Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance and Afghanistan

Hal Pepinsky,
September 30, 2009

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance is well recognized among social psychologists: The more you invest in a belief system, the more elaborately you will rationalize failure, the more forcefully you will invest. One image of cognitive dissonance I have is of seniors will buckets full of change playing slot machines endlessly at Reno’s main casino. Cognitive dissonance is a tragic fact of social existence. It is not that people repeat history because they ignore it. Rather, as I learned in law school to be a mark to be a hallmark of an adversarial attorney’s skill, is to be able “to distinguish your facts.” After all, as I discussed in an earlier post on this blog, tautology is the only proof of anything. The more deeply we entrench ourselves in political positions, the more tortured and convoluted and “complex” our rationalizations of our commitments become.
US military effort in Afghanistan is now on US political center stage. Historical reality in Afghanistan shows that no one can take control of this “country.” Even the Taliban did not conquer northern provinces. How then do US forces promise to conquer the hearts and minds of the Afghani people? Who says that a government that supports opium trafficking isn’t legitimate among people in opium country? What Afghani is going to see US troops as “counter-insurgents” rather than as flat-out occupiers who have seen to it that a US-trained former Unocal board member inhabits the national presidential palace? How can we pretend that more US displays of force can improve the situation?
Senator John McCain’s words sum up the argument to increasing US forces in Afghanistan: “We can’t afford to fail.” I get this image of a small child in the store aisle saying, “I want it. But I REALLY want it! But I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY! need it!! I have to have it!!!” That’s cognitive dissonance. Wanting “it” more doesn’t make “it” happen. The sooner you face futility, the less you lose. To say that we must fight harder to win a losing fight is magical thinking.
Strategic thinking, more closely defining our military mission, compounds the problem of cognitive dissonance. We lock ourselves into a frame of reference, into Newspeak and more convoluted language, in the goal-defining process. To me in my work distinguishing peacemaking from violence, devoting ourselves to achieving strategic goals (at all costs?) inherently heats up human relations and splits them asunder, like the effect of dumping Humpty off the wall. The force we put into achieving strategic missions/goals is the essence of violence itself—not just a cause, but violence in action.
If US political history since Truman’s 1947 proclamation of the Cold War repeats itself, US forces will draw and shed considerably more blood before US withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete, as it was in Vietnam. Some among us like John McCain will persist in the belief that if “we” lost, it was (a) because “they” were corrupt and (b) because we faltered in our commitment to send in enough power to get the job done right.
Happily for all concerned, including our troops and their families, I see recognition of the futility of this war rising sooner and more pervasively (George Will?) in political discourse than in the past. Changing course in discourse is the essence of transforming a flood of violence into a course of greater peace and healing from war wounds. President Obama has already demonstrated that he is personally secure enough to apologize for mistakes in judgment, and is willing to accommodate inconvenient facts. We have that going for us, but the reflex to invest more in lost causes—from wars to health care as is—remains strong. Love and peace--hal

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