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History Breeds Futility
Fear is the foundation of most governments.
-John Adams
Friday, January 12, 2007

Editor's Note: This is part of a series drawing ideas from the book "Nobody Wanted War: Misperception in Vietnam and Other Wars" by Ralph K. White and published in 1968, reprinted in 1970. All blockquotes are from the book.

Part I can be found here. Part II can be found here.


With so much analysis given over to why nations lose wars, and especially how nations with superior troops, training, equipment and treasure can lose in an exceptional manner - and considering the massive mismanagement, incompetence, corruption and sadism exhibited throughout the Iraq Invasion - it behooves us to ask, "What are the psychological factors that drive politicians, generals, nations, sometimes all three, to a war and, once the war is begun, drive them to remain mired in an increasingly disastrous conflict?"

Ralph K. White identified six forms of misperception that bolster the march to war and keep the fires of conflict stoked. These misperceptions generate a distorted view of the entire conflict and, consequently, lead to an inability to correctly consider appropriate solutions to any problems that arise.

Without further ado, here they are:

1. A diabolical enemy-image.
2. A virile self-image.
3. A moral self-image.
4. Selective inattention.
5. Absence of empathy.
6. Military overconfidence.

Here, these six things explain it all. They explain why our government tortures, gleefully, with complete disregard. Why the calls of a wider, regional war are already being pushed into the public consciousness. Why the war's supporters ignore the daily litany of brutal murders. Why intelligence was hand-picked and why they chose to believe it.

They explain why we bought it.

And why we won't, seemingly can't, end it.


"Though the Kaiser could scarcely be called psychotic, [the aforementioned] passage has a ring of pure paranoia. To him, the British plot was real. With Germany's very existence at stake, he felt that Russia should be given no more time to get its enormous but cumbersome military machine under way. He decided on a strike-first policy, and once that decision was made, the Great War had begun."
The diabolical enemy-image hinges upon a black-and-white formulation. The enemy is not just doing bad, but evil to the very core, evil like a Disney villain, a black heart filled with hatred for everything that the good society holds dear.

Here is where the Other is created, in the dark pits of dense minds that refuse to recognize subtlety or empathy.

Propaganda is the carrier of the diabolical enemy-image - from the Nazi children's books vilifying the Jews to Daffy Duck cartoons caricaturing the Japanese. The goal is to make the enemy an easily-recognized target, to make anybody like them hated and despised.

The less differentiation the better. Iraq was easy to sell because so many people were still angry over September 11th when we were attacked by Middle Eastern Muslims and, after all, Iraq is full of Middle Eastern Muslims. Key radicals - Christian, Jewish, Ideological - were only too happy to inflate the conflict into a region-wide war or, worse, a global jihad where Muslims as a whole society were poised to clash with, well, the rest of us. Pure bunkum, but it sells.

In a nutshell, the diabolical enemy-image is marketing; It's how you convince one set of people to start howling for the blood of another set of people.

Of course, when you have Imperial ambitions, it tends to backfire. Your occupying troops bring that image over with them and apply it to the civilian population. Then you get a lot of resentment toward the very people we are supposedly helping.

Then you get brutality. War crimes. And lots of new enemies.


"The chief dimension in which national decision-makers judged themselves, and expected to be judged by others, was not good vs. bad, or right vs. wrong, but strong vs. weak. The essential goal apparently was to be, and to seem, strong and courageous. The essential thing was to take a firm stand, a strong stand, and to do it with such firmness and such obvious lack of fear, on one's own part and on the part of one's allies, that the potential enemy would surely back down."
The virile self-image is comprised of traditionally masculine virtues and thus contains all the attendant father issues. The authoritarian mind is acutely aware of the virile self-image and internalizes those feelings easily. A leader is prized who is strict and forceful, who does not do "womanly" things like talk, compromise, or seek UN approval - in other words, someone who eschews diplomacy and jumps headfirst into confrontations.

Bush himself is wrapped up in the virile self-image. For him, leaving Iraq is a loss, which means humiliation, which means his own sense of manhood is at stake.

He isn't the only one, though. It is quite common for war supporters to cast withdrawal as a loss, with all of the baggage that formulation entails. The general tone is that the United States couldn't possibly survive losing a war, that the national psyche would be forever damaged. More bunkum.

"If the United States doesn't have the stomach to finish the task in Iraq, we put at risk what we've done in all of those other locations," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
-Vice President Dick Cheney


"While their own moral nobility was perhaps less salient in the Austrians' minds than the diabolical character of the enemy or their own need to take a firm stand in the interest of self-preservation, the Austrian self that they thought worth preserving was also noble: peace-loving (they never for a moment sought a bigger war, and always feared it), civilized (they were a bastion of civilization in a Central Europe threatened by the barbarian tide of Pan-Slavism), economically rational (their empire was prospering in unity and would suffer economically if broken up), orderly (the Serbian assassins were violating elementary standards of law and order), and democratic (theirs was a limited monarchy, and the subject peoples were advancing toward full autonomy as rapidly as possible).

"It is not necessary to deny some truth in each of these propositions; it is necessary only to notice that the Austrians' picture was expurgated at one crucial point. It did not include even a candid consideration of the possibility that this noble nation might now be committing aggression."
Sound familiar?

In short, the moral self-image says that one's own nation can only do good, no matter what. And the enemy can only do evil, no matter what. My country, right or wrong - but it's never wrong.

