George W. Bush is so terribly stubborn. He just won’t admit a mistake. Specifically, he will not address the (liberal) press corps to tell it how terribly sorry he is about everything, from the war in Iraq to the Republican victories in the 2002 midterms to his own victory in the 2000 election, and perhaps his whole life.
For the moment, he has a very good reason. Should he express second thoughts on anything whatsoever, they would appear within minutes in an ad from the Democrats: “George W. Bush admits he was wrong about (name your field of interest). How many mistakes can we take?” No one in his senses would open himself to this kind of an attack, but there are other reasons, which are still more important: His missteps in Iraq are about par for the course for the start of a big, serious war against vicious opponents, under conditions not quite seen before. Commanders-in-chief are not in the habit of indulging in lachrymose sessions in the middle of wars, and not often thereafter. George Washington did not apologize for his many missteps in the early years of the Revolution, which set back the cause badly, and cost many lives. Abraham Lincoln did not apologize for the rivers of blood that flowed in his many losing and badly planned battles, most of them under inadequate generals. And Franklin Roosevelt did not apologize for the massive losses sustained by his forces in the first years of the Second World War. They anguished, as Bush does, but they did not hand-wring in public, as they knew that the costs of not waging war would be even more onerous. They slipped up on details, but they grasped the big picture. As Bush grasps the big picture now.
Bush picked his course, as James Pinkerton has written in Newsday, and now he clings to it, “come hell or high blood.” This is a killer phrase, and it does yield its frisson, but as a line of attack, there is one problem with it: That is how people win wars. The ability to plough on undeterred in the face of brute horror is the trait that made a hero and victor of Ulysses S. Grant after the failures of many more nuanced and flexible generals; that made a saint and a hero of Abraham Lincoln; and that led Roosevelt to victory in the Second World War.
According to critics, one thing for which Bush ought to apologize is the number of Americans killed in Iraq, now more than l,000 in over a year and a half. Regarding this number, four things should be said. First, it is well below the minimal projection of casualties made before the invasion. Second, it is still only about one third the number of Americans killed in two and a half hours on a September morning three years ago. Third, in a six-week period in 1863, Grant lost 60,000 American soldiers. Fourth, in a training exercise days before D-Day, British and American forces lost nearly as many forces as have already died in Iraq to mistakes and confusion. Churchill and Roosevelt did not apologize, nor did their generals. Nobody stateside complained.
Other critics from Garry Trudeau to Michael Moore (not that far a journey) have tried to deploy amputees as part of their arsenal, but this too is nothing too novel. “Amputation was the trademark of the Civil War,” writes Paul Johnson in A History of the American People. “Three out of four operations were amputations. After Gettysburg, for an entire week, from dawn to daylight, some surgeons did nothing but cut off arms and legs.” Lincoln did not apologize for sending his troops into Gettysburg, which halted the Confederate thrust into Union country. And it was the great turning point of the war. “Is it ever to end?” he cried out once in horror. “Why do we suffer reverses after reverses? Could we have avoided this terrible bloody war?” Lincoln despaired, but he did not do so in public, as he knew waging war had not been a misjudgment. Nor is the war in Iraq.
There is a big difference between a mistake and a tragedy, and while some mistakes can be tragic in outcome, not all tragedies have been a mistake. World War I may have been a mistake into which Europe tumbled. But World War II, like the great civil wars in the United States and England, was a tragedy, but not a mistake. The civil wars in both countries were clashes of principle that could not be averted but had to be fought to an outcome, and ended with both nations established on much sounder premises. From the time in the early l930s when the Axis powers were rising, it was clear that a great moral clash would be coming, and that the question was not “if” but “when.” (“When” in this case was, unhappily, “later,” and it was the “peacemakers” who were at fault.) Likewise, it was clear from the moment the first plane hit the North Tower that we were seeing the start of a grim, gory struggle against an entrenched and implacable enemy. (By the time democracies decide to take action, all of their enemies have become well-entrenched.) This war is a tragedy, that includes some mistakes (the Civil War and World War II had their screw-ups aplenty), but Bush’s decision to frame the struggle as thematic and regional was not made in error. The error would have been to have seen it as legalistic and local, which was the state of mind that permitted the dangers to gather. That would have been the mistake of all time.
In war, the way to distinguish between a mistake and a tragedy is to look at ratio of things caused and/or averted to the damage done and the blood spilled. In the end, the war in Vietnam was judged as both a mistake and a failure, as the good to be gained from even a positive outcome was seen as not worth the cost. By that standard, the Civil War must be judged as both a success and a tragedy, as the good that came from it–the ending of slavery, the rise of a Union that was indivisible and thus poised to become a great power–outweighed the extent of the suffering caused. But little of this was seen quite so much while the war was in progress, as Bush’s critics, focused on carnage, are not seeing something that may be more important: the slow, erratic, imperfect, problematic trudge toward progress in the Middle East. As Jim Hoagland wrote in the Washington Post on October 10, Iraq today is a mess, but it was more of a mess before we invaded–one even more menacing, and “getting more and more uncontrollable with every passing year.”
“Drowned out by the bombings in Iraq,” Jackson Diehl wrote a day later, “the Bush administration’s democracy initiative for the rest of the Middle East creeps steadily forward…independent human-rights groups and pro-democracy movements around the region are beginning to sprout.” The same day, Sebastian Mallaby went through a long list of Bush foibles to say at the end,
Bush is right. He is right that the best defense against terrorism is offense…right that preemptive war is a necessary option…In Iraq…there has been no shortage of errors…but most of those errors are being addressed. If the U.S. remains committed to defeating Iraq’s insurgents, the country is likely to progress, Afghan-style, toward some kind of imperfect democracy…if you are willing to read the tea leaves on how Bush and Kerry would prosecute the next phase in this war, then Bush comes out better. His gut instincts on terrorism are right.
Bush’s gut instincts on terrorism are right, as were the instincts of Churchill and Roosevelt about Hitler, and Truman and Reagan about Soviet Russia. All were people who slipped in their time, and are now seen as heroes. And that surely has been no mistake.
–Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of the forthcoming Great Expectations: The Lives of Political Sons.