The Corner

Risible Clichés & Patience

I’m with Rich on the risible cliché thing. One of the main reasons I don’t do the day-to-day war-blogging stuff is that I personally find it impossible to figure out how the war is going on a day-to-day basis. You can pick journalistic dispatches and other reports you want to be right or wrong, but there’s still a basic fog of war problem, even for people who spend vast amounts of time in Iraq. And not being a military guy, I think it’d be silly for me to pretend that I know the best way for Marines to hold territory or special forces to take a hill. This isn’t a “I have no right to an opinion” argument. I just don’t think my opinion should count for that much on that sort of thing.

Personally, my view has always been that if America is committed to winning this, America will win it. The only question will be the time and cost. That doesn’t mean you simply tune it all out, of course. But I’ve always thought the political arguments over the war are a better place for my attention, because ultimately our troops can’t lose so long as the political will is there for them to win. My faith in the US Armed Forces is pretty much adamantine.

Orwell once noted that there’s a terrible tendency among the chattering classes to assume that current trends will continue out into the future. Hence, when the situation in Iraq seems unwinnable for a week, many think it will be unwinnable forever. But things change. There are good days and bad days. And there are good years and bad years. From everything I’ve read, it takes about a decade to defeat an insurgency, and it requires both military determination and political flexibility and endurance. I see no reason to think it will be different in Iraq. And if we can make it to the sunny end of the tunnel, it will have been worthwhile.

Anyway, here’s a passage from a column I wrote during the early days of the Afghanistan campaign, when even NR’s editors were losing patience. I think it gives a good sense of where I’m coming from:

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.”

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