Sunday 10 April 2022

Delusions leading to disaster

Vladimir Putin explaining how Ukraine is not a country

Delusion has played a large role in military misadventure, including Putin's invasion of Ukraine. 

Which just makes me wonder: do leaders make decisions subconsciously, using their gut, and then apply reason's fig leaves? Or is the pre-war uncertainty fog is so great leaders (and intelligence analysts) can't make accurate assessments of possible outcomes?

The world infamously barrelled into World War One thinking it would be a jolly Fall romp, over in a few months. People enlisting were worried it would all be over by the time they reached the front. So not what they needed to worry about.

The Japanese Empire attacked the United States in 1941 and rampaged across South East Asia without an exit strategy. Their foremost military thinker, Yamamato, told them they'd be able to run amok for six months and then get rolled back. Japan could not match the industrial capacity, manpower, or resources (especially oil) of the United States. Well, screw the facts, the leadership went ahead anyway, confident the Americans were weak willed and would meekly accept Japan's fait accompli. 

Not a great plan, as Iron Man might say. 

Nazi General Paulus war gamed the invasion of Russia and declared it unwinnable. Hitler disagreed and insisted that all you had to do 'was kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would fall down.’ He didn’t allow troops to be provided with winter uniforms (for an invasion of Russia. Russia!!!): he was that confident the war would be over in a few months. 

Paulus’ last message from his frozen bunker in Stalingrad was, ‘ Ich habe es dir doch gesagt, du Idiot!' (I told you so, you imbecile!) followed by a series of expletives. 

Okay, probably not, but he should have.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident

Robert McNamara admitted that the second Gulf of Tonkin attack, for which retaliation (and the subsequent massive escalation) was authorized, never happened. It was as real as those 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow. McNamara even met with Gi├íp personally in 1995, and confirmed it was based on bad intel and misinterpretation. Boy, I bet he felt like a dunce that day. On a personal level, that’s so relatable and easy to do. I’ve rushed to judgement many a time, but man, never with such a horribly high price. 

As John Kerry said, who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?

With Iraq, the United States was flat out delusional about how things would go. The invasion was also sold with a house of cards, pitched by Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to Thomas Rick’s book Fiasco:

‘The official bipartisan conclusion of the senate select committee on intelligence’s review of the prewar handling of intelligence was, “much of the information provided or cleared by the CIA for inclusion in secretary Powell’s speech was overstated, misleading, or incorrect.” 

Powell sold his reputation away with that speech. Intelligence officers who believed the intel was weak accepted it because Powell said it, and they assumed there was higher level intel they were not privy to.

Putin’s speech on the eve of invasion of Ukraine was even more fantastical, alleging that it was more akin to Narnia than a real nation.

In all the above cases, leadership was living in a fantasy projection. Neo-conservatives believed the fall of Hussein would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, while Putin believed his armies would be met with cheering crowds. The Americans massively underestimated the 'primitive' Viet Cong in Vietnam. Hitler flat out ignored the professional advice he got and went with his gut. Imperial Japan's end game was Wishful Thinking. 


Colin Powell (left) with proof of WMDs in Iraq

Realistic evaluation of what you’re getting into is the most important thing for military planners. Unfortunately, senior leadership lives in an ideological fog, impervious to reality, and the result is millions of ordinary people die. The intense mental constructs needed to rise to power within a country may also contribute to faulty evaluations of the external geopolitical scene.

Maybe they should have bought a copy of The Secret.

To avoid calamity, open and intense criticism is absolutely necessary. And it’s most necessary with people who are immune to it.

Author David Brin has put forward his own acronym, CITOKATE: criticism is the only know antidote to error. When it comes to contemplating invasions, they could do worse than operating on that principle. This must be self evident to military planners. Whatever processes have been implemented to avoid disaster haven’t been refined enough to eliminate huge miscalculations and probably never will be. 

We may be dealing with systems so complex they cannot be accurately assessed, or individuals so deep in their own subjective reality they're immune to feedback from the objective one.

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