Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 28, 2009

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, embracing the tragic to avoid the ironic

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 28, 2009

Editorial Note:  This is the fifth in a series of posts on resilience as a proposed focus for a homeland security strategy.  This strategizing is organized around the approach taken by George Kennan in a seminal 1946 document.  Links to prior posts are provided below.


Kennan’s key to defending the United States is to recognize and, when appropriate, exploit Soviet neuroses.  To defend the United States and advance our interests in the 21st Century we must attend effectively to our own neuroses.

President Bush famously asked of the 9/11 terrorists, “Why do the they hate us?”  He answered the question, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”  The terrorists hate us for our virtues.

While the values argument put forth by the President should not be dismissed, Osama bin-Laden offers a considerably different rationale.

 It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators; to the extent that the Muslims’ blood became cheap and their wealth became as loot in the hands of the enemies. Their blood was spilled in Palestine and Iraq. The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon, are still fresh in our memory. Massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Eritria, Chechnya and in Bosnia and Herzegovina took place,massacres that send shivers through the body and shake the conscience. All of this the world watched and heard, yet not only didn’t respond to these atrocities, but also, with a clear conspiracy between the USA and its allies and under the cover of the iniquitous United Nations, the dispossessed people were even prevented from obtaining arms to defend themselves. (Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places, August 23, 1996)

These massacres are unfamiliar to most Americans. US culpability for these horrific events will strike most as absurd. Yet bin-Laden is not alone in finding Americans complicit in the unjust suffering of Muslim millions.  According to recent surveys,  most Pakistanis readily agree.

Even in seeking to do good, we can cause suffering. In his assessement of our situation in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal explains,

Preoccupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we seek to protect.  In addition, we run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage.  The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves. 

A United Nations report found that in the first six months of 2009,  three hundred Afghan civilian casualties — roughly 30 percent of the total — were caused by coalition forces.  During the same period the US/NATO coalition  suffered nearly the same number of fatalities. In his September interview with 60 Minutes, Gen. McChrystal said, “Since I’ve been here the last two and a half months, this civilian casualty issue is much more important than I even realized. It is literally how we lose the war or in many ways how we win it.”

In his October 7, 2001 announcement of  the invasion of Afghanistan, President Bush anticipated the potential conflict between purpose and practice.

The oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies. As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan.

The United States of America is a friend to the Afghan people. And we are the friends of almost a billion worldwide who practice the Islamic faith. The United States of America is an enemy of those who aid terrorists and of the barbaric criminals who profane a great religion by committing murder in its name…

We’re a peaceful nation. Yet, as we have learned, so suddenly and so tragically, there can be no peace in a world of sudden terror. In the face of today’s new threat, the only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it.

We did not ask for this mission, but we will fulfill it. The name of today’s military operation is Enduring Freedom. We defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear.

In pursuing peace we have killed the innocent.  In defending freedom we have imprisoned — and worse — those who have done us no harm.  We have betrayed what we love in an effort to protect what we love.

It would be a serious error to see this as merely hypocritical or cynical.  During the eight years of our current war there have, no doubt, been  instances of hypocrisy and cynicism.  But it is crucial to recognize these seeming contradictions are the inevitably tragic consequence of exercising power. Purity of purpose is hard enough.  Purity of practice is beyond our capacity.

“The tragic element in the human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good.  If men or nations do evil in a good cause, they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice.”  (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History)

The powerful cannot avoid tragedy.  It is innate to the nature of power.  It has been part the American experience from our founding.  As our power has multiplied, so has our tragic potential.  But the American psyche struggles to deny this reality.  We point to innocent intention. We seek individual scapegoats — Lynndie England or Dick Cheney —  for our collective guilt. We propagate neuroses to obscure our role in tragedy.

Our effort to escape tragedy is more threatening to our integrity of purpose — and essential innocence — than any tragic choice we undertake.  In refusing to embrace the tragic, we invite the ironic… a much more insidious condition.

