But anything can happen, things can go wrong;

One minute you’re up then you're down and you’re gone.

-Huw and Tony Williams


It is a curious historical fact that Osama Bin Laden was on the verge of moving from one hideout to another when SEAL TEAM SIX came calling.  Bin Laden - through a combination of selfishness, arrogance and simple idiocy - had managed to alienate his keepers, a serious misstep when they were all that was standing between him and a weighty helping of justice for a tiny fraction of his misdeeds.  After he pushed them too far, they snapped and ordered him to leave ... unaware that time was already running out.  The hunters were already closing in.  If Bin Laden had left a week earlier, the SEALs would have crashed into an empty home that - on the surface, at least - would have appeared to belong to a perfectly innocent family.  Instead of a glorious victory, the US would have wound up with egg on its face and further cross-border raids would have been strongly discouraged.


The American hunters, of course, had no way to know what was actually happening inside the Bin Laden household (although it has been strongly suggested that Bin Laden was betrayed by one of his minders, or more distant partners in terror.)  They had no way to know that Bin Laden was on the verge of leaving.  Nor, for that matter, did Bin Laden have any way to know the Americans were closing in.  If either party had known that time was running out, they would have moved quicker.  The US got very lucky.  The raid could easily have turned into a minor disaster.


It is difficult to exaggerate the role that simple random chance plays in human affairs.  If the weather had worsened early, during the invasion of Normandy, D-Day would probably have failed.  If General Lee hadn’t lost a copy of his orders prior to the Battle of Antietam, it’s possible the Confederate States could have won the day.  If Benedict Arnold’s plot to surrender West Point hadn’t been uncovered, he might have delivered a fatal blow to the American cause.  If ... I could give an endless list of battles and wars that were decided by sheer random chance, by the weather or a single incident that could easily have gone in the opposite direction.  The blunt truth is this: things can and do go wrong.


It’s easy to say, as we have been increasingly wont to do over the past few decades, that there must be someone to blame.  That person screwed up, either by accident or through cold-blooded malice.  We have given birth to a culture that makes endless recriminations and files lawsuits - some sensible, some absurd, some seemingly absurd - in response to things that don’t go our way.  And yet, this is growing increasingly dangerous.  The sad fact is that, sometimes, you can do everything right and still lose. 


In 2003, for example, it was commonly believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.  This was an entirely reasonable belief, based on a decade of Iraqi lies, misinformation, reluctant confessions and a humanitarian crises that was created and exploited for political ends.  There was a strong tendency for analysts to assume the worst, because experience had taught them to assume the worst.  The US Government wasn’t inclined to listen to analysts who suggested otherwise because they’d noted a pattern of behaviour that suggested that nothing that came out of Iraq could be trusted.  It was a mistake to base the rationale for invasion on a cause that demanded the US uncover a massive stockpile of WMD (instead of a dismantled WMD program that could easily be rebuilt), but it was an understandable mistake. 


If something - a military operation, a new product rollout, a political campaign - succeeds, people will generally overlook its flaws.  It isn’t commonly understood that Donald Trump make mistakes during the 2016 campaign, at least partly because Trump won.  The victory overshadows the errors.  Hillary Clinton’s mistakes loom large because she lost.  And indeed, part of the problem facing the Democratic Party - as we move towards the November 2020 election - is that the party is reluctant to face up to its mistakes, let alone point the finger at the guilty people. 


But why should it?  We live in a society where admitting a mistake is tantamount to confessing guilt.  Who wants to be the scapegoat?  Who wants to have their life destroyed by a simple mistake?  If the price of admitting fault is utter (personal) disaster, who in their right mind will admit fault?  There is a strong case to be made that the last politician to admit responsibility for a mistake and resign was Lord Peter Carington, who took responsibility for the Foreign Office’s failure to foresee the 1982 Falklands War.  How many modern-day politicians would make the same decision?


And yet ... Carington was lucky.  He would go on to serve as Secretary General of NATO and play a major role in the diplomacy surrounding the Balkan Wars.  Would this happen today?  I doubt it.  Someone who made a serious error would be lucky if they were ever entrusted with a sensitive role again.


The problem has been growing steadily worse, in matters military, social and political.  In 2020, the Iowa Democratic Party spent a considerable sum of money on developing a app to manage the caucus and report the results.  The app was a disaster, which sparked conspiracy theories and suggestions the party had rigged the results.  (It didn’t help that several candidates declared victory prior to any official results.)  There was, it seemed, a great deal of evidence to suggest the developer wasn’t unbiased. 


Was it a mistake?  It could have been.  The app was rolled out too quickly for proper stress tests.  Coding errors and other problems that should have been noted and solved in beta-testing weren’t noticed until they tried to use the app.  It’s the sort of issue one gets when one tries to do something too quickly.  A mistake creeps in and passes unnoticed until it’s too late to easily resolve. 


But was it conspiracy?


The problem with our ‘someone must be blamed’ mentality is that it is very easy to believe that yes, it was conspiracy.  If you don’t accept that mistakes happen, and some of them can have awful consequences, you’ll start looking for someone to blame.  (It didn’t help that this wasn’t the first time the DNC was accused of rigging the nomination process.)  Instead of learning from the mistake - next time, stress-test the app before you rely on it - it’s easy to start looking for a scapegoat.  And then everyone in your sights switches to full cover-your-ass mode and any prospect of genuinely learning from the mistake is lost.


Things can and do go wrong.  Sometimes, like I said above, victory or defeat hinges on sheer random chance.  Sometimes, the intelligence is faulty or misinterpreted (in 1979, the CIA missed the Russian plan to intervene in Afghanistan because the Russians themselves didn’t know they were planning to do it until they felt themselves pushed into a decision).  Sometimes, what works on a small scale fails badly when tried on a larger scale (communism can only work on a small scale, when everyone knows everyone else).  Sometimes, the story is simply too good not to be true, thus due diligence is left undone (A Rape on Campus, a thoroughly-discredited story published in Rolling Stone).  And sometimes, yes, you can do everything right and still lose.


Mistakes happen.  There were hundreds of mistakes made during the lead-up to World War Two.  Some of those mistakes occurred because of stupidity, some because politicians feared the consequences of fighting another war, some because of sheer random chance.  (Somewhat akin to Lee’s Lost Order, the 1940 Mechelen Incident may have forced the Germans to change their invasion plans for France.)  And yet, it isn’t just the mistakes that matter.  The outcome matters more.


I’ve been accused of saying this too often, but it’s true.  War is a democracy.  The enemy, that dirty dog, gets a vote.  And his vote may be enough to counteract yours. 


We can learn from our mistakes.  We can work to overcome them while keeping our eyes on the prize.  Or we can allow ourselves to get bogged down in bitter, useless and ultimately destructive recriminations.


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2020