More Grit [hilzoy]

When I read the email Jamie excerpted in his post on grit, I was somewhat puzzled. I do not think that Americans lack grit and resolve. In particular, I do not think that the fact that many of us now support withdrawing from Iraq shows that we do. I see no evidence that we are not willing to accept real sacrifices for the sake of the war on terror. (How could I? Real sacrifice has never been asked of us.) I see no evidence that we would be unwilling to stick with a war that had been competently prosecuted, and in which there was some real chance of success. (How could I? We are not currently engaged in any such war.) That being so, I do not see how any conclusions at all can be drawn about our grit, or lack of it.

The idea that either the American people or the British do not have enough grit to stick it out in Iraq, or that we suffer from some sort of collective failure of will, has always seemed to me badly mistaken. Grit and resolve would be appropriate only if success were possible, and it is not clear that it is. If success is not possible, then staying the course is not grit; it's lunacy.

However, I believe that there was a real failure of will that made that success in Iraq not just difficult but impossible, and that got us into the terrible situation we are now in. It just wasn't the failure that Jamie's correspondent seems to have in mind. Below the fold, I'm going to post an essay* I wrote in response to Josh Trevino's essay 'No End But Victory', in which I discuss the question: whose will and resolve failed us in the war in Iraq? And to the extent that any sort of success in iraq was possible, whose feckless irresolution and lack of full commitment should we blame for our failure?

(I won't make a habit of reposting old essays while Andrew is away, but this one seemed on point.)

"I'm quite sure that one never makes fundamental mistakes about the thing one really wants to do. Fundamental mistakes arise out of lack of genuine interest. In my opinion, that is."

"I made a very big mistake once," said Harriet, "as I expect you know. I don't think that arose out of a lack of interest. It seemed at the time the most important thing in the world."

"And yet you made the mistake. Were you giving all your mind to it, do you think? Your mind? Were you really being as cautious and exacting about it as you would be about writing a passage of fine prose? (...) One always makes surface errors, of course. But a fundamental error is a sure sign of not caring."

-- Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night

I have always thought that this statement is both true and very important, though there are two exceptions to it. First, it is true of some things (like philosophy) that getting the fundamentals right is very difficult, and in those cases, I don't think it's true that if you really care about something, you won't make fundamental errors. You just won't make careless ones.

Second, and more interestingly, I think that there are some people who just don't see that really caring about something requires thinking about it very, very clearly. Admittedly, it's hard to see how someone could not see that unless there were a deep problem with his understanding of his relationship to the world; but there are people who have such problems. Imagine, for instance, someone who, as a child, got everything he wanted just by screaming, and who was either sufficiently incurious not to want things he couldn't get this way, or sufficiently impatient not to stick with the actual thinking long enough to get what he wanted. A person like that might just not see that when you really, really want to achieve something, you really need to think clearly about how to get it. In him, "wanting something" would involve not bending all his effort and his will to achieving it, but screaming more and more loudly at the world.

We could debate whether or not to say that such a person is capable of caring about anything; and that debate would be, in certain respects, like one I used to have with my co-workers when I used to work at the battered women's shelter, about whether or not many abusive husbands loved their wives. On the one hand, they certainly felt something towards them, and that feeling had something in common with love. They could be wildly romantic; they needed their wives desperately; they were terrified of losing them. On the other hand, however, there was the plain fact that no feeling that regularly results in a man's slamming his wife's head into the wall could possibly be love. We usually ended up concluding that they felt something that was the closest thing to love that they were capable of feeling; but that it wasn't close enough. I feel similarly about people whose version of "caring about things" does not involve at least trying to think clearly about them.

Otherwise, however, I think that it is absolutely true that if you really want something, you will not make fundamental or careless mistakes about it. And this is a test of how much people do want something: are they careless about the task of getting it, or do they work for it as carefully, as thoughtfully, and as hard as they possibly can?

