The Folly of the Pure Model
That man is a political animal is well observed. The need for association and its manifold expressions are found throughout every phase and dimension of life. Family, friendship, all manner of social, religious, political, and professional relationships contribute to a sense of shared cause and identity. Not uncommonly, enthusiastic partisanship results, rooting for the home team regardless of roster or ability, or voting a straight-party ticket without studying the issues or candidates’ positions. This same tendency can extend to a kind of intellectual tribalism, where a particular frame of reference, world view, or school of thought is adhered to as unbreachable orthodoxy, uniformly applied to each and every situation or problem. However valid any single approach, it is just that, and risks omission of crucial insights to be gained by study from other perspectives; rigidly linear thinking plowing a deep furrow straight ahead, ignoring the need to first gain an understanding of a complex, multi-faceted, field.
This might be termed the folly, or perhaps fallacy, of the Pure Model. Folly, in that reasoning dominated by the demands of adhering to an over-arching framework, whether self-imposed, motivated by sincere commitment to intellectual rigor, seeking to produce results that can be compared against a formal conceptual standard, or influenced by collegial, professional, or popular pressure to conform to accepted thinking, may lead to conclusions that satisfy its own aims at the expense of addressing the situation for which remedy was sought in the first place, too often with disastrous consequences. The fallacy is buying into any one system with the expectation that it offers all the answers when it may not even be asking the right questions.
As much as the Principle tells us, neither it nor any other single model should be expected to deliver all the means for achieving a solution. Models, or principles, theories, maxims, and so on, are only as reliable as those who employ them. Like one of a series of equations used to solve a complex mathematical problem, each will have its necessary function. The problem cannot be solved without any one of the equations, but neither can it be solved with only one equation. We do not want to smash our thumb with Maslow’s hammer; where if the only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails.
The decision to take a nation to war is arguably the most serious act of any head of state. Its consequences shudder through the entire society, even when the cause is just and the nation victorious. Pure model reasoning leading to unanticipated, highly undesirable outcomes is illustrated in the examples of three wars, World War I, The Iraq War, and the Vietnam War. For each we will briefly consider: how intelligent people commit unwise acts; ask the question, “What am I missing?” and take a look at a product planning meeting where the participants end up working at cross purposes.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, whatever else might be said of his qualities, lack of intelligence was not one of them, and certainly not in comparison to his cousins, King George V of England and Nicholas II of Russia. Yet this very bright, if impetuous, man led the way to industrialized slaughter, the remapping of the world with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and the devastation of his own nation. Why? It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. A quick, decisive war would bring France into line, strengthen Germany’s position in the world, and demonstrate to his cousins that he too, Wilhelm, could more than hold his own in the empire game. Fair enough. And if he failed to anticipate the radical transition to modern warfare—the shift from horse and rail to the automobile, chemical weapons, widespread use of machine guns, artillery like Germany’s own immense rail guns (the medium range missiles of the day), and the introduction of aircraft—neither did anyone else. Likewise the stalemate of the trenches, month after month of each side taking a tremendous beating, mostly getting nowhere. The Kaiser’s entire enterprise rested on a ready capitulation; the French would come to terms, the armies would retreat, and Germany’s interests advance. Even if granting the validity of the motivating rationale, that Germany’s global position was so compromised by the status quo that war was the necessary path for it to break through and progress, the design for any particular war is a strategic, not a policy, decision. All the greater tragedy that history is littered with the remains of civilization, the result not of careless ignorance, but willful genius.
“What am I missing?” For the Vietnam War, that is the question to ask. Because, almost certainly, we will overlook something, perhaps something crucial. Much of what needs to be known will long have been public knowledge, related and written about by academics, diplomats, missionaries, commercial travelers, and tourists. Cold War policy that focused on the East-West conflict made sense, based as it was on the dominant power dynamic of that time, but doing so to the exclusion of other interpretations, elevating it to near sacred doctrine, led to neglecting and misunderstanding other long term underlying factors, the results of which comprise the history of the Vietnam War. North Vietnam’s strongest motivations were nationalistic, a desire to finally throw off the burdens of colonialism, and assert Vietnam’s own character, distinct from not only European influence, but Chinese, as well. Robert D. Kaplan, in The Revenge of Geography, reminds us that the region is called Indochina with good reason, drawing on South Asian as well as Chinese culture.
