Essays / Experience Required / Features

Experience Required: The Real F-Word

by Sonya Chung

In a recent article about former General David Petraeus in the New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers describes Petraeus as “an insurgent in control of the engine of change.”  What he was specifically in control of, back in 2005, was the US Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Army doctrine is defined and codified.  Under Petraeus, the Army’s service manual on counterinsurgency was rewritten (the process of which is the subject of a new book, The Insurgents).  According to Powers, much of what Petraeus had spent his entire military career thinking and writing about manifested in both that manual and, ultimately, in the Army’s new strategy for the war in Iraq.

Powers’s article is wide-ranging, covering no fewer than eight books—about the war in Iraq, the war in Vietnam, US military history, and Petraeus himself—including Petraeus’s doctoral thesis, The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam, and Paula Broadwell’s now infamous biography of the General who was also her lover.  But what I ultimately took away from Powers’s article is this: that for 40 years, the US Army has been so traumatized by the failures and mistakes of the Vietnam War that all military policy has been shaped in reaction to that trauma.  As Powers puts it:

[T]he generals cautiously hid behind a position of “all or nothing”—go in big, do the job, and get out quick, or … do nothing … What the Army feared was Vietnam’s quagmire—military operations against an elusive enemy who disappeared at will back into the population.

Enter Petraeus, who “considered this fear exaggerated,” and “structured his PhD thesis to cure the Army of its ‘so-called Vietnam syndrome.’”  Petraeus felt it was time to move on from this flinchy knee-jerk approach to American involvement in war.  Again, Powers: “‘No more Vietnams’ was the Army’s version of lessons learned.  It never wanted to hear the word ‘counterinsurgency’ again.”  But when President George W. Bush decided in December 2006 to appoint Petraeus, then 54 years old, as the new commander in Baghdad, charged with devising and executing a new strategy for fighting the war, the Army would surely hear the word again; and again, and again.

Petraeus, we now know, has made serious mistakes of his own; and I’ll get to that in a moment.  But for now, Powers’s take on the “syndrome” of which Petraeus (at least partially) cured the Army has me thinking about the range of responses we have to failure; and about the risks of failing yet again, failing worse, when we respond inappropriately and/or counter-productively.  How do we learn from the mistakes—horrific as they may be—of the past?  The older we get, the more mistakes we’ve racked up, and the more likely we’ve made some real whoppers that had consequences far beyond our own inconvenience or minor upset.  The question is: what do we do, how do we go forth, in the face of this inevitable accumulation of failures?  As Powers writes, our military leaders exemplified a certain kind of response:

The government of Vietnam has officially estimated the dead at three million, including two million civilians.  If you think these high numbers are probably exaggerated, and if you do not like wondering why the Army killed so many people but lost the war, and if you feel this is all ancient history and it’s time to move on, then you are reacting pretty much the way the Army did.

I recognize that the analogy here to our own personal failures may be questionable.  I am a civilian, reading my literary magazine, trying to understand warfare from the perspective of my cozy kitchen table; and some of you reading this, who’ve known war directly and personally, may be troubled by this line of thinking.  But I mean no offense.  I only mean to say that I am struck by how human behavior is human behavior, across so many different contexts.  I am fascinated by presidential biographies, for example: you read about men whose temperaments and world views were shaped by their childhoods, their families, their communities, their friends, and their lovers; and whose resulting psychology went on to shape the course of human history.

And so, I dare say that the principles surrounding how army generals respond to failure and how the rest of us do may be reasonably analogous.  In war, in life, at our cozy kitchen tables, failure is awful; we don’t want to dwell there.  We want to deny (“probably exaggerated”), evade the discomfort of facing up to how we came to fail (“do not like wondering why”), and privilege the future over the past (“ancient history,” “time to move on”), as if our lives were merely a series of consumer cycles, automated to trade in the old model for the new, no questions asked.  What’s more, failure often comes about by a complex convergence of factors, some of which are not our own doing.  Sometimes we feel victimized or ass-kicked, and the ultimate effect is similar: we don’t want to think about it, we want to knee-jerk and veer away, choose a forward path as far from those ancient sites of disaster as possible.

By the time this is published at Bloom, I will be a day past my 40th birthday; it seemed a good and appropriate moment for me to reflect here on what it might mean and look like for me, personally, to bloom in the coming years.  I’m no military expert, but even I am able to recognize the folly and tragedy of a temperament that cannot incorporate the realities and lessons of plain old wrong judgment (e.g. General William Westmoreland, who never altered his view that “firepower” would defeat the Vietcong).  And so it is this challenge, of fruitfully integrating the unseemly liabilities and wounds of the past—caused by me and also by others—that is much on my mind on this most auspicious of birthdays.

I am more susceptible to the three-pronged denial/evasion/trade-in mechanism described above than I would like to admit.  I have never, for example, held a job for more than three (okay, three-and-a-half) years, and all I can really say about any of them is that by the time I left I was unhappy.  Did I fail?  Did someone fail me?  Well, yes.  And yes.  But I have not much liked wondering why or how so; and now, well, isn’t it all ancient history?

chung the real f word insert 1I am also, in my older age, increasingly adept at self-deception: in the name of integrating the wisdom of experience, I will avoid x, y, z, for I have “learned my lesson.”  No more friendships with people who give off this particular neurosis; no more trying to get blood from the stone of that family relation; no more adopting troubled shelter animals; no more fiction projects that involve “too much” research and too many inscrutable characters; no more mixing business with friendship; no more of the dense or obscure texts that I love on the seminar syllabus; no more “Yes, I can” thinking when it comes to hyper-multi-tasking.  If these admissions are making you tense and uncomfortable and sad, well, then, you get my point: me, too.  These “lessons learned” are obviously more like festering fears—of repeating episodes from the past, of reliving painful moments when I realized I was in the tall grass.  My so-called mid-life maturity risks resemblance to US military strategy since 1975, as opposed to anything like wisdom.