With that as preface, I want to turn to the claim that success in Iraq ultimately depends on our "will to prevail". I have always thought that transforming Iraq from a dictatorship into a functioning democracy would be incredibly difficult under the best of circumstances, and therefore that however much will and resources we brought to the table, we would also need an awful lot of luck. But I also think that we have had several tremendous failures of will. If we fail, these will be a very large part of the reason. If we succeed, it will be despite the fecklessness of those who "fear not defeat, nor dishonor, nor an Iraq under the terrorist heel" (to quote Josh Trevino.)

So herewith, a catalog of some of the failures of will that got us to this point.

First, if it's true that "a fundamental error is a sure sign of not caring", then I think we have to conclude that neither George W. Bush nor any of the advisors he listened seriously to really cared about winning in Iraq. Some of their errors, even egregious ones, are not necessarily fundamental in this sense. But if ever there was a fundamental mistake, the failure to plan for the occupation of Iraq has to count as one.

Remember this story?

"The small circle of senior civilians in the Defense Department who dominated planning for postwar Iraq failed to prepare for the setbacks that have erupted over the past two months.

The officials didn't develop any real postwar plans because they believed that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops with open arms and Washington could install a favored Iraqi exile leader as the country's leader.

The Pentagon civilians ignored CIA and State Department experts who disputed them, resisted White House pressure to back off from their favored exile leader and when their scenario collapsed amid increasing violence and disorder, had no backup plan.

Today, American forces face instability in Iraq, where they are losing soldiers almost daily to escalating guerrilla attacks, the cost of occupation is exploding to almost $4 billion a month and withdrawal appears untold years away.

"There was no real planning for postwar Iraq," said a former senior U.S. official who left government recently."

Or this one?

"In March 2003, days before the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American war planners and intelligence officials met at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to review the Bush administration's plans to oust Saddam Hussein and implant democracy in Iraq.

Near the end of his presentation, an Army lieutenant colonel who was giving a briefing showed a slide describing the Pentagon's plans for rebuilding Iraq after the war, known in the planners' parlance as Phase 4-C. He was uncomfortable with his material - and for good reason.

The slide said: "To Be Provided."

A Knight Ridder review of the administration's Iraq policy and decisions has found that it invaded Iraq without a comprehensive plan in place to secure and rebuild the country. The administration also failed to provide some 100,000 additional U.S. troops that American military commanders originally wanted to help restore order and reconstruct a country shattered by war, a brutal dictatorship and economic sanctions."

Or, more recently, this?

"The US government had “no comprehensive policy or regulatory guidelines” in place for staffing the management of postwar Iraq, according to the top government watchdog overseeing the country’s reconstruction.

The lack of planning had plagued reconstruction since the US-led invasion, and been exacerbated by a “general lack of co-ordination” between US government agencies charged with the rebuilding of Iraq, said Stuart Bowen, the special inspector-general for Iraq reconstruction, in a report released on Sunday."

It's hard to think of a management principle more basic than: plan in advance, and plan for the possibility that things go wrong. Someone who tries to accomplish something and doesn't do that is almost incomprehensible, like an airplane designer who forgets to take account of gravity, or an accountant who overlooks the need to add up all those annoying little numbers. If you're trying to accomplish something more complicated than ordering a sandwich, this is just not something one would think it possible to forget.

If it's almost incomprehensible that anyone would ever fail to plan for a tiny little detail like the occupation of Iraq, it's completely and totally incomprehensible if we assume that the people responsible for this little oversight actually cared about transforming Iraq into a functioning democracy. I'm sure that in some sense they wanted to so transform it. Possibly they just assumed that if we invaded, the rest would somehow take care of itself, and so didn't see any need to plan further. But that is not the kind of mistake you make when something really matters to you.

When something really matters to you, you go over and over your thinking, trying to figure out what you might have missed, whether there's anything you overlooked, and what you can do about it. If anyone had bothered to ask those questions seriously, the obvious lack of a plan for the occupation would have leapt out at them. And anyone who really cared about succeeding in Iraq would have stopped everything as soon as he or she discovered that lack. Because transforming Iraq into a democracy is a difficult enough task with careful planning, and anyone who cared about success would never have undertaken it without a serious, well-thought-out plan.

