The Key Reason Why the USA Keeps Losing Wars

lie

W.J. Astore

In a word, dishonesty.  That’s the key reason why America keeps losing its wars of choice, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or elsewhere.

Dishonesty is nothing new, of course.  Recall the lessons from the Pentagon Papers in the Vietnam War.  U.S. leaders knew the war was lost, yet they lied to the American people about seeing lights at the end of tunnels.  Recall the Iraq war and the “fixing” of intelligence to justify the invasion.  Today the newspeak for Afghanistan is “corners,” as in we’ve turned yet another corner toward victory in that 16-year conflict, according to military testimony before Congress this week.

About those “corners,” here’s a concise summary from FP: Foreign Policy:

Afghanistan turning a corner. Again. Or still? After 16 years of war, the United States and its Afghan partners “have turned the corner,” and Kabul’s battered forces are “on a path to a win.” the top U.S. general there told reporters on Tuesday.

But FP’s Paul McLeary notes that we’ve heard this before. American generals have been seeing victory on the horizon since at least 2007, and “Gen. John Nicholson is at least the eighth top commander in the last decade to forecast a pathway to victory in a war that has dragged on nearly all century, and his optimistic forecasts contrast starkly with deteriorating Afghan government control and a resurgent Taliban.”

The military and our leaders can’t even level with us on the number of troops deployed in Syria.  Consider this report today, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy:

The Pentagon is good at a great many things, but they can do absolutely magical things with troop numbers. The U.S. Central Command announced this week that it was pulling 400 Marines out of Syria, where they had been providing artillery support for the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS.

The number is remarkable given that the military continues to insist there are only 503 U.S. troops in Syria overall. And somehow, that 503 number has managed to remain exactly the same even after the Marines left. Recently, a general running U.S. special operations in Iraq and Syria said there were 4,000 U.S. troops in Syria. He quickly backtracked, saying the number was around 500 and holding steady, despite all actual physical evidence to the contrary.

Do we have 500 troops in Syria, or 2000, or 4000?  Who are our generals trying to fool?  Our rivals and enemies know how many troops we have in their regions and countries.  Why can’t the American people have a full and honest accounting of what “our” troops are up to in places like Syria?

Whether from the Executive branch or from the military, the dishonesty keeps coming.  This is exactly why we fail.

Why are we so persistent in our folly?  For several reasons.  Some people come to believe their own lies, their own happy talk.  Careerism plays a role; so does politics.  Money is a big concern, since there’s so much of it to be made in war.  Some people even think it’s OK to lie if it’s for the “right” reason, i.e. better to project an image of dumb strength than one of pacific wisdom.  America must never appear “weak”!  For some, that means never quitting a war, no matter how foolish.  Better to lie about “progress” than to admit problems that should lead to dramatic change.

Deception is at the heart of war, but we’re supposed to be deceiving the enemy, not ourselves.  We’ve allowed public relations — driven by dishonesty — to rule our thinking and reporting on war.  But, to paraphrase a saying of Richard Feynman with respect to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster,

To wage a successful war, reality must take precedence over public relations, for the war gods cannot be fooled.

And to borrow from the penultimate sentence of his report (using the Pentagon in place of NASA): The Pentagon “owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.”

Imagine if our leaders were frank, honest, and informative about our wars and their costs?  But they prefer dishonesty instead — and that is why they (and we) fail.

Trump’s system will gorge itself until it collapses under its own weight. Too bad it’ll take the planet down as well

richardfeynman
Richard Feynman (copyright Tamiko Thiel, 1984)

W.J. Astore

Conflicts of interest characterize Donald Trump and his cabinet even before he and they take power in January, so we can safely predict a lot of corruption will be forthcoming. I always love the way both parties, but especially the Republicans, vow to fight for smaller government and lower deficits — until they get in power. Then it’s bigger government and larger deficits in the service of crony capitalism. Kleptocracy, in a word.

A good friend put it concisely: “It makes me sick!”

But of course that’s why she’s not in Washington. The Washington-types don’t find it sickening. For them, “Greed is good.” They convince themselves that: 1) The more they have, the better. 2) They deserve more because they’re better people. 3) The little people are schmucks who deserve to be exploited.

My parents liked the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.” So the greedy are easy to find. Just look for them in the corridors of power, clustered together. For example, why do so many generals and admirals cash-in at retirement, joining corporate boards and making millions? They have six-figure government pensions, so why do they need more? They think they deserve the money. And they want to continue to play the power game, preening among the flock in the process.

