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1914 and 1975

My blog friend Callimachus has written a long, and on the whole fair reply to a number of my posts on the Iraq War.

Callimachus and I are both disappointed with how things are going. I seem to be a bit more pissed off, a point he makes and explains, thus:
I sometimes wonder why I don't feel that level of fury. I have as much claim to it as he does. Neither do I have any special commitment to the legacies of the current White House crew (having voted for Gore in 2000). When the time comes I would like to see a calm and full accounting. I hope the military brass is already absorbing lessons.

But maybe in part I don't pour so much energy into that feeling because, as I see it, the real train wreck hasn't happened yet. And there's still time to avoid it. And at this point there's far more worth in trying to avoid it than there is in pointing the fingers and hashing the past.
Partly the difference here is due to a difference in writing style. He's a journalist, I mostly write fiction. I get paid to make things lurid.

But more importantly we agree that this war must not be lost, and is not quite lost yet. I scream at the top of my lungs precisely because it might still be won. Somehow. Some way. If it was all over or unimportant I'd shrug and move on. I'm furious precisely because I think we're losing a war we cannot afford to lose and I don't think the people who can affect the conduct of this war have the will to win. I don't think they have a plan. I think they're marching like zombies toward a scene involving helicopters and an embassy roof. I'm trying with my tiny voice from my tiny blog to reach up and slap these people and say, "Goddammit, do something."

Let me make this clear, not for Callimachus who gets it, but for other readers: I'm not a pacifist. I'm not a peacenik. I'm not attacking from the Left, I'm attacking from the Right. My complaint is that we've fought this war on the cheap -- both in terms of military resources and in terms of what we ask from the American people.

I never bought the "Rumsfeld War." I don't believe in brilliant intelligence that supplies flawless targeting for brilliantly conceived hi-tech weapons that brilliantly kill only bad guys and no one else. I believe in bludgeons, not scalpels. I believe in columns of tanks. I believe in riflemen. I believe Sherman had it exactly right when he pointed out that war was hell, and necessarily hell. I don't buy easy war because when I read history, while I see the occasional Winfield Scott to Mexcico City, what I mostly see are Antietam and Iwo Jima and Hiroshima -- American victories that came out of relentless brutality and the application of our staggering economic resources.

I thought, in the aftermath of 9/11, that the US was prepared for real war. I thought if we were going into Iraq we'd fight that real war. Everyone agreed that if we went in we'd better not fuck it up. I worried because I thought then, as I think now, that Iraq had all of Vietnam's potential for quagmire, but none of its strategic irrelevance. If we lose in Iraq I don't believe the Iraqis will be making our Nikes in ten years. I believe we will have pushed Al Qaeda from poor, distant Afghanistan to rich, centrally-located Iraq and elevated Iran to major world player, and that would be a disaster. Not some figurative, rhetorical-device disaster, but a real disaster.

Callimachus agrees that a heavier hand at the start might have helped, but he raises the "would the American people stand for it" objection:

. . . we agree that what would have worked better would have been a heavy application of depleted uranium bullets at the first sign of unreast in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. To do it right you might have had to let your American boys gun down 600 Muslim looters and terrorists, and thrown their bodies in a pit along with rashers of bacon, for effect, like Black Jack Pershing did in the Philippines. You would have saved thousands of innocent Iraqi lives in the long run. Some of the bad guys flooding into the country now would have stayed home to wait for the next chance.

But would Mr. and Mrs. America have had the stomach for it, when it ran 24-7 on CNN? If not, then why are we bothering to fight this war? Why not turn away from the burning towers of 9/11 and say, "oh well, we still have the Empire State Building."
My answer is that either the American people would or they wouldn't. If they wouldn't, and we knew they wouldn't, we needed to stay home. There's no point arguing that the people won't tolerate the means necessary to ensure victory but what the hell, we're going in anyway. The fact that we have television is not a surprise to the people in authority in this country. If they didn't believe they could carry out a war without being cut off at the knees by the American people then they shouldn't have started the war. A plan for victory includes convincing the American people that you are doing what must be done. Either win or stay home.