“If virtue becomes vice through some hidden fault of virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits — in all such cases the situation is ironic… It is differentiated from tragedy because by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution.”  (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History)

The United States can no longer afford to deny the paradox inherent to power.  We can no longer indulge our neuroses in seeking to avoid the tragic.

In Lear the plot is set when the old King is unwilling to accept Cordelia’s honest, if paradoxical, expression of love.  Based on Niebuhr’s definition — and your curtain-closing take on Lear’s sense of self — Shakespeare may not have written a tragedy, but a grand irony. From Lear’s vanity and denial unfolds catastrophe. (Ponder sea coast construction in hurricane country,  urban wildfire, flood plain development, and much more.)

There is plenty of death and disaster in Oedipus the King, but Sophocles’ masterpiece conforms closer to Niebuhr’s definition of tragedy, and to my own hope for the United States.  By most measures Oedipus lives a happy and productive life.  The trouble he causes is as unintentional as it is inevitable.  And in contrast to Lear, the trouble caused by Oedipus emerges from nobility, not vanity. At the close of Oedipus at Colonus  the Theban king might even be said to transcend the tragic. 

But only after fully embracing his tragic condition.

On Friday we will move on to the third of Kennan’s five parts: Its projection in practical policy on official level.  If you have persisted this far, I appreciate your patience.  I do not apologize for the analysis, but I realize this is not an approach typical to our times.  I hope you will see its practical benefit in the next few posts.


Previous posts in this series:

The Long Blog:  A strategy of resilience (October 19)

The Long Blog: “Basic features” of US risk and resilience (October 21)

The Long Blog: Four preliminary deductions from seven premises (October 23)

The Long Blog: Background of this perspective on risk, the role of neurosis (October 26)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 28, 2009 @ 3:19 am


1. I am not sure the references to Shakespeare and Sophocles will mean enough. I am old enough, and went to a sufficiently backward college, that these were still staples of my studies… and I fell in love with them. But men and women my age who went to better schools and those who are younger may not hear the range of meaning I am trying to communicate in drawing on these texts. Without that freighted meaning, the case may be too weak or fatally misunderstood.

2. Some of those who do hear my meaning will strongly disagree with my characterization of Lear. They will say I should have used Richard III. But Lear wants to be loved — as does the United States –and even at our worst we are no Duke of Gloucester. Besides, while I will grant that Lear achieves self-awareness, it is too late for any practical benefit, except for audience catharsis.

3. I have taken quite some time — perhaps too much time for a blog — setting out what I perceive are the essential foundations of resilience. Even-so, as I have worked on the next installment of this serial I worry the argument is not yet sufficiently well-made. But I expect you are growing impatient to move on from strategic concept to strategic implementation.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 28, 2009 @ 10:29 am

Well Phil a lot to mull over in this and past posts on the Long Blog.

One quick comment for now as you cite a flag rank:

“Assessement of our situation in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal explains,

Preoccupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we seek to protect. In addition, we run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage. The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.”

Domestically and in non-war zone foreign bases the military is now expending funds at the rate of approximately $20 B per year for force protection. This is almost 40 times more than is expended by the US to protect the civil government, its functions and resources, or domestic critical infrastructure. Also as evidenced by returned veterans deployed to assist in Hurricane Katrina many felt that they were “back” in a war zone and believed “victims” were the enemy. Perhaps the distancing physically and psychology has impacted the military generally and impacted even more so domestically in the USA. Certainly a worth topic for resilience! Is the purpose of the militar to protect Americans or just their own ranks? Clearly many serve valiantly and patriotically but are they in some ways the new Welfare Queens much discussed in the 80’s? What is certain is the lower ranks often still rely on food stamps for their families and domestic partners even when deployed and active duty forces watch daily as contractor personnel are paid much higher salaries for often less hazardous duties. Something seems amiss to me.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 28, 2009 @ 11:25 am

A synopsis of the key points from today that resonated with me:

Purity of purpose is hard enough. Purity of
practice is beyond our capacity.

