Yesterday’s successes don’t guarantee tomorrow’s victories
An ace baseball pitcher who goes to the well too often comes up dry. He mows down opposing batters with his blazing fastball. The pitcher keeps on throwing his hummer to get out of tight spots. The opposing team’s clean-up hitter who has gone down on strikes in prior at bats waits for the high, hard one. The pitcher predictably throws it. The cleanup hitter, looking for this pitch, slams it out of the ballpark.The United States is acting like this pitching ace who has superb confidence in his fastball. It has given him much success. Why not expect similar victories in the future?Sometimes God gives both nations and individuals a string of successes to teach them that their most devastating enemy is success itself. Max De Pree, a Christian leader who excelled in the office-furniture industry in Michigan, where I grew up, observed, “Success can close a mind faster than prejudice.” The United States, stirred by a conviction of invincibility, gained success when the invasion of Afghanistan gave us stunning, immediate victories over the Taliban. Our military barely had enough time to clean out pockets of Taliban who held out until their last rebel died. Before the U.S. stabilized Afghanistan, our president and his hawkish advisers attacked Iraq. If an easy victory against the Taliban went smoothly, a second invasion to knock out ruthless Saddam Hussein, and al-Qaida terrorists would be a snap, too. Doesn’t success build upon success?Conservative columnist George Will, in a recent Washington Post editorial, paints a bleak picture of the rising insurgency in Afghanistan. The United States did not finish a war it had started with the Taliban. Our military advisers habitually act like a pitcher who goes with his fastball all the time. It gets knocked out of the park. Now the Taliban are hitting back at us.Will reports how Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, concedes that “insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001.” “That government,” writes Will, “has an army of only 35,000 for a country nearly 50 percent larger than Iraq. The insurgency, by draining the government’s energy, serves the lords of the heroin trade that accounts for at least a third of Afghanistan’s gross national product.”What happens when we assume yesterday’s war against the Taliban makes for a better tomorrow in Afghanistan, allowing us to leap into another war? The Taliban reappear, like vipers hiding under rocks. Heroin productions increase because the Taliban pay off drug lords to protect the crop. And our leaders act like they are on a high they can’t get off, pre-emptively dashing from one war to another.We get optimistic reports of progress in Iraq from U.S. military leaders that don’t square with reality. “What is optimism?” asks Voltaire in Candide. “Alas, it is the mania for pretending that all is right, when in fact everything is wrong.”Sages warn us never to “count our chickens before they are hatched.” Our nation did, assuming quick victories in Afghanistan and Iraq would readily ensure strong democracy. The late Peter Drucker, the business guru, spoke during summers at the YMCA Camp of the Rockies, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park. After preaching there, I listened to Drucker’s lecture on a Sunday evening. Drucker pointed to a fatal error businesses commit. The U.S. similarly blundered long before we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. “No one has much difficulty getting rid of total failures,” taught Drucker. “They liquidate themselves. Yesterday’s successes, however, always linger on long beyond their productive life.” Like the baseball pitcher who throws his fastball when in trouble.The Bible re-enforces Drucker’s truth. Saul, ancient Israel’s first king, a commanding war general, relied on his early military successes. He assumed victories against the Philistines, full of bloody terror, would propel him on to victory lane. Give Saul some credit. He identified his enemy. He didn’t dilly-dally around appeasing them. He riveted upon his target and would not saber his sword before victory came against the Philistines. You might not agree with Saul’s military policy, but you can not grudge him for waffling. Steady in aim and resolve, he pitted good against evil to the death.Saul stood out as a leader who did not wilt in difficult times. He succeeded in checking the previously unhindered Philistine penetration of Israel’s central highlands. If the Philistines were as odious to Saul as al-Qaida is to us, then his rout of the Amalekites was counterpart to our victory in Afghanistan. Ancient Israel defeated its enemies.However, the Philistines repeatedly came back, like a spreading case of bird flu. “The Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa,” I Samuel 31:1. They killed Saul’s sons. And Saul, who believed previous success guaranteed future wins in battle, fell on his own sword. His great strength as a warrior became his soft underbelly of disaster. His constancy became a liability. His bravery turned into a fool’s bravado.Courageous George Leigh Mallory, as told in “Spiritual Leadership: The Interactive Study” (2006), by Henry T. and Richard Blackaby, never saw a mountain he couldn’t conquer. What would keep him from ascending Mount Everest? When asked why he desired tackling Everest, Mallory replied, “Because it’s there.” On June 8, 1924, Mallory and his companion Andrew Irvine began their trek. Three quarters of a century later, in 1999, an American climbing team uncovered Mallory’s body frozen in the mountain tundra.Like Saul, Mallory naively relied on prior success. He valued “action over reflection – or more precisely, reaction over reflection,” the Blackabys write. Even a savvy pitcher knows he can’t go with his best pitch all the time. Do our military leaders?The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95. Vail, Colorado
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