Backing up here to get a running start at catching up with where I left off at the end of Part One.
Generally, people don’t argue the facts. Or with the facts or to get at the facts. We don’t even argue ideas. We argue in favor or our opinions. We champion what we already believe, and it’s usually the case that we believe something because it confirms something else we need to believe, usually that “I’m right to think what I think and live as I live.”
Read a blogger or a pundit approvingly citing a “new study” and you’re probably reading a sentence that should have been written more honestly as “Here’s a study that proves everything I already know about how the world works is right, so there!”
Or to put it another way. We’re in the habit of believing what we need to believe in order to justify what we want to do.
But beyond that, an awful lot of what we know we know we don’t really know. There isn’t even anything there to know. It’s just something we think. It’s something we picked up somewhere and let stick in our heads, and we continue to think it only because we’ve never thought about it since we first thought it---we haven’t bothered to re-submit it to any tests against the facts---or because it’s convenient to think it. It’s as I just said. It confirms something else we know we know.
I just finished reading Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter Bergen. It’s a pretty good book, well-written, informative, factual, or at least I trust that it is factual. Bergen has a good reputation as a journalist. His previous books on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were well-received and, as far as I know, haven’t been shown up as bunk. And Manhunt tracks with other things I’ve read on the subject, including Mark Bowden’s The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, which I read just before starting Manhunt.
So, I was reading along with interest, trusting I was getting the facts, enjoying the book as history, journalism, and an adventure story, when I ran headlong into this, Bergen’s explanation for why a Democratic President seemed as aggressive and determined about the use of force as only Republican Presidents are supposed to be:
Perhaps [President Obama’s] views on national security had to do with when he came of age. Obama was the first major American politician in decades whose views about national security weren’t deeply informed by what he did or didn’t do in Vietnam. Too young to have served in Vietnam as the senators John McCain and John Kerry did, he was also too young to have avoided service in Vietnam as Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush had. For Obama, Vietnam was a nonissue, and it is possible this fact contributed to his greater use to his willingness to use military power in comparison to an older generation of Democrats. It took Clinton two years to intervene in Bosnia, which was on the verge of genocide, whereas it took Obama only a week or so to intervene in Libya in the spring of 2011, when dictator Moammar Gadhafi threatening large-scale massacres of his own population.
At first glance, this might come across as plausible but commonplace. After all, we know that not just liberals but the U.S. Military high command was traumatized by the war in Southeast Asia. “No More Vietnams” became not just a rallying cry for antiwar protesters. It became part of the basis of our foreign policy. It is, essentially, the Powell Doctrine.
But two things pulled me up short here.
A flash of memory and a longstanding prejudice.
Here’s the prejudice: Any use of events or issues from the 1960s to explain anything, including events and issues from the 1960s, is pure shinola.
I’m not about to defend that. I don’t recommend it. I’m not apologizing for it either. It’s just one of those things I think without thinking. What matters is that it made me stop reading and start arguing.
What are you saying, Bergen? Shadows of Vietnam were why it took Bill Clinton two years to send troops into Bosnia?
We know that, do we?
How do we know?
That’s when the memory kicked in.
Here’s what I remembered. The Bosnian Civil War began in 1991.
Bill Clinton inherited our policy in Bosnia from George Herbert Walker Bush.
And Bush’s policy was based on several factors, including that, unlike his son, the first President Bush wasn’t keen to wage one war on top of another---he didn’t want to commit U.S. troops and resources to another war so soon after the Gulf War--- but mainly on Bosnia’s being seen as a Europe’s problem and it’s being up to the Europeans to solve it. The Europeans were saying so themselves. The UN was brought in, but NATO was to stay out of it, so that we’d stay out of it, so that the Russians would stay out of it. It wasn’t Vietnam that was weighing on people’s minds. It was World War III.
That’s what I remember. Not what I know. I know what Bill Clinton says decided his approach to Bosnia, because I looked it up in his autobiography:
My own options were constrained by the dug-in positions when I took office. For instance, I was reluctant to go along with Senator Dole in unilaterally lifting the arms embargo, for fear of weakening the United Nations (though we later did so in effect by declining to enforce it). I also didn’t want to divide the NATO alliance by unilaterally bombing Serb military positions, especially since there were European, but no American soldiers on the ground with the UN mission. And I didn’t want to send American troops there, putting them in harm’s way under a UN mandate I thought was bound to fail.
