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Through the Fun-House Mirror

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Mirror-imaging is the practice of believing that an adversary will think, fight, or react the same way you do. In many respects, it is a failure of imagination - an inability to break out of your own world-view to see yourself through the eyes of another. Recent events have me worried about a variant of mirror-imaging that could have serious impacts on how we fight our wars.

The recent investigation of a significant attack on a US outpost in Afghanistan revealed some not very surprising findings - complicity in the attack by a local tribal leader and a police chief, as well as attempts to hide that collusion by the Taliban. One finding really jumped out at me, though:

The militants fought in ways that showed imaginative military training, if not sophisticated weapons. In the midst of the battle, American soldiers were at times flushed out into the open when they fled what they thought were grenades, but were in fact rocks thrown by Taliban attackers, the report said. The day before the attack, the militants began flowing water through an irrigation ditch feeding an unused field, creating background noise that masked the sounds of the advancing fighters.

This is an example of what I'll call fun-house mirror imaging - that distorted view of your opposition that leads you to discount them because they can't meet your standards of what constitutes a proper threat. It is the idea that you have to have a significant training base, well-maintained weapons, and some type of regular order to be a threat to US forces. The experiences of the last seven years should have been enough to disabuse us of this notion, but sadly, it persists.

Take, for instance, a recent post on a prominent milblog entitled "What Real Men (ok, and many women) Should Be Able to Do." This post, adapted from a list originally published by Popular Mechanics, contained such gems as "check trouble codes", "home brew beer", and "throw a spiral." Notably absent from anywhere in the post was a recognition that this conception of "real" people excluded approximately half of the world's population. Nor is this a particularly new idea - arguably, its roots go back to the British colonial experience in Africa, with its famous verse:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

So what? The fact that Americans don't exactly have an accurate perception of the rest of the world isn't exactly news, I know. But this particular turn at the fun-house mirror has a potential second-order effect. It has become fashionable to claim that American troops stand at the head of the pack on the modern battlefield, and that no other adversary can hold a candle to our tactical proficiency. This, in turn, has led some commentators to proclaim that the only way to defeat the United States is in the realm of public opinion. The logical endpoint of this turn of thinking, as Tom Ricks pointed out last year, is our own little Dolchstosslegende.

The fact is, we are fighting some extraordinarily skilled warriors. They aren't ten feet tall and bulletproof - nor are they possessed with inexplicable Eastern powers beyond our comprehension. But after many years of constant fighting, all the dumb ones are dead. Natural selection has its place on the battlefield, too, and just as the era of persistent conflict has battle-hardened our own force, it has left us with some implacable opposition as well. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we'll be able to bring our own strengths to bear on the problem.