There’s been a lot of editorializing lately that the war is going badly. In the current issue of National Review, there’s an editorial entitled “The Limits of Patience.” The editors feel that the war, as currently fought, isn’t working. The wise and attractive folks who sign my paychecks believe there’s too much dickering and bickering on the part of policymakers. They write, “what the U.S. war effort most needs is the clarity of simple-mindedness, the understanding that nothing much matters next to the goal of achieving a decisive victory in Afghanistan, which in turn requires annihilating our enemies.” In short, they call for “DeClintonizing” the war.
Over at The New Republic, the current cover story is Lawrence Kaplan’s “Losing the War: How the Bush Administration is Repeating Clinton’s Mistakes.” He makes similar points. In fact, until this morning, when it looked like the Northern Alliance was poised to take Mazar-e Sharif, similar arguments were being made in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on every talking-head venue known to man.
Now, I agree with many of the tactical recommendations on offer in the pages of National Review, The New Republic, and elsewhere. Total victory is good. Following the advice of State Department cookie pushers who think the coalition is more important than the goals of the coalition, is bad. In other words, nothing in this column should be construed as disagreement on my part with the hawks who have their heads and hearts wired together for some full-tilt boogie for freedom and justice.
Still: Lighten up, Francis.
The World According to Kutuzov
Until a house is completed, it’s useless as a house. The rain falls through the top, the stove doesn’t work, the toilets don’t flush. As a house, an unfinished house is a total disaster. This is especially so very early in the construction process, when it’s often just a giant hole in the ground with a bunch of workmen scratching their exposed posteriors at $35 an hour. In a certain sense, an unfinished house is worse than no house at all: It’s more expensive, time-consuming, and complicated.
This principle is not unique to houses; it also applies to… well, let’s see. Omelets are a mess and a waste of food until they’re cooked. Cars are a lot of useless and expensive metal and rubber until they work. Football games are a bunch of guys running around and hitting each other until the final score tells us who was better at it… And, oh, yeah: Wars are a colossal fog of whirling confusions and unknown banshees, consuming time, money, emotions, geography, and of course lives — until someone wins.
Consider General Kutuzov, by far my favorite character in War and Peace (yes, I actually read it). Charged with defeating Napoleon and expelling the French from Russian soil, Kutuzov has a perspective completely at odds with all of the advisers, courtiers, intellectuals, journalists, nobles, and even the czar. He sees his battles as victories when all others, including his own generals, see abject failures. He ridicules advisers who would have him rush into battle when doing nothing was called for. “The strongest of all warriors,” according to Tolstoy’s Kutuzov, “are these two: Time and Patience.” And dismissing a rival general’s accomplishments, Kutuzov rails: “Kamenski would have been lost if he had not died. He stormed fortresses with thirty thousand men. It is not difficult to capture a fortress but it is difficult to win a campaign. For that, not storming and attacking but patience and time are wanted.”
Kutuzov’s strategy was based on the expectation that Napoleon’s army would overextend itself, venturing too deep and too late into the oncoming winter. “Everything comes in time to him who knows how to wait,” he explains to Prince Andrew. Russians would gain potency and advantages, while Napoleon’s strength bled out in the Russian snow. When Prince Andrew impatiently demanded of his General, “Well, what do you want us to do?” “I’ll tell you what to do, and what I do,” Kutuzov responds. “Dans le doute, mon cher, abstiens-toi.”
When in doubt, my dear fellow, do nothing.
Now the problem here, one could argue, is that in this context, Kutuzov’s advice is better heeded by the Taliban than by the U.S. As America’s bombing campaign becomes increasingly unpopular and the brutal Afghan winter approaches, the Taliban is gambling that patience and time are their strongest warriors. They hope that America will lose resolve, as the Taliban gains ever-greater numbers of sympathetic Muslim allies and the war moves to the ground. Already, the papers are full of quotes from Taliban leaders expressing their enthusiasm for a ground war for precisely these reasons.
But I think Kutuzov’s advice applies to us too, and not just because he sounds like a Russian Calvin Coolidge.
In every major war America has won, we’ve owed our victories to the patience of the American people. Every war we’ve lost or tied (i.e., Vietnam and Korea) was not lost on the battlefield. These wars were lost because the governing elites in this country (i.e., the press and the politicians) squandered the patience of the American people by resorting to half-measures and by pursuing political, as opposed to military, objectives.