Sounds to me as though Clinton wanted to send in our troops right away and that what took two years was not his having to exorcise any ghosts of Vietnam that might have haunted him but his having to untangle the diplomatic knots created before he took office. Once that was taken care of and Bosnia became a NATO operation, we went right in.
What’s more, a few years later, when Kosovo was on the brink of genocide, the only thing that slowed Clinton’s decision to send our bombers into the air was resistance from the Republicans who controlled Congress. By this point, all the GOP cared about was running Clinton out of town.
As for Vietnam being a nonissue for President Obama, that may or may not be so. What is so is that his administration’s military strategy in Libya was modeled on Clinton’s success over Kosovo.
It’s a theme of Bowden’s The Finish, in which Bowden is generally admiring of the President’s decision-making in dealing with al Qaeda and going after bin Laden, that he’s been able to act more forcefully because he has more and better forces at his command. Vietnam has nothing to do with it, not because the President came of age that much later but because he became President after technological and tactical advances had improved the reliability and effectiveness of drones and special ops to the deadly degree they’ve now achieved. When President Clinton went after Osama bin Laden he had to throw cruise missiles at him and hope that bin Laden didn’t see them coming and was still in the general vicinity when they arrived. President Obama had the option of sending a single, small drone that would have fired a pencil-sized missile to kill bin Laden. He chose not to because there’d have then been no body left to prove to the world that we’d gotten him. When President Carter ordered the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, the military practically had to invent the kind of commando unit that has since evolved into the Seals and Delta Force. On the night Seal Team Six went into Abbottabad, about a dozen similar missions were underway in Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Yemen.
However the Vietnam War might have shaped their characters and thinking, the fact seems to be that both President Clinton’s and President Obama’s approaches to using military force were mainly based on the diplomatic and military exigencies of the specific moments when they had to make their decisions.
My point isn’t that Bergen doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s that here it doesn’t appear he’s talking about what he knows. He’s writing about something he thinks and passing it along as if it’s something he knows.
It happens. And if it happens to someone like Bergen, a meticulous, diligent, professional journalist of long practice and experience, it could happen to anyone. It does happen to anyone. It happens to anyone who writes and argues for a living. Most political analysis, op-ed writing, and blogging is a matter of passing along thoughts as if they are facts. It’s a hazard of the job. The writing’s often done in a rush. We have deadlines. We have other commitments. We have colds, backaches, stomach bugs, ulcers, mosquito bites, the flu. There isn’t time to check and re-check every little fact. Maybe we do a quick google. Maybe we run down to the library or reach over to the bookshelf to pull down one book, scan the index, skim a chapter or two. Maybe we do the most unreliable thing of all and ask a colleague or a friend, “Hey, does this sound right to you?” Mainly, though, we rely on our memories of stored facts. And we pride ourselves on our memories. “I have a head for the facts,” we brag to ourselves. “If it’s in here,” we say, mentally tapping our foreheads, “It’s in there for a reason.” The reason being that smart guys and gals like us wouldn’t bother to remember it---wouldn’t bother to know it---if it wasn’t true.
To the consternation, chagrin, and infuriation of the Washington Press Corps, one of the goods the rise of blogging did was spread news that critics of political journalism had been trying to get across for decades---there’s a narrative. Journalists don’t go out and uncover stories as much as they go out and cover the story they’ve already told themselves over lunch or at parties or while passing time on the campaign bus. And that story is concocted out of a shared store of memories of past campaign narratives, skimmed articles and books, retold conversations with “reliable” sources, lessons drawn from high school and college history and political science classes twenty, thirty, and forty years in the past now, shopworn anecdotes, received opinions, badly digested polls, gossip, the plots of movies and television shows, alcohol-fueled flashes of insight, untested and unthought-through theorizations and sudden inspirations by people who haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in a week, facts everybody knows---a fact being something everybody on hand knows to be a fact without having to check it with Siri---the occasional, actual fact, and even some intelligent and original reporting uninfluenced by the narrative.
It doesn’t matter how smart, how skeptical, how diligent, how intellectually disciplined any individual reporters are. For almost all of them, including the best, their chief research tool is some explicit or implicit variation of the question, “Does this sound about right to you?”
