For Every Complex Problem, There Is an Answer That Is Clear, Simple, and Wrong.

insoluble

So almost said H.L. Mencken as part of a longer aphorism. The whole quote is, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” This misquoted part does however make the point I am trying to do. This quote should be placed at the top of every story in every medium dealing with the latest round of terror and almost everything else being touched upon in the current political battles for the Presidential nomination.

The best solution, one that I have yet to hear, is to turn the clock back but not just to September 11, 2001, but to the period after WWI when the Great Powers set national borders in the Middle East with little regard for the tribal boundaries that had been around for, perhaps, even millennia. Even earlier, many would say, all the way back to Biblical times. There are so many “causes” for the present situation, it would take several doctoral dissertations to enumerate them all. Two precursors that have been talked about with some regularity lately are the enthronement of the Shah in Iran and the initiation of the Iraq War. Both of these fit the title of this blog perfectly. Simple solutions to complex problems. War and coups almost always fit that definition.

To hear the Republican candidates for the nomination almost in a single voice call for another war boggles the mind. I am reminded of one of the most plaintive lines from any folk song as I hear this. Peter Seeger wrote this about the folly of wars.

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

War begets war. History shouts at us that there can be no war that ends all wars. The Hebrew Biblical remedy of an eye for an eye was discredited by the Rabbis over a millennium ago. The successor Christian Bible is more explicit in arguing against revenge as a remedy for wrongs. War replaces the domination within one nation with the domination of another. Clearly unstable and, in our case, at odds with our basic view of democracy. War is the answer for those that choose to see the world as black and white; those who are unwilling to accept that they have no way forward that begins to unravel the intermingled set of forces and beliefs that lead to violence in the first place.

The President, in his speech last night, spoke truth to those who would exercise unrestrained power against the Islamist (and other) forces of terror. They are too quick to overlook the terror we inflict on civilians by our bombings, by whatever name for “good” we call them. The “mistaken” attack on the hospital in Kunduz was, for those patients and neighbors pure terror. One of the effects was to scare away the medics who were running the hospital. The excuse that mistakes are inevitable in war is true, but lame. Calls for a stronger military are completely without grounds as we are, arguably, the world’s most powerful force. My colleagues in the systems dynamics world call this and related solutions, “fixes-that-fail.”

Complexity does not give way to force. Complexity requires patient attempts to work ever deeper into the system until some access to the causes is revealed. If those causes are left in place, the original set of contentious issues or something closely related is going to resurface. The present situations in the Middle East and Afghanistan are examples of this, par excellence. If, as many say, Islam, itself is not the primary cause of the present conflicts, then why are we not appealing to the peaceful side of this old and important world religion? I hear virtually nothing from its leaders.

Gathering together world leaders and the nations they lead is important, because dealing with complexity demands a wide set of interests, but such an alliance is rendering itself ineffective if it does not include leaders from the Muslim world, especially from nations where Islam is the majority or official religion. In thinking and writing about the present “reign of terror,” I am not making any argument about the legitimacy of the actions from any point of view. I believe they are wrong, but I am convinced that an eye for an eye will do nothing but exacerbate the threats.

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