It is the moral self-image that allows people to justify torture. If America does it, how can it be bad? It is the moral self-image that assures the citizens that illegal spying is all done for their own protection. It is even a component of Nixon's, "If the President does it, it isn't illegal," which Cheney has adopted and adapted to a remarkable length - the Unitary Executive can do anything it wants and whatever it does is good.

The easiest way of recognizing a person under the sway of the moral self-image is to look for an invocation of Good Intentions. When you see that, run.


"Of all the psychological mechanisms involved in the misperceptions we have been considering, perhaps most pervasive is one that in some contexts may be called "resistance" or "repression" (though the Freudians give a more restricted meaning to each of these terms). Harry Stack Sullivan has referred to it more broadly as "selective inattention." It is involved on both sides of a black-and-white picture, when white or gray elements on the enemy side are glossed over and attention focuses only on the black, and vice versa.

"In nations stumbling toward war there are usually at least three other definable types or aspects of selective inattention: narrow time-perspective, narrow space-perspective , and absence of empathy."
Selective inattention is, perhaps, even more pernicious than the moral self-image because it is borne of ignorance, a willful ignorance that feeds from itself and grows even stronger. The moral self-image at least requires an internal justification of its position; Selective inattention is sustained by the less one knows, or chooses to know, and thus never demands a personal accounting.

Consider the Jamil Hussein non-story, which right-wing bloggers flogged for weeks. This story worked so well upon the right-wing psyche because it reinforced their own selective inattention. By their reasoning, if Jamil Hussein didn't exist then his reports weren't credible and therefore the AP is always lying and therefore the entire media is suspect. A broad brush which would allow them to ignore any negative reports out of Iraq while accepting the White House or Military version of events without question.

A large number of people supported the Iraq Invasion because the media itself was practicing selective inattention. Articles in favor of the war could be found in every major newspaper. Television news booked prominent hawks every night of the week. Anti-war voices were largely absent. Phil Donahue had the top-rated show on his network and was fired for airing anti-war views.

Intelligence agencies were laboring under the spell of selective inattention as well. They were instructed to find evidence of Iraq's malfeasance. Contrary analyses were ignored and thrown out. The OSP would filter all intelligence reports for the most inflammatory speculation, no matter how little confidence there was in its accuracy. The Administration wanted ammunition for its self-fulfilling prophecy, not evidence.

Narrow time-perspective comes in from the selling of the Iraq Invasion so near to September 11th, when tensions were still high. The threat of terrorism was reinforced by the Anthrax attacks. The time-perspective was completely distorted by claims that Iraq was racing toward completion of a nuclear weapon and would use it as soon as possible. The calls for immediate action in the face of a hypothetical threat made it easy to ignore the voices urging caution.

Narrow space-perspective also piggybacked on September 11th. It was evident when President Bush said, "On that day, we learned that vast oceans and friendly neighbors no longer protect us from those who wish to harm our people." Never mind that, in light of the nuclear threat during the Cold War, this statement is demonstrably, enormously false. Nevertheless, it struck a chord of immediacy in a large portion of the public. The feeling that any place in the US might be a target provoked a powerful fear response.


Which leads us to the absence of empathy.

"In short, the Austrians were so wrapped up in their own anxiety and their own righteous indignation that they had little attention left for considering what was real to anyone else."
Empathy is one of the most effective ways to resolve the underlying grievances of a conflict. It allows consideration for another person's perspective and thus presents courses of action toward a resolution.

On that note, empathy is not sympathy. A common trick is to label anyone who suggests learning about the root causes of a conflict an enemy sympathiser, conflating understanding with sanction.

Perpetually mendacious blogs like Little Green Footballs, Blackfive, and RedState lack empathy to the degree of sociopathy. It might be the anonymity of the Internet that permits them to display their eliminationist tendencies so brazenly and accuse of treason anyone even slightly opposed to subverting the Constitution in pursuit of perpetual war. We won't even dignify them with links.

Maybe you are a terrorist sympathizer.


"It is paradoxical but true that exaggerated fear can be combined with exaggerated military overconfidence."
The threat was exaggerated beyond reason. Weapons of mass destruction would never materialize. Saddam's harsh repression had kept major terrorist groups from operating effectively in-country. The idea that there was any danger to the United States was ludicrous.

There were assurances that the war wouldn't last long. That American troops would not engage in peacekeeping or nation-building. That it would be relatively easy. And cheap. The usual bromides were offered: We have the best military in the world, the Iraqis yearn for freedom, we will make the world safe.

So-called "experts" offered their speculative opinions on television during the run-up to war, downplaying any possible negative consequences. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the notion that more troops would be needed. The Project for A New American Century urged the US to "fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars," military overconfidence taken to an extreme level.

And yet, the military operation in Iraq continues to go horribly wrong. The Bush Administration has been in error every step of the way and yet continues to believe that the beleaguered military can somehow achieve victory - without any clear definition of victory. Their overconfidence extends to their own abilities to manage the civilian side of a military operation - management which is increasingly drawing the ire of the actual military.

What it amounts to, in the end, is purely, simply hubris.


Are we repeating the same errors of misperception as the President pushes the nation along the road to a war with Iran?


Deacon @ 01:40 : comments: 0
The Two Things about History:
Everything has earlier antecedents.

Corrolary: all culture, including religion, is syncretic; there is nothing purely original.

Second Corrolary: there's no question that a historian can't complicate by talking about what led up to it.

2. Sources lie, but they're all we have.

-Jonathan Dresner, "The Two Things"
Just the Other Day . . .
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