It’s that time of year again. As you mark the final days of one year to begin another, you look back on the year that was. Who made the biggest splash in the news? What stories gained the most traction. Where are the global hot spots? When are you going to see the next big thing?

The stories line up every year at this time. For those with a short memory, it’s a useful exercise, sort of an Oh, yeah, now I remember moment. With some, those memories offer a chance to relive a pleasant story or maybe something that was truly meaningful in some way. For others, those memories are a painful reminder that we live in unique times. As if a pandemic wasn’t bad enough, the politically divisiveness that surrounds us can be a bit annoying.

the year in review

As we look back on the year that was, the stories that resonate most with me are usually the memorials to those we’ve lost. Losing Colin Powell was like a punch to the gut. Few leaders had as much of an impact on so many. As a longtime viewer of “Weekend Update” the death of Norm Macdonald was a sad loss. I felt much the same about Michael Williams, who kept me coming back to The Wire every week until it ended. The recent death of former Raiders coach John Madden seemed especially painful, as did the passing of baseball great Hank Aaron.

Then there are the myriad listicles of “top stories” that litter the web as we close the year. Some are broad; some are focused on a specific area. Some are print based while others gear toward digital media. Some aim for the political spectrum. Those are the most depressing, honestly. I found one article that revisited the funniest stories of 2021. It was funny. Not quite #FloridaMan funny, but enough to get a chuckle out of me.

Still, something is missing.


It struck me that what’s missing in all of this is a wrong answers only edition of the year in review, a take on the top stories listicle that simply targets the sublimely stupid. We’ve had more than enough top stories for one year, but we never seem to learn anything from them. So, what if we just look back at what we should have learned, but in a way that only wrong answers will work?

So what did(n’t) we learn in 2021?

1. Anyone can steer a ship through the Suez Canal.

For a week in March, the world watched as we learned that it was, in fact, possible to ground a ship in the Suez Canal. As if there weren’t already enough problems with the supply chain, the MV Ever Given managed to block the passage of 369 other vessels while holding up an estimated $9.6 billion of global trade.

2. Nothing brings people together like a crisis.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve found new and inventive ways to divide ourselves. I wasn’t around for the Spanish flu, but I do know that it managed to divide people then, as well. If there’s another lesson to be learned from all this, it’s that…

3. We’re surrounded by virologists.

You know how we used to ridicule the so-called “experts” always spouting off on one topic or another? Well, they pale in comparison to the number of people on social media who are not only experts in the science of vaccines, but also various forms of medical research and treatment protocol. Just because you heard it on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s true.

4. We’re also surrounded by geniuses.

Who knew that Idiocracy was actually a documentary? Spend an hour on any social media platform and you’ll find people swearing by the latest meme they found. I used to laugh when someone would post an Abraham Lincoln quote about the internet. Not anymore.

5. This is the year the Taliban will fall.

To be fair, this was a leading story every year going back to, I don’t know… 2002? And here we are. Which leads me to…

6. We’ll never repeat the fall of Saigon.

Until we do, that is. In some ways, we managed to make our departure from South Vietnam look organized. I still think it was the right decision, just poorly timed and not particularly well orchestrated. The military airlift was the only bright spot, and there are still thousands left behind, a mounting humanitarian crisis, and a human (and women’s) rights disaster in the making.

7. The stigma of mental health is a thing of the past.

As we saw during the Tokyo Olympics, people will sometimes suffer under the intense stress of competition in the public eye. While some people were understanding and supportive, just as many took the opposite stance. Proving that, once again, Idiocracy was a documentary.

8. Everything is fine.

It’s not, really. You would think the one thing we could agree on as a country is that storming the Capitol is a bad thing. And if you thought that, you’d be wrong. See #4, above.

9. Silence is golden.

I don’t know what it is about some retired senior leaders, but they seem to have opinions about everything, often about subjects they’re only marginally informed on. Sometimes, as they say, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.

10. The days of buzzword defense policy are over.

We just can’t help ourselves. In the rush to refocus on the next big war, everything is “multi-domain” and “convergence.” If either of those is on your bingo card going into 2022, it’s going to be a good year for you.

Afghanistan in 2021

If I included an eleventh lesson (not) learned, it would focus only on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I touched on it, but the wound from that is still too fresh to be humorous in any way. Not a day goes by when I don’t find a message in my inbox from someone either still there or in the throes of trying to get out. How we managed to screw that up so badly is a subject that will fill volumes. It didn’t have to be that way, either.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.