• Richard Murff

The Loudest Voice in the Room



I was standing in the hospital corridor in Iraq when a local doctor, maybe about my age, introduced himself. He seemed friendly enough, and from his body language I could tell that he was framing a thought. He pulled at his chin in that very Arab way and finally said, “If I might ask you a question… American yes?”


“Yes.”


“Why are you here?”


“To cover a humanitarian mission.” I said.


“No. No.” He said, “Not you. I mean, why did you – America – come here? Yes yes. You rid us of Saddam.” He touched his heart, “But what was your plan? For after?” The man didn’t seem angry, just genuinely baffled.


The same power that – standing alone after World War II – had developed and maintained a liberal world order which had in a few short years choked the old ancient imperial system to death. A country that had designed itself along the lines of the Roman republic, whose peasantry had built an empire that surpassed Rome itself, had come into their country, toppled the government and not had a step two. How had we not thought it through?

It was a legitimate question.


Unlike the Romans, we never needed an empire because we damn near had the whole continent. In our glorious isolation and self-sufficiency it’s hard for us to fathom the changes a few well-placed and traumatic shocks can make to the psychology of a people. So, there I was standing in the hospital with a doctor asking a perfectly rational question in a perfectly polite manner: “What were you thinking?”


The truth is that we weren’t.


NOBEL PRIZE WINNING phycologist Daniel Kahneman described the brain as two “systems” that make up the human behavior: “System 1” is automatic and unconscious, responsible for fight or flight type reflexes, hunger, native languages – basically things about which you don’t have to consciously decide – and is capable of running several computations at the same time. “System 2” is the conscious mind, the reflective, socially calculating and logical processor of which we are aware. Because we know it’s there and can follow its logic, we think that the conscious mind it calling the shots. It isn’t. The conscious mind is actually only capable of processing about six bytes of data per second – that’s not a supercomputer, that’s the stuff of vacuum tubes.


Jonathan Haidt puts it more organically as “the rider and the elephant.” The elephant is a herd creature, it retreats from uncertainty and reacts positively in the face of reward. Despite the control the rider assumes he has over the situation, he is at a complete loss to stop Tantor once the elephant gets spooked, hungry or horny. Or desperate. Often the best the average rider can do is hold on and develop a post-rationalization that boils down to “I meant to do that.” Which is where the conscious brain excels – not deciding what to do as coming up with a plausible story after your unconscious has already decided. And when the national elephant got spooked on 9/11 and just gone off and did what we did. Not just to Afghanistan and Iraq, but to ourselves: The excessive powers we signed off the government in the wake of that fright.


Although the doctor in the hall likely wasn’t thinking that far down the thread either. To him what we’d done was very destructive. What subsequent White House Administrations, the State Department and the Pentagon had called “mission creep” was really just the dizzy rider looking at the destruction of his spooked elephant and stammering “I meant to do that.”


Before doing whatever the hell it is that I do now, I worked in advertising. One thing that you quickly learn in throwing together focus group is that they do a pretty good job of telling you something about the most dominate member of the group, but are fairly useless at delivering a broad cross-section of opinions. Bucking the prevailing trend or mouthing unpopular opinions is just not something herd-minded humans are very good at doing.

In the run up to the ill-advised Bay of Pigs invasion, nearly everyone around the planning table supported the action despite most privately writing in their diary that the wheeze was an irredeemably bad idea. We all what to believe that we think rationally, that we can stick to our New Year’s resolution and that we are not guided - almost entirely – by trying to outguess the opinions of others.


The logical response to all these foreign policy missteps would be to stop throwing buckets of good money and blood after bad – basically lay off blowing everything to hell – and have ourselves a savage reassessment of the situation. The human response, however, is to ignore the constellation of obvious failings and carry on – because being the bearer of bad news is never great for your career. Better for the mortgage to carry on endorsing billions on weird nation building hacks that only prove that the human brain is baffling even to those who possess one.


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