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March 20, 2006

The Crying Game

I wasn't going to write today. For hours now I've been staring at my monitor with furious tears running down my face. I should walk away. I know that.

But I can't, because it's started again. The vast war punditocracy is literally wallowing in its own angst. The carping. The second guessing. The insincere mea culpas. The weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth that conceal a too delicious satisfaction at the endless stream of negative headlines in the local fishwrap. Who can resist the ghoulish urge to appear smarter than thou; to say "I told you so"?

And then there are the apologists. Like players in some obscene game of intellectual Twister they tie themselves into knots in their frantic attempts to cover all the bases. Initial supporters of the war and the administration, they blow hot and cold with each victory or reversal. The wonderful thing about this stance being that regardless of the day's events they can always point to an old post and, like the Amazing Kreskin, say, "See? I predicted this!". This week, of course, the news is not so good so it's time to turn the cannons on the home team and earn intellectual brownie points for being morally unflinching:

"Aiiieeeee! I was wrong to support the Bu$Hitler and his incompetent torture regime! Tune in at 7 and watch me commit ritual self-flagellation with my keyboard!".

Well I have a news flash for all of you armchair generals. While you're all running up the white flag, reassessing the big picture, pompously declaring the battle all but lost from the pricey Biedermeyer desk in your SoHo loft, a lot of good men are still fighting and dying over there. This war is not a bloody academic exercise and I assure you that to them, it is far from over.

And you all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

Even the praise these days is backhanded. In last week's Post, David Ignatius lauds the fact that we're finally "fighting smarter" in Iraq, as though war were some sterile tactical exercise we could plan for in advance; as though there were some reasonable historical precedent for expecting everything go smoothly the first time out. Of course even training and field exercises don't go that way: Murphy's Law is nowhere more in evidence than when you try to move large numbers of men and equipment quickly. This is why we practice in peacetime, and even when we're not under fire and we control the terrain and conditions, things often don't go well. But somehow the well-known fact that war is unpredictable mysteriously morphs into a failure of planning rather than a fact of life when the half-vast punditocracy gets ahold of it:

Three years on, the U.S. military is finally becoming adept at fighting a counterinsurgency war in Iraq. Sadly, these are precisely the skills that should have been mastered before America launched its invasion in March 2003. It may prove one of the costliest lessons in the history of modern warfare.

I had a chance to see the new counterinsurgency doctrine in practice here this week. U.S. troops are handing off to the Iraqi army a growing share of the security burden. As the Iraqis step up, the Americans are stepping back into a training and advisory role. This is the way it should have happened from the beginning.

This is, without doubt, one of the most asinine statements I have ever read, though the competition is admittedly steep. The Iraqis weren't ready to step up in the beginning, Mr. Ignatius. The crucial element you and every other critic of this conflict ignore is time. It takes time to train an army, time to quell an insurgency, more time to win a war when your own press require you to fight in a restrained manner that limits both our own casualties and what is euphemistically called colateral damage. If you want kindler, gentler warfare, then you must allow more time for things to be accomplished. And that is precisely what no one wants to do. Rich Lowry echoes several arguments I have made before:

A lot of people have written this lately, usually with the implicit suggestion that this is some sudden development, that out of nowhere these fairly effective Iraqi troops are appearing and contributing to a better counter-insurgency effort. But the strategy that is now beginning to bear fruit has been in place for a long time, as anyone would know who actually listened to what the administration was saying over the last year or more. All during the long, long period that the administration was scored for having no strategy in Iraq (a charge, I regret to say, echoed in this very Corner), the strategy that is now being recognized was in place. It just took time to take hold. Apparently few people anymore have enough patience to realize some things take time.

Lowry also effectively takes on the "more boots on the ground" meme. It is arguable that more troops would have helped, though I'm not sure what we would have done with them in the beginning since our strategy was to go in with a light footprint (and indeed the same anti-war types who now blame us for not securing Iraq quickly enough were warning against us being an "occupying force" right after the invasion). There is a lot of historical revisionism going on as Democrats who complained bitterly about the cost of the war and the dangers of a continued US presence in Iraq now pretend they would have supported sending in more troops. I think we can all agree that is utter nonsense:

It's not necessarily how many troops you have, but what they're doing. I'm no military expert (obviously), but this is why I tend to dis-believe anyone who argues winning in Iraq just required X-number of additional troops.

Would these additional troops have had a complex understanding of Iraqi tribal politics? Would they have known all the key players on the ground in their area--who to trust and not to trust? Would they have gotten better intelligence tips from the Iraqi public? Would they have understood that the traditional American “kinetic” approach to warfare really doesn't apply in a counter-insurgency? I doubt it. All of this knowledge takes time to develop. It means being on the ground and tasting and feeling local conditions. It is conventional wisdom that we “wasted” the first year in Iraq. It is true that we were ineffectual during that year, but it wasn't wasted as long as we were learning and adjusting--as we were.

