Open University

Learning From Mistakes


by Jeffrey Herf
Over the semester break I made time to read Thomas Rick's Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. It's an important book for thinking about whether or not "the new way forward" announced by President Bush the other night has any chance of success. It catalogues the now familiar misjudgments and blunders that the United States has made since 2003, above all invading with too few troops and with no expectation of or plan for a "postwar" insurgency. Yet Ricks' book is interesting for a historian of the twentieth century in another sense. It is a book about learning from mistakes. It is now a commonplace to point out that one great advantage of democracy over dictatorship is the way in which a free society institutionalizes the process of criticism and the growth of knowledge while dictatorship rest on the destruction of precisely such open discussion that makes learning possible. Dictators, like Saddam Hussein, enamored of their own infallibility and surrounded with a secret police apparatus, do not learn because they literally shoot the messengers of bad news.

In 2006, the era of illusion and happy talk in the Bush White House came to a crashing end. The boss heard the bad news in spades and the election drove the point home. Rick's Fiasco is a work that documents the contribution of incompetence and arrogance that produced the descent into disaster. Probably, some of the angry Senators and Congressman opposing Bush's "surge" would see it as one document among many that leads them to conclude that the time for as graceful exit as possible is upon us. Certainly it is not a book that reflects favorably on the principle decision makers

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