Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Iraq War and Cognitive Dissonance

I am presently reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It's a book about cognitive dissonance -- how we justify past mistakes and wrongs in order to feel confidence in our own judgment.

In the comments, Ed mentioned that he picked up this book, but decided not to read it because of its political content. I can understand that. Tavris and Aronson take their time to kick at America and Israel, and clearly feel that the Iraq War was unjustified. And certainly opponents of the war have had their own share of dissonance, such as Harry Reid's proclamation of the surge as a failure.

Lately, in the political blogosphere, there has been a discussion of how pro-war bloggers offered lower casualty estimates than have actually taken place. Here's a good roundup of various attempts to retroactively justify those estimates.

I think that those of us who verbally supported the Iraq War should be honest about how things have turned out. The general consensus of right-leaning bloggers that I read at the time (such as the previously linked Glenn Reynolds), was that the war would be much briefer than less costly in blood and money than it has been. There really wasn't a sense that the occupation would be a serious problem; that it would be something more akin to the occupation of Germany at the end of World War II than a protracted guerilla war. And in the several years that followed, I read many commentators, such as Victor Davis Hanson, promise that victory was right around the corner. Over and over again.

I think that the U.S. and its allies have now turned that corner in Iraq, but that we should also resist the cognitive dissonance which advises us to retroactively claim that this is what we always predicted. It wasn't.

I thought that the Iraq War would be much briefer and less costly. And I was wrong.

5 comments:

bob said...

I too supported the war and mistakes were made in estimates of time and casulties. I still think the war accomplished it's goals of regime change and lessening terrorist threats here at home. I think one of the biggest mistakes was treating the enemy like a conventional enemy who would have surrendered after the initial overwhelming defeat of the army. When the enemy has no respect for human life ie. ,suicide bombs which probably have killed more of their own, the threat of death won't work. Sometimes I wonder if the oppositions point of view on any issue being more pessimistic isn't more realistic.

Ed said...

Certainly we have all been guilty of cognitive dissonance at one time or other. It is a fascinating subject that has ramifications for epistemology and even theology. On the whole, it does not even bother me to read a book by a liberal who finds it easier to see conservative failings than his own.

It just seemed, upon a cursory examination of this book, that it veered almost into a political polemic disguised as a psychological work. Absorbing and responding to such a treatment seems too tiresome to me. So, like I said, please keep going. Try to pull out the good parts, and I'll enjoy reading them. As for the rest, I've heard it all already.

Jeff the Baptist said...

The real mistake in Iraq was in going in without enough troops to win the peace. We had enough men to defeat their conventional forces, but not enough to secure the country against the unconventional forces that would follow. This is a fairly classic military problem and not something isolated to the Iraq War.

This is why the military planning wanted twice the number of troops that Rumsfeld's plan used. Unfortunately since we didn't actually have those troop numbers to use, Rumsfeld's plan won.

I didn't understand what was going on at the time, but several of my coworkers here completely understood the interdepartmental politics and military planning concerns involved.

But yes balancing this politically with the Surge would have been better.

James R. Rummel said...

"And in the several years that followed, I read many commentators, such as Victor Davis Hanson, promise that victory was right around the corner. "

The invasion was in 2003. Six is "several years"?

"I think that the U.S. and its allies have now turned that corner in Iraq, but that we should also resist the cognitive dissonance which advises us to retroactively claim that this is what we always predicted. It wasn't."

I did and I didn't. The outcome is exactly as I envisioned it, but it has arrived about ten years sooner than I thought.

"I thought that the Iraq War would be much briefer and less costly."

Even a brief glance at the history of the region will prove that invasions and conquering Arab cultures usually works, but only if the invader puts the hammer down and indulges in some atrocities. If there is even token resistance in a city or town, kill everyone. Pretty soon support for resistance disappears, as does the armed insurgency.

What happens if you don't? Then things drag on and on. Not for 6 years, but for more than a hundred. Or even longer.

No matter what critics of the US say, we aren't in the atrocity game. We aren't the ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, Communist China, Pol Pot, or North Korea. Slaughtering entire populations because a few score yahoos decide to try and kill a few American troops wasn't going to happen.

That is why I figured that it would take 20 years, or even more, to stabilize Iraq and give the government there a chance. I thought that the present adult population, the ones old enough to be movers and shakers, would have to die off or get too old to rule any more. That is what example after example from history said would be the most likely outcome.

Don't you see what has happened here? It is amazing! Unprecedented! Something new not only in the history of warfare, but of mankind. The speed in which things turned around in Iraq is staggering, the low casualties boggles the mind!

But it is still too long for you, and the death toll too high. I can't figure that out, really. What more did you want, anyway?

John said...

Then you were more prudent than I.

It is a remarkable thing, and in the grand scale of military history, our casualties have been shockingly light. They're just heavier than what a lot of commentators thought.

If our country can't take 5,000 casualties without throwing in the towel, then we'll be in real trouble when the war with China finally starts.