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Stanton Peele

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Afghanistan: The Psychology of Failure as Justification for Continuing Futility

Posted: 06/16/10 10:08 PM ET

Andrea Mitchell interviewed Florida Senator Bill Nelson about the Afghanistan War, asking him about General Petraeus' testimony before a Senate Committee (during which Petraeus fainted).

After the better part of a decade, we are nowhere near reaching our (constantly reshuffled) goals in Afghanistan. As usual, Senator John McCain, former Republican presidential candidate from Arizona, showed the way during the Senate hearing. After his opening remarks, in which McCain indicated that the key trends in the war were going in a "bad direction, perhaps even signaling a mounting crisis," McCain harped the chord of timetables: "Hoping for success on the arbitrary timeline set by the administration is simply unrealistic."

And Petraeus assented. Why wouldn't he? Charged with winding up and winning this mess, he now needs to dance for more time, until the country decides to withdraw from Afghanistan by acclamation and - like Westmoreland in Vietnam - Petraeus can claim he was handcuffed in securing victory. Thus Petraeus is joining McCain in calling for President Obama to stay until we win.

But this is really already Obama's position. When asked about the supposed Obama plan to begin withdrawing American troops in July of 2011 (which McCain and Petraeus made sound like believing in the Easter bunny), Bill Nelson likewise indicated this was foolishness, and that he was glad to hear the General insinuate nothing of the sort would happen. In this and much of Washington's discussion of the War, our failure is used to explain and justify why we need to keep fighting in pursuit of our unattainable goals.

Nelson went on in his interview with Mitchell to explain why we will achieve success where we have had only failure: because of the great skills of America's fighting forces - the best in the world - and because, Nelson assertively claimed - the Afghanis hate the Taliban. How can we fail to win given the inevitable superiority of American fighters and the deep distaste the common man there has for the opposing side?

Just like we did in Vietnam, we see the situation through spectacles that convince us that our victory is preordained, even as the results are increasingly dismal. Since we (meaning Obama and the Congress, as represented by Nelson) are unable to challenge our assumptions, we can only conclude from them that we cannot help but win - given enough time, manpower, and expenditure of national resources (including lives) there.

These psychological syndromes - using failure to justify persistence, and taking our assumptions as facts - explain how we propel ourselves forward while being doused with personal and national trauma and continuing negative feedback. In a famous study, When Prophecy Fails, three psychologists observed a cult which claimed that the world would end on a certain date - and especially how they would react to the failure of their prediction to materialize.

The cult members responded by redoubling their efforts at proselytizing. When your beliefs are disproved - and you are faced with a contradiction between your assumptions and reality - people must resolve the resulting "cognitive dissonance." The easiest way to do this is to come up with a glib explanation for the failure, to explain how this failure is not real - or can readily be overcome - and to power ahead so that any disconfirmation of a person's world view is interpreted instead as affirmation for it.

And then it is used to power this thing forward faster. Failure becomes its own fuel for continued expenditures of money, effort, and lives, and the basis for tolerating the failure that is as clear as the noses on McCain's, Petraeus', and Nelson's faces - if they could ever stare squarely in the mirror.

And one last psychological process comes into play. As noted in David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, participants in the decision making never challenge the group consensus. Or - if you will - consider the "Emperor's New Clothes." You know, the sovereign who paraded nude before all to see, but no one was brave enough to recognize the king was naked, or to announce what was so evident to everyone.

 
 
 

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