 4 times higher because of budget constraints, those in government would have difficulty getting re-elected. A dictator has no concern for such trivialities. Russian dictators are not so concerned about the concerns of the working class as the lives of the people are his to spend. That is the price oof being a democracy.
Well, the only thing that really bothers me in this article is the fact that on the battlefield the little things decide who drives away and who stays there burning. In warfare it is literally about those little things, every soldier, every commander is looking for that little bit of edge that he needs in order to defeat the enemy.
So on the battlefield you can have ten times the number of tanks, that are 10% worse on paper, but you are going to end up with all of them burning on the battlefield, while the enemy, who invested ten times the money for that 10% edge, drives away towards victory.
It really is important to have a bit of advantage in war, not just important, it is decisive. That is why the cost is worth it.