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Konrad Kellen was an unknown defence analyst who might have changed the course of the Vietnam War if only people had listened to him, argues Malcolm Gladwell.

Listening well is a gift. The ability to hear what someone says and not filter it through your own biases is an instinctive ability. And we have a great deal of trouble with people who have this gift.

Kellen was born in 1913. His full name was Katzenellenbogen.

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He was tall, handsome and charismatic. When he was quite young, he left Berlin and moved to Paris. After the war, the army sent him back to Berlin where his job was to interview German soldiers to find out why they kept fighting for Hitler long after it was clear that the war was lost. Then he went to work for Radio Free Europe. Again he had the job of a listener, asked to interview defectors from behind the Iron Curtain to get a flavour of what life was like under the Soviet regime.

In the early 1960s, he joined the Rand Corporation, a prestigious think tank in California started by the Pentagon after the war to do top-level defence analysis. And there he faced the greatest challenge of his career – the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project.

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.

Leon Goure worked in the Morale Project

Leon Goure worked in the Morale Project

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 so as to break the will of the North Vietnamese. But the Pentagon didn’t know anything about the North Vietnamese. 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.

He came into Saigon and took over an old French villa on Rue Pasteur in the old part of the city. He hired Vietnamese interviewers and sent them out into the countryside. The job was to find captured Viet Cong guerrillas and to interview them. Over the next few years, they came up with 61,000 pages of transcripts. Those transcripts were translated into English and summarised and analysed.

Goure took those analyses and he gave briefings to all the top military brass in the American military establishment. And every time he gave a presentation on the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project, he said that the Vietcong were utterly demoralised, that they were about to give up, that if US bombed just a little bit more, they’ll throw up their hands in despair and run screaming back to Hanoi.

Everyone believed what Goure said, with one exception – Konrad Kellen. He read the same interviews and reached the exact opposite conclusion.

Years later, he would say that his rethinking began with one memorable interview with a senior Vietcong captain. He was asked very early in the interview if he thought the Vietcong could win the war, and he said no.

It seemed obvious.

But only to the careless listener.

Because pages later, when he was asked if he thought that the US could win the war, he also said “No”…

The second answer profoundly changes the meaning of the first. He didn’t think in terms of winning or losing at all, which is a very different proposition. An enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a battle is the most dangerous enemy of all.

[re-posted from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23037957]

Listen carefully.

You are alone. Empty your mind. Open your ears.

The world is speaking to you…

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