On the other hand, there is the risk of wallowing.  In some cases I may not be avoiding my fears or past failures, I may be all too steeped in them.  I confess that my temperament and psychology can lean this way, for numerous reasons (nature, nurture, etc).  I even like the sound of the word: wallow for me has a kind of buoyancy, like a noble if clumsy effort.

In my journal, I have copied out this quote, from the poet Donald Hall: We fail, we all fail, we fail all our lives.  The longer quote, from his essay “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is this:

We do not want gods or kings—that’s why we crossed the ocean west—but human beings, fallible like us.

We pretend to forgive failure; really we celebrate it … We fail, we all fail, we fail all our lives.  The best hitters fail, two out of three at-bats.  If from time to time we succeed, our success is only a prelude to further failure—and success’s light makes failure darker still.  Triumph’s pleasures are intense but brief; failure remains with us forever, a featherbed, a mothering nurturing common humanity.

In other words, in life, most of us fail much more than we succeed; there is comfort—“a mothering nurturing common humanity”—in acknowledging this truth, as opposed to self-tormenting with the impossible standard of full-time, or even majority-time, success.  Failure is awful; we don’t want to dwell there.  But is it awful?  It feels awful. How much of that is rooted in our collective buy-in to the pretense that failure is anathema to our humanity?  In sports, one is told to “walk it off,” or “get up off the mat” (and Hall’s essay is, incidentally, about the poem “Casey at the Bat”).  The idea, I assume, is that defeat and error are aberrations, resulting from moments of distraction; one must simply refocus and return to the principles of success that one has practiced so diligently through training.  The failure was a blip, a momentary lapse, no big deal, don’t think about it, don’t get psyched out: walk it off, get up off the mat.  You’re okay, it’s okay, the failure is not who you are.  You are a winner.

But sports are not life, and we are not all winners all the time.  Is it wallowing to say this?  Walk it off, sure; but maybe also walk around in circles for a little while and be honest with yourself.  If you failed, you failed; there may be a truth there to be observed, and lived with.  Lie there a minute and recognize what’s happened, and your part in what’s happened, along with someone else’s part in what happened, before getting up off that mat.  Maybe you need to step right back onto the mat, maybe you need to get up and leave.  Maybe you’ll be back tomorrow; maybe not for a year, or ever.  Maybe it’s okay that you failed; maybe we fail, we all fail, we fail all our lives.

chung the real f word insert 2Wallowing may not be noble, but neither is the fast track to a deny/evade/trade-in response.  I have failed at many things. More and more, I become impatient when friends try to comfort me thus: you didn’t really fail, don’t be so hard on yourself; it’s not you, it’s them, all the petty people out there who are not us, because we are winners.  More and more, I need the truth.  Sometimes the truth is that I failed, of course I did, and I want to be able to say it.  Out loud.  Maybe while walking in circles.  Without whispering like it’s an obscenity, like it’s the real F-Word.  With remorse, but without shame.  With a little bit of nobility, and the beginnings of wisdom stirring in my mind and heart.

“This man will not fail,” Ann Romney declared of her husband last summer, to a raucous ovation.  If I was inclined to afford her respect before that, that inclination evaporated right then: Of course he will fail, I thought.  How stupid she must think we are to say otherwise.  And now I think, how foolish it is to want that from anyone; to participate in, and thus contribute to, the illusion that it is possible to live, love, lead—without failing.

Failure is awful.  It feels awful; we don’t want to dwell there.  This is as true as anything.  We want to succeed, we want to do better.  David Petraeus wanted the US military to do better, so he confronted past failures head-on, studied them, then proposed concrete options for what could be done differently.  His degree of success can surely be debated ad nauseam, but, as Powers puts it, “No one would now be likely to say that the original Army strategy in Iraq had been a good one, or that Petraeus pursued a bad one.”  That said, Petraeus had an advantage in that the failures he confronted were not his own, but rather those of his predecessors in both Vietnam and Iraq.  It remains to be seen how he will go forth in light of the personal failings we all now know so well.  His “success” came at a cost; is he now walking it off?  Does he see his infidelity as a failure, or as “exaggerated,” “ancient history”?  What is he studying now, and what will he do differently, once he gets up off the mat?

And what about us?  Do we want and expect “gods or kings,” or “human beings, fallible like us?”

As for me: I’m 40, and sure, I’d like to be a winner.  But I’ve got some circles to walk first, through some tall grass; a quagmire or two to examine.  It may well be time for some new strategies.

Bloom Post End

Sonya Chung is the Founding Editor of Bloom, the author of the novel Long for This World, and a staff writer at The Millions.  She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and is currently at work on her second novel. 

Homepage photo credit: procsilas via photopin cc
Mississippi Highway photo credit:
Sri Dhanush via photopincc
Fword photo credit: antigallery via photopin cc

4 thoughts on “Experience Required: The Real F-Word

  1. Perhaps it will comfort you to know that by the time you turn 60, as I just did, you will no longer give a s-word about a lot of things that have caused anxiety and frustration in the past. This is to say that my head and heart are more open now than ever, which might not be the same as not giving a s-word–but I am old and ramble 🙂 And belated happy birthday!

  2. Pingback: Experience Required: The Real F-Word | babyboomerwrites

  3. Lovely! I’ve been looking forward to reading this, and you didn’t disappoint. I recently read about a very fancy private school in NY where kids are encouraged to fail; the idea is that students who practice trying – even failing – will be better equipped to take the risks that will lead to real success. The idea of failure being promoted inside the privileged walls of an expensive Manhattan school is off-putting, but I get the idea. Just not sure how I feel about it.

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