A final point. Any additional troops wouldn't have made much of a difference if they had been engaged in the kind of large sweeps without holding territory that we used for so long in Iraq. They might have made a difference, however, if they had been used to garrison every Iraqi town. But there was a judgment made that that would have been too heavy-handed and we should instead wait to hold territory until Iraqi forces were available to do it. You can argue with this strategic judgment, but it is not an unreasonable one. Indeed, the same people who suggest the administration didn't have a strategy now praise our approach in Iraq because, in the words of Igantius, “Americans are stepping back into a training and advisory role.” So does the administration get any credit for having had this as its goal--and consistently working toward it--for so long? Of course not.

In today's Post, Ibrahim al-Jafari speaks of his vision for Iraq:

Ultimately, I will work to secure the reality of a democratic, liberal, peaceful Iraq -- a beacon for freedom in the Middle East. This is not merely a wish but an article of faith. Having lived in London for the majority of my years in exile, I appreciate the importance of liberty for both guaranteeing democracy and ensuring human development.

I am hopeful that with Iraqi determination, and the support of the multinational force, we can defeat the terrorists and make Iraq the first democratic Arab country. I believe in working toward a peaceful, stable and nuclear-free Middle East, where Iraq is not the rogue state that it was under the previous regime.

The road ahead will be tough, but the Iraqi people have demonstrated their bravery, determination and resolve. The world should not falter at such a crucial stage in history.

This is a man who has tasted freedom, and wants it for his homeland. I wish our own belief in the value of freedom were as strong as his. But instead of holding firm, we waver and bend this way and that with each breeze that blows. How can a nation like Iraq have faith in us, if we do not have faith in ourselves? How can we expect them to fight for the right to be free if we, the richest and most powerful nation on the face of the earth, cower before madmen and say we can no longer afford the price of liberty?

What kind of people are we, who send men to die on our behalves on foreign soil, then carp and complain from our comfortable homes when things don't go as planned, who speak of retreat when they cannot bring us victory as soon as we had hoped? Is this what history teaches us? That battles are won with an egg-timer? That the moral worth of a cause is judged by whether things went according to the initial plan? In that case, our own Civil War to free the slaves must have been a miserable failure. How many died in that bloody and protracted conflict? How many generals were relieved? How many tens of thousands were slaughtered in battles that were ill-supplied, poorly planned, poorly led, and badly executed?

War is an ugly thing. It cannot be fought by half-hearted soldiers and if there is one thing history teaches us it's that winning wars is as much a function of dogged determination as anything else. A nation that constantly reassesses itself midstream has lost the war before it begins. When progressives like the Guardian and Lawrence Kaplan begin to make a principled case for staying the course, a tide has turned.

What a pity that so many on the conservative side of the house appear to have become unmanned just when their support is most needed. Like jackals, they snap at the heels of our leaders, vying with each other to be the first to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There is a long tradition among military wives of preparing our own for the departure of their men. I always asked my wives to keep their spirits up: to guard against depressing news stories, not to write their husbands with bad news, to try to keep their letters and cards upbeat. Men who are away from their families have so much to worry about. It is hard enough for them to face the lonely watches of the night, to do what they must do on our behalf, without sharing our burdens. We do not need to load our fears for them onto the loads they already carry. Yet we here at home give no thought to how our words will be received by Iraqis, worried we will perhaps lose heart, or the lonely Marine or soldier on patrol. Like spoiled children, we demand the freedom to trot out our fears, even in wartime. After all, this is America.

The truth is that not even historians get history right until years later. We see as through a glass, darkly. Yet a horde of modern-day pundits can't wait to pronounce the war all but over. And their gloomy and thoughtless words become just one more cost of freedom for the soldier on patrol, who must bear all for those who demand the right to do anything and say anything without thinking and without self-limitation.

Well it isn't over, and you aren't the ones fighting over there. You are safe in your homes here and if you're honest, you'll admit you haven't the slightest idea how this war will come out. But your words travel across the globe in an instant, just like the words of a lonely wife who can't resist leaning on her absent husband in the darkness of yet another lonely evening. And somewhere, under the stars of a desert sky half a world away, he will read your words, and falter, and begin to doubt.

Do you feel important now? I hope so.

Pardon me if I sit this one out. I'm not betting on the talkers in life this go-round. I'm betting on the doers. The Iraqi army and the United States military. They are the ones who will make or break this great enterprise, and you might stop to consider the effect your constant gloom and doom parade has on these very human factors in the complex political and human equation that is Iraq.

