Iraq In Perspective
Victor Davis Hanson puts Iraq in perspective with US military history in his article, "In War: Resolution." It's worth reading the whole thing, though his conclusion follows below where he makes the point that the media has made the perfect the enemy of the good for a historically illiterate population that expects wars to be wrapped up quick and neat as sitcoms:
Victory does not require achieving all of your objectives, but achieving more of yours than your enemy does of his. 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 in order to render an entire people incapable of waging war. Blunders were seen as inevitable once an unarmed U.S. 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 rearmament. We had disastrous intelligence failures in World War II, but we also broke most of the German and Japanese codes in a fashion our enemies could neither fathom nor emulate. Somehow we forget 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—and losing less than 4,000 Americans in the five-year enterprise—was beyond the ability of any of our friends or enemies, and perhaps past generations of Americans as well.
But more likely the American public, not the timeless nature of war, has changed. We no longer easily accept human imperfections. We care less about correcting problems than assessing blame—in postmodern America it is defeat that has a thousand fathers, while the notion of victory is an orphan. We fail to assume that the enemy makes as many mistakes but addresses them less skillfully. We do not acknowledge the role of fate and chance in war, which sometimes upsets our best endeavors. Most importantly we are not fixed on victory as the only acceptable outcome.
What are the causes of this radically different attitude toward military culpability? An affluent, leisured society has adopted a therapeutic and managerial rather than tragic view of human experience—as if war should be controllable through proper counseling or a sound business plan. We take for granted our ability to talk on cell phones to someone in Cameroon or select from 500 cable channels; so too we expect Saddam instantly gone, Jeffersonian democracy up and running reliably, and the Iraqi economy growing like Dubai's in a few seasons. If not, then someone must be blamed for ignorance, malfeasance, or inhumanity. It is as though we expect contemporary war to be waged in accordance with warranties, law suits, and product recalls, and adjudicated by judges and lawyers in stale courtrooms rather than won or lost by often emotional youth in the filth, confusion, and barbarity of the battlefield Vietnam's legacy was to insist that if American aims and conduct were less than perfect, then they could not be good at all, as if a Stalinist police state in the North were comparable—or superior—to a flawed democracy in the South with the potential to evolve in the manner of a South Korea. The Vietnam War was not only the first modern American defeat, but also the last, and so its evocation turns hysterical precisely because its outcome was so unusual. Later victories in Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, and the Balkans persuaded Americans that war could be redefined, at the 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 Iraq, the public was ill-equipped to accept both that recent walk-over victories were military history's exceptions rather than its rule, and that temporary setbacks in Iraq hardly equated to Vietnam-like quagmires.
We also live in an age of instant communications increasingly contingent upon genre and ideology. The New York Times, CBS News, National Public Radio, and Reuters—the so-called mainstream media skeptical of America's morality and its ability to enact change abroad—instill national despair by conveying graphic scenes of destruction in Iraq without, however, providing much context or explaining how such information is gathered and selected for release. In turn, Fox News, the bloggers, and talk radio hear from their own sources that we are not doing nearly so badly, and try to offer real-time correctives to conventional newspapers and studios. The result is that the war is fought and refought in 24-hour news cycles among diverse audiences, in which sensationalism brings in ad revenues or enhances individual careers. Rarely is there any sober, reasoned analysis that examines American conduct over periods of six months or a year—not when the "shocking" stories of Jessica Lynch or Abu Ghraib or Scott Beauchamp make and sell better copy. Sensationalism was always the stuff of war reporting, but today it is with us in real time, 24/7, offered up by often anonymous sources, and filtered in a matter of hours or minutes by nameless editors and producers. Those relentless news alerts—tucked in between apparently more important exposés about Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith—ultimately impart a sense of confusion and bewilderment about what war is. The result is a strange schizophrenia in which the American public is too insecure to believe that we can rectify our mistakes, but too arrogant to admit that our generation might make any in the first place.
What can be done about our impatience, historical amnesia, and utopian demands for perfection? American statesmen need to provide constant explanations to a public not well versed in history—not mere assertions—of what misfortunes to expect when they take the nation to war. The more a president evokes history's tragic lessons, the better, reminding the public that our forefathers usually endured and overcame far worse. 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 24 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 apprised that our morale is as important as our material advantages—and that our will power is predicated on inevitable mistakes being learned from and rectified far more competently and quickly than the enemy will learn from his.
Only that way can we reestablish our national wartime objective as victory, a goal that brings with it the acceptance of tragic errors as well as appreciation of heroic and brilliant conduct. The Iraq war and the larger struggle against the anti-American jihadists can still be won—and won with a resulting positive assessment of our overall efforts by future historians who will be far less harsh on us than we are now on ourselves. Yet if as a nation we instead believe that we cannot abide error, or that we cannot win due to 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 wallowed in rather than learned 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 war to remember these words from Churchill, in his 1930 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."