The powerful cannot avoid tragedy. It is innate to
the nature of power … We propagate neuroses to
obscure our role in tragedy.

In refusing to embrace the tragic, we invite the
ironic… a much more insidious condition.

We can no longer indulge our neuroses in seeking to
avoid the tragic.

If I might summarize, you seem to be saying:

Like all tragic heroes we are the authors of our
own fate.

The American story would be seen as tragicomic
rather than simply tragic if it was not written in

And while we cannot escape the paradoxical tragedy
of power, we can transcend its consequences by
accepting responsibility for our actions.

I agree.

Americans, unlike their European cousins, have a poorly developed sense of irony. (This might explain why British comedies and French farce have such limited, almost cult-like followings here.)

Transcendence does not equal comeuppance, but that nonetheless seems to be where we are headed. Whether we avoid this fate for ourselves depends largely on whether we are willing to accept and acknowledge our own culpability.

We can either accept our fate or take corrective action to avoid or minimize the consequences rather than compounding the damage. But that requires us to get beyond the fact that our past actions were motivated by the best intentions.

Could it be that humility rather than liberty or security is the key to success?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 28, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

Humility is certainly part of it. Acknowledging our own culpability is too. But embracing the tragic, in very practical terms, is also knowing we will get it deadly wrong much of the time despite our very best efforts. Embracing the tragic reminds us of our limitations and the danger of pride. But this need not make us fatalistic. It should not discourage us from action. If we embrace the tragic, we know that to the extent we try to control — either through action or inaction — we are complicating and amplifying the tragic results. Embracing the tragic tells us that reality is beyond control. Instead of control, knowing about tragedy teaches resilience. Instead of control: collaboration, participation, shared knowledge, focusing events, and expectations of future interactions. Elinor Ostrom’s findings, often gathered in what would be called tragic circumstances, demonstrate how embracing tragedy can avoid catastrophe and generate real wealth… of varied kinds. I am struggling to bring this together in some practical way for Friday’s post. Thanks for the helpful summary and feedback.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 28, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

By the way claification requested–Are we discussing America’s resilience or Americans?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 28, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

Is there a substantive difference? I can make distinctions, and at operational and tactical levels the distinctions will be helpful and important. But strategically isn’t it the population’s resilience that finally matters? And isn’t that resilience a matter of body, mind, and spirit?

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 28, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

Personally I think there is a huge difference. Many Americans are non-operative for resilience on at least a semi-permanent basis–specifically the severely disabled and handicapped and elderly. I think the focus should be on instituional resilience including the Constitution not on individuals. Example, energy grip–how can individuals other than by changes in habit really change transmission, or production, or source. I guess I want government to do only what it might be able to carry off successfully and not try and repair societal damages that have led to individual incapacity to handle even daily affairs. Yet respect you opinion that it may be a building block in some ways. Just that I think individual effort as far as resilience is largely a thing of the past except for limited personal preparedness. Remember I am a lifetime product of bureacracy where individual effort is seldom rewarded but the obective of the collective can be rewarding. And yes either I an out there so far to one point of view often come around the other side to the counter point of view. Are our (US) systems and processes designed to facilitate individuals by being resilient or to facilitate institutions by facilitating individiuals. Sort of chicken and egg but I would focus on the making of a resilient societ on a collective basis. Others clearly would differ.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 29, 2009 @ 3:32 am

I am interested in both chickens and eggs. I am especially interested in the attitudes and goals that individuals, and groups of individuals, bring to systems.

While writing this series I have been increasingly aware of a problem with “audience.” I bet this is one of the reasons you asked the question of America or Americans.

The Watch is mostly read by public sector folks seeking to improve public sector outputs. Yet I don’t think homeland security is mostly a public sector issue.

