Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why Some Things Should Be Harder-In and Easier- Out

There are some things you should go into very slowly. Experts have long advised that it should be harder to get married than get divorced for instance. When hiring employees, expert advice is similar “hire slow, fire fast.” Unfortunately, society gets those things reversed.

It should be the same with war, harder to make, easier to quit.

As put more humorously by retiring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a recent a speech at West Point, “in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined…” I agree.

In particular with Afghanistan where prevailing opinion is now that we went in far too fast, without a clear exit strategy and then lost our primary focus. The continuing loss in lives and treasure should be lessons enough that it is a huge mistake to dismiss the importance of teaching and studying history and Tea Partiers should know better than anyone.Capture

Any of us could have “stepped in the bucket” with misstatements, such as favorites of that movement Representative Michele Bachmann and former Governor Sarah Palin have made recently, about everything from patriots to slavery to who is to blame for the deficit to whether it was John Wayne the actor or John Wayne Gacy the serial killer who was born in their hometown..

More disturbing is when they fail to pull their foot back out of the bucket and supporters try to re-edit history to fit to cover their lack of knowledge.

But clearly when someone gets a “sense from God” that they should run for office, doesn’t it seem like it would come with a reminder about the Ninth Commandment, paraphrased as “Thou Shalt Not Lie” or doesn’t it apply to sound-bites? Maybe it should come instead with a fully detailed code of ethics.

Those only too quick to dismiss the teaching and study of history not only failed to heed:

  • Shakespeare when he penned the phrases “whereof what's past is prologue, what to come In yours and my discharge” for his play The Tempest, written in 1610, often paraphrased as “the past is prologue to the future”, or

  • Founder-favorite and contemporary Edmund Burke who wrote “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” or

  • Pragmatic Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana who wrote "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Any reading of then just 32-year-old Frances Fitzgerald’s Pulitzer-winning 1972 classic Fire In The Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans In Vietnam would have been proof enough that the now decade-long conflict in Afghanistan would become a huge mistake.

More than 38 years later, its lessons remain etched in my mind as I read it with my 6-month baby girl laying on my chest just as the 1973 Paris Peace Accords brought that 8 and 1/2 year conflict (1964-1973) to an end. And that doesn’t take into account all those years of special-ops “military advisors” that bookended that period.

Arrogant and corrupt public officials, a dithering-fence-sitting population, foggy differentiation between friend and foe, a failure to grasp historic ethnic and religious divisions and then our digging deeper and deeper to justify that we’ve been digging all along in futility are just a few of the historic similarities that this post-Vietnam generation of public figures should have recognized and learned from.

Of course, there is nothing but hubris to explain why my own generation repeated such a grave mistake well before my daughter saw the back-side of 30.

Maybe Afghanistan will fall just as South Vietnam did just as hawkish columnist Richard Cohen forecast last week when he wrote “I think Obama knows that. He fought this war – authorized the West Point surge – because he did not know how to get out. Now he does…it’s by getting out.”

I also share Cohen’s concerns that “the Republican response to both foreign and domestic problems somehow fits what is beginning to look like the 1930s all over again” including depression and isolation. “America remains the sole nation capable of playing the role of adult. The world needs us. The world will soon need us even more.”

Cohen may be right because wise and selective decisions about war may be required even more frequently in the future according to the new book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl. It is imperative that we become much more self-aware as a nation about the limits of what we can and should do.

Whatever the outcome there, it was always going to be in the hands of Afghans to determine. Americans have achieved a great deal at the cost of running up the deficit and the sacrifice and maiming of young lives. This includes increasing the number of Afghan children attending school from 1 million to 8.3 million including 40% who are girls. It is up to the Afghans to rescue the 46% of school-age children who aren’t yet included.

I don’t fully agree now with General Colin Powell’s application of the Pottery Barn Rule: if you break it you own it” to nation-building. Americans have more than paid for and repaired any damage. We’ve also equipped and trained an Afghan army that if it has the will, can protect the nation from its enemies, internal and external.

As any parent can tell us, you do the best you can in preparing dependents, but you can’t control the lives they lead. We’ve sacrificed lives and treasure. It is now up to Afghans to do the rest and whether they do will be a reflection on them, not us.

“List checkers” and anyone else with little patience for either history or strategic thinking would do well to read Dr. Robert Burton’s book On Being Certain – Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. He shows why we should all be more skeptical of our beliefs and that certainty, including "confirming bias," is a mental state, a feeling like anger or pride that doesn’t dependably reflect objective truth.

They would also better understand the purpose of both history and forecasting from a favorite quote of mine by author, consultant, essayist and history-informed “forecaster” Paul Saffo:

“the goal of forecasting [as well as learning from the past] is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”

Born a decade after me on the cusp of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generation, Saffo often weaves historical perspective into essays about the future as he did in one I read upon arrival in Durham more than twenty years ago entitled Electronic Books, Yes, that long ago!

Today now-self-determinant Afghans as well as American officials eager to redirect full attention to fueling the economy, innovating new energy sources and dealing with issues of credit will do well to remember another favorite Saffo quote of mine:

“Don’t mistake a clear view with a short distance.”

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