War and More

Too much about Iraq?

Some readers will complain about reading here more on Iraq, and the need to defeat the Islamists in the more general war against terror. But the serial writing about the topic is like yelling “Fire” as flames engulf the house. Do we yell it only once, and then keep mum in fears of boring the scorched inhabitants?


Iraq Strategy

The Iraq Study Group will probably suggest, as the Democratic Party suggests, as the administration suggested, that we accelerate Iraqization in preparation for downsizing and leaving. There will be disputes over what to call the status quo, over how long this process will, or should, last, or over whether it was the policy of the administration (despite the Halliburton slurs and ‘no blood for oil’ sloganeering) in the most recent months (cf. the recent leaked Rumsfeld memo); but nevertheless both critics and supporters of the war will come to some sort of consensus of finishing the training of the Iraqi security forces, hoping the democracy can survive, and then “redeploying” American troops. Success or failure will be adjudicated whether by 2008 there is still a functioning constitutional government.


In a recent debate of sorts on a Boston radio show, an ex-Clinton official lectured on Iraq as already lost, apparently reflecting this new communis opinio of despair. Given the level of violence and our losses in Iraq, in this view, we supposedly have no chance of securing the country and are now defeated—and should leave precipitously.

But don’t we need some perspective on this new assessment of “lost”? What would these same critics say to Abraham Lincoln in May-June 1864 (“Each hour is but sinking us deeper into bankruptcy and desolation.”) when Grant’s Army of the Potomac tottered at the brink (Spotsylvania [ca. 18,000 casualties]; Cold Harbor [ca. 13,000 casualties]; Petersburg [ca. 12,000 casualties), prompting calls for an armistice on the basis of a status ante bellum, and the real prospect not just of Lincoln not winning the election of 1864, but perhaps not even receiving the Republican nomination? Or what would the pundits of the Kennedy School of Government or the Council on Foreign Relations have said about retreat from the Yalu River in November 1950 (ca. 14,000 casualties)? Korea is lost? We destabilized the Korean peninsula? We only empowered the real enemy Russia in Europe?


If anyone wishes to understand the ripples of an immediate American withdrawal from Iraq, try reading Raul Castro’s public address in Havana, in which he announces the end of American global influence as evidenced by our inability to defeat the terrorists (e.g., “In the eyes of the world, the so-called “crusade on terrorism” is unavoidably heading down the path to a humiliating defeat.”). My favorite line is the enforcer of the Cuban Gulag sermonizing on Americans’ “secret prisons.”

Do we have another Sherman, Patton, or Ridgeway?

That is not to say that simply staying the course will bring victory without radical changes in tactics and strategy—but that ability to change quickly and fundamentally is nothing novel in American history. That infamous summer of 1864 was saved by Uncle Billy Sherman’s completely unorthodox siege of Atlanta, and then followed after the elections with the march to Savannah (opposed by Grant and without consultation with Lincoln). Matthew Ridgeway saved the American army in Korea, and after the removal of MacArthur ensured a counter-offensive back up to the DMZ. The billion-dollar plus B-29 effort was facing catastrophe before the arrival of Curtis Lemay in the Marianas. Creighton Abrams, who oversaw Vietnamization and the drawdown of over 500,000 to less than 30,000 U.S. troops by 1972, turned a disastrous war into one in which, had we not cut off aid to South Vietnamese, our allies were in a position to win.


The point? As in prior crises, the U.S. military realizes that public support is waning for the effort in Iraq, and it must find a way both to drawdown only in measure and at the same time train the Iraqis to stop the insurgents from destroying the nascent democracy. So let us hope there is a Sherman, Patton, Ridgeway, Abrams et al. among us.

American slang

Has there been an upsurge in the vocabulary of cynicism, sarcasm, and nihilism? On the old philologist’s dictum that words alone reflect reality (in graduate school, we were often asked in seminars on Xenophon or Thucydides to support grand assertions about “democracy” or “freedom” with precise words in the ancient Greek vocabulary [together with citations to ancient texts])—do our newly created phrases tell us something about our postmodern mind? I heard on campus last week a barrage of the usual slang: “Whatever”; “I don’t think so…”; “Duh?”; “Hellooo?”; “See yaaa”.

I was wondering whether on the farm our ancestors used to employ the same language—as in…

“Cyrus, are we going to in get the crop?”

“Emma, did you get the butter churned?

“Langford, did the freeze hurt the blossoms?

And when you compare the relentless smirking and snickering of a David Letterman or Bill Mahr with past variety hosts of the 1950s, or TV shows like Desperate Housewives or Sex in the City with Bonanza or Paladin, then we get a good glimpse of the rapid devolution to a postmodern society. Not that we don’t have genius and flair in our midst, but the gap reminds me a lot of the change in temperament of a Juvenal or Petronius compared to an earlier generation of Horace and Virgil. While Trimalchio and his bunch argue over stuffed song birds and dancing catamites, some legionary is on the Rhine or Danube holding back the tide. One wonders about an audience’s taste that went from Fibber McGee and Molly to Howard Stern in less than 50 years.



Currently I am reading Barry Strauss’s %%AMAZON=074326441X The Trojan War.%% Strauss is the type of classicist whom in %%AMAZON=1893554260 Who Killed Homer? %% we once thought were desperately needed for a dying profession. He wrote solid academic books about the Peloponnesian War, then a memoir about sculling, and more recently this reinvestigation of the Trojan war, encompassing the latest archaeological, linguistic, and literary evidence, all aimed at capturing a wide audience and renewing interest among the broader public in antiquity.

The strange thing about the Trojan War is that as the decades roll on, and more philological evidence from Near Eastern and Mycenaean texts is sifted and resifted, and the site is re-excavated and enlarged, the more likely it becomes that Homer really was the custodian of a far off, quite important war near the end of the Mycenaean Age. Despite the necessary requisites of oral poetry, the nature of fiction, the passing of five centuries, the contamination of Dark Age and early polis allusions, and the aristocratic nature of early oral audiences, the %%AMAZON=0147712556 Iliad%% and the %%AMAZON=0147712556 Odyssey%% probably capture a great deal of information about this shadowy war between Mycenaean lords and an outpost of Near Eastern rivals in Asia Minor.

I am also reviewing Walter Reid’s new biography of the much maligned %%AMAZON=1841585173 Gen. Douglas Haig%%, who oversaw British forces in World War I from 1916 onward. As Reid shows, while not a military genius, Haig was never the reactionary, blinkered, and technologically backward old stuff shirt that we have become accustomed to accept as entirely culpable for the Somme. It is hard to know what could have done once the German army of 1914 crossed the borders into France and Belgium, inasmuch as it was the best equipped, most professionally organized, and best led infantry force of the age.


Nothing, but ill-prepared British and French armies stood in its way—and in the way of a very different vision of a future Europe than shared by the liberal republics of London and Paris. Reid is a first-class biographer, and Haig is both a frustrating and yet at times sympathetic figure

I must say I am not looking forward to next week’s book, a 1000+ page new account of the crusades (%%AMAZON=0674023870 God’s War%%) by Christopher Tyerman. Just the introduction was overwhelming, not made easier by a ponderous prose style—but I will reserve judgment until I actually finish the book.


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