War and Humility

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lacking familiarity with our military past, we suffer from the affliction of presentism: the notion that our current generation at war is unique, in both its accomplishments and its pain and suffering. We claim as our own technological advances that instead are based on the steady, incremental research and contributions of those of the past, and then compound such egotism by confusing material improvement with cultural or even moral progress.

That conflation in turn prompts us—the most affluent and leisured in civilization’s history—to convince ourselves that we are a kinder and more reflective generation than those before us, who faced a far more brutal and unforgiving world, and that for some reason we are exempt from the rules that accompany human nature and its expression during conflict. This infatuation with the present self, again coupled with ignorance of history, convinces us that the mess of a Vietnam, a Mogadishu, or an Iraq is unlike anything in the past. We are deluded into thinking that our near mastery of the physical world through technology should likewise make conflict equally domesticated—that the uncertain events of war must never be uncertain at all. Yet conflict is not as controllable and predictable as talking across the globe on our cell phones or calling up a web address on the Internet.


“Iraq,” said former vice president Al Gore, “was the single worst strategic mistake in American history.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed that the war he voted to authorize became “the worst foreign policy mistake in U.S. history” and indeed was already “lost.” Many such historically minded politicians and commanders weighed in with similar superlatives. General William Odom (retired) called Iraq “the greatest strategic disaster in United States history.” Senator Chuck Hagel, who voted for the war, was somewhat more cautious, calling Iraq “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” Jimmy Carter took the loftiest view: the Iraq war, and Great Britain’s acquiescence in it, he said, constituted “a major tragedy for the world” and proved that the Bush administration “has been the worst in history.”

Certainly there were legitimate questions about Iraq, as there have been about all wars. Why, for example, did Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander who led U.S. forces in a brilliant three-week victory over Saddam Hussein, abruptly announce his retirement in late May 2003, prompting a disruption in command just as the successful conventional war ended and an unexpected insurgency in Iraq gathered steam? Would General George Patton have declared victory and then resigned when the Third Army crossed the Rhine River?

We are deluded into thinking that our near mastery of the physical world through technology should likewise make conflict equally domesticated—that the uncertain events of war must never be uncertain at all.

Why were looters allowed to ransack much of Baghdad’s infrastructure after the defeat of the Baathist army? Would the conquered Japanese in August 1945 have been allowed to strip what was left of Tokyo’s power grid?

Why “disband” the Iraqi military and not reconstitute its officer corps of Baathists at precisely the time when law and order—not tens of thousands of unemployed youths—were needed?

And weren’t there too few occupying troops in the war’s aftermath, along with too restrictive rules of engagement—but too prominent a profile for the American proconsuls busily dictating to the Iraqis? What can be worse than the foreign infidels who both bother you and fail to keep you safe?

The queries don’t stop there, alas. Why weren’t there enough modern body armor and armored Humvees to protect U.S. troops? Why did we begin to assault Fallujah in April 2004, only to pull back for six months and then have to retake the city after the U.S election that November? Why were the country’s borders left open to infiltrators and its ubiquitous ammunition dumps kept accessible to terrorists who ransacked them for explosive devices that would soon kill thousands of Americans? Did we really think that neighboring Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia were going to play supportive roles when democracy in Iraq might result in a Shiite-dominated government that threatened their own Sunni-dominated autocracies?

The catalog of military error and postbellum naiveté could be multiplied ad nauseam. Then there are the strategic conundrums over the need to attack Saddam’s regime in the first place, given the nature of the terrorist threat, the ascendant Iranian theocracy next door, and the colossal intelligence failures concerning imagined vast depots of chemical and biological weapons.

But what was missing from the almost ritual national denunciation of the “worst” war in our history was much appreciation of past U.S. military errors—political, strategic, technological, intelligence, tactical—that nearly cost us victory in far more important conflicts. Neither do we accept the savage irony of war: that only through errors, tragic though they may be, do successful armies adjust in time to discover winning strategies, tactics, and generals. We miss the paradoxes of war through which events that were never imagined during a war’s planning transpire and often prove providential. And we forget that sometimes one can still win a poorly conceived war—and that to do so may be better than losing it.

Has War Changed, or Have We?

Preoccupied with the daily news from Baghdad, we seemed to think that our generation in the twenty-first century was unique in experiencing the heartbreak of an error-plagued war. We forgot that victory in every war goes to the side that commits fewer mistakes—and learns more from them in less time—not to the side that makes no mistakes at all. A perfect military in a flawless has never existed—although after the Grenada invasion and the air war over the Balkans, Americans apparently thought otherwise. Rather than sink into unending recriminations over Iraq, we should reflect about comparable errors in past U.S. wars and how they were corrected.

Victory requires not achieving all of one’s objectives but achieving far more than the enemy does. During the Civil War, 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 to render an entire people incapable of waging war. That enormous effort required an “Anaconda” plan of blockading the eastern and southern coasts of the southeast quadrant of North America, controlling the entire length of the Mississippi River, invading from the northern Midwest, and sending thousands of troops into northern Virginia—while simultaneously, and as part of a moral crusade to end slavery in the South, keeping the border states in the Union, maintaining the western expansion, and keeping up diplomatic relations overseas in the midst of a horrific conflict. And yet twelve years of postwar Reconstruction had no more success in ensuring lasting racial equality in the South than did twelve years of no-fly zones in removing Saddam Hussein.

