War, then and now

The War

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns’ film each night, and generally think, as a sociological exploration of race, class, and gender issues during wartime, it is excellent. But given the vast expanse of World War II, there is almost nothing here about questions strategic or even tactical. So the viewer will not learn so much about American plans of winning the war, or our generals, good and bad, or the grand strategy of our war-planners, or the relative efficacy of our weaponry.


The film is perhaps wrongly named; perhaps more informative would have been something like “The Other War” or “Behind the Scenes”, since one could watch multiple hours of this documentary and learn very little of the evil of the imperial Japanese army and its larger aims, or the nature of the Wehrmacht. The sharp moral difference between what the Axis and allies wanted is not really discussed in depth. In some sense, the film lacks the wonderful music of the Civil War series, as well as historians like Shelby Foote to ground the narrative. So wonderful sociology and American contradictions about race/class/gender—but not really a military history in the traditional sense. I still think in contrast the 1973 British classic and 23-episode “The World at War” remains unrivaled.

Ahmadinejad in New York

What was strange about Ahmadinejad’s rants this week in New York was how dependent they were on leftwing talking points—Katrina, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, missing WMD, the 1953 Iranian coup, etc. But such a paradox, when the Iranian fascist turned to homosexuals— suddenly he was jeered and laughed at. So fascism is ok when it attacks the common American enemy, but intolerable when it veers into questions of gender?

Kidney Stones versus Ruptured Appendix?

Currently trying to pass, in serial fashion, 6 or so b-b-sized kidney stones (according to the CAT scan), and wondering what is worse—a ruptured appendix or constant stones? Pain-wise, in comparison to last year’s appendix operation, I vote for the stones.

Iraqi Questions


Iraq versus Afghanistan

The presence of Nato in Afghanistan and the far fewer American casualties (441 combat dead versus 3115 in Iraq) has made it the “good” war against those who were directly responsible for 9/11.

In contrast, a “preemptive” and “unilateral” Iraqi war was orphaned once it proved, unexpectedly so, the far tougher occupation.

But after reading either Peter Bergen’s The Osama bin Laden I Know or Raymond Ibrahim’s The al Qaeda Reader, one is struck how our enemies do not differentiate, at least in formal communiqués, between the two theaters. Both are infidel crusades aimed at gratuitously killing Muslims—period. In the present context, the distinction between a necessary well fought war and an optional disaster exists in our minds, not our enemies, who, to be candid, increasingly sound shrill as if they are losing both theaters.

Whether foreseen or not, Iraq has turned into a touchstone of the entire Middle East—the thawing in Libya, the impending crisis in Pakistan, the Hamas/Fatah rivalry, the Gulf galvanization against Iran, the Syrian/Iranian nexus, and the Iranian nuclear program. All these challenges and more either directly or indirectly will be altered by the outcome in Iraq.

We should accept that the Iraq war to remove Saddam was won and won brilliantly. The second more difficult challenge, both to secure a democratic government and to direct the Middle East away from jihadism to something other than authoritarianism, is a much different war still very much in the balance.



Throughout both war we have official and popular tallies of American casualties—and Iraqi civilians. No one, in any serious manner, however, has tried to count the number of jihadists and insurgents that we have killed in either country—or to calibrate to what degree such fatalities are simply lumped into the “civilian” total on the theory that any enemy without a uniform (i.e., all of them) is de facto a “civilian.”

Much less do we even speculate that reduced Taliban or Iraqi insurgent activity may be due to the sheer number of those killed and wounded. We often forget how many al Qaeda kingpins who were active on 9/11 are now either dead, jailed, or in hiding, from Khalid Sheik Mohammed to Abu-Zarqawi.

So this is a strange war in which we must not only lose our own, but not talk about killing the enemy. Perhaps it is the stink of Vietnam-era “body counts”, both the past fraud and amoral calculus involved, that prevents us from seeing progress by taking out the enemy. No matter, the result is the same: this is the first large war the United States has fought in which we have no idea how many enemy we have killed—or if we did know, whether we should even broadcast such success or to what degree it contributes to our success.

What we do accept is that the war is now defined by American losses above all other considerations. It is sustainable to the degree we don’t lose soldiers, and not so, to the degree we do. The Balkan War—Milosevic was not a threat comparable to Saddam; there was neither congressional nor UN approval, but plenty of angry allies like the Greeks and furious neutrals like the Russians; and frequent collateral damage (so far we haven’t bombed the Chinese in Iraq)—is instructive of how an intervention becomes politically sustainable by the simple absence of American dead.



All wars see mistakes. But what is strange about Iraq is that almost all of our lapses only became evident as such in hindsight. In World War II, the accidental bombing by B-17s of our own troops in the hedgerows was seen immediately as a fiasco. So soon were larger lapses like daylight unescorted bombing in 1942-3, or the clear inferiority of the commanders and equipment sent to North Africa. None paralyzed our progress.

But in Iraq almost every mistake had a plausible countervailing argument. Shoot looters, of course, to restore order—but why do so after liberating a people suffering from thirty years of oppression? Why would one shoot a poor man live on CNN for scurrying across the street with a television?

More troops were needed? But if we strain under 160,000, what would we have done with an occupation force of 300,000—as if numbers per se and not tactics and strategy were our sole problems?

Privileging WMD over the Congress’s 22 other writs to go to war was a flaw once they did not turn up inside Iraq. True, but such fixation is perhaps understandable, especially since we are still not quite sure that they were not in part sent into Syria—especially given recent stories about that regime’s recent accident with chemical weapons, and its bombed nuclear depot.

In any case, the Iranian/Syrian efforts in the 2000s reminds us why the Clinton administration was so worried about the corresponding Iraqi efforts in the 1990s. No one invented out of nothing the idea that illiberal regimes are trying desperately to turn windfall petro-profits into regional strategic supremacy through deadly weapons.


The surge is inspired and working, but its often innovative tactics have been overshadowed by the discussion of sheer numbers. A better term would have been the “adaptation”. Nonetheless there was also a logic to the Casey/Abezaid thinking: emphasize force protection to ensure the U.S. has the political capital to maintain the reconstruction, assuming that eventually the Iraqis would burn themselves out in sectarian violence, tire of the militias and al Qaeda, then re-seek American support. At that time we would reemerge with less casualties. That rope-a-dope seems flawed now, but at the time it was a reasonable consideration.

The Debate

Well before Vietnam, many wars have strong domestic opposition—Congressional repulsion at the Mexican War, the Civil War draft riots, the isolationist movements of 1916 and 1939-41, and the McArthur celebratory parades of 1951. But what is unusual about the present opposition, at least as it is spearheaded by Congressional Democrats, is the broad support of invading Iraq in 2003 followed by the broad opposition to it by 2005, followed by the lack of any serious explanation for the turn-out.

Being “fooled” by intelligence reports is unacceptable inasmuch as the Congressional leaders were given the same reports that the administration got, themselves consistent with those produced during the Clinton administration.

The only acceptable explanation for such an about face was the one never offered, something like the following:

“I thought removing Saddam could be accomplished at far less cost than transpired. But due both to the difficulty of establishing reform in postwar Iraq, and our own flawed assumptions about reconstruction, I now don’t think the ultimate goal of a stable constitutional Iraq is attainable—or at least not attainable at a price in American blood and treasure I am willing to pay.”


Not a single Democrat has been candid enough to admit the above.

That would be an intellectually honest and defensible position, but that would require more character than in simply reciting the old mantra of “Bush lied” or “my successful war was ruined by your flawed occupation.”


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