Don’t Follow This Recipe

“It begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculations.”

There is a lot to unpack from this statement in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new documentary, The Vietnam War.  

While it was written to summarize the origins of one of the most divisive periods in our country’s history, it could just as easily be applied to other past and future conflicts.

Most people begin something with good intentions. They are trying to do right by someone – even if that may lead to harm for others.

Most people are decent – meaning that the are conforming with the generally accepted standards of respectable behavior.  They are doing what most people at their time and their place would do – even if in hindsight that behavior may seem unjust or even deplorable.

Most people are prone to misunderstanding what is beyond their immediate personal experience.  We have limited information based on a relatively narrow worldview so we don’t even know what we don’t know.

Many people who ascend to a level of success can naturally become overconfident based on that very success. This extends to the individual level but also organizationally and even as a country. If you are part of something successful it breeds more confidence, recklessness and less humility.

Most of us make miscalculations born out of our limited knowledge. We don’t see the whole picture so our plans and predictions are incomplete and inaccurate the moment they are born from our minds.

In their review of the series, the New York Times writes of the film, “The Vietnam War” is less an indictment than a lament.  It is from lamentation and regret important lessons are forged.

Yet when we reflect on history or our current conflicts we rush to indict instead of understand. 

In doing so, we follow the well worn path – a person acting in good faith who is decent but overconfident in their belief and whose misunderstanding will only lead to more miscalculations. 

The next time we look to engage in any conflict – personal or societal, I hope we can try a new recipe – one that will serve us all better.

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