The forces that win or lose wars are insidious, cumulative, and often hard to discern. Apparently dormant, they suddenly burst forth, and the entire complexion of the struggle without warning is forever changed; or the war itself can even be abruptly ended. We saw that in week three in Iraq: The quagmire suddenly became the cakewalk, leaving exasperated the nitpickers who had hours before predicted weeks of killing and thousands of dead.
Even our retired military officers seemed confused to find that the pulse of war is not steady, but waxes and wanes. As ex-generals talked of thousands to be lost in taking Baghdad, a small armored column suddenly raced through the city center, and the war almost summarily ended. Many apparently had forgotten that days of bombing, propaganda, and firepower had turned the Republican Guard into a Potemkin army.
Poor Abraham Lincoln, during the late spring and early summer of 1864! There was talk then of an endless quagmire, of a Copperhead presidency under McClellan with the specter of a brokered armistice. Grant was bogged down in a slugfest in northern Virginia; Sherman’s long supply lines were being shredded by Nathan Bedford Forrest and his own sort of Fedayeen.
Given the media gloom-and-doom from the Virginia battlefields, few dispirited northerners realized that summer that, in reality, things had already changed radically. After the earlier victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, followed by Grant’s meat-grinder, the south had been drawn and quartered and its reserves of manpower shredded — as Grant and Sherman were on the eve of a new strategy that would simply reinvent what the nation had known as war.
Suddenly Sherman took Atlanta, and then took off through Georgia and the Carolinas. In consequence, Lincoln was reelected — and never looked back. The façade of southern resistance cracked, exposing the impotency of the plantation class, and the war was over in under six months. That one-trick pony, George McClellan (the Howard Dean of his age), who neighed and stomped in June, by December was out to pasture.
The steady killing of American soldiers in ones and twos is tragic and dispiriting — but it is not yet grounds for thinking that such attrition is tantamount to stalemate. We are in a situation not unlike what we would have faced in Western Europe had the Nazis suddenly collapsed in summer 1944 (some high-ranking Wehrmacht officers in fact advocated just such a capitulation), leaving tens of thousands of diehards in pockets throughout Germany, convinced that they had not been beaten and could fight on in terrorist cells. Rather than despair at a novel situation, we need to look at the larger issues that are always critical in guerrilla warfare — and which we know a great deal about, from both long experience in the 19th century and liberationist movements since 1960.
First, do Syria and Iran play the role of a Cambodia or Laos — sanctuaries from which thousands daily reenter after killing and fleeing? While there are no doubt plenty of jihadist infiltrators and Shiite agitators, so far there has not been a steady stream of fresh insurgents entering Baghdad. To the contrary, Damascus and Teheran seem to fear far more their own dissidents — and our own encouragement of such reformers. Remember, two can always play the game of revolutionary liberation. Even as the Soviets encouraged Marxist insurrection in distant Africa and Central America, Eastern Europe collapsed on their doorstep.
Are there two de facto countries in Iraq — secure cities versus guerrilla-occupied jungles or mountains? While resistance is stiffer in the Sunni triangle (given the original nature of our rapid-victory drives), Iraq is not Vietnam. Its geography is not conducive for stealthy operations: The desert simply offers no stealth for counterinsurgency in the age of drones and satellite reconnaissance.
Is Hussein’s Baathism comparable to Soviet- or Chinese-inspired Communism? Not really. Not only are there no nuclear superpowers propping up the Fedayeen, but Saddamism is not even a romantic ideology like Nasserite pan-Arabism, and has a clear track record of military defeat, economic ruin, and genocide both at home and abroad — without the romance of forced equality. Remember, too, that there are 100,000 criminals unaccounted for who were set loose in the cities by Saddam Hussein: thugs whose motivations are lucre and mayhem, not revolution. Like outlaws everywhere, they will find no long-term solidarity even among a terrified populace.
Are our enemies resupplied? There surely seem to be large caches of weapons inside Iraq, as there were in Vietnam. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that Jordan, Syria, or Iran are shipping daily RPGs and materiel. It is more likely that the weapons supply of the Saddamites, while large, is relatively finite — and eroding daily.
