Monday, November 28, 2005

Victory in Iraq

Barbara O'Brien has an interesting post on war over at Mahablog. She very cogently deconstructs the idea that the concept of "victory" applies to the kind of wars we've been fighting for the last 60 years.

Since World War II, how many wars have been fought on this planet that somebody, totally and finally, won? There’s the Chinese Civil War, which left the Communists in charge of all of China, and North Vietnam certainly won the Vietnam War, even if the U.S. never formally conceded that it lost. But of course Vietnam wasn't a formal war to begin with, which is part of the problem.

In the old days one nation would declare war on another nation, and then the two of them (and their allies) would pound the stuffing out of each other until one of them surrendered. Then treaties would be signed and the war would be declared over. In other words, there was a mutually agreed upon beginning and end to the war, and a mutually agreed upon result. That sort of thing doesn't seem to happen much any more, does it?

Instead, we have "police actions" and other military activies that aren't formally declared wars, and the enemy is not a nation but some amorphous entity with shifting territories, or no territories, and leadership as ephemeral as ghosts. Conflicts go on for years, for generations, with no apparent resolution. That seems to be the nature of war these days.

In our current war, even if some of the big names on the other side, like bin Laden or Zarqawi, were to formally capitulate and signal an end to conflict (which I can't imagine would ever happen), it wouldn't mean much. Neither of these guys were elected, notice. They're just guys who jumped in to lead at a time when people wanted leading. If they go, others will take their place, and the conflict will continue.

In a World War II-style conflict, armies conquered territories and destroyed enemy armies so that the enemy leaders would agree to surrender. And when the leaders surrendered, the soldiers (as a rule) would stop fighting and go home. These days we have enemies with no territory to conquer and leaders who lack authority to surrender. So how can there be an old-fashioned, VE Day victory? It's odd to even think in those terms any more, yet that seems to be what the pro-war Right wants.

And, Lord knows, Bush intended to give it to them. That's what the flight suit victory prance was supposed to be. And, in a narrow sense, the enemy Bush set out to vanquish in mid-March 2003 was pretty much vanquished. But in the process we made new and worse enemies. And so the war continues, and there will be no mutually agreed upon end to it. Indeed, in the insurgents v. "coalition" war, as opposed to the jihadists v. "coalition" war, we really have reached a stalemate; the insurgents fight because we're there, and the U.S. stays because the insurgents are fighting us. And our true enemies, the jihadists, are more strengthened than weakened by our prosecution of the war. The very means we use to vanquish them -- bombs, checkpoints, white phosphorous, prisons -- give them and their cause energy and focus. Truly, the Iraq War is probably the best thing that ever happened to al Qaeda.

Bush talks about victory without explaining what victory will look like, which is something you have to explain these days. His job is made more difficult by the fact that the objectives presented to the American people before the invasion turned out to be more amorphous than al Qaeda. If you have no firm objectives, how do you know when you've accomplished them?

To apologists for war like Captain Ed, who denounce setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and insist that "the only timetable that matters is victory," Barbara responds:

That sounds grand, and we could probably take all the time we wanted if we were having our war in our own country. But since we're having it in someone else's country, and they're fixin' to kick us out, it's about time to finish our drinks and find the car keys, so to speak.

Aptly put. But I think it's precisely because we're in someone else's country that people like Captain Ed feel we can take all the time we need to get to "victory." Except for the extremely small percentage of the U.S. population that is fighting in Iraq, no Americans are dying because of the war. No one is sacrificing anything in our country except those relatively few soldiers and their families. There are no kidnappings, summary executions, soldiers breaking into houses, roadside bombings, or suicide bombers in the United States. Not only that, but the war is extremely profitable for big business and high-priced consultants. I very much doubt that if the war were in our country, Captain Ed and others of his ilk would be quite so willing to say, "Hey, however long it takes."

1 comment:

Martin said...

"In the old days..."

You mean like the 100 years war or the War of the Roses or the World War of Europe parts I and II?

They really don't make them like they used to.