Sunk costs are irrelevant to future decisions

July 20, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

It always pains me to see powerful leaders fail to understand the concept of sunk costs. In this case, the leader I refer to is Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, who recently expressed the mistaken belief that America’s past death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq should somehow influence future strategic plans.  To quote Lynch, who is reportedly pleading to keep his troops in Iraq:   “To me, it would be wrong to take ground from the enemy at a cost – I’ve lost 80 soldiers under my command — 56 of those since the fourth of April – it would be wrong to have fought and won that terrain, only to turn around and give it back….”

Sorry, Lynch, but the men you have lost simply do not bear on any decision to maintain a bad policy in Iraq.  The *only* thing that justifies keeping troops in Iraq is having a plan which requires those troops to be there, and right now there is no such plan.  Past losses of lives, money and equipment are completely and utterly irrelevant, just as it is irrelevant to point to, say, the lives, money and equipment lost on 9/11 to somehow justify building the Freedom Tower.  Building the Freedom Tower makes sense only if there is a valid strategic *future* reason to build it, not because of the destruction that happened at the site six years ago.  Likewise, keeping U.S. troops in Iraq makes sense only if there is a valid strategic *future* reason to keep them there, not because of the lives that have already been lost.  Unfortunately for the nation, including Maj. Gen. Lynch, the other U.S. troops in Iraq, and all Americans back home, President Bush also fails to understand this principle, and we are all going to pay dearly for it.


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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (7)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    It seems clear that such judgements come from an emotional pull that says those lost lives deserve to have their sacrifices honored somehow by future action. Look at how Lynch says "it would be wrong" to give up terrain. The moral stance that it somehow violates the memory of fallen soldiers has nothing to do with logic or pragmatics.

    The same clearly goes with the Freedom Tower. Those victims deserve some physical tribute! Never mind that they can never actually feel honored by a totally irrelevant construction.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Grumpy: I am in total agreement with you. In fact, I wrote a post on this same point that sunk costs don't justify anything at all.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Thanks for the link, Erich. I knew you had discussed this before, but thought the issue was ripe for a repeat post.

    Further to Erika's comment, my own view is far more cynical. Lynch says, “it would be *wrong*” to give up terrain, but what he really fears is that *he* was wrong to waste all those lives taking that terrain in the first place. To simply give up terrain that was taken at such a dear cost would mean that all those people died for nothing, and since those people were under Lynch's command, he would then have to live with his decision — obviously not an easy thing to do. This is undoubtedly why so many leaders fail to appreciate the true nature of sunk costs — they cannot bring themselves to admit they were wrong in the first place. Erich discusses this topic further in his recent post here:

    Bush, of course, makes this same mistake. When he talks about staying in Iraq, he almost always refers backwards to the sunk costs he has already wasted — the lives, money and equipment — instead of toward some specific, achievable, measurable future goal that would justify his "stay the course" (non-)strategy. "Stay the course" is his vain effort to protect his own ego from the fact that he has been wrong from the beginning. His behavior reminds me of the compulsive gambler who has lost more money than he can afford, so he continues to gamble in the hope that he will somehow win back his losses.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Noam Chomsky writes about the discontent of Iraqis:

    one of the least noticed recent news stories from the tortured land of Iraq was among the most illuminating: a poll in Baghdad, Anbar, and Najaf on the invasion and its consequences. “About 90 percent of Iraqis feel the situation in the country was better before the U.S.-led invasion than it is today,” United Press International reported on the survey, which was conducted in November 2006 by the Baghdad-based Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. “Nearly half of the respondents favored an immediate withdrawal of U.S.-led troops,” reported the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon. Another 20 percent favored a phased withdrawal starting right away. (A U.S. State Department poll, also ignored, found that two-thirds of Baghdadis want immediate withdrawal.)

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    I saw an interview this morning with General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. When asked whether there was any chance at all that his report about progress in Iraq, due this September, would recommend a continuation of Bush's troop surge, Petraeus responded that he would expect to keep U.S. troops in Iraq to protect whatever gains the troop surge achieves. I could not help but notice that his reasoning is as defective as Bush's: sunk costs are simply not relevant to future decisions. Just as Bush does, Petraeus is relying on sunk costs to justify future expenditures — a methodology that is devoid of logical reasoning.

    With imbeciles like Bush and Petraeus in charge of decisions about Iraq, there should be no doubt about why that operation is such a disaster. They do not understand elementary concepts of strategic thinking.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    The "surge" is clearly a disaster, despite the desperate attempts to spin it otherwise by the Bush Administration.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Times are changing, it seems.

    A call by Puerto Rico's governor for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq earned a standing ovation from a conference of more than 4,000 National Guardsmen.

    Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila said Saturday that the U.S. administration has "no new strategy and no signs of success" and that prolonging the war would needlessly put guardsmen in harm's way.

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