Other considerations also suggest that we are not in for a long war of attrition. Two of the three iconic leaders of resistance are now dead. Saddam is on the run and in hiding. His partisans seem to be more concerned with avoiding capture than with appearing in public to rally supporters. We worry about diverse groups in Iraq, yet most seem to despise the deposed Hussein regime more than they do us, their liberators. Millions of Kurds are more allies than neutrals, and the Middle East is confronting the growing dilemma of seeing thousands of downtrodden and persecuted Iraqis marching and speaking freely and without fear of a tyrant whom the Arab elite had either abetted or ignored.
Here at home, we could worry about a mercurial public that might cut and run — but first must not forget that American support for continuance of the war in Vietnam was steady for eight years, even amid staggering losses and despite a galvanized opposition. Indeed, public encouragement for preserving an independent South Vietnam did not really dissipate until the Watergate scandals.
If Americans feel the military in Iraq (composed of professionals, not conscripts) is conducting itself competently with clear objectives and methods, then we will continue to press for the total defeat of the resistance even despite the disheartening losses — unless Mr. Bush were to face a drawn-out scandal or impeachment. At this point, both are unlikely.
In short, I think we will soon reach a tipping point when our Iraqi supporters will be more forthcoming in their efforts to rebuild their country, neutrals will surmise that distributing oil revenues among the populace makes better sense than blowing up pipelines, and enemies will conclude they are likelier to end up jailed or dead than as living, let alone popular, icons.
Long-term prospects perhaps offer more encouragement. Revenue will increase. The weather will cool off. Information will be forthcoming about both Baathists and weapons of mass destruction. And in the aggregate, all these factors could without warning suddenly combine to alter the war in a way we were unable to imagine in this sometimes-depressing summer. Cannot our own Democratic Copperheads see all this on the horizon, and thus avoid their own ignominy to come while there’s still time?
We need not be naïve or triumphalist about any of this. We are in for the long haul; there will be difficult days ahead. We should watch carefully, too, for telltale signs that might warn us that momentum is going the other way.
If we were losing 20 or so soldiers a day in the manner of a Chechnya, and if thousands were entering Iraq daily, we should have cause for worry. If a nuclear-armed Russia or China — or even Pakistan — suddenly decided to send troops or arms, we would be in real trouble. If Iraqis fawned over Saddam’s picture as the Vietnamese once did with Uncle Ho, things could look bleak. And if our universities were on strike, our streets shut down in moratoria, and the Democrats mobilizing to cut off aid to CENTCOM — then we might well lose public support for Iraq.
Yes, there is growing anger in America. But unlike in Vietnam, it is not directed at the Pentagon or at the military or at our supporters (such as the Kurds), but rather at the Iraqi street itself. The danger is not — as was true in the 1960s, when our own naïve youth reconceived hard-core Stalinist Vietnamese as romantic utopians — that we will be mesmerized by the Fedeyeen. No, the worry is instead that the ingratitude shown by a few vocal Iraqi opportunists could convince too many of us that the entire country is simply not worth an iota of our blood and treasure.
A shopkeeper in Baghdad spinning conspiracy theories to CNN, spewing hatred of the Jews, and whining about his air-conditioning during a three-hour coffee break is nothing like the romantic figure of a peasant in a Vietnamese rice paddy expressing hope for land reform and freedom from commissars. As we know from the general post-9/11 climate, the ingratitude — coupled with an obnoxious envy — so endemic in the Middle East proves especially grating to Americans.
Yet, so far, the long-term factors in play are still in our favor, and we need not listen to our own Democratic street — or trust in the veracity of the New York Times. Neither has had a good track record of either prescience or principled behavior in these last six months.
On the news of some dramatic development — Saddam’s death or capture, the collapse of the mullahs in Iran, firm textual or material evidence of WMD — our summer of discontent will end. Without warning and quite abruptly, the resistance may well dry up, allowing Iraq to settle down and go the way of those also often difficult, but ultimately successful, efforts in postwar Germany and Japan.