Know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em

February 06, 2007|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

Tell me, why is it that a course of action that is regarded as folly in virtually every other comparable endeavor is seen as virtue and wisdom when America wages war?

In poker, do we call a man a "defeatist" who, when he sees he has 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 such as chess and Go, what do we call a player who ignores the signs that a part of the board is escaping his control and instead continues to invest his moves in that lost territory? Soon enough, we will call him the loser of the game.

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

But when the United States gets embroiled in some ill-conceived, ill-executed, losing war - such as Vietnam a generation ago and Iraq today - Americans are supposed to see it as 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 cope with it.

If either Vietnam or Iraq had been a matter of national survival for the United States, "never give up" might make sense. But what sense can it make when the arenas of America's ill-fated military ventures are just small parts of a much larger 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 redirect his attack to another part, so also a prudent nation, with global responsibilities and interests, will maintain a proper perspective on any given arena of action.

Even if it is granted that such things as "national honor" and "demonstration of will" are factors in a great power's standing in the world, neither of these can be so weighty as to justify exercises in futility. Can it reasonably be argued that the enemies of the U.S. will be more respectful and afraid of the U.S. if, in the name of national honor, it persists in its folly rather than demonstrating its ability to adjust to realities and maintain strategic perspective?

With President Bush's most recent call for yet another blunder, it is imperative that Americans grasp the real dangers of "defeatism." What we should worry about is not the mindset that recognizes and adapts to the reality of failure when it is a fait accompli. The defeatism that should worry us is the mindset that is at war with reality, that loses perspective and that insists on magnifying a defeat into a larger disaster than it needs to be.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of "The Parable of the Tribes." His e-mail is at his Web site, He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

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