On Tuesday, Michael Cohen wrote a very insightful article called, The First Step. It is about the lessons we should have learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But as the title indicates, the first step of that process is to admit that we’ve lost these wars.
This comes from the old Alcoholics Anonymous platitude that the first step in dealing with your addiction is to admit that you have a problem. I think this is more fundamental than that. In order to grow, it is necessary to admit mistakes. I’ve noticed that people who cannot admit mistakes get stuck at developmental levels and never move beyond making the same kinds of mistakes over and over. Cohen is right that the same thing applies to groups of people and even nations.
I still run into people who argue that the only reason we lost the Vietnam War is that the government “wouldn’t let us win.” This is a bizarre claim. The truth is that we have enough fire power to destroy any country. If we had decided to, 20 or so well placed nuclear bombs would have killed everyone in Vietnam. There would have been no opposition. Thus: we would have won the war! But as Karl von Clausewitz wrote, “War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.” In other words, it is meaningless to say that the government prevented the military from winning in Vietnam because the military was not allowed to fight more aggressively.
But what’s most important in this discussion is the denial of proponents of the “they wouldn’t let us win” theory. They think that war is some kind of game where one wins by making the other side surrender. In fact, we go to war because we wish to accomplish something by doing so. We didn’t, for example, get into World War II because we hated Emperor Hirohito. Thus whether we win a war is not a question of which side gives up; it is a question of whether we succeeded at accomplishing the goals that we wished to attain by going to war in the first place.
As I discussed on Monday, as a nation we tend to regret our last war even while we eagerly anticipate our next war. I think this is because we never really accept that we lost the last war. For example, when people look back at the Iraq War, they tend to focus on the lack of WMDs. This makes no sense. If we had found WMDs, would that have made the fiasco that was the Iraq War acceptable? I don’t think so. But by focusing on this, people assume that next time that won’t be an issue. And they may be right: that may not be an issue; but something else will be.
I am forever struck by how people hold up the Afghanistan War as somehow noble. I still don’t get this. To me, we started this war because we were attacked on 9/11. After that attack we felt that we had to go to war with someone. It was our Pearl Harbor. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t the Afghanistan government who had attacked us. I remember at the time that a lot of people claimed to be glad that Bush was president rather than Gore. Bush, they said, took us to war and that was the right thing to do; Gore would have dealt with it as a police matter. Now I seriously doubt that’s true; I think Gore would have taken us to war too. But was going to war the right thing to do? It strikes me as an immature reaction to a painful event. And looking at Afghanistan, I just don’t see what any of it has to do with 9/11—especially when it took us almost a decade to get Osama bin Laden, and then outside of the war effort.
America is a nation of many myths. Even with Vietnam, people tend to think that we’ve never lost a war. And we’re supposedly “Number one!” in just about every other way. All these delusions keep us from doing better. I think there is a direct connection between the claim that America has the best healthcare in the world and the fact that we have a poor system that leaves tens of millions without healthcare at all. Until we can look at our country, warts and all, we will continue to be stuck where we are—suffering from arrested development. Or, as many wish, we will move backwards.
 Sadly, in Iran, we seem set to repeat exactly the same error. Most people in the US think that Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon. The actual intelligence indicates that while Iran was once doing that, they are not now and have not been for a number of years. If we did go to war with Iran (which many people want to do), these same people would be shocked to learn we had gone to war based on faulty intelligence. But just like in Iraq: the intelligence wouldn’t have been faulty. It was just that no one in power wanted to listen to the intelligence.