"In my experience, the worst enemy and corrupter of man is the tendency - resulting from mental laziness and the desire for peace of mind - to join groups and organizations with set dogmas, be they religious or political."
- Hermann Hesse
GoDrex, in a recent post, linked to a very interesting online book about a human phenomenon as old as time: The Authoritarian Follower. In other words, a book about the sheep, the army ants, that infest humanity and allow incredibly evil things to happen through their passive/aggressive stupidity.
There is a section at the end of the third chapter in which he uses his theory to explain the inexplicable events surrounding our invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. I've copied and pasted it here, because it's the best rundown of the key events I've come across yet.
A Little Application
That said, let’s take what we have learned in this chapter about how
authoritarian followers think and see if it explains what otherwise might seem quite baffling. Beginning in late 2001, the Bush administration stated that Saddam Hussein was a source of terrorist activities around the world, and frequently implied he was involved in the attacks of September 11th, even though nearly all the attackers had come from Saudi Arabia, and none had come from Iraq. The administration also said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, even though United Nations inspectors had never found any, so an invasion of Iraq was necessary. A choir of “theocons” seconded this “neocon” outlook with the argument, however implausible, that it was highly moral to start a war with Iraq. In fact, it was God’s will.
The polls showed most Americas supported the president, although a significant minority did not. Besides observing that no terrorist connections had been demonstrated, and no “WMDs” or facilities for making them had been discovered, critics said an invasion would make it easier for Muslim fanatics to launch suicide attacks on Americans, and would probably tie down America’s mobile armed forces for years to come because civil war was likely to develop after Saddam’s removal.
They also observed that the war would seem not only unjustified to most Muslims, but totally unfair given America’s greatly superior military forces. An American/British slam-dunk victory would probably create so much hatred for those countries in Islam that the number of zealots plotting terrorist attacks against them would probably increase rather than decrease as a result of the war. It would prove a monumental step in the war against terror--but backwards.
The critics were castigated by administration officials and their backers with a vehemence not seen since the anti-Vietnam war protests. Those who urged caution were denounced, even as late as the fall of 2006, as traitors, fools, and idiots by officials and supporters who will likely never admit that the critics were proved right. For after the successful military invasion of Iraq, no pre-existing ties to al-Qaida were discovered and no weapons of mass destruction were found. Some Americans then realized their country had invaded another country on false premises--which would seem to be very wrong morally, and which would have outraged many supporters of the war had certain other countries done such a thing. But several months after the administration itself conceded that no weapons of mass destruction had been discovered, pollsters found a lot of Americans believed such weapons had been found. And for these believers and others the new justification for the invasion, viz., to remove Saddam and bring freedom to Iraq, to make it a shining example in the Middle East of what democracy will bring, was good enough anyway.
But as American casualties steadily mounted after the war was declared over, and as chaos descended upon Iraq, and as the Bush administration had no response other than, “We know this is the right thing to do, no matter what,” and as the war helped drive the national debt to such unprecedented heights that the United States became the world’s largest debtor, most Americans finally saw the war had become a national disaster.
Still, nationwide polls for Newsweek, CNN, and USA Today revealed that in
October 2006, as the mid-term election drew near, 40 percent of the American people did not think the United States made a mistake in invading Iraq, 30 to 34 percent approved of President Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq, 30 percent said the administration did not misinterpret or misanalyze the intelligence reports they said indicated Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and 36 percent said the administration had not purposely misled the public about this evidence to build support for the war.
Thirty-seven percent even thought the U.S. military effort was going “well” (either “fairly” or “very”) And 35 to 37 percent approved of how Bush was doing his job in general, while 35 percent also were satisfied with the way things were going in the country. In all cases, the solid majority of Americans saw it otherwise. But you have to wonder, who were all those people who thought everything was fine?
Well, what’s not to understand, if that hard-core of supporters mainly consists of authoritarian followers, given what the experiments described in this chapter show us about them? The justification for the war in the first place was largely irrelevant to high RWAs. [Right Wing Authoritarians] They liked the conclusion; the reasoning didn’t matter. If the United Nations refused to sanction the war, so what? There’s no contradiction, in a highly compartmentalized mind, between believing that America stands for international cooperation and the peaceful resolution of conflict on the one hand, while on the other hand insisting it has the “right” to attack whomever it wants, no matter how weak they are, whenever it wants for whatever reasons it decides are good enough. Those who protested were trouble-makers; everyone should support the government.
If no connections to al-Qaida and no weapons of mass destruction turned up after the invasion, just believe they had turned up. An aluminum tube that could have been designed to help enrich uranium was used to enrich uranium, proving Saddam was making atomic bombs! Trailers that could have been used to make biological weapons were used to make them. Besides, people whom the followers look to, such as the evangelist Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) said they still believed Saddam had such weapons, even if there was no evidence he had. And anyway, if the first reason for the war comes up lame, just invent a new one. Everybody knows Saddam is our biggest problem! And when later the president insisted he never said America would “stay the course” in Iraq, when actually he had said it over and over again, most people knew that was an outright, almost pathological lie. But it would not make much of a dent on an authoritarian follower’s mind, which is quite capable of believing white is black when his authority says so.
Authoritarian followers aren’t going to question, they’re going to parrot. After all, in the ethnocentric mind “We are the Good Guys and our opponents are abominations”--which is precisely the thinking of the Islamic authoritarian followers who become suicide bombers in Iraq. And if we turn out not to be such good guys, as news of massacres and the torture and murder of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, by the CIA, and by the arms-length “companies” set up to torture prisoners becomes known, authoritarian followers simply don’t want to know. It was just a few, lower level “bad apples.” Didn’t the president say he was sickened by the revelations of torture, and all American wrong-doers would be punished?
However the policy came from the top, and the administration scrambled to make sure it could not be punished. When the White House said it would veto a bill because it prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, you had to be nearly blind not to realize what was going on. When the White House also insisted, successfully, that Congress pass a bill allowing it to use torture, you had to be completely blind. But high RWAs are quite capable of such blindness.
And while most Americans came to realize what a mistake the war in Iraq has turned out to be, high RWAs lagged far behind. They listen to the news they want to hear. They surround themselves with people who think like they do. They believe the leaders who tell them what they want to be told. They make about as much effort to get both sides of an issue as the Bush administration does to foster different points of view within the White House. And if six high RWAs are sitting in a room talking about the war, and all six now have misgivings, it will still be hard for any of them to say so because the ethic of group solidarity is so strong in the authoritarian mind.
Is there any conceivable evidence or revelation that will lead them to admit the war was a mistake? I suspect some of them will eventually, begrudgingly reach that point, and others will rewrite their personal histories and say they had their doubts from the start. But others, petrified by their dogmatism, will never admit the undeniable. Did they ever about Viet-Nam? No. “We just didn’t use enough force!”-- which is exactly the argument those who proposed the invasion of Iraq are using now as they tried to shift the blame for the failure of their incredibly unsound policy.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the phenomenon, although I suspect that the people who need to read it the most, the authoritarian followers, will never even touch it and even if they do, they'll misinterpret it. It's a book that is preaching to the converted, for sure, but it's still eye-opening. It's called The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer. It's completely online, and completely free, and not even very long. So you have no excuse. Unless you're one of them, in which case I suggest you turn a blind eye, because we wouldn't want you to hurt yourself with self-recrimination, after all.