Sterile Irrelevance

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 2005

On Monday, I had an article in the New York Post arguing that the press was not adequately placing the recent spike in U.S. casualties into strategic context. As usual, reporters have focused on the loss of life without any apparent effort to understand the context of the fighting that led to these casualties. I suggested that the casualties stem from Coalition forces having stepped up their campaign in Al Anbar province to destroy the insurgency by depriving it of its base in the Sunni Triangle and its “rat lines”—the infiltration routes that run from the Syrian border into the heart of Iraq.

I said that the latest action, Operation Quick Strike, is substantially larger in both scope and magnitude than earlier operations Matador and New Market, and thus will enable the Coalition to apply simultaneously force against a number of insurgent strongholds. The previous operations, although successful up to a point, still could not prevent insurgents from abandoning one town and moving to another that was not threatened by allied forces. According to one U.S. officer, Operation Quick Strike has substantially hindered the movement of insurgents on both sides of the Euphrates River.

I also pointed out that while I am not a fan of Vietnam-Iraq analogies, there is one that is valid—at least on the operational level. After Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland as commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, he adopted a “spoiling” strategy, designed to disrupt the offensive timetables of the North Vietnamese Army and buy more time for Vietnamization, the policy aimed to strengthen South Vietnam’s army so that it could handle most defense jobs on its own.

My article elicited an e-mail from an old friend who is a staunch, though thoughtful, opponent of the war. He wrote:

You can tell when a war’s in trouble by four major indicators:

  1. Some of the original supporters, having passed through the advocate and apologist phrases, start artfully expressing their “doubts” in memos, op-eds, etc.
  2. Whatever happens in the field becomes a sign that we’re winning. Our casualties go up? They’re desperate and getting pressed. Our casualties go down? They’re weakening.
  3. The endless grasping for historical analogies, any analogies, that will buttress their case.
  4. Others start positioning themselves to blame the Left, the media, and the American people down the road.

I concluded that my friend was accusing me of indicators two and three.

While drafting my reply, it occurred to me how difficult it is for a democracy to wage war. Of course, this is not a recent phenomenon, and Victor Davis Hanson could no doubt regale us with stories of how the Athenians second-guessed every decision their leaders made during the Peloponnesian War. Lincoln had to contend with radical Republicans in Congress who didn’t think he was up to task of commander-in-chief, and who sought to oust war Democrats in the cabinet and among general officers, with the goal to replace them with those favorably disposed to the radical cause.

One weapon in the radicals’ arsenal was the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which looked over Lincoln’s shoulder for the duration of the conflict, calling generals back to Washington to testify and grilling those they believed were not sufficiently committed to the radicals’ own vision of the war. The committee did little good and much harm to the Union cause, not the least by demoralizing the Union’s top generals. Eschewing prudence and ignoring the political conditions that Lincoln faced, the committee constantly criticized him for his timidity. Had it prevailed in forcing its policies on Lincoln, the Union cause most likely would have been lost in 1862.

But neither the Athenians nor Lincoln had to deal with a smug, detached mainstream media and what my friend Tom Lipscomb of the Annenberg Center calls “intellectual crepe hangers… suspended in sterile irrelevance” above the real world “like Swift’s island of Laputa.” It is hard to conduct military operations when a chorus of eunuchs is describing every action we take as a violation of everything for which America stands, a quagmire in which we are doomed to failure, and a waste of American lives.

There is nothing wrong with criticizing the war. As the situation with my friend and others indicates, it is possible to criticize in a responsible, constructive way. But too many critics have lost all perspective, all too often acting as if it is in the nature of war for everything always to go as planned, and if something goes awry, if people die, it is the fault of those who launched the war in the first place, or the planners who failed to foresee every eventuality.

Those who take this approach do a disservice to rational debate in the context of the war. They imply that there is a way to fight wars cleanly. More troubling yet are the critics who seem to hope for the sort of disaster that will vindicate their opinions. I am guardedly optimistic about the outcome in Iraq. I may be wrong, of course, but I hope I’m not. And I hope that even the critics will hope that I’m not wrong.

Mackubin T. Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.