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2007-12-20 Iraq
Victor Davis Hanson - Has War Changed, or Have We?
Excerpt from 'In War: Resolution'
Victory does not require achieving all of your objectives, but achieving more of yours than your enemy does of his. Patient Northerners realized almost too late that victory required not merely warding off or defeating Confederate armies, but also invading and occupying an area as large as Western Europe in order to render an entire people incapable of waging war. Blunders were seen as inevitable once an unarmed U.S. decided to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan all at once in a war to be conducted far away across wide oceans, against enemies that had a long head start in rearmament. We had disastrous intelligence failures in World War II, but we also broke most of the German and Japanese codes in a fashion our enemies could neither fathom nor emulate. Somehow we forget that going into the heart of the ancient caliphate, taking out a dictator in three weeks, and then staying on to foster a constitutional republic amid a sea of enemies like Iran and Syria and duplicitous friends like Jordan and Saudi Arabia—and losing less than 4,000 Americans in the five-year enterprise—was beyond the ability of any of our friends or enemies, and perhaps past generations of Americans as well.

But more likely the American public, not the timeless nature of war, has changed. We no longer easily accept human imperfections. We care less about correcting problems than assessing blame—in postmodern America it is defeat that has a thousand fathers, while the notion of victory is an orphan. We fail to assume that the enemy makes as many mistakes but addresses them less skillfully. We do not acknowledge the role of fate and chance in war, which sometimes upsets our best endeavors. Most importantly we are not fixed on victory as the only acceptable outcome.

What are the causes of this radically different attitude toward military culpability? An affluent, leisured society has adopted a therapeutic and managerial rather than tragic view of human experience—as if war should be controllable through proper counseling or a sound business plan. We take for granted our ability to talk on cell phones to someone in Cameroon or select from 500 cable channels; so too we expect Saddam instantly gone, Jeffersonian democracy up and running reliably, and the Iraqi economy growing like Dubai's in a few seasons. If not, then someone must be blamed for ignorance, malfeasance, or inhumanity. It is as though we expect contemporary war to be waged in accordance with warranties, law suits, and product recalls, and adjudicated by judges and lawyers in stale courtrooms rather than won or lost by often emotional youth in the filth, confusion, and barbarity of the battlefield

Vietnam's legacy was to insist that if American aims and conduct were less than perfect, then they could not be good at all, as if a Stalinist police state in the North were comparable—or superior—to a flawed democracy in the South with the potential to evolve in the manner of a South Korea. The Vietnam War was not only the first modern American defeat, but also the last, and so its evocation turns hysterical precisely because its outcome was so unusual. Later victories in Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, and the Balkans persuaded Americans that war could be redefined, at the end of history, as something in which the use of force ends quickly, is welcomed by locals, costs little, and easily thwarts tyranny. When all that proved less than true in Iraq, the public was ill-equipped to accept both that recent walk-over victories were military history's exceptions rather than its rule, and that temporary setbacks in Iraq hardly equated to Vietnam-like quagmires.

We also live in an age of instant communications increasingly contingent upon genre and ideology. The New York Times, CBS News, National Public Radio, and Reuters—the so-called mainstream media skeptical of America's morality and its ability to enact change abroad—instill national despair by conveying graphic scenes of destruction in Iraq without, however, providing much context or explaining how such information is gathered and selected for release. In turn, Fox News, the bloggers, and talk radio hear from their own sources that we are not doing nearly so badly, and try to offer real-time correctives to conventional newspapers and studios. The result is that the war is fought and refought in 24-hour news cycles among diverse audiences, in which sensationalism brings in ad revenues or enhances individual careers. Rarely is there any sober, reasoned analysis that examines American conduct over periods of six months or a year—not when the "shocking" stories of Jessica Lynch or Abu Ghraib or Scott Beauchamp make and sell better copy. Sensationalism was always the stuff of war reporting, but today it is with us in real time, 24/7, offered up by often anonymous sources, and filtered in a matter of hours or minutes by nameless editors and producers. Those relentless news alerts—tucked in between apparently more important exposés about Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith—ultimately impart a sense of confusion and bewilderment about what war is. The result is a strange schizophrenia in which the American public is too insecure to believe that we can rectify our mistakes, but too arrogant to admit that our generation might make any in the first place.

