By A.D. Freudenheim

23 September 2001

Though it can come in a variety of forms, and is, in the truest sense unpredictable, failure is one of the most important of human experiences. As much as success has to offer us individually and as a society, it is through failure that humans may learn their most important lessons, and learn them well enough to fear their mistakes. Or so one hopes.

Take the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center, and America's national military headquarters, the Pentagon, as an example. People around the world can see and hear - and almost feel - the pain and devastation experienced directly by many thousands of Americans. Our every mistake (along with our successes) has been chronicled in real time for the world to see: the failure to anticipate the possibility of this kind of attack; to identify the threat of airplanes that had gone off course; to intercept them; to realize the severity of the explosions and make evacuation of the Towers the priority.

Over the last half-century, we have grown accustomed to living in a world where news of our smallest failures can travel many miles and with as much speed as our greatest ones. A brief, concise note acknowledging a business or personal mistake may travel by fax or overnight mail to anywhere in the world, be spread by a voice on a phone, or directed instantaneously to some number of individuals - from a few to many millions of people - via the internet. The wide popularity of the "Darwin Awards," the Reuters news services' "Oddly Enough" dispatches, and web sites like "," points to how we treasure news of the mistakes of our friends and neighbors, even though these errors may not be newsworthy at all.

Humanity's larger failures seem to come with neat graphics, charts, and maps, particularly as brought to us by the television news. While the smallest failures may still have grave consequences, our era of the instant audience makes the larger failures seem exponentially more complex and grave. We may find out about individual failures easily, and laugh or cry heavily, but through the immediate influx of pictures, sounds, and comments we can access our greater tragedies more readily and share in the pain of common experience in ways that used to be delegated to those with an interest in history. Can any of this constantly-flowing information really mitigate much of the pain and loss felt by a single person who is missing a spouse or partner, parent, sibling, or friend after the 11 September attacks? Probably not. Some of us further miss the point that in the constant repetition of the images of the attack, and in pushing for a broad, communal sense of grief, we may be perpetuating an individual's agony instead of alleviating it.

Failure can come with many names, which sometimes change as we grow older and which we use to signal the extent of the damage done and our feelings about it. Boo-boo, error, mistake, breakdown, fiasco, disaster, bust, washout, tragedy, decline. There are also words or expressions that carry emotional understanding, and which we use as tools to help us remember and to learn from each "day of infamy." Snafu, from the military expression "situation normal all fucked up" and afge, from the teenage saying "another fucking growth experience" suggest the extent to which we are even supposed to recognize our failures as they happen, and learn from them on the spot.

Nonetheless, humans have also shown a great capacity to fail at learning from failures, an idea encapsulated well by George Santayana's famous statement: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As the United States and some of its allies prepare to lead a war effort against Afghanistan, to avenge our losses and restore our good name, now is an appropriate time to reflect on history and human failure. Several times before have invading armies tried to conquer the lands and people of Afghanistan; each time they have failed, spectacularly. In the eighty-plus years between 1838 and 1919, the British fought the Afghans three times, without success. The Soviets spent more than a decade waging war there, losing some 15,000 soldiers, sustaining nearly 40,000 wounded - and killing more than 1 million Afghanis in the process.

Santayana's statement seems to be prescient once again. Before we compound the loss of the more than six thousand dead from these terrorist attacks by murdering yet more civilians in the hopes of rooting out an elusive set of enemies, perhaps we should consider what, exactly, we believe constitutes success - and where our marker of failure rests. If we pick up the lost threads of our lives and carry on as best we can, take more responsibility for our actions and for the safety of our neighbors, and focus our energies on rebuilding and reevaluating internally - rather than attacking and destroying externally - we might just learn from the failures represented by these recent events. What line needs to be crossed in order for us to recognize that sometimes triumph shows us the face of defeat, just as victory can be Pyrrhic?

Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.