This is Kent Brockman Reporting
Which brings us to the punditocracy.
Now, I’m no general, and I don’t even play one on TV, so maybe the war isn’t going well. And even if I was a general, I wouldn’t know enough about what’s really going on in Afghanistan to tell you how we’re doing one way or the other.
But I do think that as long as the American people want to win this war, the tactical mistakes don’t really matter that much. If you’re absolutely determined to build a house, in the long run it won’t matter if you used the wrong kind of nails by mistake. You’ll just pull them out and start over. That’s why the impatience of the media and the armchair generals can be a much greater threat than anything the Taliban can throw at us. The generals and the civilian leadership say over and over that “we are fighting this war on our timetable, not theirs.” We should take them at their word. This war is barely two months old, and it was started with a surprise attack.
But I can appreciate why the press is impatient — how could they not be, when they’re covering this war in real-time? And I know the press needs to be skeptical. But what drives me nuts is how they seem to think the day-to-day setbacks are much more important than they are.
One of my favorite scenes in The Simpsons (as longtime readers know) is when Homer is selected to join a space-shuttle mission. News anchor Kent Brockman is scheduled to interview the shuttle crew while Homer and the rest of the crew are in orbit. But just before they “switch live” to the craft, there’s a mishap on board. Homer, unaccustomed to weightlessness, has smashed an ant farm they brought with them. When Kent Brockman cuts to the live feed from the shuttle, the garden-variety ants float by the TV-camera lens — momentarily appearing gigantic. Then, they lose the picture.
Brockman, like so many TV newsmen, responds instantly with his gut impressions: “Ladies and gentlemen, er, we’ve just lost the picture, but, uh, what we’ve seen speaks for itself. The Corvair spacecraft has been taken over — ‘conquered’, if you will — by a master race of giant space ants. It’s difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will consume the captive earthmen or merely enslave them. One thing is for certain, there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to… toil in their underground sugar caves.”
Now, I don’t think many journalists would be willing to immediately sign on with giant space ants — or with the Taliban for that matter — at the first sign of trouble (keep your eyes on ABC’s David Westin just in case, though). But there is a tendency among intellectuals to assume that whatever trends exist today will, in all likelihood, extend forever into the future (this is why so many intellectuals said, for example, that welfare couldn’t be fixed, crime couldn’t be beaten, the Soviet Union couldn’t be conquered, etc.).
In 1946, George Orwell noted in a phenomenal essay entitled “Second Thoughts on James Burnham” that throughout World War II, intellectuals in Britain kept changing their minds about how the war would end. Worse, whenever they changed their minds, they were convinced of their positions. “If the Japanese have conquered South Asia, they will keep South Asia forever; if the Germans take Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo…”
The tendency to always predict a continuation of what is currently happening, wrote Orwell, “is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice.” Indeed, “whoever is winning at the moment will seem to be invincible.”
It is this tendency that caused Kent Brockman to immediately side with the ant overlords, and it is this tendency that allowed him to turn on a dime when the insect conquerors didn’t materialize. Brockman: “This reporter was possibly a little hasty earlier and would like to reaffirm his allegiance to this country and its human president; after all, it is the best system we have… for now.” Brockman then takes down his “Hail Ants!” sign from behind him on the set.
And it is this tendency in the media generally which assumes that every new development is a permanent one. Mark my words, if the Northern Alliance took control of Mazar-e Sharif today, tomorrow the talking heads will be predicting victory before Christmas, which is just as baseless as yesterday’s pronouncements that we were losing.
And it’s also worth remembering the second half of Orwell’s point. He noted that while intellectuals and journalists were constantly flip-flopping between “confident” predictions that the Nazis or the Allies would “obviously” win, the British people — led by Churchill — remained confident in victory. And they won.
Similarly, the American people can put up with anything — accept any setback, even bloody ones, if we know the sacrifices are necessary. Hence, the only way we can lose this war is not if some would-be Walter Cronkite declares it unwinnable or lost, but if the American people become convinced it is unnecessary, and therefore not worth the trouble. That won’t happen, so long as the government is determined to achieve total victory — and the chattering classes appreciate the benefits of patience and time.