In Bush's case, I think the problem is twofold. First, he is a grown-up version of the child I described above, who gets everything he wants by throwing tantrums. (That's why I described that case at length.) I think that he genuinely does not see that really caring about something entails thinking seriously about it. (Surely the fact that he never had to pay the price for his many failures, and also the fact that he spent most of his adult life drunk, cannot have helped here.) Moreover, I don't think that he does really care about Iraq per se. That's certainly suggested by his conversations with his ex-ghostwriter:

"Two years before the September 11 attacks, presidential candidate George W. Bush was already talking privately about the political benefits of attacking Iraq, according to his former ghost writer, who held many conversations with then-Texas Governor Bush in preparation for a planned autobiography.

“He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. “It was on his mind. He said to me: ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.’ He said, ‘If I have a chance to invade….if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”"

And it's also clear from this amazing Time story:

"Bush has always said the presidency is about doing big things, and a friend who chatted with him one evening in July said he seemed to be craving a fresh mission even though the one he has pursued in Iraq is far from being on a steady footing. "He was looking for the next really important thing to do," the friend said. "You could hear him almost sorting it out to himself. He just sort of figured it would come.""

That's the story that provoked one of my favorite ever quotes from Ezra Klein: "One of the requirements for holding the modern American presidency should be the possession of a serious attention span. If you want to engage in the sort of global remodeling that Bush does, it needs to be near inhuman -- they should be able to synthesize Ritalin from your nail clippings." Exactly. But with Iraq in chaos and sliding towards civil war, Bush was not working as hard as he could to try to get it right. His attention had drifted elsewhere, and he was looking for the next big thing. No one who genuinely cared about getting it right in Iraq would do that.

As far as I can tell, Rumsfeld and Feith cared more about getting a chance to try our their theories of (respectively) military transformation and the remaking of the Middle East, as well as winning turf battles against the State Department. What Cheney cares about is a mystery to everyone, as best I can tell, but it surely wasn't actually succeeding in Iraq. Colin Powell seems to have cared, but no one listened to him: surely one of the more plaintive moments in the run-up to war was Powell trying to impress on Bush the fact that if he invaded Iraq, he would own it, not realizing that Bush had absolutely no idea of what it meant to accept any sort of responsibility at all, let alone a responsibility as weighty as that.

But none of the people who led us into war could possibly have really cared about succeeding in Iraq. If they had, they could not have made the mistakes they did. And so, led by these feckless and irresponsible people, who were not nearly afraid enough of "defeat, nor dishonor, nor an Iraq under the terrorist heel", we invaded Iraq. Their failure of will predictably led to the present catastrophe. The consequences of our defeat will be disastrous, most of all for the Iraqi people, but it is not at all clear that those consequences can now be prevented. We have made too many mistakes, and while they could easily have been avoided had anyone cared enough to do it right, no one did. And they cannot be undone.


The second crucial failure of will belongs to those Americans who voted for George W. Bush in 2004. By that time, his administration's incompetence in Iraq was absolutely clear, as was the fact that he had no intention either of doing things differently or of holding accountable those of his subordinates who had gotten things so catastrophically wrong. Even admitting any mistake at all seemed to be beyond him, at a time when his mistakes were obvious to anyone. It was therefore completely predictable that a second Bush administration would continue to screw things up as badly as the first.

People who genuinely wanted our invasion of Iraq not to end in catastrophe, therefore, ought to have voted him out, especially since whatever his faults, Kerry plainly was a responsible person who was not in favor of cutting and running. Some of us did vote against Bush, and therefore against the prospect of continued disastrous mismanagement in Iraq.

But others did not. And, oddly, Iraq was one of the main reasons why. They allowed themselves to be swayed by all sorts of trivia. Where, they asked, was Kerry really on Christmas of whichever year it was? Did he really deserve all his medals? Had any aspect of his position on Iraq changed during the preceding two years, and did any such alterations mean that he was really a flip=flopper? And so on, and so forth.

Most crucially, they allowed themselves to be persuaded that tough language and an appearance of complete inflexibility was the same as genuine determination and resolve; and moreover that it was what was needed to win in Iraq. This is lunacy. No one, but no one, who was genuinely concerned with actually succeeding in Iraq would accept for a moment the view that tough talk and endless promises to "stay the course" were enough to win a war and transform a country, especially in the absence of the most basic competence and foresight. It's exactly like thinking that glibness, not financial competence, is what you need to look for in a money manager, or that all that glitters really is gold.

