Intellectual Sclerosis, Sycophancy, and Spinelessness and War Decisions

The decision process by which the United States has blundered into ill-chosen, ill-conceived, and unwinnable wars since the middle 1960s has been disheartening but consistent. The process began with the convoluted decision process by which the country shambled into Vietnam, and has continued with the decisions to become immersed in feckless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is disheartening is that the decision process in each case has been essentially the same and has reached the same, wrong decision, making one mindful of Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results.

This observation certainly does not rise to the level of revelation, but it came back to mind while reading an article in last week’s Newsweek (“The Afghan Endgame,” by John Barry, Sami Yousafzai, and Don Moreau). In the article, the authors remind us that at the time the U.S. decided to bumble its way into the Afghan Civil War, there were voices within the government that counselled us not to do so, and did so citing very specific reasons, essentially all of which have proven to be correct . In this case, the vessel for this analysis was a group of CIA analysts dubbed the “Red Team,” whose job was to critique mounting plans to make war on and in Afghanistan. Their conclusion, according to the article, was that “the best America could reasonably hope for was to do as the British did in the 19th century and adopt the Afghans’ own tradition of paying off provincial warlords and sending out occasional punitive expeditions against the recalcitrant.” The paper, quite appropriately, was titled “Chaosistan.”

The Red Team, of course, has proven absolutely right in its conclusion about the initial war plan: “this plan can’t work.” Moreover, there are some indications that the latest U.S. initiative of working directly with the warlords represents a tardy recognition of the Red Team’s work. Whether it does or not is not the point, however.

The exposure of the Red Team effort reveals the similarity between the decision processes that led the U.S. into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In each case, there was ample warning, both from inside and outside government, that the proposed course was a mistake, placing the country in an unwinnable, quixotic campaign from which extrication would prove difficult. In all cases, those political elements in the United States who believe that all world problems can be solved by the application of American military muscle argued (falsely), that American vital interests would prevail and that if the American military was given the proper support, it could solve the problem (this latter assertion providing, of course, the excuse for explaining failure when a flawed policy failed: the military was not given adequate support, and if they had been….). In the process, those who argued against involvement were ignored, even after they were proven correct by later events. One would have thought that the mistake of ignoring Vietnam critics would have resulted in at least some appreciation that the dissenters might, just might, have a point when the decisions to go into Iraq and Afghanistan were made. Apparently not. Why?

As the title suggests, I propose a three-pronged explanation of sorts. It is, by no means, scientific, and its alliteration is also intended to indicate it probably should not be taken entirely literally. It does not, however, mean there is no truth to it. Here we go.

1. Intellectual sclerosis. The dictionary defines sclerosis as “hardening of a tissue or part of the body” in an unnatural way that makes that body part perform inadequately. While the term is normally associated with things like arteries, I suggest that the inflexibility underlying sclerosis can also be applied to intellectual processes. In this case, the sclerosis can be thought of as the ingrained Cold War mentality that the solution to all problems with some apparent military content is the application of U.S. military power. By extension, it is somehow unpatriotic and effete to suggest that military power is not the appropriate answer.

2. Sycophancy: A sycophant, of course, is a “servile or self-seeking flatterer; parasite; toady; lickspittle.” The upper reaches of virtually all private or public organizations have ample supplies of sycophants surrounding the leaders of those organizations (e.g. CEOs, generals, presidents of the United States). The role of the sycophant is to tell the leader how great and how smart he or she is, and thus how correct their decisions, regardless of their quality, are. Sycophants nurture and breed scleroris by a) enthusiastically endorsing sclerotic decisions, and b) by developing the same sclerosis to apply should they become leaders themselves (which, of course, they hope their sycophancy will make more likely).

3. Spinelessness. The definition of spinelessness is, literally, having no spine, and in its figurative sense, means “without courage, determination, or moral force.” Spinelessness enters the equation when people who could or should object to sclerotic, sycophant-supported bad decisions do not forcibly object to those for fear of the consequences, normally political. In the three cases of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, spinelessness has been much in efforts as otherwise thoughtful analysts recoil in fear from the sclerotic warmongers who made the wrong decisions about going to war.

One might, of course, add a fourth “s” word to the mix: stupidity, or question the sanity (using the Einstein definition) of those who continue to make these ultimately misinformed decisions. That would not, however, be the point of the exercise. The point is: how can the decision process be improved so that prescient but unorthodox and unpopular perspectives are given their proper shrift. The lesson of Vietnam was supposed to be no more Vietnams, but that lesson was forgotten in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lesson of Afghanistan will, one hopes, be no more Afghanistans. The question is how to avoid the fate of no more Vietnams.


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