The Corner

The History of “Mission Creep”

Mark Conversino, an associate professor at the Air War College, writes a brilliant e-mail (expressing a view that is, of course, his own and not that of the government or the military):

What has occurred in the Iraq war has occurred in countless wars–the enemy gets a vote and events do not transpire according to some neat plan.  Stubborn resistance and the need for greater exertions are not the same as mission creep.  Our mission in Iraq has never changed; the nature of the enemy and therefore of the war on the ground has–that is not mission creep.  President Lincoln requested 75,000 90-day volunteers to subdue the rebellion of Southern states in one or two Napoleonic battles.  What we got was a grinding four year struggle to restore the Union and end slavery that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.  That was not mission creep, even with the added goal of full emancipation since both restoration of the Union and freeing the slaves required the same outcome–a Northern victory.  One could also say that, to paraphrase Mr. Derbyshire, no one on December 8, 1941, expected to bring the Axis powers to unconditional surrender (an “end state” announced more than a year after Pearl Harbor) only to embark on that other “long war,” the Cold War, following VE and VJ day.  Was it therefore purely “mission creep” to remain in Europe and Asia as occupiers simply because we didn’t envision that in the days following Pearl Harbor?  Did we expend all that blood and treasure merely to see Soviet dominance established over half of Europe?   Did the American people sign on to the Berlin Airlift or to halting the North Koreans in 1945?  Was the formation of NATO and other Cold War-era alliances (entangling alliances, one might say) a form of mission creep that Americans need not support?  I could go on, but you get my point.  Moreover, if we alter the “mission” in order to defend our principles, freedoms and way of life because the nature of the enemy has changed, does that reduce the legitimacy of that mission?   The evolution of the Cold War fits the definition of mission creep far better than the war in Iraq does but that didn’t mean the Cold War was not worth fighting.

There’s a larger point here, though, one beyond the notion of mission creep.  When things got rough and the sacrifices exceeded our pre-war expectations, we could have cut deals and declared “victory” in 1863, 1943 or 1963.  Even though, again to paraphrase Mr. Derbyshire, during these earlier conflicts our leaders got us into situations we never wished to be in and were never asked whether we would wish to be in, we recognized our moral obligation, “as citizens of a democratic polity,” was to fight and win, not cut and run.

Me: What he said.

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