I do. Every day, before I exercise the freedom of speech I am privileged with.

Posted by Cassandra at March 20, 2006 05:25 AM


We are not wavering Cass. We are still in the good fight and we are winning. Like you so rightly pointed out, TIME is of the essence. It is a luxury we squander every day of our lives if we have no purpose in using it wisely.

For the first time in decades, centuries and millenia, the Muslim people will have a chance to see what having a choice truly means and that it will take TIME to achieve that. Time to shed bias, ignorance and taboos. We are buying it for them and they are taking baby steps. Why should the scenario be hurried?

Iraqis are not stupid nor do they lack courage, but they never had a chance and now they do.
So, we take three steps forward and one step back.
Last time I checked, that was progress.

Excellent read.

Posted by: Cricket at March 20, 2006 09:51 AM


I'm not so sure how much wavering is actually going on. Some 49% of the population, Democrats, are doing everything they can to destroy our Commander-in-Chief and they have certainly not wavered in that effort since the 2000 election. The media has not wavered a bit in its campaign of "bad news only". For both, the welfare of our military personnel has never mattered and never will. For both, the national welfare is secondary to their partisan goals. For both, sacrificing for the benefit of others is a foreign concept they will never understand. I suspect that most of what you call "wavering" is just the same bunch of folks restating their beliefs in new and different ways, as suits the moment.

It is painful at times to have to listen to & read all their hate-filled talk, but then, that's why I find and read sites like yours. I've given up being pleasant or polite with such people. I no longer hesitate to use words like "coward" and "unpatriotic". Every so often I reread the opening part of Tom Paine's "Crisis":

"THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated."

What I find most important is that there has been absolutely no wavering by either President Bush or our soldiers. They are the rock to which I cling at these times.

Posted by: J Frank La Due at March 20, 2006 12:13 PM

I purposely didn't link to the pieces which angered me this morning.

They weren't written by anyone I normally have anything to do with, or link to for that matter, but they are conservatives who many people for some reason appear to find persuasive.

I find myself increasingly annoyed by and ashamed of my own party's lack of steadfastness. Part of the reason I didn't link to them is that I'm well aware that this is, in part, largely an emotional response on my part. But then sometimes I wonder if patience isn't an overrated virtue at certain times.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 20, 2006 12:24 PM

To some degree the military has become a victim of it's own successes. Many things have been accomplished that are extraordinary, and for some reason there are some that have come to expect the impossible to be done overnight. Impossible generally takes a bit longer.

This thing is going to be measured in decades most likely and it will have periods of very messy and unpleasant events. I base that opinion on the simple fact that successful operations are nearly always that way.

Posted by: tommy at March 20, 2006 12:47 PM

"Impossibility takes a little longer."

I was going to try to lighten it up by an appropriate snark from Hogan's Heroes, but
suffice it to say that the Clinton Administration
said the Bosnia involvment would take 'six months' or represented that all the troops would be home in six months. Well, ten years later, we are getting ready to come home.

Posted by: Cricket at March 20, 2006 12:57 PM

Who could do a better job of running the war than Bush?

Well for one thing, all of us, to a man and woman, would have done at least something different.

We are all in our own way, armchair generals.

The difference between us and them is that we realize that Bush, not ourself(s), is President.

I've seen lots of things that I would have done differently, but if I were magiclly allowed to have done it, it also might have caused things to turn out worse.

Because I don't know what Bush knows, I don't have the vast amounts of resources available to me that he does to him.

That very fact makes any Armchair Generaling done on my part nothing more than a sometimes educated guess.

Thank you very much, but I personally, would not stake the lives of Americans and the Destiny of nations on my egotistical educated guesses just to prove or dis-prove a point.

Maybe Bush made some mistakes (I'm not sayig he did, I just don't know either way) but if he did, so what?
As a whole, the war is going much better than anyone, but a few, thought it would.
It's also following very close, to his original plans as laid out in his speech shortly after 9/11.

I might complain from time to time, but to be honest, I've got no complaints.

Posted by: Joatmoaf at March 20, 2006 06:26 PM

We are, unfortunately, into something far greater than just fighting a war in Iraq. We are, as I am sure you are all aware, in a world war. We are in a war that will far outlast the Bush presidency. That those who have absolutely no respect for Western Civilization - a college course which is nolonger politically correct - have chosen Iraq to test our staying power is what we should remember. We are, afterall, a seconds long soundbite society.