Anyone who voted Republican because of Iraq didn't bother to look past the hype and the spin and ask themselves, seriously: is there any reason -- any reason at all -- to think that George W. Bush is capable of leading us to success? The answer was clearly: no. He had had a chance to show us what he was capable of, and it was absolutely, unforgivably, obviously incompetent. And, as I said, there was no reason whatsoever to believe that he would improve.

Choosing "toughness" over toughness, and "resolve" over resolve, is a fundamental mistake. It is not the mistake that anyone who really cared about succeeding in Iraq would make.


I have never believed that the American people are unwilling to take casualties in war. I do think that they are unwilling to take casualties in a war they do not believe is justified, or that is being badly run. And who can blame them?

Suppose that George W. Bush had sent our troops into battle unarmed, because he thought that if you point your finger at someone and say "BANG!", the other person dies. The American people would rightly refuse to let their sons and daughters go off to fight, and support for the war would vanish. This would not show that the American people were weak, or lacked resolve, or failed to appreciate the disastrous consequences of losing in Iraq. It would show that people do not generally let Presidents throw their children's lives away when they are manifestly incompetent, as any President who thought that pointing your finger at the enemy and saying "BANG!" would have to be.

To my mind, our prosecution of the war in Iraq has been only slightly less incompetent than that. George W. Bush is not so childish that he thinks that you can kill people by pointing your finger at them and saying "BANG!" But he is childish enough to think that looking tough is a substitute for serious thought and careful planning; that striking an attitude is all you need to do to get what you want.

Given such leadership, of course the American people are developing second thoughts. Who wouldn't? But this is not because they lack "will". It is, as Josh Trevino said, because "their support for the war varies in direct proportion to their perception that the American political leadership is willing to" win. George W. Bush has never been serious about winning. Neither have those advisors he listens to. They were not willing to take the most basic and elementary steps to ensure against catastrophe -- steps like having a plan. They were also unwilling to court any real political risks themselves, for instance by calling for a draft.

Josh Trevino writes that "we have seen what happens when America abandons its national commitments, and deserts the brave people who stood tall and believed its promises." This administration abandoned both America's ideals and her national commitments, and betrayed both the Iraqi people and our own troops, before those troops ever set foot in Iraq. That was the time for serious thought and serious planning, but they did not bother with either.

The party of Josh Trevino has had complete control over the war in Iraq. Given the feckless and criminally irresponsible way this administration has conducted that war, as well as the complete irresponsibility of supporting Bush's reelection when his incompetence in Iraq was clear, I think it's a bit much for them to be lecturing the American people on their lack of resolve now. To my mind, it is exactly as though, having supported a President after it became clear that he thought that pointing your finger at people and saying "BANG!" would kill them, they tell us that if we are losing, the problem is that our unwillingness to send our troops off to fight under the command of that President just shows our "lack of resolve"; and that if we lose, our "weakness", not the President's incompetence or their inexplicable support of him, will be to blame. Someone in this story lacks the will to win, but it isn't us.

Moreover, while I don't think that most Americans are defeatists, there is a genuine loser (def.: one who loses.) That loser is George W. Bush. He is losing the war in Iraq before our eyes, and he has been doing so all along. And why anyone who wants to avoid defeat would support the person whose actions have brought it upon us is a mystery that passes all understanding.

We have already made too many mistakes in Iraq, and we cannot undo them, least of all by sheer "resolve". But I do know who I blame for this disaster. It is not the people who are coming to believe that withdrawal might be the best alternative that remains to us. It is the President who didn't bother to think before he acted; who thought that playing tough was enough. He had it in his power to wage a war people would support, but he didn't bother. His policies have done enormous damage to our national interests, to our army, to our reputation, and to our ideals. His conduct is, to me, criminally reckless, and absolutely unforgivable. And the principle failure of will in the Iraq war is not the American people's. It is his.


*I've modified the essay slightly to remove references specific to Obsidian Wings. The original can be found here.

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