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The oddity of reports about the Iraq War

13 March 2008

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.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

  1. Stories or statistics? Read and compare to find the truth!  (5 September 2007)
  2. Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant  (6 February 2008)
  3. War porn   (25 March 2008) – Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the war-bloggers’ reporting in Iraq.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. An email discussion with Michael Totten (31 March 2008)
  7. A look at the writings of “war blogger” Michael J. Totten – extracts of his posts from 2003 – 2005.
  8. Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War — my articles, and links to several by Niall Ferguson.
  9. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq
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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 March 2008 12:30 pm

    “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.”

    I think you have a great point here, and unfortunately, we military analysts are the last ones to provide any argument for or against that hypothesis. This is getting more into social sciences, and while we (collectively) ought to be looking at those angles, I think it gets overwhelmed by preferences for more reports on the need for MRAPs, new military airplanes, and whether there were WMDs and terrorists in Iraq before or after the war. It’s a sad state of affairs.
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    Fbius Maximus replies: Will the increased role of social scientists in the military have an impact (e.g., the COIN manaual FM 3-24, Kilcullen, the Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan)?

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  2. 13 March 2008 1:16 pm

    It’s interesting you mention this. I still get into surprisingly acrimonious arguments with fellow bloggers about this (right down to quibbling over “operational” versus “other” when discussing possible ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein). Indeed, a look at public statements from Bush administration officials show they were wrong about every single aspect of the war except for how quickly we could occupy Baghdad. Considering that now the administration is essentially censoring the report that indicated as much, I think it’s clear ideology is driving behavior, not facts.

    Sometime in 2005, I came to the very painful conclusion that the war I had gleefully promoted and supported as an unquestioned act of mercy was, in fact, abominable (this was based on several close friends’ personal experiences with maiming and PTSD after they returned home). It was not an easy process to go through, and it has flavored my subsequent opinion of future attacks. That others are so unreflective, and even worse remain in positions of influence, is worrisome.

    Then again, maybe being un-self-reflective is a prerequisite for being an effective policy-maker.

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  3. 13 March 2008 1:40 pm

    The report Foust mentions is “Exhaustive review finds no link between Saddam and al Qaida“, McClatchy Newspapers (10 March 2008):

    “An exhaustive review of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents that were captured after the 2003 U.S. invasion has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorist network. The Pentagon-sponsored study, scheduled for release later this week, did confirm that Saddam’s regime provided some support to other terrorist groups, particularly in the Middle East, U.S. officials told McClatchy. However, his security services were directed primarily against Iraqi exiles, Shiite Muslims, Kurds and others he considered enemies of his regime.

    “… The new Pentagon study isn’t the first to refute earlier administration contentions about Saddam and al Qaida. A September 2006 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that Saddam was “distrustful of al Qaida and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al Qaida to provide material or operational support. …”

    Of course, the proles need not know about the errors of their betters, so today we read …

    Pentagon cancels release of controversial Iraq report“, McClatchy Newspapers (12 March 2008):

    “The Pentagon on Wednesday canceled plans for broad public release of a study that found no pre-Iraq war link between late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the al Qaida terrorist network. Rather than posting the report online and making officials available to discuss it, as had been planned, the U.S. Joint Forces Command said it would mail copies of the document to reporters — if they asked for it. The report won’t be posted on the Internet. …”

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  4. 13 March 2008 2:13 pm

    More than the Iraq war, there should be an open debate about the general question of Empire and how to manage the inevitable Peak Oil event. It seems obvious to me that we are in a Cheney Plan that is designed to position the Empire to maintain itself both domestically and worldwide at the point when the public is ready for, let us say, a two-way expansion of the current beachhead east to Iran and west to the Arabian peninsula. Various presentations by neocons in various contexts make this very clear. It is also no accident that what Cheney was doing while NOT reacting to intelligence about al Qaeda and terrorism was secretly forming an energy policy.

    It seems to me that it would be very naive to assume that there is not a Excel spreadsheet on the Vice Presidential laptop that tracks the demand and supply of oil, its price, and domestic economic statistics, positing a ‘tipping point’ at which the American public will be ready for the Big Move to secure our line of supply. It is core Straussian dogma that the public can and should be lied to for its own good, hence statements such as those by Wolfowitz that the troops would be out in six months and the invasion would pay for itself. The core imperialistic reasons for this first step in taking control of these vital resources were politically unacceptable both domestically and worldwide. Emotional and ‘ethical’ appeals around al Qaeda, WMD, and democratic transformation were substituted due to being more palatable in the short to mid term.

