The oddity of reports about the Iraq War
O’Hanlon’s latest articles raise an important question: why we are re-hashing the same arguments after five years of war? It is not a question of who is correct, but why we cannot grapple with key aspects of the war, as proved by the lack of meaningful discussion about the Iraq War in our Presidential campaign. This post attempts to describe the analytical gap between the two sides and suggests a cause for this phenomenon. Perhaps it can help re-start the debate. Much rides on doing so.
This post is largely subjective, as a quantitative analysis requires more resources than gets devoted to any analysis of the war (at least, anything the public sees). We save the really big bucks for kinetics, as “the elephant is great and powerful – but prefers to be blind” (from David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.
- “The State of Iraq: An Update“, Jason H. Campbell and Michael E. O’Hanlon, op-ed in the New York Times (9 March 2008)
- “Reality and the Iraq war“, Michael O’Hanlon, Op-ed in USA Today (11 March 2008)
We can see the contrast between the two sides by comparing the pro-war narrative (alternative label, the “we are winning” narrative) of O’Hanlon — and similar reports from Iraq by “war bloggers” such as Michael Yon and Bill Roggio — with those of area experts like Professor Marc Lynch. Common elements of the pro-war narrative:
- Identifies al Qaeda as the ur-enemy, despite the large body of evidence that it was never a major foe of the US in Iraq (either before or after the invasion) — or globally, for that matter. Arguing that al Qaeda is our key foe advances the debate; asserting that al Qaeda is our key foe has lead to analytical paralysis. (For more on this see here.)
- Provides little if any comparison of costs vs. benefits of the war. Costs in terms of blood and money to the US vs benefits to the US in terms of our national goals. As above, we have assertions that defeating al Qaeda is a paramount goal (which is a shift from our goals for the invasion and during the early stages of the war).
- Minimizes or even ignores the key role of ethnic cleansing in restructuring Iraq’s society and reducing violence – and the massive number of refugees (aka displaced persons, both internal and external). The emigrants are important as they include so many of Iraq’s professional classes. These are critical aspects of reality in Iraq, routinely ignored in the pro-war narratives.
- Ignores the fragmentation of Iraq’s society. For example, referring to members of Iraq government and Army without mention of thier religion and ethnicity — such as describing as units of the Iraq Army what are in effect the Kurdistan Army. Such information provides a necessary context in Iraq, as Iraq has obviously fragmented into at least three shards (perhaps beyond reassembly, another point often ignored in the pro-war narrative). Note: of course, Iraq is a complex multi-cultural society — not a nation of teams (Kurds, Shiite Arabs, etc) — but these labels have nonetheless become an essential if simplistic element when reporting from Iraq.
- Ignores the increasing colonial-like appearence of our efforts in Iraq. (For more on this see here and here.)
Just asking these questions distinguishes those who say the war costs much and brings few obvious benefits to America from those who say the war must be won (with vague but great benefits). Since the questions are asked but ignored, the debate goes around in circles.
Why such fervor by the war’s supporters to convince others that we are winning in Iraq? These are smart people, obviously patriots, and usually with no vested or career interest in the war. Moving deeper into speculative terrain, perhaps our failure in Iraq has created a mental conflcit among believers in the efficacy of our military apparatus — and more generally, believers in the power of America.
Our inability to “pacify” a small weak nation challenges these views. Rather than modify these beliefs, we get evolving goals for Iraq, the ever-visible but never reached victory conditions (always 6 months away), the shifting definitions of our enemy, and the gap between the picture of Iraq painted by the war’s supporters and the less-appealing reality (e.g., the high levels of violence, almost powerless central government, fragmenting polity, ethnic cleansing).
This is cognitive dissonance, first described in When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter (1956) – page 3.
A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.
But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.
… But whatever explanation is made it is still by itself not sufficient. The dissonance is too important and though they may try to hide it, even from themselves, the believers still know that the prediction was false and all their preparations were in vain. The dissonance cannot be eliminated completely by denying or rationalizing the disconfirmation.
But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. Consider the extreme case: if everyone in the whole world believed something there would be no question at all as to the validity of this belief. It is for this reason that we observe the increase in proselytizing following disconfirmation. If the proselytizing proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it.
Students of human nature knew of this powerful dynamic long before it was described by psychologists, as seen in this quote from George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949).
The first and simplest stage in the discipline, which can be taught even to young children, is called, in Newspeak, CRIMESTOP. CRIMESTOP means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. CRIMESTOP, in short, means protective stupidity… orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body.
This quote does not imply that we live in a dystopian nightmare, or that pro-war reporters are believers in Ingsoc (English Socialism). Rather it shows that critical thinking is often painful and not shared among both sides in the debate. The Iraq War challenges the core beliefs of some Americans, just as health care and the economy do for others. Perhaps it is an aspect of our time. Wall Street Capitalists beg for government bail-outs. Leaders of big companies want nationalisation of the health care system. Liberals suffer as two oppressed groups viciously fight for the Presidency, trampling on core beliefs of the Democratic Party.
Perhaps today patriotism requires listening and responding to the arguments of our domestic opponents.
Let us hope that the debate about the Iraq War gets re-started, so that a resolution comes before either events in Iraq decide the conflict for us (perhaps unpleasantly), or we spend McCain’s one hundred years garrisoning Iraq (as he said here and here). Even an acrimonious debate might be better than the air boxing we have today.
This is all very subjective. Please share your comments and especially contrary evidence by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
Other posts on this topic
- Stories or statistics? Read and compare to find the truth! (5 September 2007)
- Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant (6 February 2008)
- War porn (25 March 2008) – Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the war-bloggers’ reporting in Iraq.
- More views of the events at Basra (2) — bloggers and war-bloggers (28 March 2008) – Contrast the war bloggers’ reports with those of some experts.
- A rebuttal to “War Porn” (it takes 2 sides to have a discussion) (29 March 2008) — Someone writes a defense of the war bloggers, and my reply.
- An email discussion with Michael Totten (31 March 2008)
- A look at the writings of “war blogger” Michael J. Totten – extracts of his posts from 2003 – 2005.
- Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War — my articles, and links to several by Niall Ferguson.
- Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq