Jun 28 2008

You have to want to know the truth, and you have to do what’s right

Category: Group-think,Iraq,terrorism,tortureharmonicminer @ 10:25 am

Michael Yon is former special forces soldier turned war journalist, and author of the very important book, Moment of Truth in Iraq.

He has a dispatch up, titled On Joe Galloway, ostensibly about another journalist, but it covers so much ground, and works on so many levels, that I think it’s worth reading in full. It is ostensibly about the use of torture to get intelligence from terrorists and suspects, but it’s really about a great deal more. It’s really about how we make decisions, how we validate our ideas, where we get our ideas, and why we do what’s right. Though he generally supports the aims of the Iraq war, he is no blinkered ideologue. A sampling:

One of the main reasons we made so many mistakes in Iraq was that high officials in the Bush Administration were often afraid of the truth and viewed a serious foreign policy question with ideological blinders. Instead of honestly appraising the facts on the ground, they saw only what they wanted to see. And instead of encouraging candor and even dissent, they ignored or attacked those who disagreed with them.

Groupthink can be deadly. In my book Danger Close I wrote about the Special Forces Qualification Course (Q-Course), which had a land navigation section so difficult that it caused many people to fail the course. I saw Vietnam combat veterans get lost on land navigation. They flunked the course. Sure, it wasn’t easy to make your way through swamps during heavy rains at midnight while freezing and carrying a heavy load. But worse than the physical challenges were the mental hurdles. Soldiers were strictly forbidden to cooperate with each other on this particular section. But they did it anyway, thinking that they would have a better chance as a group. And they were wrong. I saw soldiers form into groups. The most confident soldier would embark on an azimuth and the others would follow behind. They would all get lost because they were following a leader who was wrong. The soldiers who passed the course tended to be those who thought for themselves. Combat veterans get lost on land navigation.

Even though most of us seem to recognize the perils of groupthink, we still constantly fall into its trap. That’s human nature, our herding instinct, perhaps. Yet one thing that makes America so strong is our ability to break from the herd, or even turn it around. Back in 2005 I wrote what no one else dared to say, or didn’t see, even if it was painfully obvious, that Iraq was falling into civil war. During a period of peak casualties in mid-2007, when folks were saying the Surge had failed, I wrote and said on radio that the Surge appeared to be succeeding. In 2006, when I was in Afghanistan reporting that the war was being lost, many readers were angry. Now we have greater casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq, while we have far fewer troops deployed to Afghanistan. I believe the war in Iraq is nearly over – knock on wood – while the war in Afghanistan is just getting started.

One way to foil groupthink is to listen to others. Really listen. Not just think up counterarguments while waiting for them to run out of breath. Listening to others does not mean we have to agree with their words. But it does mean respecting them enough to take what they say seriously, especially when we disagree with them. Honest and serious people do this. Meanwhile, there is a lot of noise on both ends of the American political spectrum that deserve our attention even if it is biased and wrong. Read the websites of the far-Right and Left-wing. These groups rarely, if ever, give a dissenting voice the chance to speak. Their sites are examples of groupthink run amok. That doesn’t mean the participants are dumb or bad. Often these sites are created by very smart people who got their brains caught in the ideological bear trap. Getting caught in a trap doesn’t make a bear dumb or deserving; traps tend to be well camouflaged. I saw a bear caught in a trap one time. Boy, was that bear mad. And it sure did stink. It crawled into a trap, right behind our tent in Cataloochee up in the mountains. We kids ran out with a flashlight and peered in at the angry bear. The rangers hauled it off the next day, saying they would release it far away. Some of these far-Right and far-Left websites are like bear traps, only we cannot release those people far away. We live with them, and often they are our friends and family, victims of ideology.

Ideologies traffic in received ideas, which give people the illusion of thinking, without actually having to do the hard work of thought. Received ideas, like some religious and cult beliefs, are not challenged, merely accepted, and repeated until they become so important to those who hold them that to challenge these ideas would be to question one’s very identity. People who hold received ideas seem to feel personally threatened by the prospect of being wrong. Instead of reading and listening to possibly change their minds, they seek to reinforce the received ideas they already hold dear. On the Left, one received idea is that the Iraq War is lost. On the Right, one received idea is that torture is acceptable. The Left is wrong. We are winning the war in Iraq. The Right is wrong. Torture is unacceptable.

You might think Yon is talking primarily about the ethics of torture. While that is present, it is not the main point. The main point is how we make decisions, and why/how we hold ourselves to the standards we choose for ourselves. It is about how willing we are to have our ideas challenged, and whether we’re able to think clearly and individually for ourselves.

I was struck by this article on so many levels. I see the group-think phenomenon all the time, in the world of university faculty governance and general academic life. There are buzz terms, common phrases and references, whose use automatically stops all thought or discussion, and anyone who questions their use, what they mean, why they matter, etc., is automatically marginalized. Since the higher levels of government are populated disproportionately by academics, this does not fill me with confidence.

Group-think results in failure to ask hard questions about the real effects of previous policy and perspectives, and confusion of action with effect. (The busier we are, the more we must be getting done.) Some people seem to think “meaning well” is enough, without regard to the actual effect of policy. I see people who, when confronted with the failure of previous policy, seem often to be reflexively in favor of even more of it, believing the real problem was that not enough of it was tried. Sometimes that’s true, but not nearly as often as they seem to think.

Signs of group-think:

1) You think it is practiced by the other side, not your side. Fair warning: when most people around you agree with you, it’s probably ludicrous of you to accuse the other side of group-think.

2) When you don’t directly grapple with data from the “other side”, preferring to respond to specific data you don’t like with ideological generalization. Failure to either directly challenge the data, perhaps also provide countervailing data, or else to include it in your understanding of a situation, is a clear sign. You should either show that the data presented by the other side is wrong, or not representative, or include it in your perspective.

3) Your ability to talk about something is limited by your vocabulary, which is highly idiosyncratic and ideological, yet resists giving very clear definitions to commonly used terms. What is an “Islamic extremist”? What is “diversity”? What is “critical thinking”? What is a “moderate”? And so on. If you find it difficult to express your meaning using alternate vocabulary, in a clear and unambiguous way, you may be “group-thinking”.

4) You resist identifying and accepting the ideological roots of your current positions. I.e., you claim that now you have the right idea, even though those earlier people who thought something like this, who are now out of favor, were clearly wrong. This can only be carried off, of course, in the presence of a group of people who have all decided not to remember where their current ideas came from, as long as they can all do what they want to do now, think what they want to think now, etc.

5) You think the solution to most problems is the consensus creation of a new policy that will require people to act differently.

6) Bluntly, if you’re in the majority, be very careful. Group-think temptations are at their highest. Not that minorities are usually right, any more than majorities… but minorities are constantly forced to confront countervailing perspectives, while majorities often are not.

7) If you’re in a leadership role, and you don’t encourage people to present contending positions to you, positively seeking out and rewarding people who have different perspectives just for bringing them to you, you are encouraging group-think in the people below you in the hierarchy, and are probably not thinking too well yourself. If the only people who ever get promoted are those who agree with you the loudest, you’re in big, big trouble.

While I see all this in academic life, and I hear of it in the business world (mostly in businesses that are in trouble, or not dealing well with changes in the business environment), I have little reason to think things are better in the Oval Office, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill or the State Department, whether the occupants come from Left or Right. You can include in that the state and local governments, school boards, and labor unions of all stripes, both public and private employees.

For the record, calling most of what happened at Abu Ghraib “torture” is to “torture” the language a bit. Maybe we need a new word for permanently maiming people, so we can use the word “torture” for making them uncomfortable and embarrassed, maybe causing pain or fear that does not actually wound the body. John McCain was tortured, and his body still bears the marks, and he has daily pain from it. And, to be honest, he was one of the luckier ones on the scale of torture victims… he still has all his parts, and can function. Not all real torture victims do, or can. Being made to lie in a flesh pile naked just doesn’t compare. But Abu Ghraib wasn’t good, and shouldn’t have happened, and I agree with Yon that in fact it did cost American lives, with willing collusion from an anti-war, anti-Bush media, who played it up out of all reason.

I think most on the Right are pretty leery of using torture as a matter of policy, and believe that something like what Yon suggests is a good idea, i.e., it’s basically against policy, and exceptions have to come from WAY high up the food chain. Yon may be believing too much of what the Left claims, i.e., that the Right is all for torturing away. I think there are a few outliers who make a lot of noise, but I’m very well aware of discussion at the pre-eminent Right websites, and it does not include blanket cheering for torture, though it frequently does endorse it as an available last minute “panic button” for time-sensitive information that is needed to avoid catastrophic loss of life. Yon is correct that all such should be approached with fear and trembling, not done in heat or high emotion, and should only be authorized by the highest levels, who must take responsibility for the outcome.

Yon’s article is long, and still really worth reading completely, like his book.

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4 Responses to “You have to want to know the truth, and you have to do what’s right”

  1. harmonicminer » Only in an open society: the Army shares its self-study says:

    […] the military and civilian authorities underestimated the problems, and misjudged their options (see previous post on groupthink), its also true that this has happened in pretty much every war that was ever fought. The truism […]

  2. harmonicminer » The weather report for 2100… with a straight face, even says:

    […] If you’re a true believer in anthropogenic global warming, aren’t you just a LITTLE BIT CURIOUS (?!?!?) about why these very prominent, world class scientists don’t buy it? If you aren’t, you’re likely a victim of group-think. […]

  3. harmonicminer » The Left At Christian Universities, Part 19: Losing it? says:

    […] Stockholm Syndrome sets in after awhile, and many of these “teachers in teacher training” begin to believe it all, if they didn’t when they began.  It’s hard to “live a lie” when you’re under the academic inquisition.  It’s far easier to convince yourself that you’ve become a new convert, and hey, this can’t be heresy, because it just feels right.  And look around; doesn’t everyone else agree, too? […]

  4. harmonicminer » You might be “group-thinking” if…. says:

    […] of this material appeared in an earlier post, but I have some additional comments to make about it, so I’m reproducing the gist of it […]

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