What can be done about our impatience, historical amnesia, and utopian demands for perfection? American statesmen need to provide constant explanations to a public not well versed in history—not mere assertions—of what misfortunes to expect when they take the nation to war. The more a president evokes history's tragic lessons, the better, reminding the public that our forefathers usually endured and overcame far worse. Americans should be told at the start of every conflict that the generals who begin the fighting may not finish it; that what is reported in the first 24 hours may not be true after a week's retrospection, and that the alternative to the bad choice is rarely the good one, but usually only the far worse. They should be apprised that our morale is as important as our material advantages—and that our will power is predicated on inevitable mistakes being learned from and rectified far more competently and quickly than the enemy will learn from his.

Only that way can we reestablish our national wartime objective as victory, a goal that brings with it the acceptance of tragic errors as well as appreciation of heroic and brilliant conduct. The Iraq war and the larger struggle against the anti-American jihadists can still be won—and won with a resulting positive assessment of our overall efforts by future historians who will be far less harsh on us than we are now on ourselves. Yet if as a nation we instead believe that we cannot abide error, or that we cannot win due to necessary military, moral, humanitarian, financial, or geopolitical constraints, then we should not ask our young soldiers to continue to try. As in Vietnam where we wallowed in rather than learned from our shortcomings, we should simply accept defeat and with it the ensuing humiliating consequences. But it would be far preferable for Americans undertaking a war to remember these words from Churchill, in his 1930 memoir: "Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter."
Posted by Pappy 2007-12-20 00:00|| || Front Page|| [336094 views ]  Top

#1 "American statesmen need to provide constant explanations to a public not well versed in history—not mere assertions—of what misfortunes to expect when they take the nation to war.....Only that way can we reestablish our national wartime objective as victory, a goal that brings with it the acceptance of tragic errors as well as appreciation of heroic and brilliant conduct."

Will someone send this passage to W, please?
Posted by no mo uro 2007-12-20 06:00||   2007-12-20 06:00|| Front Page Top

#2 It seems to me that about the time WWII broke out, we had enough bad things going on that we wanted to feel good about something finally. We saw a chance with WW II (besides, losing would have been a bi+tch!), so we prosecuted the war with gusto. Now, we have enough good things going on that we want to feel bad. What better way than to use the WoT in every way possible to glean every bit of pain out of it for ourselves that we can? Aren't we so pious/righteous now that we are protesting our own actions and second-guessing every move we make, doing everything we can to extend the war or even lose it? Doesn't a bit of suffering from time to time make you feel more alive, no matter how we come across it? Heck, make sure Iran gets nukes. That would be the gift that keeps on giving even after you're long tired of it!

I think humans need good and bad feelings to balance each other otherwise bad things happen to our brains. If we can't find things that are good enough or bad enough, we manufacture them. One way or another. Ignoring reality and falling for conspiracies are good ways to justify and ignore allowing things to deteriorate until they are miserable. Of course, you better have the oomph to pull one out of the hat at the end or things will get big-time bad after that.

I read that Mohamhead is the second most popular boys name in Britain now.

Posted by gorb 2007-12-20 06:18||   2007-12-20 06:18|| Front Page Top

#3 Click on the link, and read the whole thing. Then go buy Hanson's book, A War Like No Other. I'm not a big fan of Athenians v. Spartans, but I recommend it to any and all 'Burgers.
Posted by Bobby 2007-12-20 06:55||   2007-12-20 06:55|| Front Page Top

#4 "Let him who desires peace prepare for war. "
Flavius Renatus Vegetius
Posted by doc 2007-12-20 09:27||   2007-12-20 09:27|| Front Page Top

#5 I have not read a VDH book that did not make me question my opinions and beliefs about history. He is excellent.
Posted by bman 2007-12-20 11:44||   2007-12-20 11:44|| Front Page Top