Certainly the public sector can help or hurt (in a big way). But to the extent the public sector sees this as an institutional issue (even worse as a “national” issue)that needs a government fix, we will actually undermine resilience.

This is a big reason I was thrilled to see Elinor Ostrom win the Nobel. Her empirical research regarding how communities make and enforce sustainable decisions focuses on the role of humans.

(You can view a 10 minute excerpt of a relevant Ostrom lecture.)

Recently a reader congratulated Jess, Chris, and me for focusing on systemic issues, rather than attacking individuals. I hope so. But my particular take on systems is to highlight the attitudes, goals, and roles that individuals and, especially, smaller groups of individuals bring to problem-solving and opportunity-seizing.

It seems to me that the most helpful frame will not emphasize a dichotomy of America and Americans, but the interaction of 300 million plus Americans with each other, with private, local, state, and national institutions, and — perhaps most of all — with our national mythology, purposes, and mission. It is about the complex-adaptive-system that is America. And if so, it is about recognizing, understanding, and extending the influence of the “strange attractors of meaning” around which the complex adapative system self-organizes.

Thanks very much for the question and counter. At least in my own mind it has produced some clarity.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 29, 2009 @ 8:38 am

I accept that embracing tragedy (not just its ironic overtones) is important in its own right, but I nonetheless fear we risk inappropriately injecting irony if we do not either acknowledge culpability or embrace humility as well. Without one or both of these elements, we risk falling prey to bumper-sticker sentimentality a la the popular but inappropriate observation: “%^&* happens!”

Advancing the systemic change resilience calls for requires individual engagement. Our highly atomistic but nevertheless interdependent society must learn to operate in a more collectively responsible and accountable fashion at the local, regional, national, and international levels if we are to succeed. Genuine change will require us to develop an intergenerational commitment to a new way of thinking. In my view, that cannot happen unless we support one another in the hard work required of each of us.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 29, 2009 @ 9:32 am

Mark, I agree with your point on humility and culpability. My wavering yesterday was aimed at avoiding the conclusion that with an approriate confession and self-awareness we are assured to get it right, “next time.” I don’t hear you saying that.

Regarding your reference to “hard work”: Early in the history of the the Department a very insightful — even enlightened — team of DHS managers wanted to upgrade the “strategic skills” of their staff. It is a bit unfair to summarize the outcomes in a few sentences. But the managers’ intentions were in earnest. They invested reasonably in the effort. The effort came to naught through the interaction of three functions:

1. Developing strategic skills in employees, especially without close calibration with recruiting, promotion policies, and salary incentives, is difficult.

2. Many — not all — of the DHS staff saw the strategic roles being outlined as much more difficult and demanding work, and generating much more emotional vulnerabilty than “being a good clerk” as one staffer put it.

3. But the coup de grace was a senior political official either not understanding or not supporting the notion that civil servants might be strategic agents.

Comment by Mark Chubb

October 29, 2009 @ 10:38 am

Oddly enough, Phil, the same three points summarize much of the local and state government experience as well.

I have become such a fan of the work of Henry Mintzberg largely because he sees same problems afflicting the private sector that we see in the public sphere. In other words, business hasn’t built a better mousetrap, and markets aren’t the solution to all our ills.

His characterization of strategy and management as emergent processes that relate more to craft than they do either to science or art strikes me as particularly relevant today. Some see this as lowering the bar, but I see it being more likely to engage the interests of the practitioner community from which we are recruiting homeland security leaders.

Without sensitivity to operations and insights into and investments in what makes communities work, we will find it not just hard but nigh on impossible, I reckon, to stimulate strategic change either at home or abroad. That said, we need leaders who understand that successful engagement requires authenticity.

That’s where I see acknowledging culpability and displaying humility being particularly important. Without assurances that we “get it,” most of the communities we need to bring on board have no reason to trust us.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>