It’s good to be back home at Gates of Vienna.
The other day, while still in hospital, I read the Michael Yon post linked below.
As I read his analysis of some of the problems with groupthink — and at least one of his points is counter-intuitive — I became aware how much Mr. Yon’s writing has matured, both in breadth and depth, since he started his website a few years back.
When I first began reading what I thought of as his “barefoot” reports from Iraq, he was desperate for decent camera equipment and basic protection like night goggles. From that inauspicious beginning, he has persevered through much… and in the process has gained the perspective of several years’ hard experience in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The view he brings to those conflicts is an upfront-and-personal discernment that can only be acquired first-hand by someone with military experience.
In fact, Mr. Yon may be the only one with his length of experience working in both Middle Eastern theatres of America’s portion of the War on Terrorism . You can tell from reading his work that he has the wisdom to refrain from saying all that he knows.
As I mentioned, in his latest post Yon describes in detail the dangers of groupthink. He opens with his reflections on the journalist Joe Galloway, noting that he usually disagrees with Galloway’s take on the wars, but that they are both agree that the use of torture to obtain information is problematic in itself, and wrong. Dishonorable, even.
Using his own views of Galloway, Yon makes a plea for the importance in listening to those with whom we disagree:
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…but how can we challenge our own views if we do not listen to others who disagree with us? One of the main reasons we made so many mistakes in Iraq was that high officials in the Bush Administration were often afraid of the truth and viewed a serious foreign policy question with ideological blinders. Instead of honestly appraising the facts on the ground, they saw only what they wanted to see. And instead of encouraging candor and even dissent, they ignored or attacked those who disagreed with them.
I will admit that as much as I admire Yon’s analysis of the battlefield, I disagree with this short summary.
Much of the beginning failure in 2003 can be laid at two doors: first, Turkey’s betrayal and refusal to let US Forces deploy from the north via Turkey.
Second, the failures of two types of Americans, which Ken Joseph outlines from his own experience in those beginning moments in Baghdad with the Allied Forces. In 2006, I posted on Joseph’s experience of the Americans in Baghdad in those early days. His words still bear repeating:
Who betrayed Iraq? The “good guys” [military] who naively believed, [and] the “chasers” who desperately hoped Iraq would fail for their simple job needs and the “experts” who systematically dismantled all the good done for the Iraqi people.
In particular, who betrayed Iraq? In contrast to the no-nonsense Military Officer Jay Garner [whom] I had the honor of meeting, I confronted Paul Bremer, his pathetic successor who personally betrayed the people of Iraq by turning it over before it was ready just [s]o [he could] personally get out.
That whole post is still worth reading, just to get an Assyrian Christian’s point of view about why Iraqis wanted the war to come, why they prayed it would happen, no matter what the cost. That has been lost in the noise of those who want us to lose, and in the evil machinations of AQI, who will die trying to make that a reality.
I have left most of Mr. Yon’s post for you to read for yourself. In order to show how informative it is, here is his experience with groupthink, and why he finds the phenomenon is so deadly. He is explaining the pitfalls of “leadership” during a Special Forces Qualification Course:
…[it] had a land navigation section so difficult that it caused many people to fail the course. I saw Vietnam combat veterans get lost on land navigation. They flunked the course. Sure, it wasn’t easy to make your way through swamps during heavy rains at midnight while freezing and carrying a heavy load. But worse than the physical challenges were the mental hurdles. Soldiers were strictly forbidden to cooperate with each other on this particular section. But they did it anyway, thinking that they would have a better chance as a group. And they were wrong. I saw soldiers form into groups. The most confident soldier would embark on an azimuth and the others would follow behind. They would all get lost because they were following a leader who was wrong. The soldiers who passed the course tended to be those who thought for themselves…
Yon presents an opinion I have voiced many times: in order to think for ourselves, we have to learn to listen rather than merely wait for our turn to interrupt so we can put forth our own already-formed point of view. This is especially important when you’re listening to someone with whom you disagree.
…there is a lot of noise on both ends of the American political spectrum that deserve our attention even if it is biased and wrong. Read the websites of the far-Right and Left-wing. These groups rarely, if ever, give a dissenting voice the chance to speak. Their sites are examples of groupthink run amok. That doesn’t mean the participants are dumb or bad.
Ideologies traffic in received ideas, which give people the illusion of thinking, without actually having to do the hard work of thought. Received ideas, like some religious and cult beliefs, are not challenged, merely accepted, and repeated until they become so important to those who hold them that to challenge these ideas would be to question one’s very identity. People who hold received ideas seem to feel personally threatened by the prospect of being wrong. Instead of reading and listening to possibly change their minds, they seek to reinforce the received ideas they already hold dear. On the Left, one received idea is that the Iraq War is lost. On the Right, one received idea is that torture is acceptable. The Left is wrong. We are winning the war in Iraq. The Right is wrong. Torture is unacceptable.
Maybe I don't go down the spectrum far enough to get to the wrong Right blogs and magazines and think tank analyses. I sure don’t remember seeing anyone suggest that torture is a good idea. The end does not justify the means, however tempting that may be in the case of those you know have killed your compatriots in horrifying ways and will do so again.
As they say, read the whole thing. Yon’s post is a long, thoughtful one. He is meeting people and moving into areas that will change the way he perceives reality. Whether that will, in the end, make him more like the “mean old man” he told Joe Galloway he had become remains to be seen.
If he survives his chosen career as an observer of one of America’s most important ventures since World War II, Michael Yon has years and years ahead of him in which to learn to listen most carefully. Developing this skill, this art, takes time. Years of slow time when we learn to focus on the other rather than our own opinions.
Yon listens with brilliance when it comes to matters military. He has lived in that milieu from the inside. Now that he is outside, he brings a special knowledge to what he sees and hears.
However, I am not sure he has succeeded in close observation of the Bush administration. That would take a specialization he has not yet acquired… whereas someone like, say, John Bolton, has observed that particular danger very close indeed. And, yes, he does listen and retain what he hears.
On the other hand, in Mr. Yon’s defense — and for others who share his point of view — this President often plays his cards so close to his vest that no one seems to know what he’s holding. Sometimes he appears to have dropped into a large silence from which he is not likely to emerge in the time remaining to him. This is just one reason it will take years to grasp all that has transpired in his time in office.
I often wonder if Bush’s restraint is not partly due to his views on those who vie to sit in his chair when his time in the Oval Office comes to an end. Listening to what he does not say, one can come away with the impression that he wants to return to Crawford and relish the peace and quiet.
How many readers think Bush will be a globe trotter like Carter and Clinton? How many believe he will criticize or second-guess those who come after him? Perhaps it is his post-presidency that proves a President’s mettle, not to mention his integrity.
I’ll be listening… even the silence will be telling.