Who Is Running This Choo-Choo Train?

Children At The Helm

June 18, 2005

The crumbling has begun, methinks. Congressmen, a few only now, speak of withdrawal from Iraq. A small thing, but for the White House a worrisome step toward vertebracy in that body of polyps. The numbers of the dissenting will grow as they see that they do not get hurt. Military recruiting is way down, and will stay down: The gullibility of the young cannot forever be relied upon. The House has summoned the courage to vote against parts of the Patriot Act. The president’s polls drop and drop.

The crumbling has begun, methinks.

Is this surprising? If I may risk repeating myself tiresomely, the way to defeat the American military is to avoiding giving it clear targets, keep the body bags flowing into Dover or Travis, and wait. It is that simple. The insurgents know this. They are doing it, and it is working. Five Marines today, three tomorrow, twelve GIs one week, nine another. On and on. So far we have killed 1700 of our soldiers, closing in on 2000. Sooner or later, even Middle America will notice.

Is victory still possible, if it ever were? The military can’t stop the bleeding, or it would have. Short of a miracle, of perhaps a serious attack within the United States, actually or apparently by terrorists, the casualties will continue. The public will weary of the war, and it will all be over. No?

Wars are marketed as involving moral principles or geo-strategic necessity, but they can become grudge matches, contests of vanity grown stubborn. A president who has led his country into a war has his ego on the line. He cannot easily say, “In the light of events, the adventure appears to have failed, and so we will return home.” The world would regard him as a fool and a knave. Further, humble men do not become presidents. Such a man will struggle on desperately, unwisely, with no real purpose any longer than to avoid the personal ignominy of defeat. When his pride has been engaged he can’t stop. For this men die.

One sees a similar approach in the gambler who, having lost his car, bets his house in hopes of redeeming himself.

As the news worsens the lying, begun long ago, increases. Democracies of course have to be lied into aggressive wars, since no one really cares about the form of government in an obscure and remote nation. Thus as losses mount, the enemy’s successes are described as defeats, as the last throes of a failing force. (I would not be surprised to find that Tokyo described the bombing of Hiroshima as a sign of American desperation.) The government forbids reporters to photograph the coffins, punishes soldiers who talk to the press. The horribly wounded are discreetly hidden. Generals who are not upbeat are fired. Dissidents become labeled as traitors. War crimes become isolated incidents: Only those which are discovered have occurred. Etc.

Historians tend to see wars as consequent to abstract currents of history. They speak of the balance of power, the clash of civilizations, of economic rivalry, and it all sounds dispassionate, reasoned, and occasionally majestic. It might be more accurate to say that wars are the hobbies of half-informed children who have somehow come into possession of the levers of power. Can anyone possible believe that Mr. Bush knew anything about the Arab world when he set out to conquer it? That Hitler understood the Russians, or the Japanese Army, America?

Getting into wars is so often easier than getting out. In terms of national and presidential vanity, the prospects of Iraq, short always of a miracle, vary between bad and ghastly. If the United States pulls out, in a sort of exploitus reservatus, the One Remaining Superpower will be seen not to be. No one will be afraid of us any longer. In particular, countries like Iran will not be afraid. One wonders whether this may not be what Mr. bin Laden had in mind.

Of course in material terms the United States will not be weaker. If driven out of Iraq, America will still be superior in remarkable aircraft and fast carriers and extraordinary submarines. But submarines are of use only in certain kinds of wars, which the enemy will avoid. The good ship USS Thundertrinket can destroy Japan, yes. It cannot defeat a few thousand determined men with rifles. Militaries seem never to learn this.

It is curious. The French, having underestimated both the enemy and the potential of guerilla warfare, got thrashed at Dien Bien Phu. The Americans, equally full of themselves, then went into the same country and got similarly thrashed. The French, having learned nothing, tried again in Algeria, with the same result. The Israelis tried to hold down southern Lebanon, encountering the same problems and equally losing. The Russians, having seen all of this, invaded Afghanistan and got thrashed. Now the United States is in Iraq. For militaries, the learning curve seems to be flat.

The problem is not that soldiers are stupid. They are not. Rather it is (I think) that they become excessively taken with the technology and power of their weapons, with the computers and precision and speed, with themselves, and just do not stop to ponder the difficulty of killing hornets with a howitzer.

The future? Having restored the Vietnam complex, presumably the US will be very hesitant for a decade or so to throw its weight around. Then, having forgotten again, it will invade another country defended by only a few contemptible men with rifles who, in any case, will be expected to throw flowers.

If America loses the White House war—what? I suppose that Mr. Bin Laden will come out of his hole a hero in the Moslem world, laughing pointedly at Mr. Bush. I do not know what part he actually had in the events in New York, but he gets credit for them, which is enough. He would be able to say that he had goaded the Great Satan into a losing war in Arabia that left America defanged and no longer able to give orders to Moslem nations. Isn’t that what he set out to do?

What price nothing? A couple of thousand dead kids, countless cripples who will remain crippled when the current administration has been forgotten, a country wrecked, God knows how many dead Iraqis (I know, they don’t count), thousands of sisters and mothers remembering Bobby every Christmas and looking at his last year book from high school, a tremendous diminution in America’s influence and prestige as China rises, unforeseeable consequences in the Middle East. For what, Mr. Bush? For what?