The Corner

History and the War

Lately in all the conundrum about the Iraqi Study Group’s report, two diverse topics have come up-the proper role of the military, and the use of history to make sense of this present war.

I. It is too bad that the discussion of the proper civilian/military relationship has devolved into who is losing Iraq–the politicians who did not have the right grand strategy, or the military whose tactics were not up to the necessary task at hand.

Ideally, the politicians should broadly outline a strategy (much like Gulf War I), apprise the military of the political parameters in which they must work, and then let the generals go ahead to craft their own tactics to achieve victory–or to report back that victory is impossible under such political restraints and  allow civilians to react positively or negatively to their recommendations.

In the first Gulf War, again Bush Sr.  did that, and so a freed military fulfilled his directives brilliantly. Criticism of that war was never over the decision to liberate Kuwait per se, or the manner in which we won it, but arose only when that blueprint of cooperation broke down in the aftermath–and it did in two instances. The first was the flawed strategic idea that only the occupation of Kuwait, rather than Saddam’s propensity to attack his neighbors, slaughter his own, and recycle petrol wealth into dangerous weaponry, was the real problem.

The second was the lack of guidance and direction to the military during the armistice accords, when none of our generals was advised how or with whom to make peace, and thus as tacticians understandably concerned mostly with immediate stability on the ground around them,  allowed Saddam not only to escape an ignominious surrender, but gave him a blank check to use gunships to slaughter Kurds and Shiites.

II. Many historians resent referring to the Civil War or World War II, on the grounds that the present conflict is either so novel or so complex that such allusions are fatuous or are too selective and arbitrary.

Both are understandable criticisms, but ignore some simple truths. War is like water, its recent manifestation like a pump that delivers more of it more quickly but does not change its essence, which is entirely human–and human nature is fixed. So what Lincoln felt in 1864 or Truman in 1950 is not unlike Bush must feel now (which does not necessarily imply that Bush is, for example, a Lincoln), as the pulse of the battlefield has shorn away erstwhile supporters and prompted calls for talking rather than sacrificing more for victory. That wartime fickleness  in a democracy, mutatis mutandis, is a universal phenomenon and goes back to the Greeks, as Thucydides saw in his brilliant epilogue/epitaph about Pericles in book II.  When things appear to be going wrong, it is an age-old human trait to blame others, especially those for whom the buck must stop. And we naturally look to things like World War II, or the Civil War, in addition to Vietnam and more recent terrorism, since they are most familiar to Americans, well documented in our sources, and close-run things with occasions when things for a time looked extremely bleak.


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