Naturally, members of the press corps have not been happy to have had this pointed out. Naturally, many denizens of the blogosphere have been more than happy to do the pointing out.
But bloggers concoct their own narratives too and out of the same sort of gumbo of shared memories and “facts”. (Don’t get me started on the influence of The West Wing on the the left side of the bandwidth’s understanding of how politics works.) We like to think we’re dealing in facts, that even when we’re just giving an opinion, we’ve got the facts to back us up. But, really, when it comes down to it, we’re just telling stories.
This isn’t because we’re just as bad as the Beltway Insiders. It’s because we’re just as human.
This is how human beings think.
People don’t naturally or easily think in carefully constructed debating points or in bar graphs or mathematical proofs. We think in stories. And when we debate, discuss, argue, or exchange ideas, we exchange stories, although sometimes we do it at the top of our lungs or through clenched teeth.
We may have facts to back ourselves up, numbers, math, science. But we don’t usually use them. Instead, we tell stories about there being these facts. We tell stories about how other people have gathered and interpreted them. And these stories aren’t even stories we’ve created ourselves. They’re stories we’ve been told, almost always by people who were told them by others who were told…you get the idea.
The personal narratives that make up out thinking are made up of twice-told tales and received opinions.
We didn’t think a lot of what we think we think. We just heard it someplace.
Many people will read Manhunt and not even have that paragraph register. It registered with me because of my prejudice. But others will take it in without a second thought, because they already know it, know what I mean? Others will read it and it will lodge in their brain because it tracks with something they know from somewhere else or because it confirms one of their prejudices. And others will read it and nod and file it away in a mental drawer because, well, Peter Bergen put it in his book and he wouldn’t have put it in there if it wasn’t true, would he?
And at some point, somewhere, these facts will be passed along, in an op-ed, in another book, in a blog post, in an argument in a bar. Bill Clinton was skittish about using force because of his draft dodging youth during the Vietnam War. Barack Obama has no qualms about it because his cohort of late Baby Boomers was spared having to worry about the war.
Now here’s the thing.
I’m fairly certain that Bergen is passing along an opinion up in that paragraph. And I’m willing to bet it’s not his opinion. I mean that it’s not original with him. It’s something he heard somewhere. After all, it’s based on something I’ve heard somewhere. We’ve all heard it. Many times. I’m not certain he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing. He opens with a seemingly cautionary “perhaps,” but that might be hedging. Still, he may have sources that back him up, interviews with President Clinton or President Obama or with people close to them who know to what degree Vietnam figured in their decisions. I’m surprised he doesn’t list Clinton’s autobiography in his bibliography, but how smart am I to trust a politician to give a straight-forward, non-self-serving version of any event in his career?
I know, because he’s said it many times, that Clinton still feels guilty over his failure to intervene in Rwanda. It could be that in describing how he handled Bosnia he’s implicitly excusing how he didn’t handle Rwanda. He could be trying to polish his legacy by balancing off a failure with a success. And if Vietnam did figure in his thinking as a drag on his willingness to use force, how certain is it he would know it? Perhaps he was not conscious of it and still wasn’t when he sat down to write My Life.
And then that paragraph of Bergen’s seems to be contradicted by points Mark Bowden makes in The Finish, but, although, like I said, a reason I trust the overall factuality of Manhunt is that it tracks with the story as Bowden tells it in The Finish, a reason I trust what’s in The Finish is that I had the story confirmed by having immediately followed up reading it with Manhunt.
And another reason I trust what’s in The Finish is that I read and enjoyed and trusted other books by Bowden. Black Hawk Down. Killing Pablo. The Best Game Ever. And that last one I trusted because it expanded upon a story I already knew from a comic strip I read in Boy’s Life when I was around eight or nine.
So I don’t trust Bergen on this. But I can’t trust Clinton either. And I probably shouldn’t trust Bowden as much as I do. In short, I don’t know enough to know Bergen is wrong. I only know enough to make think he might be.
It’s possible Bergen doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But it’s even more possible that I don’t either.
But this is what marks me as a card-carrying member of the Reality-based Community and helps pay my dues.
A healthy dose of self-skepticism and a, I hope, cheerful willingness to be proven wrong.
End of Part Three. Part Four on the way. Yes, there’s going to be a Part Four. But that should be it. I appreciate your putting up with this. I’ve had a logjam of posts in my head and I need to write my through this to unjam it.