Blunders were seen as inevitable once a poorly armed United States 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 re-arming. We had disastrous intelligence failures in the Second World War, but we also broke most of the German and Japanese codes in a fashion our enemies could neither fathom nor emulate.

Somehow this generation forgets 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 was beyond the ability of any of our friends or enemies and perhaps of past generations of Americans as well.

Victory requires not achieving all of one’s objectives but achieving far more than an enemy does of his.

But maybe the American public, not the nature of war, has changed. Present generations of unprecedented leisure, affluence, and technology no longer so easily accept human imperfections. We seem to care less about correcting problems than assessing blame. In postmodern America it is defeat that has a thousand fathers; victory is an orphan. We fail to realize that the enemy makes as many mistakes as we do but probably addresses them less skillfully. We do not acknowledge the role of fate and chance, which sometimes upset our best endeavors. Rarely are we fixed on victory as the only acceptable outcome.

What caused this radically different attitude toward military culpability?

A sophisticated society that takes for granted its ability to choose from five hundred cable channels expects Saddam instantly gone, Jeffersonian democracy up and running reliably, and the Iraqi economy growing like Dubai’s in a few seasons. If not all goes well, then someone must be blamed for ignorance, malfeasance, or inhumanity. Perhaps the political leaders were too successful at downplaying the risks and assuring unrealistic and rosy prognoses, but why were the public and news media so open to such guarantees? It is as though we expect contemporary war to be waged in accordance with warranties, lawsuits, and product recalls and adjudicated by judges and lawyers, rather than won or lost by youths in the filth, confusion, and barbarity of the battlefield. Stopping lunatic regimes such as those in Iran and North Korea from acquiring and using nuclear weapons is nearly impossible, and yet we blame both liberal and conservative administrations for being either too stern or too lax in letting proliferation continue.

This generation forgets 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 and duplicitous friends was beyond the ability of any of America’s friends or enemies—and perhaps of past generations of Americans as well.

The legacy of the Vietnam War was to suggest that if U.S. aims and conduct were less than perfect, then they could not be good at all—as if a Stalinist police state in the north of Vietnam were comparable or superior to a flawed, quasi-democratic southern autocracy, with its potential to evolve in the manner of a South Korea. The Vietnam War was not only the first modern American defeat, it was also the last. Later victories in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf War, and the Balkans persuaded Americans that war could be redefined, at the presumed 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 Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the public proved ill-equipped to accept that walkover victories such as Grenada were military history’s exceptions rather than its rule and that temporary setbacks hardly equated to Vietnam-like quagmires.

We also live in an age of instant communications increasingly contingent on genre and ideology. The New York Times, CBS News, National Public Radio, and Reuters, the so-called mainstream media skeptical of the U.S. military’s morality and its ability to enact change abroad, instill national despair along with graphic scenes of destruction in Iraq without providing much context or explaining how such information is gathered and selected for release. In turn, Fox News, conservative bloggers, and talk radio hear from their sources that we are not doing nearly so badly and try to offer their own, often wildly optimistic, alternative narratives. As a result, the war is fought and refought in twenty-four-hour news cycles among diverse genres with their own particular audiences, in which the common denominator is the sensationalism that brings in ad revenue or enhances individual careers. Rarely is there any sober, reasoned analysis that examines American conduct over periods of six months or a year.

Those relentless news alerts tucked in between apparently more important show-biz exposés ultimately create confusion and bewilderment about what war has become. In the end, the American public is too insecure to believe that we can rectify our mistakes but too arrogant to admit that our generation should make any in the first place.


What can be done about our impatience, historical amnesia, and demands for perfection? American statesmen need to provide constant explanations to a public poorly versed in history of the misfortunes to expect if and when they take the nation to war. They need to speak of both the costs and the benefits of not striking at an enemy. The more a president evokes history’s tragic lessons the better, reminding the public that our forebears usually endured and overcame far worse against the British, Germans, Italians, Japanese, Russians, Chinese, and Koreans.

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 twenty-four 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 taught that our morale is as important as our material advantages—and that our willpower is predicated on learning from the inevitable mistakes and rectifying them more competently and quickly than the enemy. What is most remarkable about Pericles’ prewar speeches, as recorded in the first and second books of Thucydides’ history, is not his morale-boosting exhortations to fellow Athenians or demonization of the Spartan enemy but rather his sober assessments of the dangers in fighting the Spartans and of Athenian countermeasures that might offer some hope of success.

If the United States is to fight future wars, our national wartime objective should be victory, a goal that brings with it the acceptance of tragic errors as well as the appreciation of heroic and brilliant conduct. Yet if as a nation we instead believe that we cannot abide error or that we cannot win because of 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 were obsessed with recriminations rather than learning 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 necessary war to remember these words from Churchill in his 1930 prewar 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.”