Democrats & Liberals Archives

The Truth Will Set You Free

When does the problem stop being about the world’s imperfections, and starts being about ours?

We cannot predict all the world’s dark turns. Can’t we predict at least some of them, though, if we put our minds to it? We cannot intercept all those who wish to do us harm, but what would it take to intercept most of them, and prevent the worst of their attacks? We cannot arrive on the battlefield fully prepared for all difficulties, obstacle, and turns of events, but when does blaming the fog of war just mean that we’re just creating a smokescreen for our incompetence?

Uncertainty is not universal. We can be sure of things to varying degree. We don't worry too much about the solidity of our reality, about whether the computer in front of us is in fact a computer. We take it as fact, and if we turn it on and it doesn't do anything, find the case is empty, or see alien tentacles burst out of the casing, we revise our picture of that part of the world. It's not a bad thing to be wrong, if you're willing to change your view of things on the receipt of new facts.

We act according to the facts and profit thereby. If the computer doesn't turn on, we examine it ourselves, or have somebody else examine it and see if we can get it to work, or if it was even going to work in the first place. If it is empty, we take it back or we stop treating it as a computer. If it sprouts tentacles, we grab for the nearest plasma rifle and blow the damn thing away. That or use a flamethrower.

But what if we're wrong? What if we forgot to check behind the computer to see if it was plugged in? What if the case we took back belonged to a spouse who was using it to build their own computer? What if that tentacled monster was an ambassador from the planet Urknoth IV who just uses electronics for mass transit?

Things change when our picture of the facts gets better, and the strategies we use and the actions we take should change with them. We should balance our need for timely understanding of the world with our need for accurate and precise understanding of it.

Our pride in believing we know what we think we know can get in the way of revising our opinion appropriately, and our actions accordingly. Sometimes that means instead of calmly thinking things through we might take it out on somebody else, a child or a spouse, instead of looking to see whether it's plugged in before we take a course of action. Sometimes it means we will get defensive with the one who tells us we erred, blowing up at them, blaming them for our error. Sometimes, having taken such a drastic action, and not being able to take responsibility, we will fail to admit something went wrong at all, asserting we did rightly when we did not. The Urknothians would probably appreciate being told sorry more than they would appreciate being told he was an ugly tentacled bastard who deserved to die.

It's understandable, it's human. I've blown away my share of alien creatures in games myself. But an error's an error, and piling spin on it only means that sooner or later, the lie collapses under its own weight. The truth remains as it is, except for the changes our actions have brought.

Again, there, with that new change, we get the chance to do things right, to understand things well, to observe and take note of the signs of the way things are. But if we're still clinging to a past error, still insisting on a discredited set of facts, then we are in no position to properly judge the situation.

As things go, then, every action contributes further to the chaos and uncertainty. If you don't have a solid idea of at least the approximate consequence of your action in a policy or in a war, then any strategy you take based on your misunderstanding will not go as planned, and in a world that does not operate linearly or mechanically, the loss of control can have devastating unforeseen consequences.

Worse, the uncertainty can lead to a paralysis of action and analysis as what we predict and think to do becomes enveloped in a hopeless cloud of cynicism and bad experience. The Democrats learned from bitter experience the price of a war built on faulty intelligence, faulty assumptions, and faulty strategy. Read The Best and the Brightest and the current situation will chill you to the bone, because this administration has much in common with the administrations that brought us into Vietnam, even though party lines and certain beliefs separate them. When you speak of an arrogant Texan with hawkish, macho sensibilities about the war, stuck in an echo chamber, only listening to advisors who tell him what he wants to hear, You're still speaking of both men: Lyndon Johson and George W. Bush.

I think in the end, as the truth destroyed Johnson as a leader, it will bring grief to Bush as well. Both gained re-election, a War just begun, the casualties still relatively low, victory still a possibility. Both have now escalated that war, safe from the political consequences of doing so. If I were more cynical, I might suppose Iraq is God's way of punishing Republicans for their hubris on defense issues, because the Republicans have managed to repeat the mistakes that cost the Democrats so dearly over thirty years ago.

What I sincerely hope is they haven't added more error to that. As of my writing this, the legislation to reform the intelligence community is held up, few if any of the 9/11 commission recommendations have been followed, a political purge is going on in the CIA, removing a layer of experience professions from their ranks, and the President still maintains nothing could have been done. Unfortunately, that's not true, and investigations have shown that. These are not investigations pinning the blame directly on Bush, but they do contest the idea that 9/11 just happened. He still thinks, or wants us to think it happened out of the blue.

The truth is, al-Qaeda used our ignorance and our false sense of security against us. They gained the truth of what could be done to get in and out of our country, to gain supplies and training, and they used it against us to spectacular effect.

If you read Sun-Tzu's The Art of Warfare, so much of it is about what you know about the battlefield, about your enemy, and how much your enemy knows in return. To go boldly into a field of battle when you do not have good knowledge of the terrain and the situation would be unforgiveable in his eyes. To go into battle not knowing the enemy would seem the highest stupidity to him. Al-Qaeda's flight from us would make sense to him, as he advises weaker forces to avoid the stronger. Our lack of defenses at home would be a horror to him, for few of the wise old warriors of the past would advocate pure offense as a way of fighting wars, especially in the face of an enemy like al-Qaeda.

In the war against terrorism the greatest sin will be to fight the truth of what we must do, and what we must acknowledge as we fight Bin Laden's organization. Our greatest sin would be, once warned of our weakness, to be unwilling to shore up and fortify them. If we believe luck is on our side, that our enemies will not succeed again, then we are thinking the same way we thought after the first World Trade Center attack, before 9/11. The evidence shows us a patient, resourceful enemy, technically brilliant, and willing to learn extraordinary skills and wait years to strike at us at the right time. The truth of our enemy belies the image of desperate enemies of modernity. They are in fact, as John Kerry had described them, the dark side of modern globalism, as sophisticated and smart as we are.

They are not guaranteed victory, for as Sun-Tzu quotes another himself, victory can be anticipated, but it cannot be forced. We should not kid ourselves that we have al-Qaeda pinned in foreign lands. We should get to work here hardening our country against attack in a real sense, sparing few expenses, willing to knock heads when the corporations and the local governments do not cooperate. We know the battlefield that al-Qaeda prefers. Let us prepare that battlefield for the sake of our own victory, and their defeat. Let us then shape the battlefield in other countries, too, with hard-won cooperation and hard-nosed intelligence work.

The time to allow the tyranny of low expectations to rule this country is over. Our lives and our society are at stake, and it's no longer safe to ignore the truth. If we are willing face up to this responsibility, learning what we need to do, coming to understand the world around us, and what we can do to secure ourselves in it, we will have more than just safety, we will have something far greater: The freedom to choose our battles, to not waste valuable energy just to create another threat set against us. The truth, if we diligently follow and search for it, will let us know what can be done, and will give us the initiative necessary to win the war.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at November 26, 2004 10:02 AM