Ten Points On The War
Questions and answers.


John Derbyshire

1. Operation Iraqi Freedom. This is a simply terrible name, from every point of view. It is esthetically flat — whatever happened to the principle of naming military operations with ballsy images of “storm,” “sword,” “thunder,” and so on? Much more serious, it betrays the belief of someone or other in the administration that we can, or should strive to, bring what is always called “Jeffersonian democracy” to Iraq (wouldn’t Hamiltonian or Jacksonian democracy do just as well?) — and then, by example, to the whole Middle East. This is unlikely to happen and we should not hope for it. If, as a result of this campaign, Iraq embraces constitutional government under a firm rule of law, that will be real nice, but it’s not the main point. The main point is to put an end to their ability to make nasty weapons, and their willingness to hire out those weapons to 9/11-type lunatics.

On the matter of our longterm aims in, and after, this war, I have not seen anything to compare with Andrew J. Bacevich’s article in the Feb. 10 issue of National Review. Bacevich urges limited aims: We should, he says, “use the coming war against Iraq to persuade Arab governments that they themselves have a compelling interest in putting Islamic radicals out of business. . . . What we should demand of Arab leaders is not ideological fealty, but simply responsible behavior.” Exactly. There won’t be any constitutional democracy in Iraq or Saudi Arabia in your lifetime or mine, and we are fools if we think we can bring this about. (And if we did bring it about, it would probably be a net plus for the Islamo-loonies.) I simply can’t say this any better than Andrew Bacevich said it:

A foreign policy based on authentically conservative principles begins by accepting the fact that the world is not infinitely malleable. It recognizes that our own resources, although great, are limited. And it never loses sight of the fact that the freedom that U.S. officials are sworn to protect is our own. Defending that freedom in these difficult times demands courage and resolve. But it also demands modesty and self-restraint — qualities seldom in evidence in Washington since the end of the Cold War. Now is the time, and Iraq is the place, for this administration to begin exhibiting those virtues.

2. Is the force big enough? At the time of writing, our land forces are operating at the end of very long lines of communication, and the reserves, the 4th Infantry Division (the one that was supposed to jump off from Turkey before Turkey decided not to permit that), is still mainly in Texas, though its advance parties and supplies are starting to come ashore in Kuwait. If the rumors about differences of opinion, military vs. civilian, at the very top of the administration are true, we got the “Rumsfeld option” — a smaller force relying heavily on air power. (Which has generated the inevitable grumbling from Army types that “Defense got suckered by the Air Force.”)

As best one can judge, the Rummy option seems to me to be working fine, but if things go pear-shaped, this will be a big talking point. Ralph Peters has been one of the most upbeat and optimistic writers about this war, but here he is in the New York Post yesterday: “Make no mistake: Our soldiers and Marines will pull this one off. Count on it. But, in this single respect, the civilian leadership in the Pentagon let our troops down. We had the forces, we had the time, and Secretary Rumsfeld refused to send them. Just as Defense Secretary Les Aspin refused to send our troops in Somalia the tanks for which they begged. This isn’t Somalia, but any defense secretary unwilling to listen to the advice of his uniformed subordinates assumes a terrible responsibility.”

3. The Crusader factor. One thing this war has highlighted, and will likely highlight much more if we show signs of faltering, is the fact that all of Arab opinion is dominated by one single emotion: Outrage that infidels should dare to occupy Arab land. This was the chief complaint of Osama bin Laden, remember. It is this, combined with atavistic Jew-hatred, that stokes the fury over “Palestine.” It is this that is bringing expatriate Iraqis home to fight for the disgusting Baath regime, if Sky News can be believed. There are other factors in play, of course — hatred of modernity, religious passion, the failure of Arab socialism, and so on. Visible beneath all else, though, like the waters that are under the earth, flows this strong, steady current of fierce attachment to “our lands,” and horror at and defiance of the “Crusaders” who enter them.

This is a very hard thing for us to understand, as it does not correspond to any modern political motivations. It is not nationalism; it is not an ideology; it is not utopian; it is unconcerned with constitutionalism or freedom. Yet it is the strongest emotion in play here, and unless we come to terms with it, everythig we do, or attempt to do, in the Middle East will turn to dust. I am not sure it has yet dawned on many of us how very, very backward the Arabs are.

4. Were we misled? A rising refrain on the antiwar Left is: “You told us this would be easy! You led us to believe it would be a cakewalk! Now, look — we are stuck there in the desert, with guerillas sniping at our lines of communication. There is no way to take Baghdad — which of course we must take — without killing masses of civilians. Some cakewalk!”

I’m going to leave it to the guys with the Lexis-Nexis database to fish up who said what in these past few months, who was talking about “cakewalks” (What is a cakewalk? What’s the etymology there? Never mind, I’ll look it up) and who was giving grave warnings about an unpredictable time span. I can’t say I recall anyone senior — not a Cheney, a Rummy or a Rice — telling me this would be easy. Certainly I have private acquaintances — you know who you are! — who have been telling me: “Oh, they’ll fold in a week, max.” I never thought this myself, though, and I don’t see how anyone could, not anyone acquainted with military history, anyway.

“Acquainted with military history” — there’s the rub. I am a middle-aged guy who had a conservative English education. I read passages of Caesar (in Latin), Xenophon, Thucydides (both translated), Creasy, and Churchill as high-school assignments. It’s invidious to boast about such things, but I can’t help feeling that my patient (mostly) schoolmasters launched me into the world better equipped to follow what’s going on than does the staff of a modern American high school, with their six-week seminars on Sacagewea and Harriet Tubman. But that’s an old-fashioned point of view, I suppose.

