The Pain of Failure

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2017-01-02 – I was on one of the first civilian flights to Israel after the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I was supposed to be there before the war to attend yeshiva in Jerusalem, but my orthodontist wanted an extra month before taking off my braces. As a result, I missed the war.

The signs of war were still there, of course, when I got there. Windows were taped. Headlights and taillights on cars were painted over with a blue paint so that they couldn’t be seen from the air. Soldiers walked the streets with weapons strapped to their backs.

Shortly after I arrived, a recruiter came to the yeshiva looking for people who could play musical instruments (we were mostly Americans—Israelis had been recruited to the war effort weeks before). They wanted us to come entertain the troops at the Suez Canal. I didn’t know very many songs, but I signed up. Before we went, however, the parties negotiated a pullback, so the place we were scheduled to visit was no longer in Israeli hands.

I remember that the months that followed were bleak. Israeli casualties in the war had been high—proportionately higher than Vietnam losses were to America. Nearly every family was affected. I remember the day the Israeli government issued a booklet with the names of those killed. I knew no one in the book, but I remember people standing on the street looking at the book. They knew.

I was reminded of all this as I am reading Michael Lewis’ latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds. This is the story of two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who collaborated on a project to understand how people make decisions and the mistakes we systematically make. Periodically, their work would be interrupted by war and they would return to Israel from wherever their studies had taken them to serve in the Israeli army. In 1973, they got a seat on a plane from the United States to Israel. I didn’t get a seat for another couple weeks.

The memory of wars past have a devastating effect on a country. Think about the effect that the memory of Vietnam has had on us. It’s not all been good. The memory of the Yom Kippur war had a similar effect on Israel—magnified by the fact that most people there knew someone killed in that war.

Of course, not all people react in the same way. Some became committed to peace. Some became assholes.

Lewis’ book talks about a time during the research when Kahneman and Tversky were considering the prospect of regret about a failed decision as an aspect of risk aversion. You don’t take a risk because you don’t want to regret it if you fail. I haven’t finished the book, but at the point where I stopped, they had dropped the idea to pursue other lines of thought.

But consider the role of regret in our thoughts about war and defeat. Israel was nearly defeated in the Yom Kippur War. Arab nations were defeated in the Israeli war of independence in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967. These were catastrophes that shaped attitudes on both sides for generations.

But these were not catastrophes of nature, like a hurricane or earthquake. These were not one-sided events like the Holocaust in Europe. These were catastrophes in which the suffering side had played a role in bringing about. They were risks taken that failed.

That must be why they hurt so much.

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