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A nation must think before it acts.
“Two things greater than all things are,” wrote Rudyard Kipling: “The first is Love and the second War.” Romance and conflict have always been intimately bound together. Love can provoke war, at least judging by accounts of the Trojan War in Greek mythology. Relationships may also deteriorate into something akin to a battlefield, as portrayed in the darkly comic 1980s divorce movie, The War of the Roses. Love and war are two extremes of human experience where the ends are sometimes thought to justify the means. An early 17th-century translation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote reads: “Love and warre are all one. … It is lawfull to use sleights and stratagems to … attaine the wished end”—a saying that evolved into the proverb, “All is fair in love and war.”
If love is a battlefield, then perhaps romantic relationships can offer important lessons for how to think about military conflict. After all, given America’s military travails over the last several decades in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the United States needs all the help it can get.
The first lesson from the world of dating and marriage is to look before you leap. If you’re considering a quick-fire wedding in Las Vegas, for example, it might be wise to first spend some time sitting in divorce courts watching hasty marriages unravel. It may also be useful to create a contingency plan if romance fails. In a New York Times article titled “Ready in Case the Other Shoe Should Drop,” one woman described how she kept a survival kit in storage in the event that her relationship ended and she had to move out of the place she shared with her boyfriend, complete with flannel sheets and kitchen utensils.
Similarly, before going to war, American officials should think seriously about what they will do if the campaign fails and the United States needs to get out of a quagmire. For one thing, working through the challenges of an exit strategy ahead of time may cause even the most hawkish leader to think twice about war. And it also means that officials are prepared for negative contingencies. Before the invasion of Iraq, for example, the George W. Bush administration brushed aside critics who pointed out the dangers of regime change. According to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “when Iraq’s withering post-invasion reality superseded [official] expectations, there was no well-defined ‘Plan B’ as a fallback and no existing government structures or resources to support a quick response.” When the other shoe dropped, the U.S. government had no survival kit and was left to desperately improvise.
Another lesson is that bad is stronger than good. A core principle in psychology is “negativity bias,” where we weigh bad information more…