As another friend of mine put it, “Money is the only thing the American elite really cares about. And I always think of Sinclair Lewis’s line that poor Americans never think of themselves as poor, only as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. One of our neighbors and friends told me he was voting Trump because with lower taxes he will be free to make a lot more money. Really? How much does anyone really think taxes will go down for people making what we make?”

The reality for us is that our taxes will probably go down by only a few hundred dollars. It’ll help us pay our air conditioning bills next summer, but that’s about it. Modest tax cuts are not going to turn us all into budding Donald Trumps (thank god for small mercies).

Yes, for people in Trump’s crowd, money is the measure of success. But so too is access. And power. Some of these people will kill themselves to be seen at the right parties, among the “right” kind of people. “Players.” “Operators.” Not people like you and me.

Trump’s government will gorge itself until it collapses under its own weight. The big question is whether its collapse will take the rest of us with it. Consider global warming, and consider the climate change deniers and fossil fuel profiteers that Trump is empowering. How long does our planet have left until we confront true disaster? A few decades, perhaps?

I always told my students the big problem with global warming was that its most serious perils – real as they are – lurked decades in the future. Problems that are decades away are difficult to address when America is driven by a quarterly business cycle and a quadrennial election cycle for the presidency. Now, under Trump, these problems won’t be addressed at all because the business moguls as well as the president simply deny their existence. Why? Because it’s convenient for them to do so. Because they stand to make a great deal of money by doing so. And because they don’t care about decades from now; they care about quarterly profits and getting reelected.

As I grow older, the words from a commercial of my youth have found new resonance in my memory: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Not only isn’t it nice: it’s incredibly foolhardy. For the words of Richard Feynman about the space shuttle Challenger disaster ring true here:

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

Trump and his cronies may fool some of the people all of the time, but they’re not going to fool Nature. Sooner or later (and sooner under Trump), nature’s bill will come.

The Challenger Shuttle Disaster, Thirty Years Later

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The Crew of the Challenger

W.J. Astore

When the Challenger blew up thirty years ago this January, I was a young Air Force lieutenant working an exercise in Cheyenne Mountain Command Center near Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I remember the call coming in to the colonel behind me.  I heard him say something like, “Is this real world?”  In other words, is this really happening, or is it part of the exercise?  The answer at the other end was grim, our exercise was promptly cancelled, and we turned on the TV and watched the explosion.

Our initial speculation that day was that an engine had malfunctioned (the explosion appeared to have occurred when the shuttle’s engines were reaching maximum thrust).  But it turned out the shuttle had a known technical flaw that had not been adequately addressed.  Something similar would happen to the Columbia in 2003: a known technical flaw, inadequately addressed, ended up crippling the shuttle.

When I taught a course on “technology and society” at the collegiate level, I had my students address the non-technical causes of the Challenger and Columbia disasters.  Here is the question I put to them in the course syllabus:

NASA lost two space shuttles: the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.  Tragically, both these accidents were preventable.  Both had clear technical causes.  In 1986, faulty O-rings on the solid rocket boosters allowed gas to escape, leading to an explosion of the center fuel tank.  In 2003, insulation foam that detached from the shuttle upon liftoff damaged the heat insulation tiles that protect the shuttle from the intense heat of reentry, leading to internal explosions as the Columbia reentered the atmosphere.

Both accidents also highlighted wider issues involving risk management, institutional culture, and control of highly complex machinery.  Before each accident, NASA engineers had warned managers of preexisting dangers.  In the case of the Challenger, it was the risk of launching in low temperatures, as shown by previous data of gas leakage at O-ring seals when the air temperature was below sixty degrees Fahrenheit.  In the case of the Columbia, visual data suggested the shuttle had sustained damage soon after liftoff, a fact that could have been confirmed by cameras and/or a space walk.  In both cases, managers overruled or disregarded the engineers’ concerns, leading to catastrophe.

Question: What do you think were the key non-technical factors that interacted with the technical flaws?  What lessons can we learn from these accidents about controlling complex technical systems?

I wanted my students to focus on issues such as group think, on management concerns about cost and schedule and how those might cloud judgment, on the difficulty of managing risk, on the possibilities of miscommunication among well-intentioned people operating under stress.

I ended the lesson with a quote from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who had served on the Challenger board of inquiry after the accident.  Feynman’s honest assessment of the critical flaws in NASA’s scheme of management was shunted to an appendix of the official report.  It’s available in his book, “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

This is what Feynman had to say:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

It was a devastating conclusion – a much needed one then, and arguably even more needed today.