Are you listening?

The BBC site has an interesting article based on an edited version of Malcolm Gladwell’s programme: Listening in Vietnam, broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

It’s interesting because it covers, mainly, Konrad Kellen:

Kellen was born in 1913. His full name was Katzenellenbogen – one of the great Jewish families of Europe. They lived in splendour near Berlin’s Tiergarten. His father was a prominent industrialist and his stepmother was painted by Renoir, a family friend.

Kellen was tall, handsome and charismatic. He loved Ferraris. He could quote long sections of Thucydides from memory. One of his cousins was the great economist Albert O Hirshman. Another was Albert Einstein.

He lived one of those extraordinary 20th Century lives. When he was quite young, he left Berlin and moved to Paris where he became friends with Jean Cocteau. On a ship, the America, he was offered a job by the gangster Dutch Schultz. And when he got to the US, he met the author Thomas Mann and became his private secretary. Then he joined the US Army during World War II.

After the war was over, a young woman came up to him in a Paris cafe and asked if he’d do her a favour: “My father is an artist and I need someone to take his work back to America.” He agreed. The woman was Marc Chagall’s daughter.

Kellen was the kind of person that people went up to unannounced in cafes and asked great favours of. He had that gift.

It’s interesting because it puts forward the argument that listening, while hard, is still underrated:

Kellen was different. He had the gift. He was 20 when Hitler took over in Germany and he immediately packed his bags and didn’t return until after the war was over. When asked why he left when he did, he would always say the same thing: “I had a feeling.”

Hitler made it perfectly plain what his attitude towards the Jews was in those years, but most people didn’t listen. Kellen did. That doesn’t sound like a great accomplishment, but it was.

Listening is hard because the more you listen, the more unsettling the world becomes. It’s a lot easier just to place your hands over your ears and not listen at all.

It’s interesting because it highlights how one man’s opinion became a universal truth, although it was oh so wrong.

…The morale project was started by Leon Goure, who was also an immigrant. His parents were Mensheviks. They escaped from the Soviet Union during one of Stalin’s purges. Goure was brilliant, charismatic, incredibly charming and absolutely ruthless, and he was Kellen’s great nemesis.

The morale project grew out of the Pentagon’s great problem in the early part of the Vietnam War. The US Air Force was bombing North Vietnam because they wanted to stop the North Vietnamese communists from supporting the insurgency in South Vietnam led by the Viet Cong.

The idea was to break the will of the North Vietnamese. But the Pentagon didn’t know anything about the North Vietnamese. They knew nothing about Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese history, Vietnamese language. It was just this little speck in the world, in their view.

How do you know that you’re breaking the will of a country if you know nothing about the country? So Goure’s job was to figure out what the North Vietnamese were thinking.

And his conclusion?

…And every time he gave a presentation on the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project, he said the same things:

  • that the Vietcong were utterly demoralised
  • that they were about to give up
  • that if pushed a little bit more, if bombed just a little bit more, they’ll throw up their hands in despair and run screaming back to Hanoi

It’s hard to overestimate just how seriously Goure was taken in those years. He was the only man who understood the mind of the enemy…They used to say that Lyndon Johnson would walk around with a copy of Goure’s findings in his back pocket. What Goure said formed the justification for US policy in Vietnam.

It’s interesting because it suggests that had people, in turn listened to Kellen, instead of the then acknowledged expert, Goure, the Vitenam war would have ended that much earlier:

So Kellen stood up and said that Goure was wrong, that the Vietcong were not giving up and were not demoralised. It was not, he said, a battle the US could win – not today, not tomorrow and not the day after tomorrow.

Nothing happened. Goure had cocktail parties and entertained visiting dignitaries and helicopters whisked him off to aircraft carriers, and Kellen wrote long, detailed reports that were ignored and then forgotten. The war went on and things got worse and worse.

In 1968, a colleague of his went to see Henry Kissinger, who was then the incoming architect of the Vietnam War, and he urged Kissinger to meet Kellen.

But Kissinger never did. Maybe if he had, the course of history would be different. But that’s the great irony of being a great listener. The better listener you are, the less people want to listen to you.

And finally, it’s interesting, because it may explain – or at least partly explain, the train wreck that is Obama’s foreign policy. Just who is Obama listening to? Is there a modern day Kellen?

You can read the whole article here. I heartily recommend it.