Thinking in a Democracy

Some people dislike Malcolm Gladwell. I am not one of them because I enjoy the way he thinks. He stimulates.

Here is a link to a story he wrote for BBC News Magazine Viewpoint: Could one man have shortened the Vietnam War?  It concerns Konrad Kellen, an unknown defense analyst who might have changed the course of the Vietnam War if only people had listened to him.

Read Gladwell’s story for two reasons. First, it is interesting. Second, it is not the subject of this piece.

This excerpt differentiates Kellen’s idea from the prevailing view expressed by Leon Goure that the Vietnam War could be won.

“Everyone believed what Goure said, with one exception – Konrad Kellen. He read the same interviews and reached the exact opposite conclusion.”

“Years later, he would say that his rethinking began with one memorable interview with a senior Vietcong captain. He was asked very early in the interview if he thought the Vietcong could win the war, and he said no.”

“But pages later, he was asked if he thought that the US could win the war, and he said no.

“The second answer profoundly changes the meaning of the first. He didn’t think in terms of winning or losing at all, which is a very different proposition. An enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a battle is the most dangerous enemy of all.”

“So Kellen stood up and said that Goure was wrong, that the Vietcong were not giving up and were not demoralized. It was not, he said, a battle the US could win – not today, not tomorrow and not the day after tomorrow.”

How does new or different thinking become part of the dialogue in a democracy?

The requirement of majority support tends to make democracies conservative. If there were a measure of responsiveness to innovative thinking, conservatives would be conservative and liberals would simply be less conservative. On some issues it might even be the other way around.

How does a solution that might be more effective become a part of the dialogue especially if it is against a powerful interest? (Purveyors of military hardware would not likely have supported Kellen’s view in 1965.)

Too often we forget that America is a Republic not a Democracy. It was founded by elitists, who expected it always to be led by elites.

We are long past that but perhaps we have also lost our ability to consider creative approaches to challenging problems somewhere along the way.

Is there another Konrad Kellen going unheard?


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