5. Are we being too nice? It is a point of pride for us, military and civilian alike, that we take the utmost care to avoid “collateral damage” — i.e. killing and maiming Iraqi civilians. Well, I am proud of that, too. Not so proud, though, as to forget that there is a calculus of casualties, in which being too punctilious about losses among enemy civilians costs lives among our own military. This is an ugly fact, but a fact just the same.

Where is the point of balance? How many Iraqi civilians are we willing to trade for one dead Marine? A thousand? A hundred? Ten? One? “No answer” is not possible here, though of course everyone pretends it is. You — and more to the point, our military commanders and their civilian bosses — have to have some opinion on this, and they have to act on that opinion. I confess I am an extremist on this particular scale of horrors. My answer: “hundreds, though not thousands.” If that shocks you — well, what’s your answer?

6. The big mo. Momentum, that is. In physics, momentum is defined to be the product of an object’s mass and its velocity. The effectiveness of a military force depends on some similar principle. Gotta keep moving forward. In the modern American way of war, of course, that is subject to some modification. Having complete command of the air, it makes sense, on encountering a large enemy unit, to stop and call in air strikes. Fair enough: but to stop for much longer than that is going to create big problems all over: military problems, morale problems, problems with opinion on the home front, PR problems, diplomatic problems. Which brings us to . . .

7. Baghdad. What are we going to do about Baghdad? We have to take it, and preferably — see previous point — without a drawn-out siege. We have probably ruled out large-unit street fighting. The population, that part of it that hasn’t fled, is not going to help us much, knowing that Baath party activists and enthusiasts among them will be fighting in the last ditch, with nothing to lose, and will stop at no atrocity to prolong matters. I assume that we are relying on special forces and precision bombs. The first can certainly deliver the goods at least some of the time — where else did we get the intelligence for that initial “leadership strike”? The second will be useless against scattered units “embedded” (nice to see mathematical terms of art enter the colloquial language) in day-care centers, hospitals, and so on. But see point 5 above. We may need to do some re-calibration on the ratios there.

8. Perfidious Turkey. The Turks let us down big time. This was, in a way, worse than the French diplomatic betrayal. The French were acting from naked spite, while Turkey’s leaders have real political considerations to juggle. Kurdish irredentism is a real threat to their nation; they have an Islamo-fruitcake minority to deal with (I am not going to say “appease”); there is a generalized anti-Western resentment caused by the repeated rebuffs of the EU; and so on. Still, they caused real, major military difficulties for us, while the French — who have not caused real military difficulties for anyone since 1815 — merely ticked us off. This will have to be paid for. I have an Irish friend who has a saying I like, that he mutters when anyone has cheated him, inconvenienced him, or annoyed him: “It’s in the book.” Let the Turks know we haven’t forgotten this. It’s in the book.

9. The “false dawn” factor. One large lesson of this war is the folly of leaving things unfinished. The only true and proper objective of a war is to smash the enemy’s armed forces to bits, kill all his best soldiers, humiliate his state ideology, and bring down his government. Anything less is just storing up trouble for yourself in the future. (See under “North Korea.”) Quite apart from the “Crusader factor” (point 3 above), we are having to deal with — and are in fact losing lives to — the false-dawn factor. Iraqis won’t help us because they don’t believe we will follow through. We tell them we will, of course, and I believe we actually will, but they can be forgiven for not believing us.

From this point of view, I think it was a grave error not to take out Iraqi state TV at the very beginning. As long as they can see that man in their living rooms, Iraqis know that he and his apparatus are still among them, watching them, ready to punish them. They will not help us while they know this, even those of them who might otherwise be inclined to. Every sign that the regime is alive and functioning reinforces the false-dawn effect. Any time Iraqi state TV or radio starts up, we should locate the transmission point and MOAB it. This is really, really important, and our decision makers don’t seem to appreciate that. (Or perhaps they just have: I see Iraqi TV was finally taken out two nights ago, though it is back on the air by the morning.)

And now we see what a vast and terrible blunder we made, not going on to Baghdad in 1991. Never, never let us make this mistake again. If we get into another war, let’s fight it to the finish — defined to mean that the enemy is crushed, his leaders dead or in exile, his military smashed to pieces, his ideology discredited. Nothing else will do, nothing else works, anything else is just future trouble. And to hell with “international opinion.”

10. The X factor. The unexpected is the very stuff of war. The biggest factor X in this war is the effect on U.S. public opinion of a really big atrocity on the home front. I pray to almighty God that no such thing will happen; but if it does, will it:

Steel us, making us more resolved than ever to destroy terrorists and terrorist-friendly regimes,


Turn us, lead us to lose faith in the administration’s strategy, have us calling for an end to the war?

I don’t know, and neither do you. The answer depends on what you think about the American people — about their judgment, their fiber, their collective wisdom. I know a lot of people, including a lot of pro-war conservatives, who will give unhappy answers to questions like this. My own guess is that a really big terrorist atrocity would steel us and harden us, discredit the vapid talk about “Iraqi freedom,” encourage a colder and crueler attitude to enemy civilian casualties, and bring the war to a speedier end. That’s my guess. I just wish I felt more sure about it.