Buzzing the Machine

A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.
                                          — Eeyore (A. A. Milne)

I should know better than to ignore advice from Eeyore. I wrote something last time after months of not speaking up, and it came out as an insult to Jeff Jarvis. I apologize, Jeff, for saying things hurriedly and hurtfully. It’s not personal. But I insist that the issues are important.

There’s one sure way to churn up a lot of buzz, and that’s to have a disagreement with Jeff, the buzzmachine, about how to react to terrorism. Jeff, naturally, disagreed strongly with my assessment last time of the value of his passions stemming from his 9/11 experience, accusing me of psychoanalyzing him and being condescending. He reacted as I suppose I expected, declaring to his huge following that my last post was “strange”. He and his readers are now carrying on a useful dialogue in the comments over at, on whether there’s any value in understanding our enemy and whether everyone who is not consumed with rage is some kind of Islamic fellow traveler and unpatriotic scumbag (that would be me, in case it’s not obvious). The reader comment I most appreciated:

Let me ask your question a little bit differently: would you tell our military in Afghanistan to feel hate for our enemies? I know soldiers who’ve fought there, and the striking thing to me, talking with them, is that the best of them *don’t* feel hate, even in the heat of battle. They can’t, because that would cloud their judgement, and get innocent people harmed– including their own men.

Jeff lays it out for clueless me:

Bin Laden = Hitler, 9/11 murderers = SS murderers. Got it so far?

…I’m not a soldier, Britt. Your analogies don’t work for me. I’m a civilian. And it was as a civilian on my way to work that I witnessed mass murder that day. So don’t tell me I have to follow your orders to be cool under fire. I’m not in your army. Scared? Well, as much as I also bristle at your macho-military attempt to belittle and demean that perfectly sane reaction, I will say that, of course, I was scared and I still am and so should you be, so should America be. Personal? You bet your ass it’s personal. But I wasn’t talking about that in the post you didn’t like. I was talking about the portrayal of mass murderers in network entertainment and wrote my opinion about that. You are the one who tried to make the discussion personal. And I am responding personally: I am insulted by your post.

My point to Jeff when we first discussed this in person at eTech 15 months ago is that, like it or not, we’re all soldiers now. We’ve been thrust into the fray, so we need to act like it. Since I’ve had a little experience in these matters, I want to offer whatever insights I can. This doctrine of quiet mind and grace under fire has been my theme for as long as I’ve been blogging:

Our obsession with every imaginable “threat” to our person has overwhelmed our ability to maintain our personal compass in the life we really live in. We forget that we’re all going to die sometime.

The equivalence of Muslim murderers and Nazi murderers isn’t hard to understand, and is obviously valid. That’s not the point. The point is our technique. What’s the best way for our society to impose its values on the people who want to destroy our values by killing us? Until those societies adopt our values willingly, we are at risk.

It’s not Personal

My comments feel personal to Jeff, because all of us hate suggestions about our behavior. Remember what it was like taking driving lessons? It was scary and ego-threatening and something most of us never got comfortable with, because we never did it enough. We felt personally judged and we didn’t like it. Pilot training was like that for me, but after a while you got used to being questioned on the smallest points of your technique, and you get over the sense that it’s personal. This is true of all military training.

I’ve been candid that I never felt like a professional military guy, but I was in a lot of hairy situations and I learned from them. As a total amateur in the adult adventure camp called Vietnam airlift, I concluded that we were all regular guys trained in specialized techniques. This is why I feel qualified to suggest that any of us can learn how to be less impassioned if we see the value in that technique. Calling for someone to change their technique is not a personal attack, though it can feel that way. I am not better than others because I had that experience. But I learned some tips and tricks that more of us should master.

I don’t want to get into the link-building exercise of “you said – I said”. Jeff peers into my motivations and seems to nail it:

Britt then goes on to give a spiel he tried to give to me at e-Tech a year ago — and he’s no more successful getting me to drink his Kool-Aid now than he was then. Britt was a Vietnam pilot and he likes to talk about the cool and unemotional reserve of a warrior pilot. I wonder whether it’s some odd effort to bring together his Vietnam warrior days with his Deaniac peacenik days — but then, that would be psychoanalyzing him, wouldn’t it?

But I wasn’t a peacenik. This is what I published on 3/4/2003:

If we are to rise above whining about each others’ stupidity, we have to acknowledge each other’s core starting points as valid. You know—war  vs. no war; profiling vs. not; right to choose vs. not; marijuana vs. not;  etc. . .

  • We’re not in a war but we are in a street fight, with guys who will die to bloody our nose.
  • An unacceptable number of us will be killed by terrorism in the next couple of years.
  • If we don’t occupy Iraq now, the body count goes up—not because  that’s where the terrorists are, but because we will not have been forceful enough to do so and silence the Arab machismo affect.

. . . Opponents of this war need to acknowledge the need for the rare war when you cannot accept the continuing threat of attack. The acknowledgment makes for a nuanced conversation. People who revere their inner child must also respect their inner demon.  As Deepak Chopra says, the inner dialogue is the saint and the sinner comparing notes.

Warhawks need to acknowledge the possibility that there are times when we shouldn’t project our power on others, even when they hold wildly differen
t views. They have to stop thinking like missionaries in order to hold a nuanced conversation, which should not be avoided just because it’s more difficult than fighting.

Let’s be clear. We will establish the Pax Americana, as Jay Bookman wrote in the Atlantic Journal-Constitution last September. With luck, we’ll do it with no more than a fright display, as John Perry Barlow  suggests and upon which the animal kingdom relies to keep the peace. If we  don’t colonize Iraq now, we will surely do it after the next terrorist attack, and we’ll be a lot more belligerent then. The reason we will colonize Iraq is that we’re in a street fight that won’t stop until we put an end to it.  It doesn’t matter that the terrorists aren’t in Iraq. The terrorists are watching what happens in Iraq to gauge where and how to attack again.

