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.

Jump to comments

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.