Published on Thursday, October 2, 2003 by
When Your Only Tool is a Hammer
by Roger Arnold

"When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Sure, we've heard that, but do we appreciate how much it applies in real world? It's a psychological truism that how we perceive problems is influenced by what tools we have for dealing with them. We may overlook a problem entirely, if prior experience gives us no cause to recognize it as something we can do anything about. Conversely, when we have an approach that seems to have worked in one situation, we're primed to notice similarities in other situations where it might be applied-even if it isn't, in fact, all that great an approach. It's just the way we're wired.

Flashback to the fall of 1970; I was serving with the army, at a headquarters company in Europe. In a buddy's Playboy magazine, I came across an interview with Joan Baez. The topic was non-violence. Like many GI-s in that era, I had a grudging respect for Baez for the consistency of her non-violent stand. At a time when other anti-war activists were muting any criticism of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, Baez was forthright in condemning both sides. But I considered her to be na´ve. Non-violence, to me, implied a Pollyanna vision of human nature.

That interview forced me to change my mind. As you might expect, there were a lot of tough "but what if" kinds of questions from the interviewer. Baez gave thoughtful answers that were not at all those of a Pollyanna. They were the answers of an intelligent woman who had studied the issues, and had a sober grasp of human nature. What impressed me was that, ultimately, she made the case for non-violence in pragmatic terms. Moral issues aside, non-violent solutions to problems almost always *work* better than those based on violence.

Most of us can agree with that, in the abstract. We've seen how "violence breeds violence". But we get stuck on that qualifier of "almost always". Aren't there some situations where we have no choice? We're understandably nervous about renouncing violence altogether, and then finding ourselves vulnerable to those who remain willing to employ it. Baez addressed that in a couple of ways, but what struck me was a purely pragmatic consideration: namely, that as long as we retain the *option* of violence, we will never be able to apply ourselves fully to the job of finding superior, non-violent solutions. Our minds function with a built-in economy that resists spending time looking for a better solution, once we have one that seems workable--particularly when we're under pressure. Because violence is such a potent tool, it's hard to see beyond it.

That observation really sunk in. Once you think about it, it's more or less self-evident, if you've spent any time noticing how people work. It didn't quite manage to make me a pacifist on the spot, but it did change my attitude. I gained a lot more respect for Ghandi and Martin Luther King. They were evidently not "high minded dreamers" who got lucky, but astute strategists who knew exactly what they were doing. The interview also gave me a better handle for coming to terms with the mess in Vietnam.

Before I was drafted, I had thought that our Vietnam quagmire was the result of simple incompetence. From inside, I found it more complex. There were all types of individuals in the military, as you'd expect, but most were decent guys dedicated to doing a job. Incompetence was no more common than it is anywhere in business or government. For what it was designed for, in fact, I found the military exceptionally competent. What it was designed for, however, was smashing an identified enemy force on a field of battle. It was not designed for winning the trust and support of foreign villagers who only wanted to be left alone. That's what would have been needed to dry up support for the insurgents and stabilize the government of South Vietnam.

Our leaders in Washington had fallen into the "hammer / nail" trap. On the one hand, we had this very nice hammer in the form of an overwhelming military force. On the other, we had Vietnam, where the problem of an armed insurgency against a government we supported looked very much like a nail. And so we started pounding on it, unable to imagine that all our bombs and helicopters and machine guns wouldn't be sufficient to vanquish the rebels and allow our allies to reign supreme. Our leaders were unable to see beyond the glare of military power to understand the full consequences of its use in the kind of mission that Vietnam presented. We ended up as the best recruiters that North Vietnam could have asked for, among disaffected South Vietnamese.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. A generation later, and here we are in Iraq, in just same sort of quagmire we sunk ourselves into in Vietnam. We tell ourselves that we came to liberate the people of Iraq from the clutches of a cruel dictator from whom they were unable to free themselves. What Iraqis see are occupying troops who don't speak their language, are often arrogant and abusive, and whose periodic raids are frightening, humiliating, and all too often fatal to innocent bystanders. Assault troops are not ambassadors.

We hear a lot of talk these days about how we have to "stay the course" in Iraq, that it would be a disaster to "cut and run" before we had "finished the job" of rebuilding Iraq and preparing the way for a "stable democratic government". Similar talk was prominent in the Vietnam era. I bought it then, to some extent. But however good our stated intentions might have been, the fact was that they could not possibly have been achieved with the tools we were using. And the same is true in Iraq. You simply cannot achieve what we claim to be working for using machine guns, assault helicopters, and troops still operating in battle mode. The longer we remain in Iraq, the more we will alienate those who might have been our allies. You can't cut a board with a hammer; you can only splinter it.

What's really infuriating to me about this whole mess is that I thought we knew better. The Vietnam war was a terrible and tragic experience, for all sides. The one consolation that many of us who were touched by it could take is the thought that the lives lost and ruined by the war were not a total waste. It seemed that we, as a nation, had at least learned a hard lesson about the limitations of military force. We would conduct ourselves more wisely in the future, and the world would be a safer place. But now it turns out that the lesson did not sink in very deeply. A handful of draft-dodging ideologues from my own generation have been able to flush it away, and commit the country to a course that had seemed unthinkable. They have taken the tragedy of Vietnam and stripped it of any redeeming lesson. That, even more than the distortions and lies they used to sell their program to the American people and Congress, is their real crime.

Roger Arnold ( is a Vietnam era vet. After release from the army, he avoided politics and built a career as a software engineer and systems architect. He is indebted to G. W. Bush for showing him the folly of taking civil rights and sanity in government for granted. He is now working as a volunteer for the presidential campaign of Dennis Kucinich.