#6 Smart bombs and proportionate retaliation have hardened the enemy. Hanson hasn't learned that. He is a knee jerk supporter of limited war; only total war will win the GWOT.
Posted by McZoid 2007-12-20 12:50||   2007-12-20 12:50|| Front Page Top

#7 As good as Hanson is - and that's good, especially in bringing historical context that many of us know but that is utterly lacking in political discourse media, education, and general awareness - he does have a tendency to recycle or seemingly accept some of the myths that have arisen WRT Iraq. The already self-disbanded and incapable Iraqi army being of any real use in '03-'05, the supposed heavy-handed early occupation behavior in a place where the locals lacked the capacity or integrity or mutual trust to do almost anything correctly, and others.

It's not an academic dispute to settle on the actual errors - especially because it seems to me that one error was/is actually a systemic problem, i.e. the abandonment of common sense and an offensive mindset for addled concepts that vastly over-rate the importance of non-military actions in establishing security. I'm talking about the uniforms, not the civilians.

To echo another commenter, VDH's reference to the need for public communication of substantive issues and perspectives is clearly one of - perhaps THE - greatest failure of W and his team. It goes way beyond preventing the sort of shameful and pathetic national hysteria we've seen WRT Iraq (I speak here of behavior of the large usually pragmatic portion of the population and the cowardly members of the political class who should know better, like Lugar, Bayh, et al). It has precisely nothing to do with W's approval rating or mid-term elections.

It's about crucial WoT concepts that will of neccessity guide any policymaker with actual responsibilities (incl. any Dems who might somehow find themselves as the deciders on the executive side). Pre-emption: the logic that recognizes "better safe than sorry" is in fact the only rational approach to the combo of WMD and global terrorism. Intelligence: the closely linked recognition that the burden of risk must be placed on rogue states and others who are WMD proliferators and terrorism enablers - perfect intel is not going to happen, and we cannot manage our risk margins as though the intel will ever provide us with clear direction.

The failure to explain, defend, and elaborate on these key issues, among others, is a way in which W and his team have actually damaged the national security for the medium-term, even as they (mostly) promote the national security my making the difficult and risky decisions that those operational concepts require. Odd, and beyond frustrating.

But I'm a bit worried about both - the continuing attachment to illusions about how to pacify a place like Iraq among military officers, and the failure of the civilian leadership to educate the public about the actual basis for their decisions. Both augur poorly for the near future. VDH touches on one and compltely misses the other.
Posted by Verlaine 2007-12-20 14:06||   2007-12-20 14:06|| Front Page Top

#8 Until a couple of weeks ago, we were getting a lot of lengthy comments here on the burg that were largely a waste of bandwidth.

Thanks to Verlaine for reminding us that a lengthy comment does not have to be a waste.
Posted by Mike N. 2007-12-20 14:35||   2007-12-20 14:35|| Front Page Top

#9 We managed to liberate Paris without the French deciding the appropriate response was to loot the Louvre. If we have made any mistake consistently, it has been to radically overestimate the moral capacity not only of the enemy but of most of our allies.

As for the statesmen VDH calls upon to educate the public: Would there were such statesmen. Higher education has been destroyed by the Frankfurt School and there are precious few left who know our old ways, who even glimpse the depths of their ignorance. Islam means "submission", not peace. But so simple a fact escapes the imagination of our media, academic and political elites; even that of this supposed warmongering President.
Posted by Excalibur 2007-12-20 16:23||   2007-12-20 16:23|| Front Page Top

#10 He is a knee jerk supporter of limited war; only total war will win the GWOT.

Sez he who won't be the one planning it, waging it, or dealing with the after-effects.
Posted by Pappy 2007-12-20 19:12||   2007-12-20 19:12|| Front Page Top

#11 As good as Hanson is - and that's damn good

IMO, he fails to grasp that Muslims do not engage in war the way he understands war (for limited objectives, and out of recognition that what goes around comes around). In fact, far as they're concerned, they're not engaging in war at all. They're engaging in domestication (or, failing that, extermination) of wild animals.
Posted by g(r)omgoru 2007-12-20 23:07||   2007-12-20 23:07|| Front Page Top

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