The Tenth Man

This article was featured in Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

Few things galvanize foreign policy decision making like a zombie apocalypse. The latest undead epic film World War Z singles out Israeli intelligence for special praise in its response. Indeed, as the world bends and breaks under the swell of the underworld denizens, Jerusalem stands proud atop the tide. Why is that? According to Max Brooks, whose original 2006 novel inspired the film, Israeli intelligence beat the one enemy stronger than zombie hordes: group think.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (also known as the Arab-Israeli War), a war so spectacular in its exposure of intelligence failure that it revolutionized Israel’s approach to decision making. While Egypt and Syria led the Arab states against a largely unsuspecting Israel, it was not entirely ignorant of the threat. In fact, Israel’s Directorate of Military Intelligence (Aman) was almost completely aware of Arab war plans by mid-1973. But following assumptions about the unlikelihood of an Arab alliance, along with Egypt’s inability to secure certain armaments and its expulsion of Soviet advisors, the flow of misinformation from the Arabs was accepted as truth. Aman remained confident that the probability of war was low. The rest, as they say, is history; remarkable failures in military intelligence history.

Max Brooks predicts the Israelis as survivors of World War Z because they faced this enemy before: the enemy of unchallenged assumptions, of jovial consensus governing, of inducing agreement as a false pretense for quality of decisions. Brooks calls the Israeli doctrine adopted after the Yom Kippur War the strategy of “the tenth man.” In reality, it has the even more audacious title of “the devil’s advocate.” 

Following the recommendation of the Agranat Commission in 1973-1974, Military Intelligence established a Control Unit that was expected to play this role of the devil’s advocate. Its responsibility was to produce a range of explanations and assessments of events that avoided relying on a single concept, as happened in 1973. Brooks puts it a bit more dramatically: if ten people are in a room, and nine agree on how to interpret and respond to a situation, the tenth man must disagree. His duty is to find the best possible argument for why the decision of the group is flawed.

  A scene from World War Z that includes the wall surrounding Jerusalem. 

 

A scene from World War Z that includes the wall surrounding Jerusalem. 

Social psychology and foreign policy analysis have long been bedfellows in deconstructing some of history’s most alarming failures of decision making. The Bay of Pigs invasion is one much-loved case study, where American intelligence and decision makers backslapped each other into one of the most disastrous exercises in the history of US foreign policy. The interesting problem is that such decision making inverts the usual logic: more minds don’t always make better decisions. In fact, the more amiable the group and the greater its desire for the false quality-metric of consensus, the more likely it will make bad decisions. 

Foreign policy analyst Irving Janis speaks to this big idea: “The more amiability and esprit de corps among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by group think, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against out-groups.”

In other words, no matter how responsible, how intelligent, or how influential the people in a room are, the inertia of social cohesion and group dynamics will push consensus decision making, which tends to be bad decision making. This danger is even more prominent in religious settings because of the false perception that spiritual unity should preclude serious disagreement. A kind of pre-installed group think manufactures an emotional and spiritual subtext that since everyone believes in certain fundamental confessions, decisions thereafter should be more or less harmonious. Gone, then, is Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of constructive disagreement. Gone, indeed, is that bedrock Westminster principle of a loyal opposition.  

Loyal opposition is precisely what qualifies the tenth man. It allows for marshalling the best arguments to push against the group think, to press the soft bits, and to expose the liabilities.  Our systems badly need loyal opposition-- not mere contradiction, in the famous words of Monty Python, but argument. A loyal opposition has the common good front of mind; it shares the ends but purposefully dissents on the means. A loyal opposition is not a contradiction in terms, but rather the promise of clear decision making and accountability. And it’s such a powerful tool in our foreign policy arsenal that Max Brooks thinks it just might forestall the zombie apocalypse. We have political, financial, and environmental apocalypse aplenty without the undead. We badly need our tenth man.

 -  Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.