Learning From Mistakes

A small embroidery booklet that my mother gave to me when I was around 8 or 9 years old (circa 1968-69).  The booklet has a copyright of 1964 listed.

While sorting and organizing in my sewing room, I came across this embroidery booklet, which I have been using since the late 1960s.  When I first started learning embroidery, my mother gave me an embroidery hoop, embroidery floss, needles, small scissors and this booklet.  My great-grandmother had a closet full of boxes of fabric scraps for her quilting and she subscribed to a needlework magazine, Workbasket, which had iron-on embroidery patterns.  She gave me fabric to stitch on and let me pick out some iron-on patterns.  My mother and great-grandmother, both spent time showing me how to embroider and helping me when I ran into problems.

I ran into problems often, because I am not naturally talented at needlework (or much else for that matter).  What I am good at is practicing.  Even as a child, I set up a routine to practice things I really wanted to learn how to do or improve at doing.  I stuttered and couldn’t even spit out my name.  I spent years reading the dictionary, almost daily, and practicing how to pronounce words.

Needlework was the same frustration when I first started stitching, where instead of my tongue twisted into knots over how to pronounce words, I was spending more time dealing with tangled embroidery floss, than I did stitching.   I practiced… a lot.


Large dictionary I spent years reading as a teenager – in need of binding repair.

My mother gave me that booklet, so that I had a reference to reread, when I forgot how to make the stitches. As my stitching improved, I began to tackle harder stitches in the booklet. I clung to that booklet and handled it carefully, because it became as dear to me as the large dictionary that came with the set of World Book Encyclopedias my parents purchased in the early 1970s.  Before having this large dictionary to study, my mother had given me a paperback dictionary to use.

The thing about learning the value of “practice makes perfect” is that even if you never achieve perfect, your skills, at whatever you’re practicing, improve.

And that brings me to foreign policy.  Along with rereading my childhood embroidery booklet, I’m reading a book that I had started a few years ago and didn’t finish.  National Security Dilemmas: Challenges & Opportunities by Colin S. Gray is one of those books that returns you to the basics of national security strategy, by reminding you constantly of the “lessons learned” that we keep forgetting.

I’m not ready to do a book report, but the thing Dr. Gray often asks, when confronted with catchphrase strategic notions that permeate among the Washington policymakers and punditry class, is “So, what?”  He is analyzing based on his wide-breadth of historical knowledge and decades of meticulous research of STRATEGY.  I’ve read several of his books and many articles he’s published over the years.  He always gets down to the essence of strategy  – the basics, if you will.

Strategy basics are just like needlework basics.  If you forget the basic stitches there’s no way you can master the complex stitches.  I hadn’t done hardly any needlework since 1998, so I’m back to basics and decided several weeks ago that I need to start doing a lot more practice on basics to regain my stitching proficiency and confidence.  We still haven’t done that with our national security strategy.

The Trump administration’s national security strategy seems as immured in “catchphrase” strategic-thinking as the Obama administration’s “narrative as strategy”.  President Trump likes to hide behind the “we don’t want to tell the enemy what we’re doing”, trying to sound strategically savvy, but really just avoiding having to explain what his ISIS strategy really is.  I suspect it’s about as well-thought out as his “murdering ISIS family members to scare ISIS terrorists into submission” war crimes strategy he doubled-down on in the GOP primary debate.

In recent weeks, I’ve become concerned that his ISIS strategy, in essence, is Mission Creep.   More American troops here, more American troops there (like in Syria) and so far, little in the way of explanation.  There doesn’t seem to be any sort of laying out American national security ends and building  a big picture regional strategic framework to achieve those ends.  President Trump’s strategy seems tied to PR sound bites more than to securing America’s national interests.

Does the Trump administration have a clear strategy to defeat ISIS?

I doubt it.  Any who question President Trump are brushed aside with constant reminders that General Mattis is running the Pentagon and General McMaster is a strategic genius.  That doesn’t explain the strategy to me.  That is citing “experts” to validate a strategy, that has not been explained.  It’s a dodge.

So, I’m very wary of  President Trump’s foreign policy and at the same time, I am heading back to the basics… in both my needlework and studying strategy.

More later.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, General Interest, Military

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