Know When to Hold ‘Em, When to Fold ‘Em

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by Andrew Bard Schmookler
As time goes along, I find that there’s more than one interpretation of the Bushites’ latest Iraq gambit that seems worth considering. But this piece addresses one of the most plausible of those interpretations.
Tell me please: why is it that, in America, a course of action that is regarded as folly in virtually every other comparable endeavor is seen as virtue and wisdom in war?

In poker, do we call a man a “defeatist” who, when he sees he’s got a losing hand, folds rather than increasing his bet? No, we recognize that every good poker player knows better than to “throw good money after bad.”

In games of strategy like Chess and Go, what do we call a player who ignores the signs that a part of the board is already escaping his capacity to control and instead continues to invest his moves in that lost territory? Soon enough, what we call him is the “loser” in the game.

In business, what do we call an executive who continues to bank his fortunes on a losing strategy rather than “cut his losses”? We call him a bad businessman.

But in America, when we get embroiled in some ill-conceived, ill-executed, losing war –like Vietnam a generation ago, and like Iraq today– it’s supposed some sign of weakness, rather than wisdom, to read the handwriting on the wall and act accordingly. Why is that?

It is supposedly “defeatist” to admit when something has failed. It is condemned as a sign of a lack of manhood to confront reality and act accordingly.

If either Vietnam or Iraq was, to the United States, a matter of national survival, “never give up” might make a kind of sense. But what sense can it make when, as was the case in Vietnam and is again the case in Iraq, the arenas of America’s ill-starred military ventures are just small parts of a global chessboard in which a whole variety of interests are at stake? Just as the poker player with a bad hand saves his chips for the hands to come, and the Go player who has been outflanked on one part of the board will re-direct his attack to another part, so also a prudent nation, with global responsibilities and interests will keep any given arena of action on that board in the proper perspective of the larger picture.

Even if it is granted that such things as “national honor” and “demonstration of will” have come value in the overall currency of a great power’s standing in the world, neither of these can arguably be so weighty as to justify exercises in futility. Can it reasonably be argued that the enemies of the United States will be more respectful and afraid of the United States if, in the name of “national honor,” it persists in its folly, only increasing the eventual cost of failure, rather than demonstrating its ability to adjust to newly-discovered realities and maintain strategic perspective?

With President Bush’s most recent call for yet another blunder, it is imperative that Americans grasp that the “defeatism” that threatens us most is not the kind that recognizes and adapts to the reality of failure when it is already a fait accompli. It is the kind that is at war with reality, that loses perspective, and that insists on magnifying the defeat into a larger one than it needed to be.

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