Back to our Regular Programming

When you need to do something important and potentially life threatening, it’s wise to bring all your faculties to the table. And that means that this War on Terrorism should be done correctly and not stupidly. So far, I don’t think we’re doing a particularly good job of managing the War in Iraq, because we lost our cool and are spending far too much money with far too little effect. That is a comment on technique, not intent.

The reason it’s important to manage a war well is that the people, especially the American people, soon tire of spending money without much to show for it. We didn’t send enough troops into Iraq to begin with, when we could, and we are spending too much money on expensive weapons and not enough on fighting the root causes. If you want to know how to fight terrorism, sit at John Robb‘s knee and learn about global guerillas and the marketplace of terrorism.

I don’t think John and I see things similarly just because we both flew C-130’s for Uncle Sam. I hope it’s because he’s laid out a thoughtful, disciplined and long-view study of how to fight guerrillas effectively. One of his several important briefing documents is one that he published about a year ago, summarizing an interview from about 15 months ago. My point is that, for thinking people willing to do the homework, it’s old news that, like a skilled martial arts fighter, Bin Laden cleverly used America’s passions to attack America:


What is al Qaeda’s grand strategy? An in depth interview with Saad al-Faqih, an expert on al Qaeda, provides some insight into this. Dr. al-Faqih highlights the role of Dr. Zawahiri in evolving the strategic thinking of bin Laden:

Zawahiri impressed upon Bin Laden the importance of understanding the American mentality. The American mentality is a cowboy mentality– if you confront them with their identity theoretically and practically they will react in an extreme manner. In other words, America with all its resources and establishments will shrink into a cowboy when irritated successfully. They will then elevate you and this will satisfy the Muslim longing for a leader who can successfully challenge the West. Zawahiri advised Bin Laden to forget about the 12 page statement as nobody had read it and instead issue a short statement identifying every American as a target. Even though this was controversial from an Islamic perspective, Zawahiri argued on pragmatic grounds that it had to be sanctioned. The statement in February 1998, which was only 3 or 4 lines, effectively sanctioned shedding the blood of every American.

Let’s look at the best part again, Dr. Zawahiri’s breakthrough insight from February, 1998: “The American mentality is a cowboy mentality.” John continues:

This decision resulted in the east African embassy attacks of 1998. The result of these attacks were as follows:

Zawahiri had prophesied correctly—the Americans over-reacted by bombing Afghanistan and Sudan and consequently shifted the focus of blame away from al-Qaeda. If the Americans had not over-reacted to that attack they would have won a great moral victory. Clinton himself identified Bin Laden as the enemy and, in effect, delivered a hero to the Muslims. Before the embassy attacks only a few intellectuals and people with scholastic and practical interests in Jihad remembered Bin Laden but after the attack Bin Laden was transformed into a popular hero. The Americans thereafter persisted in turning Bin Laden into an obsession. The immediate effect of this was that thousands of Muslims traveled to Afghanistan. I was told that before the Kenya and Tanzania bombings hardly one or two people from the Arab countries would make their way to Afghanistan in any given month but after the bombings almost ten people would make their way there on a daily basis…

War Against a Stained Dress

In this case, it was Bill Clinton who played the macho cowboy role and got sucked into Bin Laden’s ploy. His critics called it a Wag the Dog tactic in his larger War Against a Stained Dress. If Clinton hadn’t chosen to pander to America’s fear and anger, no one would have noticed that Bin Laden had decided to kill us all, and he would have had to find a different way to recruit soldiers. The e. coli bacteria has also decided to kill us all, but we haven’t poured unlimited resources into that fight. Rather, we’ve poured the right resources into it.

This is a tangible, testable and metric-filled demonstration about how expensive it is to do the wrong thing when provoked by a far weaker enemy. 3,000 people died needlessly on 9/11 for two reasons: we elevated Bin Laden to a cult icon and we chose not to harden cockpit doors because the airlines didn’t want to pay for them. Both of those were stupid responses to known stimuli.

But it gets better, this briefing from a year ago about a strategy from seven years ago. You should read the whole thing. The money quote is precisely about the difference between the futility of red-eyed, slogan-slinging revenge and the effectiveness of acting like the trained warrior, patient, mild and effective:

There are many people in America who want to tackle the matter in a much more intelligent manner but they have been silenced by this pervasive McCarthyism. There are people that are very tired with this cowboy attitude. Once the next attack occurs they are likely to say that Bush has had two years of this cosmic battle against terrorism and we ended up with an even bigger attack. Now is the time to try a different approach. Now of course the right wingers, the Zionists and the arms lobby will refuse to give ground and then a clash inside America is likely to ensue.

Those of us who enjoy the notoriety of our own blogs might be another force unwittingly supporting the “clash within America”: it’s good for circulation. But it’s not good for the circulation of the next round of innocents whom we might kill by participating in this “war” for i
ts energizing effects rather than because we have a job to do, whether or not we’re trained for it: being smart, detached and effective. How do we explain to the next round of victims that we were so caught up in our passion for attacking Iraq that we didn’t have the money to inspect the cargo containers?

Mind game: Is there any objective way to tell if I really feel strongly about this point or whether I have suckered Jeff and his cowboy war boosters for GoogleJuice in the same calculated way that Bin Laden played the U.S.? After all, what better way to increase my linkage? Even the possibility makes the point that passion is a poor substitute for careful planning.

America is being played like a bigmouth bass on a 5-pound test line. Until we quit going along with the rich Arab fisherman, we are in mortal danger. When we get smart, we win. It’s time to place our bets.

7:42:43 PM    

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