My own guess is that the American people are not as soft as people believe. A hundred and forty odd years ago we were sending wave after wave of American boys against cannon and reading the stunning lists of the dead in town squares all over the country. Does the media bring the war home? Yes. More than learning that literally half the men you know died in a single afternoon in some Virginia county you've never heard of? No.

Sixty years ago we dropped atomic bombs on two cities filled with defenseless civilians. Almost immediately thereafter we developed a military doctrine (so aptly tagged with the acronym MAD) that called for us to exterminate with megaton-range nuclear weapons, every living thing in the Soviet Union. Some Americans objected, but most shrugged and thought, "Okay."

We're not that soft. We're not that sentimental . . . or moral.

Callimachus takes me to task for the pass I give the media. He works in the media, I don't, and that may explain some of the difference in emphasis. To me complaining about lazy, indifferent, thoughtless, superficial, and yes, biased media is a little like complaining about gravity. That may be glib. Okay, it is glib. Callimachus may still have some residual idealism about the media that fuels his anger there, and to the extent that he wants to tilt at that windmill, good for him. He's right.

But I think taken in its entirety the media did as much to start this war as to undercut it once it was begun. Leading up we had Judy Chalabi, er, Miller, and a thousand hours of uncritical coverage of WMD's and cakewalks. Later the media switched sides. Predictably. The beast needs a story and the beast feeds on blood.

Finally, this in response to my mea culpa for supporting this war:
The rightness or wrongness of your goal doesn't change because of the outcome. If it was right to, say, go to war for American independence, it was right whether you succeed or fail. If it was wrong to go to war to grab land from Mexico, it was wrong whether you succeed or fail. Otherwise success -- might -- stands as the only standard of right.
This is just a philosophical difference, or maybe a disagreement about definition. He's defining the question as one of morality and reason. If it was moral to try then the right or wrong of it is not altered by failure. If it made sense to try then the logic is not undermined by failure.

I look at it differently. I see a problem and a possible solution. If my solution does not solve my problem then that particular approach was a mistake. If I think I can squeeze my car into that parking spot, and I crush someone's bumper, then that was a mistake and I was wrong to try it. I don't agree that this makes for a might makes right world, I think it makes for a tedious pragmatism. If I've set a moral goal (finding a parking space) and used moral means (pulling into that space) I can still fall into error if I screw it up, and can still regret it, and still think, "Well, Michael, that was stupid."

But in the particular case of the Iraq war I have moral as well as pragmatic doubts about my behavior because it was always a 51/49 decision for me. I feared that Mr. Bush was not up to the job. And yet I supported sending American men off to kill and die. I was too quick to see the upside and not the downside: I am an optimist. I was too ready to agree. I was too ready to swallow my doubts. I had nothing personally on the line and I was making careless decisions that affected (albeit in a very small way) people who were risking their lives.

I shouldn't have supported this war believing as I did that the people running it were in over their heads. I object to my behavior on that ground. And I object to the war on the grounds that we just crushed someone's bumper and now we're not even going to get the parking space.

And finally, I'm screaming about the conduct of this war and flailing madly at everyone in a position of authority because I gave my small assent to what is shaping up to be a fiasco and no one seems to be serious about salvaging this. The archduke is dead, the Austrians are threatening the Serbs and the French are thinking of 1870. I don't think my obligation now is to soothe or be patient, I think it's to yell.

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“1914 and 1975”

  1. Blogger Callimachus Says:

    Citing earlier American wars, in which we pursued victory with awesome, and in some cases terrifying, force, is useful only if you look at the big picture: Those wars were accomplished with a high degree of propaganda, serious (if temporary) erosions of civil liberties, and a media, including entertainment, that was either seduced, cowed, or coerced into active support of the cause.

