Friday, October 12, 2007

Fort Massacre: Iraq

The movie Fort Massacre (1958), starring Joel McCrea, is usually described as a run-of-the-mill western, but there is a psychological subplot that impressed me when I saw the movie many years ago, and that haunts me still.

Briefly, the movie is about a small group of calvary troops who are caught in hostile Indian territory and are trying to get back to safety. But everything they do, and every move they make, seems to make the situation worse, and instead of avoiding the hostiles and moving closer to safety, they keep having to fight and move further from safety.

The soldiers believe that the problem is with the commanding officer, Sargent Vinson (Joel McCrea), whose wife and child were killed by Indians and who (they believe) is crazy to kill Indians and is deliberately leading them into repeated conflicts with the Indians. In a very memorable scene, Vinson (McCrea) explains that everything he has done was for the right reasons, that he has had rational reasons for everything he did, and that it was just bad luck that things did not go as he planned. And if you have ever seen how charming and sincere Joel McCrea could be, then you'll understand that, watching that scene, I believed him.

The climax to the movie comes when you suddenly realize that Vinson really is crazy and all he ever wanted to do was kill Indians even if it meant the lives of both him and his men.

Now, when I say "crazy," I'm not saying that Vinson was irrational, because he at least appeared to be very rational. What I'm saying is that Vinson did not know his own mind and had not admitted his own feelings to himself and so, when it came to judgment calls that required subjective assessments of risks, Vinson allowed himself to be led into bad choices by feelings and attitudes that he himself might not have been aware of. In other words, Vinson made what might be called a series of "Freudian" mistakes, in which his subconscious was able to affect his conscious decisions, leading to results that his subconscious wanted but his conscious mind rejected.

I don't really consider myself a Freudian, but I have come to believe that there really are very few accidents in life. Most of what happens to us is not the result of chance or luck, but is what at least a part of our mind wants to happen.

The clearest example of this would be an addiction such as alcohol or gambling. As the addiction begins to impose physical, emotional, and financial pain, causing illness, loss of family and friends, and loss of employment, many people think that the addict continues in the addiction despite the pain. A better explanation is that the addict continues because of the pain. Living with the pain of the addiction is in some way more comfortable to the addict than living without the pain, and so the addiction continues until (sometimes) the addict hits "rock bottom" and decides that maybe life without the addiction is not so bad after all.

The misbehavior or risky behavior of many children (and adults) can also be understood more clearly if you understand that the risk-taker might not view the consequences of failure as such a bad thing. A child who shoots a spitball at a teacher is not necessarily discouraged by the possibility of punishment, and in fact might be encouraged to misbehave, because the punishment itself (or the attention the punishment brings) may be part of what the child desires. Similarly, other kinds of unnaturally risky behavior can be the result of a mindset that feels some possible emotional benefit in what what the rest of us would call failure.

Okay, here's today's scary thought. What if everything that has gone wrong in Iraq was not really the result of bad intelligence, poor planning, or unexpected events. What if what we are seeing in Iraq is what George W. Bush really wants, subconsciously but not consciously.

Why would President Bush want such a thing, even subconsciously? We can't answer that question without first knowing why he was an alcoholic (which is pretty much conceded even by his supporters) or why he used cocaine (which is pretty much denied by his supporters, most of whom are in denial about a lot of things). But if you assume that many of Bush's decisions may be affected by some self-destructive desire to fail, then many events during his administration begin to make more sense. The failure to deal with Hurricane Katrina, the lack of attention to (and subsequent reversal of) what had been a successful invasion of Afghanistan, and even Bush's inattention to the famous August 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing (titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside U.S."), which lead to the 9/11 attacks themselves, are all part of a pattern.

It is also telling that, as Bush's post-invasion strategy for Iraq has clearly failed, his response has been to take more risks, ignoring the advice of the Iraq Study Group, committing more troops to Iraq, and pushing for a confrontation with Iran. Bush is like an addicted gambler on a losing streak who is nonetheless sure that his luck will change at any moment and then everything will be okay. And, just as an addicted gambler will not stop until the house refuses to extend him any additional credit, Bush will not stop until the House (and Senate) refuse to fund his military gambles.

At the end of Fort Massacre, Sgt. Vinson dies but most of his troops live. That is not the way Fort Massacre: Iraq will end. Tens of thousands of our troops (and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis) will have been killed or maimed, but the commanding officer will walk away unscathed, physically and (so far) politically.

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