Will democracy take hold in Iraq? Perhaps. But, if we let the clericals, Shiite or Sunni, get more than a toe hold, I doubt it. Islam and democracy are diometrically opposed. That is not my opinion, but of those who know best, the likes of those now running Iran. What liberalization there is in the Muslim world came during their colonial periods and secularism was crammed down their throats.

I hope all goes well in Iraq, I really do, but when all is said and done, I want it made very clear to all those who might wonder that they had best not ever think of another 9/11. That happens to be what this is all about. I have no doubts about our military capabilities. What I do worry about is our average political types who are more worried about their pork barrel than in the future safety of our country.

Posted by: RIslander [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 20, 2006 07:56 PM

"My wife reaches for you, Paraleia, to impart by her touch intelligence of the burden she has borne without plaint all her life. This has ever been denied her, to be simply bride to Leonidas, bu always she must be wife to Lakedaemon. This is now your role as well, lady. No longer may you be wife to Olympieus or mother to Alexandros, but must serve as wife and mother of our nation. You and your sisters of the Three Hundred are the mothers of all Greece, and of freedom itself. This is stern duty, Paraleia, to which I have called my own beloved wife, the mother of my children, and have now summoned you. Tell me, lady. Was I wrong?" -Leonidas, from "Gates of Fire", by Steven Pressfield.
Modern America is not Sparta, or even Greece, and Al Quaeda, or Osama Bin Laden is not the likeness of the Great King, Xerxes. Yet much is asked of a few, and many have lost their nerve.
I think we stand poised on the edge of a knife. The future is not written, yet the tides of determinism are flowing. If we falter more than a little, things could get terribly worse. There is no guarantee that this story will have a happy ending of any sort.
It is a hard duty to remain steadfast and brave, while you witness the growing chaos and cowardly behavior of grown men around you, as they panic with regards to the neat intellectual constructs of their lives broken into little pieces. How sad!
I'm not a veteran of lifetime in the Army like RIslander, or a Navy guy like Joatmoaf, or even a brave wife of career military man as Cricket or Cassandra are (or have been), but I'm ashamed of the cowardly carping of some of the so-called "men" in our society, so eager to throw in the towel because things have gotten a little "rough".
Fear of publishing a few foolish cartoons, because of the wrath of some fascist Muslim preachers.
Fear of falling out of intellectual lockstep with their peers in academia.
Fear of being in league with that "monster" in the White House, as one of my French masters called him a few days ago.
The women of Sparta,2500 years ago, facing annihilation or enslavement, sent their men out to a certain death at Thermopylae, and were asked to bear it all, and not just $3.50 for a gallon of gas, could teach these cowering piles of "manhood" a few lessons in courage about facing a difficult future.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 20, 2006 11:17 PM

On a lighter note, Susan Sarandon is going to play Cindy Sheehan in a movie about that noble anti-war mother. Betcha they'll crank that one out in a hurry.
Excuse me while I wretch.....
Thanks, much better now.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 21, 2006 12:00 AM

On a darker note

(having read Don Brouhaha's comment from 11:17pm (before he reviewed the potential of Mother Sheehan's forthcoming epic movie with an airsickness bag) and RIslanders grim truths before that),

I have this Fear that a majority of us (Americans) will see fit to elect Madame Clinton come 2008. And that the idea that we are in a long term war for the survival of Western Civilization will then be brushed aside as a silly neocon idea of that "monster" Bush's making. The War in Iraq will be declared "over" and following that I guess Madame Clinton will then go for the "peace dividend" and leave the Iraqis and Afghans to fend for themselves even if they are not ready. I Fear this will happen.

Perhaps I am being too dark on this. Maybe the Iraqis and Afghans will be more than ready to stand on there own feet when Hillary pulls the funding and the safety guarantees to send the B-52s and Troops if Iran or anybody else decides to cross (or should I say continue to cross) some borders.

I Fear that we as a people do not have the resolve to see this War through. I really Fear that we will not have the Will to use our military capabilities once Bush has finished his second term. That we will revert to the policies of the "good old prosperous" 1990's and merely try to avoid another 9/11 coming to us and let the rest of the world look to it's own survival.

In short I mean that I Fear that the next President whether it is Hillary or even a Republican will try to govern like Bill Clinton by only doing popular things on the cheap until our bluff is called.

I Fear we can lose this War easily, all we have to do is quit.

(and my knowing Fear does not count for much as I am merely a fat, ex-clerk typist, now AAFES supermarket cashier, chicken hawk. Senator Clinton, Mother Sheehan (who may be a distant relative of mine) and the Conservative commentators mentioned above are surely better thinkers than Mr. Bush or simpletons like me.)

Posted by: dark riders at March 22, 2006 01:53 PM

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