Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: U.S. pays dearly for hubris |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: U.S. pays dearly for hubris

When an arrogant nation refuses to learn lessons history teaches, it pays dearly.

The United States, over the past decade of war in Afghanistan, has paid a huge price for ignoring the past. Propping up a corrupt Hamid Karzai regime, over 2,000 of our military sacrificed their lives. Beyond the cost in blood, national debt soared. We spent over $450 billion in a war that at best is a stalemate between Taliban fighters and our troops.

Hubris, as the ancients called pride, blinds even the smartest to what history teaches.

Neil Sheehan, writing for The Washington Post, reviews the book “Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan.” He describes how our nation, with stubborn resolve to establish a democracy, set itself up for failure from the start.

“Alexander the Great built stone fortresses in Afghanistan,” writes Sheehan, “but did not tame the Afghans. No one ever has. They are a fractious people, as riven by ethnic and clan rivalries as their land is by its mountains, as renowned for bravery in battle as they are for treachery in their dealings with each other and outsiders.”

Early in 2009, President Obama and his war counsel gambled that our nation would beat the odds. We have exceptional military capabilities. No tribesmen could hold out against our fire power.

Yes, Afghanistan lacks good roads. Yes, this land has little cohesion because its culture is forged from fiercely independent tribes. Yes, religious liberty isn’t tolerated. Yes, President Karzai’s relatives skim sizeable profits from U.S. aid. Yes, poppy fields produce opium, the No. 1 cash crop. Its harvest makes life rife with underhanded dealings, death squads and financial chicanery.

Unfortunately, the U.S. wasn’t fazed by what history clearly shows. We brag our country does whatever it chooses. So President Obama, at the end of 2009, sent 33,000 more troops into this killing field to replicate the success of the surge in Iraq.

Since then, what’s surged is national pride, acting as if the United States can defy history’s lessons because we are smarter, stronger and faster in dispatching military power.

The Bible repeatedly counsels nations to hold its hubris in check and replace it with humility. Count the cost before busting down barriers leading to even more bloodshed. “When pride comes, then comes disgrace,” warns the scriptural sage, “but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2).

The Taliban, armed with primitive booby-traps, humiliated a mechanized Russian army. Did the United States ask the Russians what went wrong? No.

When you believe you’re right, and know you will win, why survey history to learn from others’ mistakes? Historical knowledge makes us humble about choices we face.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

In 1971, Daniel H. Benson described corrosive effects of pride on the human spirit and national destiny as the Pentagon Papers expose about the Vietnam War. Writing in September 1971, Benson unmasked deceptive hubris.

“In discussing pride, C.S. Lewis noted that it is essentially competitive; pride gets no pleasure out of merely having something,” observed Benson, “only out of having more of it than the next man.

“This is true of our national pride no less than it is true of our individual pride. We want our country to be strong, but not merely strong: We want it to be stronger than any other


Pride uses sneaky dynamics. Hubris convinces us that the past is outdated, archaic and replete with superstition. We lack time to investigate. Arrogance feels like confidence. We strive. We go forward. We set future goals. We can do whatever we put our minds to. Pride parades in human experience as bravado. It convinces us to jettison history and focus exclusively on the future.

The late Reinhold Niebuhr stated in his book, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, why a nation needs a religious faith.” It builds humility rather than turning patriotism into jingoism that feeds on pride. “Religious faith … ought to encourage men to moderate their natural pride,” counseled Niebuhr, “and to achieve some decent consciousness of the creativity of their own statement of even the most ultimate of truth.”

The price we pay for living is that citizens and nations make mistakes. Scant good comes from covering them with false bravado. When we err, do better next time, exchanging pride for humility.

And quickly get out of Afghanistan.

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