To be clear, asserting that if only the U.S. approached the situation in Southeast Asia in some more holistic fashion we could have readily found the way to stabilize the region, if not establish democracy in our own image, would be engaging in fantasy unfit even for empty election campaign rhetoric. A case could be made that the conflict had no true good side or right cause, not by the time the 60s wore on, at any rate. And given where U.S. relations with Vietnam are today, with trade, tourism, and a healthy measure of reconciliation, could we have found any worse route from there to here? But what does seem clear is that the failure to ask “what am I missing?” at each step from the defeat of the French to the fall of Saigon was a costly omission, especially as the answers could be found within academia and government.
Iraq War policy making suggests a corporate planning meeting, a useful proxy for any like purpose of discussing a product or service developed through collaborative effort, in this case fostering a democratic government and removing the threat of WMDs. Around the table there would be Product Development and/or Engineering, Marketing/Business Development, Finance, Legal, and so on. It commonly occurs that each will have their own concept of the goal. Everyone is talking English. Yet, each construes the words in their own way, talking past one another, so that at the project’s completion, having worked at cross-purposes unaware, and after much time, money, and human resources spent, they are met with failure. They have created a Frankenstein’s monster, a golem, with Marketing asking Product Development for the creature’s Social Security number, to which Legal responds warning of a potential felony. The process should have benefitted from the particular expertise of each participant, but for that to happen would require a translator to keep everyone on the same page, or even the same book. So while maintaining the desirability of considering a problem from a variety of perspectives, building into the process a continuing search for key omissions, it is also important that lessons learned be appropriately understood and applied.
Iraq War policy, in its formation, execution, and consequences, demonstrates all the failings common to adhering to a pure model so far discussed. Intelligent, experienced, capable individuals each worked from their own model, seemingly without regard for conflicting models, at cross purposes to an end no one anticipated. There were no WMDs, Rumsfeld’s version of the armed forces was suited to seizing the country but not to maintain after invasion security, and the entire concept of regime change completely failed to comprehend the history, culture, and institutions of Iraq, which was a state, but arguably not a nation. “What am I missing?” That was the question that should have been asked at each step along the way.
The Folly of the Pure Model argues against reliance on any one model, however accurate. This raises the question, does anything like a perfect model exist. If it did, a prime contender would be the Conical Helix Model of History. It states that over the course of history events are succeeded by parallel events, similar in character but greater in scope. A conical helix is a spiral, in a constant progression, from a smaller to progressively larger circumference as it grows in height. The vertical dimension represents time, the horizontal, scope. Referring to this model we would find WWI at one point, with WWII on a parallel plane above it, later in history, but further out from the center, signifying greater scale and scope. Simple. Elegant. Practical. Immensely useful, and…if not completely inaccurate, then certainly flawed.
Any single model need not be perfect to offer practical benefits, but it must be appropriately applied, with awareness of its strengths and shortcomings, as one evaluative tool among many. The conical helix expands in a perfectly regular manner in a way that actual history does not. History has velocity; important events over time change more rapidly, such that the even spacing of the coils should be closer together during times of greater activity. Likewise, the horizontal axis should portray times of contraction, such as when war, sickness, famine, and natural disaster result in a shrinking population. This doesn’t invalidate the model, but does suggest that it is more useful in its initial conception depicting history in broader terms, and requires an amended model to be accurate down to finer detail. It suffers more from expectation than application, the fault of overly ambitious branding. Calling the model a conical helix suggests a shape more perfect in its form than accurate in function. In actual use, however, plotting the rise of history against the expansion and contraction of events, the picture it renders would be quite clear.
The principal of political theory this book presents and examines, that Rights of Settlement and Migration are established through Conflict and Convention, applies to an exceptionally broad and diverse set of circumstances common to the human condition. In all cases where a single place or resource is contested by another party, whether the parties are at rest or in motion, their interaction will be expressed within the bounds of Conflict and Convention until resolution is achieved. Comprehensive. As near a law of nature or physics as it gets in the social sciences. But, as with all such models, principles, theories, and their philosophic kin, it yields its best fruits when combined and compared with other concepts and methods that may complement or contradict it, where context is taken into account, and no single point of view is allowed to prevail without due examination.
Intellectual purity and the pursuit of pure model reasoning, whether applicable or even desirable in its exclusivity, become their own end. Foundational beliefs are adapted to the needs and purposes of a specific group, analogous to tribal and societal customs blended with and under the banner of religion. What should be points of discussion become war cries of opposing camps. Taken to extremes, we get a polarized society moving further apart, a shutdown of the U.S. Congress, or worse yet, violent extremism. Over what? Ideas, which at their core should be complementary, however different, contributing to a fuller and more nuanced understanding of our world and its issues, instead falling victim to the folly of the pure model.