But the problem with Iraq is in some sense with us as much as the Iraqis. By past standards of American wars, we would have thought we were not doing all that badly: we have lost fewer soldiers per month of this war than in any prior conflict other than the Revolutionary War-while going 7,000 miles abroad to depose a tyrant and foster democracy where it never existed. It is easy to blame the Iraqis, but what is remarkable is that so far the government still operates, Saddam will meet his fate, and the insurgents’ own communiques don’t suggest that they are winning. Had we not fought abroad in both Iraq and Afghanistan, then the old notion that theocracies host terrorists, while dictators are free to recycle petrodollars to obtain high-tech weapons, threaten their neighbors, and subsidize, even if only opportunistically so, terrorists would have remained unquestioned in a post-September 11 world. That we have had no repeat of 9/11 is no accident.
In the present climate that grew out of the recent conflicts of Gulf War I, Panama, Grenada, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, nearly 3,000 dead is considered proof of abject failure. Once that fact that our losses are judged very differently from the past is recognized, then, everyone is free to adjust to it, ending in the now communis opinio: “We still support our war, but not others’ failed occupation”
But if one adopts that position, then it seems to me important to point out why and how mistakes in Iraq–and there were many–differ in nature from the horrific blunders of past successful wars, or are of such a magnitude to nullify the chance of stabilizing the Iraqi democracy.
I urge all to reread The Generals’ War or Crusade, and then collate themes of critique with those found in Cobra II, Fiasco, and State of Denial, to see how eerily we are now apparently doing what we should have supposedly done then (fight for something other than realpolitik, not bring over hundreds of thousands of ground troops, be skeptical of large, unwieldy and politically-driven coalitions, do not envision war as a financial cost-to-benefit enterprise that shakes down allies for money, listen to those like Wolfowitz who sought democratic change, seek strategic finality rather than mere tactical success, start distancing ourselves from the Middle East autocracies, don’t leave Iraqi revolutionaries hanging, etc.)
The reductionist would conclude that all these current convoluted debates, retractions, and rethinking of conventional wisdom are simply predicated on the pulse, or more likely the perceived pulse, of the battlefield. They are almost identical to the conundrum between June 1863 and December 1864, when the nation went from optimism to utter dejection to near hysterical optimism, as Lincoln himself went from being respected to despised to canonized. The best in the American military are now in or going to Iraq, they are well advised of prior lapses, and the Iraqi government understands that it either governs or see millions of its own fleeing and killed, reminiscent of 1975.