Winning the War, Losing the Peace in Iraq: Implications for Psychology

What psychology could contribute

Posted May 07, 2008

We have all heard the phrase that the United States won the war in Iraq but has lost or is losing the peace. Whether that phrase is a fair description of things is beyond my expertise and my capacity to judge. But in this blog's spirit of playing with ideas, let us assume that the phrase does capture the essential outcomes of American's foray into Iraq. What would be the implications for psychology? These include implications about how American society should regard psychology and how American psychology should contribute to society.

The first is that there has been a serious failure of psychological knowledge. Winning the war, in the sense that the troops landed and defeated the Iraqi military, was an impressive positive display of American capabilities. Our weapons must have been better, our troops better, our leadership better than the other side's, in order to secure the military victory. It is no easy task to land troops in a small hostile country halfway around the world and defeat a proud army on its home soil.

In contrast, the task of the occupation forces depended on controlling behavior and attitudes, and on this American capabilities have not been successful. It meant getting people to accept a new style of government and cooperate in running their own country. Note we are not talking about the traditional task of an occupation force, which is to bring a conquered country to accept its subjugation by a foreign power as a permanent state of affairs. The United States wants its soldiers to come home, and our soldiers want to leave. We haven't even been able to accomplish that.

The success of the occupation depends on psychology. Attitudes must change, cooperation must occur, choices must be made, groups must come to tolerate each other, aggression must subside, prejudices must be dealt with and deflated, and so forth. These are all issues that psychologists study. They are our bread and butter.

Is America's failure the fault of psychologists? It hardly seems fair to blame us. It's not like we were asked. The President has council of economic advisors, not psychological advisors. If psychologists had masterminded the postwar occupation, its failures might be blamed on psychology per se, but our experts were not involved.
Whether psychologists could have, would have been helpful in organizing a more effective occupation of Iraq, indeed one that might have brought success by now and enabled the troops to come home while leaving a peaceful, functioning Iraq behind, is a good question. If psychology can answer yes, then it has a legitimate claim to deserve more respect from policymakers. If it cannot, then perhaps it should begin to find ways to produce more answers. Or perhaps fewer answers: I suspect that the problem with getting advice from psychologists is not the lack of answers but the lack of consensual agreement.

One cannot help notice that the United States has suffered badly in Iraq because of its lack of psychological knowledge at precisely the time that it has also cut funds for basic research. Psychology's leaders ought to point out that a better understanding of human behavior could have prevented our nation from losing the peace. It might have saved many lives and dollars and a bit of national pride as well.

It may seem callous to put dollars on a par with lives. But dollars are what psychology needs in order to advance its research, and it is something the government can provide or withhold. The billions that have been spent on military hardware and planning seem to have been effective overall, insofar as the military operation was effective, indeed impressively so. Meanwhile, a bit more spent on research on human behavior might have helped prevent some of the errors that produced the costly debacle that has dragged on for years after the battles ended.

One more caveat. The direction psychology is going - and here with very strong pushes from the federal government and its spending - is not one likely to produce knowledge helpful with this sort of problem. I refer here to the heavy emphasis on brain research at the expense of studying behavior. Don't get me wrong: I am a staunch supporter of studying the brain and hope it will yield useful insights. But these insights are not likely to be the sort that can be applied to the problem of how to manage the occupation of Iraq.

To illustrate: Think about the great many studies on what parts of the brain "light up" in the scanner in response to this or that stimulus. How would any of that information be useful in managing the lives of several million people in a faraway country where there is chaos, violence, disorganization, and a genuine hope for a better life? Imagine the next president asking a council of psychological advisors (yes!) about what to do to bring peace and order to chaotic Iraq, and imagine all the answers coming in the form of statements about amygdalas and frontal lobes. Even if dead-on correct, such answers will not be helpful.

Bottom line, the situation in Iraq should call attention to the need for psychology to produce a better understanding of how people behave (and not just behaviors that can be performed while lying motionless in a brain scan machine). We should make ourselves relevant to society, and society should support us in that effort. America's problems in Iraq reveal one direction where psychology could and should be going, and where the society's support (reflected in its government's allocation of research funds) could and should be put to good use.