War and the Virtue of Making Mistakes
IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) and NBC co-hosted a Commander-in-Chief Forum last week that gave Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump an opportunity to answer questions that focused on issues of national security, the military, their families, and veterans.
But it also gave America an opportunity to further evaluate the candidates’ overall approach to answering public policy questions.
The critique of Trump is that he has no detailed policy plans, and the critique of Clinton is that hers are so detailed that she often comes off cold talking in bureaucratic-speak.
If we take a step back from deconstructing their policy approaches, we can also see a difference of integrity that may be more valuable to discern because it gets back to the central point of the Forum, i.e. which candidate can really be trusted with the lives of soldiers and their families before they make that life and death decision to use military force?
To answer this question, the difference of integrity between Clinton and Trump is not about public policy per se, and more about understanding the virtue and experience of admitting a mistake.
Hillary Clinton has been clear that she regrets her vote for the Iraq War. She doubly admitted that the war was a mistake, and that the vote for the war was indeed “her mistake.” Trump, however, denied that he was ever in favor of it, even though there is audio from a Howard Stern interview back in 2002 where he says otherwise. But even in the audio, Trump doesn’t seem enthusiastic at all about the war, and when Stern asked him straight out whether or not he supported the war, Trump gave the flimsy answer of, “I guess so…” In the years that followed, however, Trump began to speak out against the war, in line with the feelings of most Americans.
Admitting mistakes is critically important in a president because it points to the deeper virtues of sincerity, self-scrutiny and reflection, and intellectual and spiritual growth.
Admitting mistakes admits that experience counts. It enables one’s ego to acknowledge the error in an earlier decision-making process, and to develop a keener decision-making ability for the future.
Admitting mistakes, as the saying goes, allows you to learn from them–and in the context of sending persons to war, we’d expect nothing less.
It was another unfortunate response of Trump’s, however, that really drove home his rigid inability to admit mistakes. A veteran pointed out that his daughter didn’t join the military because of the statistics on military sexual assault, and he asked Trump if he would do anything to correct that problem. Trump responded affirmatively. But when the Forum moderator, Matt Lauer, brought up Trump’s derogatory tweet on the topic, he defended it without hesitation.
Again, Trump was unable to admit his statement was just plain wrong. Rather, he doubled down, “I think that’s absolutely correct.”
The point here is not to go into the faulty logic behind Trump’s comment here (let’s take that for granted), but to emphasize his lack of sincerity and what that means for a Trump presidency.
Trump’s lack of sincerity, expressed in his severe incapacity to admit his mistakes, is an absence of virtue that we’ve seen before in a war president–and it had devastating effects on soldiers and their families, to say the least.
Richard Nixon, as the song goes, was “waist deep in the big muddy, and the big fool said to push on.” Without the moral capacity to admit when one’s wrong, or when one’s country is wrong, and immediately change that course of action, Americans die.
Trump’s egomania restricts him from seeing his own mistakes, because the image he’s created of himself as getting it right the first time, every time, is part of his celebrity, omnipotent persona. He denies his mistakes, even when there is documented evidence, and even when his logic is clearly absurd. Worst of all, he denies his mistakes even when it hurts others.
When on believes that “might equals right,” admitting a mistake is a threat to the godly image one’s ego has built up over against reality, and it is a threat to the godly image that you believe others have of you as a god too.
Unfortunately, the knowledge of mythological gods is deadly for humans.
We have an alternative, however, in the sincerity of Hillary Clinton. She has a very human image of herself, one that is able to admit mistakes to herself, and more importantly, to the world. She admits when she is wrong, but also stands her ground when she is right, and that requires moral courage–courage she will need more than ever in her run against a demi-god like Trump.
One of the first fundamental lessons a child learns is that their “might isn’t right,” despite their belief that just by acting omnipotent, somehow that means they really are. As a fully formed person, spiritual growth comes full circle through the act of publicly sincere admissions of one’s mistakes. It’s an act of solidarity and concern for others. Only followers of Ayn Rand’s oxymoronic theology believe that a child’s omnipotence is the adult’s salvation.
We want a president that can learn from not just their mistakes, but our mistakes as a country, and if need be, change the course of our actions at home and abroad if that action is now or becomes in the future, wrong.
Particularly for soldiers and their families, the ability or inability to change our course of military action from one historical moment to the next, may be a matter of life and death.
That’s what the IAVA and the broader American military family wanted to learn from the Forum: whether Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be a sincere Commander-in-Chief, one that defends them from an omnipotent logic of war and the misguided use of American force.
Many times one finds answers to their questions indirectly, and in this case, we did.