    No president can do it alone. This one never really tried to court the people or the media or the opposition into a rousing effort. That, to me, is the biggest failure.

    But it never would have worked anyhow. Not with the media we have. Ernie Pyle is a joke to them: Jon Stewart is a hero. The people in the news biz now got there because they were glamored by the idea of being the next knight in armor to topple another Vietnam or expose another Watergate.

    Supporting a war till the first body comes home, then changing your mind about it (a la NYT) and applying every means to reverse the train once it's left the station is hardly helpful or mature.

    Second, I never was much concerned about "the lack of a plan." I'm more worried about people who go to war with a precise plan and don't change it until it's too late. Even occupations and nation-building jaunts work when they're fluid and to a degree ad libbed (Germany, Japan). Lack of effort is another thing. Lack of plan? The only plan ought to be victory.

    You like metaphors. Here's one. America is like a couple who woke up one morning in September and found the bed on fire. Husband makes use of his first instinct and tries to piss it out. It only half works and the bed's now soiled as well as burning. And wife turns and starts whacking and berating and punishing husband with every energy she has.

    Meanwhile the bed's still burning. And the curtains are starting to catch.

  2. Blogger Pooh Says:

    My complaint is that we've fought this war on the cheap -- both in terms of military resources and in terms of what we ask from the American people.

    This is a perfectly sensible critique, and I'd add that if the "terms of what we ask" were unacceptable, then it's something you don't get to do. There may be a fine line between clever 'packaging' and 'lying' either affirmatively or by omission, but I don't think this is a close case.

    And Cal, that metaphor is dire, particularly by your high standards (especially since the degree to which the "bed" was actually "on fire" when the "pissing" started is hardly a settled question)

  3. Blogger A. Eteraz Says:


    i read ur post and cal's response in one sitting, thought about it, and came back:

    i know why ur post bothered and confused me at the same time:

    you conceptualized whatever's happening in iraq today as a 'war.' and that's why your post was all about winning the war, doing the war thing right, etc.

    in my mind, there is no war. there is anarchy (created by us); there is civil war (but that's not 'our' war, rather, its a 'war' we gave them); there is terrorism; and there is iranian infiltration and destabilization. but what we're doing is not war, its occupation.

    so my question is: do you concede that? (are we occupiers). in which case, do you still want us to "do it right?"

  4. Blogger M. Takhallus. Says:

    The posts wander widely across time and space. Some of it involves regret over how the war was handled from the start. Some of it is despair that we will acheive any sort of honorable conclusion.

    I see Iraq as a series of wars. First, regime change. Then occupation and a war against an insurgency. Now, it seems, ethnic cleansing and possible all-out civil war. And it is all tied up with Iran's efforts to become a regional superpower, and tied up with a malicious geography that ensures that Iraqi Sunnis will have no resources.

    The force we sent for regime change was not sufficient for occupation, which created a power vacuum and gave us an insurgency. Now we have a force too small even to handle the insurgency and yet expect them to quell a civil war.

    Do I concede that we are occupiers? I not only concede it, I believe my earliest and most enduring criticism has been that we failed to obey the first rule of occupations: place boot firmly on neck. (People seemed shocked at the time.) In other words, clamp down hard at the beginning and only when security is assured begin to build a new regime. Instead we created a power vacuum, dawdled while the insurgency grew, and then demanded that an Iraqi government somehow repair the mess.

    As I've said on many occasions, I defended this war at the start from liberals who said occupation would never work by citing Germany and Japan (also Austria and Italy, but no one remembers them.) I assumed, having the Japanese experience in our collective memories, we would understand that effective control had to come before political revolution. I thought that would be self-evident to the Bush administration. Apparently not.

  5. Anonymous eteraz Says:


    I think in some weird way I am in about the same position you're at. I think I should write about it. hopefully i can get it done before my fantsy football draf(s) start later today. in any case i will link you.

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