On Recent Wars

Things Not Figured Out

May 17, 2006

People ask how we got into our splendid mess in Iraq and why we can’t get out. The question is a subset of a larger question: Why, since WWII, have so many first-world armies gotten into drawn-out guerrilla wars in bush-world countries, and lost? Examples abound: France in Vietnam, America in Vietnam, France in Algeria, Russia in Afghanistan, Israel in Lebanon, etc. Why don’t they learn?

The answer I think is that militaries are influenced by a kind of man—call him the Warrior—who by nature is unsuited for modern wars. He doesn’t understand them, can’t adapt to them.

The Warrior is emotionally suited to pitched, Pattonesque battles of moral clarity and simple intent. I don’t mean that he is stupid. Among fighter pilots and in the Special Forces for example it is not uncommon to find men with IQs of 145. Yet emotionally the Warrior has the uncomplicated instincts of a pit bull. Intensely loyal to friends and intensely hostile to the enemy, he doesn’t want any confusion as to which is which. His tolerance for ambiguity is very low. He wants to close with the enemy and destroy him.

This works in wars like WWII. (Note that the American military is an advanced version of the military that beat Germany and Japan.) It does not work when winning requires the support of the population. The Warrior, unable to see things through the eyes of the enemy, or of the local population, whom he quickly comes to hate, wants to blow hell out of things. He detests all that therapeutic crap, that touchy-feely leftist stuff about respect the population, especially the women. Having the empathy of an engine block, he regards mention of mutilated children as intensely annoying at best, and communist propaganda at worst.

On the net these men sometimes speak approvingly to each other of the massacre at My Lai. Hey, they were all Cong. If they weren’t, they knew who the Cong were and didn’t tell us. Calley did the right thing, taught them a lesson. There is an admiration of Calley for having avoided bureaucratic rules of engagement probably dreamed up by civilians. War is war. You kill people. Deal with it.

If you point out that collateral damage (dead children, for example) makes the survivors into murderously angry Viet Cong, the Warrior thinks that you are a lefty tree-hugger.

Today, the battlefield as understood by the enemy, but seldom by the Warrior, extends far beyond the physical battlefield, and the chief targets are political. In this kind of war, if America can get the local population to support it, the insurgents are out of business; if the insurgents can get the American public to stop supporting the war, the American military is out of business. This is what counts. It is what works. The Warrior, all oooh-rah and jump wings, doesn’t get it. Vo Nguyen Giap got it. Ho Chi Minh got it.

Thus the furious, embittered insistence of Warriors that “We won Tet of ’68. We slaughtered them! We won, dammit! Militarily, we absolutely won!” Swell, but politically they lost. It was a catastrophe on the order of Kursk or Dien Bien Phu. But they can’t figure it out.

The warrior doesn’t understand what “victory” means because he thinks in terms of firefights, courage, weaponry, and valor. His approach is emotional, not rational. Though not stupid, he is regularly out-thought. Why?

It’s not mysterious. An intelligent enemy knows that America cannot be beaten at industrial war. So he thinks, “What then are America’s weaknesses?” The first and crucial one is that the American government enters into distant wars in which the public has no stake. Do you want your son to die for—get this—democracy in Iraq? You diapered him, got him through school-yard fist fights, his first prom, graduation from boot camp, and he comes home in a box—for democracy in Iraq?

The thing to do, then (continues thinking the intelligent enemy) is to make the Americans grow sick of the war. How? Not by winning battles, which is difficult against the Americans. You win otherwise. First, don’t give them point targets, since these are easily destroyed by big guns and advanced technology. Second, keep the level of combat high enough to maintain the war in the forefront of American consciousness, and to keep the monetary expense high. (Inflation and gasoline prices are weapons as much as rifles, another idea that the Warrior just doesn’t get. Bin Laden does.) Third, keep the body bags flowing. Sooner or later the Americans will weary of losing their sons for something that doesn’t really interest them.

However, the Warrior does not grant the public the right to grow weary. For him, America exists to support the military, not the other way around. Are two hundred dead a week coming back from Asia? The Warrior believes that small-town America (which is where the coffins usually go) should grit its teeth, bear down, and make the sacrifice for the country. Sacrifice for what? It doesn’t matter. We’re at war, dammit. Rally ‘round. What are you, a commy?

To the Warrior, to doubt the war is treason, aiding and supporting, liberalism, cowardice, back-stabbing, and so on. He uses these phrases unrelentingly. We must fight, and fight, and fight, and never yield, and sacrifice and spend. We must never ask why, or whether, or what for, or do we want to.

The public of course doesn’t see it that way. In 1964 I graduated from a rural high school in Virginia with a senior class of, I think, sixty. Doug took a 12.7 through the head, Sonny spent time at Walter Reed with neck wounds, Studley I hear is a paraplegic, another kid got mostly blinded for life, and several, whom I won’t name, tough country kids as I knew them, came back as apparently irredeemable drunks. (These were kids I knew, not all in my class.) It was a lot of dead and crippled for a small place. For what?

Cowardice? I was on campus in 1966 on a small, very Republican, very patriotic, very conservative, very Southern campus. The students, and their girlfriends, were all violently against the war. So, I gather, were their parents. Why? Were they the traitors of the Warrior’s imagination? No. They didn’t want to die for something that they didn’t care about.

This eludes the Warrior. Always, he blames The Press for the waning of martial enthusiasm, for his misunderstanding of the kind of war we are fighting. Did the press make Studley a paraplegic? Or kill the guy with all the tubes who died in the stretcher above me on the Medevac 141 back from Danang? Did Walter Cronkite make my buddy Cagle blind when the rifle grenade exploded on the end of his fourteen? Do the Warriors think that people don’t notice when their kids come back forever in wheelchairs?

They don’t get it.

Collateral Damage. Between Phnom Penh and Kompong Speu, 1974.