    The reason so much time is invested in trying to figure out what really went on to start the war is that all the conventional explanations, including most of all those involving al Qaeda which were about emotional manipulation and had no basis in fact… are unsatisfying to an incredible degree, especially in contrast to prior causes of war such as Pearl Harbor. We are not pursuing bin Laden because there is no oil where he is.

    It seems eminently predictable that when the domestic economy gets bad enough… unemployment high enough, gasoline expensive enough, the number of foreclosures at a critical mass… there will be public support for doing whatever it takes to secure the Empire and its energy supply. At some point, the bomb-Iran song becomes melodious, gas just has to cost some amount that shifts public emotion.

    The alternative will be complete chaos and fragmentation here, or a fascist serf state. Our infrastructure at so many levels is so dedicated to gasoline, with no transitional plan in place never mind in progress, that we may already be at a point where we don’t have sufficient energy to implement a plan to become less dependent on foreign oil. In that sense we are in the position of being let us say a farmer, who does not have sufficient stores of food to stay alive while plowing, planting, and waiting for a new supply to grow. Survival depends on stealing food from someone else. The energy problems we have, of course, are being further exacerbated by population growth and illegal immigration, problems with fresh water, and cream-skimming by the wealthy with their derivatives and other financial instruments. At some point, oil becomes so expensive that business as usual, even domestically, will become impossible. The Great Depression will look like a quaint agrarian drama in comparison.

    One thing this approach does is make sense of some statements by various Administration people around the future view of their actions. If the President, for example, is privy to all this, he counts on history to vindicate him because when all the facts come out, he expects to be seen as the leader strong enough to put in place this devious and long-term plan to extend the Empire as far out into time as possible. In other words he expects oil to peak, the Cheney plan to eventually be revealed, and for historians to realize that he took the optimal action to forestall even worse outcomes; and could not, due to the naivete of the populace and for security reasons, reveal what he was really doing while he was doing it.

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  5. judasnoose permalink
    14 March 2008 12:52 am

    “It seems eminently predictable that when the domestic economy gets bad enough… unemployment high enough, gasoline expensive enough, the number of foreclosures at a critical mass… there will be public support for doing whatever it takes to secure the Empire and its energy supply.”

    That is true so long as people believe their government is capable of helping them. Many people in America seem to believe their government is only capable of harm. If the domestic economy is *really* bad, Americans will be interested in joining gangs, and gang members will have too much group loyalty to placidly support a national government.

    Incidentally, Fabius, that quote from When Prophecy Fails is excellent. Let me offer good news and bad news. Bad news first: You, Fabius, probably won’t be able to break through the mental hardening-of-the-arteries of the defense establishment. Good news: you have a huge number of potential allies, followers, and supporters from groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War. There are many, many Americans who will say with Joshua Froust, “Sometime in 2005, I came to the very painful conclusion that the war I had gleefully promoted and supported as an unquestioned act of mercy was, in fact, abominable (this was based on several close friends’ personal experiences with maiming and PTSD after they returned home).” If you can establish communication with this huge mass of Americans, they will follow you.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: As my articles on the economy show, I believe our domestic political and global geopoltical situations will be driven by the end of the post-WWII debt supercycle and the end of the American Empire — not our foreign wars. As my articles about America show, I am confident that we will come through these trials — although perhaps greatly changed as a nation.

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  6. OldSkeptic permalink
    15 March 2008 3:24 pm

    And to add to that FM, with luck changed for the better. Sure hard working but a bit more humble, a bit more interested and understanding of the rest of the world, a bit less agressive, a bit more fun, a bit less ernest, a bit more laid back, a bit more curious, a bit more able to learn from others, dare I say it a bit more intellectual at times ….. etc.

    I refuse to believe that a country that can produce a Pete Seeger, an O’Henry, a Feynman, et al. That can put a man on the Moon, develop a polio vaccine and create a Gibson Hummingbird guitar, et al. That can create a wave of (often) peaceful positive revolution through the whole World just by its living example. That can create ideas like ‘progress’, civil rights, the law, that change can be good.

    I refuse to believe that it cannot rebuild and become an example again and because of that a leader in many (though obviously not every) ways again.

    Be nice to see a future, where a disaster happens and the UN sends in some Peacekeepers … and everyone wants some US troops there because they are so good at it (having learned from the Aussies of course … ahem ;) ).

    Like

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