Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Too Fast, Too Wrong

Mercifully, I missed the fall of Saigon because I was at mountain school. We were so engrossed in surviving the course that only once did we lift up our heads to ask about South Vietnam. The base camp chef had a radio. He answered us, “Situation still unchanged.”

At base camp our life was physically easier as we did our team exercises in problem solving. We did challenges like “How can we use these scraps from the barn to get the team over the laser beams—don’t slip!” And of course we did the classic “How can we get the team up and over a blank four meter high wall?”

A few years later, in A Soldier Reports, the man in charge over in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, claimed the insurmountable bottleneck for creating an effective South Vietnamese army was teaching corporals and captains and even generals to be leaders. I say, “Golly General, don’t they have mountains in Vietnam too? And doesn’t their culture include generations-old models of leadership?” (Yes, they have historically had to fight to keep out the Chinese)

For our base camp problems, different groups found different solutions. We were not solely team building. We were growing as individuals, which meant that in the future we would each be better team players. Our problems were metaphors for the real world of, say, a corporate meeting room. For any given problem we might experience a couple of loud shallow extroverts being too fast to get the group to do it their way, while a couple of deep slower thinkers, with a much better plan, might be ignored. You learn to be more inclusive after someone falls four meters.

I suppose every generation has to re-learn common sense. Perhaps today’s generation, which increasingly discourages "deep reading" and newspapers, while encouraging shallow moving pictures and the “6 o’clock infotainment,” is a little slower to learn than most. Such is my suspicion after reading this week’s blog\mini-essay by Scott Berkun, entitled The Fallacy of Quick Answers. During the comments he added:

{“Part of the problem is fighting for the floor—in some workplaces if you don’t jump in early it’s hard to get heard. There’s a perceived advantage to speaking quickly. If the person with the most power in the room doesn’t lend their authority to those who think slower (e.g. “Hey Sally, you’ve been quiet so far – what do you think?”) then those who are merely better at reacting get more influence than they should.”}

I suppose a corporation is a typical aspect of our society and of our increasingly less thoughtful media. As Scott commented:

{“This line of thinking reminds me how useless much of the punditry on television is, since people are forced to give quick answers to very big questions. It can’t possibly represent their best thinking, or even in some cases any thinking at all.
Any time a big question is asked, and the expert is not allowed to say, “I don’t know and no one else does either” there is something flawed in the assumption anything intelligent is going on.”}

In the years since Vietnam I’ve watched people. Perhaps, with the leadership efforts of many common folk, the current situation will one day be seen as a mere pendulum swing and not, God help us, a permanent change.

During Vietnam the soldiers should, in theory, have been highly motivated to study the Vietnamese culture, As you know the, the problem was to “win the hearts and minds," to get the villages, one by one, to convert to democracy, and get them to NOT convert to communism. Such was the theory, but—Here’s a group problem for you: How do you take the Ugly out of the American?

Soldiering is for professionals: wars are traditional, you “go by the book,” take the high ground and defend the mountain passes. Counter insurgency is for amateurs: your war is “new,” each culture is different, and your “terrain” is the culture. Understanding folks in the valley can be more important than killing insurgents in the hills. Iraq is no exception. The media-raised generation of preppies who flew to Iraq to supply snappy answers for the poor little natives should have read prose about Vietnam, if only to dent their arrogance. One passenger on a flight to Iraq said he felt disgusted when he saw the other passengers all reading books on the occupation of Japan and Germany, when they should have been reading about Arab culture.

The systemic problem with a nation—with you and I—being too fast with snappy answers, and being too ugly to take the time to slowly listen, is well illustrated by Iraq. Americans made decisions where everybody, not just the local experts, but everybody, such as interpreters, barbers and taxi drivers, would have said, “Are you crazy? You can’t just…” But they did. (To name just one example: disbanding the entire armed forces. ) 

Reading Berkun’s piece this week I posed my own problem: What could I contribute to the comments? I was pleased Berkun's readers knew the effect on discourse of being too fast, but no one had seen the value of slowing down enough, even during a national crises, to refuse to announce a thesis. During Vietnam we badly needed a national discourse. Our problem: Should we help or not? Stay or go? But people were too fast. Even little groups of university students felt impelled to begin any discussion first stating whether they were for or against staying in Vietnam. That’s no way to seek the truth.

Ironically, given Berkun’s topic of going slow, I felt that, since it was a blog, I should comment with only a swift sound bite, not an essay. I wrote:

{"Since Vietnam I’ve had a long time to think. At the time, it didn’t matter whether the conversation-discussion was to be five minutes or fifty minutes, everyone thought they were supposed to first give a quick answer and only then discuss And/Or defend.
I could have answered, “I don’t know; which aspect would you like to consider and explore with me?” To answer in this way would have required me to have the self-discipline to decide in advance to withstand hot peer pressure towards a snap answer.
The hot pressure was especially silly considering that even leaders in Washington, according to an historian, could not have passed an easy one-semester community college course on the Vietnamese. No such course was offered."}

(For how Washington couldn’t pass, see my essay Backfire, archived September 2010)

I passed mountain school. Glad to be home, I went to my dad’s low kitchen cupboard where he kept his old newspapers. I re-arranged them all by the date. Then I read them,  feeling Saigon fall, one by one.

Sean Crawford
July 2010 
October 2015


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