S/SW blog philosophy -

I credit favorite writers and public opinion makers.

A lifelong Democrat, my comments on Congress, the judiciary and the presidency are regular features.

My observations and commentary are on people and events in politics that affect the USA or the rest of the world, and stand for the interests of peace, security and justice.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What is the difference here?

Trying to understand how other people think is an ongoing challenge for us. It is a very big challenge when it comes to Iraq. We get confused and confounded by efforts to get inside other peoples' heads. Think how much effort goes into trying to motivate Iraqi's leaders to change their thinking. We often find it very hard to unravel the logic driving the conclusions to which other people come. Think how difficult it has been for Democrats to develop a strategy that will bring moderate Republicans into a vote to change the direction of the war in Iraq. We ask, "How can they think that way?" The first obvious fact is that we all think differently. Our perceptions of an identical reality will vary widely, person to person, group to group and culture to culture.
It is not as simple as mere "wrong" thinking, however. Last month I posted "Only a glimpse," opening with this idea:
We "see through the glass darkly." We catch glimpses of truths we don't understand, things we think we remember but don't know how or why, and fleeting snatches of important thoughts that float away. It is only a glimpse, however.
The second obvious fact is that we all think with our brains. And individual brains vary widely. Shaped by nutrition and chemicals in the womb, stimulated at different levels during maturation, influenced by different environments and cultures, we emerge as totally different kinds of thinkers.
Groups naturally see each other as somehow different. We have different values, ideas, biases and cognitive styles. Middle Easterners are different from Westerners. Democrats and Republicans are different. Similarly, the military sees itself as different from civilians. As a civilian, I am trying to understand how it is that the military can "get it" so well in one case, and not in another, in the following two recent news stories.
The first, an exemplary example is from a recent story, headlined "Inside the brain of a soldier," is by Kristen Hall for the AP (9/19/07). As a retired psychotherapist, I understand how and why this is a good thing for the people to be subjected to it. It is a good way to advance the military's medical understanding and treatment of soldiers, and to safeguard all soldiers over time. We can applaud the commanders who choose to follow this protocol. To quote,
Army conducts brain tests on soldiers - Before they leave for Iraq, thousands of troops with the 101st Airborne Division line up at laptop computers to take a test: basic math, matching numbers and symbols, and identifying patterns. They press a button quickly to measure response time.

It's all part of a fledgling Army program that records how soldiers' brains work when healthy, giving doctors baseline data to help diagnose and treat the soldiers if they suffer a traumatic brain injury — the signature injury of the Iraq war.

. . . The mandatory brain-function tests are starting with the 101st at Fort Campbell and are expected to spread to other military bases in the next couple of months. Commanders at each base will decide whether to adopt the program.
The second, is a questionable example, in my way of thinking. It is from a recent story, headlined, "U.S. Working to Reshape Iraqi Detainees - Moderate Muslims Enlisted to Steer Adults and Children Away From Insurgency." Again, from my psychotherapist side, I can truly understand the military's motivation to attempt to do this to Iraqis detained as threats to U.S. soldiers. And we have all heard calls for religious reform of radical madrassa educational programs. But for some reason, this "getting inside the Iraqi brain" effort by U.S. Major General Douglas Stone seems bizarre. The story was written by respected journalist, Walter Pincus, for the Washington Post, September 19, 2007. To quote,
The U.S. military has introduced "religious enlightenment" and other education programs for Iraqi detainees, some of whom are as young as 11, Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, the commander of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, said yesterday.

Stone said such efforts, aimed mainly at Iraqis who have been held for more than a year, are intended to "bend them back to our will" and are part of waging war in what he called "the battlefield of the mind."

Most of the younger detainees are held in a facility that the military calls the "House of Wisdom."
The perceptual difference here, it seems to me, is one of "how," not "why." As I read through the entire Pincus story, I was truly amazed as I glimpsed the General's thinking style. To quote further from the article,
Stone said he wants to identify "irreconcilables" -- those detainees whose views cannot be moderated -- and "put them away" in permanent detention facilities. Psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and interrogators help distinguish the extremists from others, he said.

. . . The new religious training, Stone said, helps U.S. forces pinpoint the hard-core extremists. "I want to know who they are," he said. "They're like rotten eggs, you know, hiding in the Easter basket."

Stone said his staff conducts polygraph tests for detainees who promise to change after undergoing the religious training program. "We were trying to figure out if they're messing with us. . . . You're not talking about radicals going to choirboys." But he also added that they're succeeding in countering extremists in the facilities. "We're busting them down, we're making whole moderate compounds that didn't exist before."

Stone described a sort of religious insurgency that occurred at one detention facility on Sept. 2. "We had a compound of moderates for the first time overtake . . . extremists. It's never happened before. Found them, identified them, threw them up against the fence and shaved their frickin' beards off of them. . . . I mean, that is historic."
It was the last two paragraphs of the Pincus story that convinced me to read the (five pages long) transcript of General Stone's rambling roundtable discussion held yesterday:
Jack Holt, the spokesman for the Pentagon's new media operations, said that 60 people were invited to join the Stone interview yesterday but that only four bloggers did so. Of those four, at least two appear to be active-duty military, but as of yesterday evening none so had discussed Stone's presentation online.

Other elements of Stone's program are being developed. He said he has created a "transition-out barracks" where detainees being released discuss civics and human rights. He has also begun a "huge, expensive" Rand Corp. research study on detainee motivation and morale and has plans for a major communication campaign.
To my way of thinking, the roundtable transcript must have been what triggered Pincus' thoughts. He must have told himself he should to let the American people know about this. I'll close with one paragraph from the Stone transcript, and dare you to try to get your your own brain wrapped around it:
The many religious leaders, all imams that we have working for us teach out of a moderate doctrine, which brings to bear every one of -- you know, the seven mortal sins and that sort of thing, and tears apart, particularly the Takfirs in al Qaeda's arguments, you know, for things that are -- you know, I mean sort of the basics like, you know, let's kill innocents; you're not allowed to -- you can do various things, which they believe that they can. And once they can read -- and I mean, you're talking about the basics here -- once they can actually read the words themselves and they believe the Koran they're reading -- this is something that we changed, which is a bizarre thing but true -- then they actually can begin a conversation between the two of them.
Now I ask you sincerely, is my thinking - that this is really strange - wrong here?
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