Don’t just listen to the bits you want to hear

In 1965, the United States was the most powerful country on earth, with a vast, technologically-advanced and lavishly-funded military.

But, in the Vietnam war, they found themselves facing an unusual kind of enemy. No tanks, no jet fighters, no conventional tactics. Just skinny guys in straw hats popping out of holes in the jungle and blowing things up.

So the Americans set up a specialist unit in Saigon called the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project. Its job was to interview captured Viet Cong fighters to understand what motivated them. How did they perceive the US and the war? Did they really believe they had any chance against the most powerful army on earth?

Leon Goure, the head of the Project, became hugely influential. He sent regular briefings to all the American top brass and his conclusions were instrumental in developing US policy in Vietnam (apparently, President Lyndon Johnson used to walk around with a copy of Goure’s latest report in his back pocket).

The conclusion Goure kept feeding them, based on his analysis of 61,000 pages of prisoner interviews, was that the Viet Cong were severely demoralised and that, if pushed just a little harder, they would give up.

But there was another highly respected defence analyst, called Konrad Kellen, who disagreed. He went through the same interview transcripts as Goure and came to precisely the opposite conclusion: America could not win.

When asked why, Kellen highlighted one particular interview, in which a senior Viet Cong prisoner was asked whether he thought the Viet Cong could win the war. The prisoner said ‘no.’ Later in the interview, he was asked if he thought the USA could win the war. The prisoner said ’no’ again.

Kellen’s point was that Goure stopped listening when he got to the first ‘no’. He knew that the United States was the most powerful military nation on earth and that the Vietnamese could not possibly win – all he was looking for was confirmation from the enemy that they knew it, too.

To Kellen, however, the second answer was far more telling than the first, because it revealed an enemy who did not think about success in terms of winning or losing at all. This was a much more dangerous enemy: one who understood the hopeless odds against him and saw it as irrelevant to whether he should keep on fighting. An enemy, in other words, who would never give up.

Unfortunately for both Vietnam and the United States, no one listened to Konrad Kellen. They preferred the story Leon Goure was telling them.

Convinced they were about to break their elusive enemy’s will, the US military boosted troop numbers massively and stepped up their carpet bombing campaigns. A beautiful country was scarred beyond recognition. Hundreds of thousands of people died. And the world’s most powerful nation suffered a humiliating and generation-defining defeat at the hands of farmers in straw hats.

That’s the thing with research. If you only listen to the answers you want to hear, you’re better off not asking the question.

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