In anticipation of the July 15th briefing I here encapsulate the developing events in Iraq. Partly this is to compile a list of significant events in order to figure whether progress is being made in the slightest. But before we begin to measure, it’s worthwhile to figure out how to measure.
[Ed. Note: Thanks to REM for correction on the Churchill quote.]
Despite their convenience, body counts have never been a good indicator of how a war’s going – ours or theirs. Measuring the enemy’s body count certainly doesn’t work, as Vietnam well proved. A staggering amount of Vietnamese were killed in the latter phases of the war, even after Nixon’s victory resulted in a shift from troop level increases to withdrawal, and still it did nothing to shatter the enemy’s resolve. Similarly, going on the basis of our own casualties is again a bad indicator.
There are two reasons for this, and while neither has much to do with the basis of anti-war advocates’ arguments, both strike against the foremost reason they have been gaining in strength of late – namely, the mounting number of American dead “despite” the Surge. What people must realize is that the mounting dead are not an unexpected byproduct of the Surge, but in many ways the result of it.
The first reason for this is that more troops means more contact with the enemy, and more contact means more death. Sometimes this is more death all around, but in a counter-insurgency like Iraq, it could mean just against the occupier. The purpose of this is not purely suicidal, however – the intent is always to use those troops to hold more ground, either to secure against the enemy or to encircle and destroy them.
The second reason is that it is usually when a side is pressured by its adversary that it throws more forces into the fray with more determined and cunning tactics. This has been the case in almost every major war of late – World War I had the German Spring Offensive in response to the United States entering the war, World War II had the notorious Battle of the Bulge as well as similar offensives in the south and in the east, Korea had Pork Chop Hill, Vietnam had the Tet Offensive and the Gulf War had the Battle of 73 Easting. In each instance, the enemy makes a resolute effort to inflict harm so that they’re not overwhelmed fatally. I cannot emphasize enough how high the carnage climbs in the last phases of successful wars – especially our last successful example of nation building from that list, World War II.
One could easily look at that list and say, “Yes, but we lost in Vietnam and didn’t achieve much in Korea”. The critical difference in success is not the body counts, nor when in the process of the war they occurred, but in the political strategy and aims, and in the resolve to see the war through.
World War II was massively expensive in its final phases, in both men and treasure. Body counts soared on all sides, and the US teetered near bankruptcy considering its war debt. So in the end it was moral resolve that saw that conflict through to a successful end as much – if not more so – than any other factor. Considering the resolve shown by the enemy, who truly fought to the last as we occupied their homeland with devastating force, it could have been a very near thing.
We lost in Vietnam because we chose to pull out. Tet was a horrible, even crippling blow to many of the North Vietnamese forces, particularly their irregulars, the Viet Cong. But rather than exploit this, we kept pressure on them at consistent levels and then, a year later, switched to a strategy of withdrawal.
That having been said, pulling out is not always a bad thing. In Vietnam it was arguably the right thing, because what it would have taken to win at that late phase would have been a strategy too aggressive for the American psyche and American coffers to endure – essentially an invasion and occupation of the North. Korea was a similar situation, wherein we had neither the resources nor the raw manpower to invade our real adversary above the contested 38th Parallel – the People’s Republic of China. So even though political strategy and the will to see it out is the critical factor in turning the late phase bloodbath into grounds for a victory parade or for decades of hand-wringing, people need to be honest about what the cost of victory will be. There is no doubt that America, with its awesome resources, can pay it. The question is whether it wants to.
Right now, the manpower and capital of the Surge is being poured into a single strategic purpose. It is not the annihilation of the al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, even though that’s part of it. It is not securing all of Baghdad or the contested areas either, though providing a more permanent security presence in critical areas can, is, and should be going on. It is giving the Iraqi Parliament and the areas of the country that they need to apply their political will to in order to create an infrastructure some protection.
In order to judge our success in Iraq, we must not look at the body counts. The “suicidal surge” is an accurate characterization. That is the nature of war. It is always suicide. We may wrap it in flags and anthems and endless reels of action films but in the end result, no matter what is written on the note there is still a body on the floor. In Iraq’s case, 3,600 American bodies. But in order to judge the success of that sacrifice, we need to judge not the sacrifice itself but the end it was made for.
We need to judge the political progress being made.
And, sadly, though our troops have been committed to the fight in record numbers and our ethics, possibly our ultimate security, have been compromised as we arm both Shiite and Sunni militants – as we give every indication tactically that we will defeat the hard line insurgents at any cost – there has been no such political commitment. The surge has us putting our troops in terrific risk, both in conventional battles and by essentially massing up so that insurgents can bomb us more effectively, and yet both our political leadership and the Iraqis have shown no such embrace of risk, no such devotion to victory. This is the truly sickening and sad thing about Iraq. We’re demanding that our sons and daughters step in front of bullets and bombs so that partisan strife can continue. Eight Americans died while Bush was hosting Putin for two days of fun in the sun in Kennebunkport.
That is not oversimplifying or over dramatizing. There is no doubt the ABM quarrel with Russia is a matter of grand significance, but can any American think there is a more pressing issue than Iraq? And since we can, objectively, set aside the bearing the casualties of the Surge have as a measure of the war’s outcome, can we all subjectively agree that it seems the political solution those casualties are being sacrificed for is under served by both sides?
Bush has done extremely little as regards dealing with the Iraq parliament this year. Granted, it is the Iraqis in parliament themselves who need to reconcile and share power, and it is they who’re dragging their feet, but then we must consider why we’re loath to force them to move. Why are we content to perpetuate this seemingly ceaseless cycle of butchery in order to prop up a government that is not just practically but willfully dysfunctional?
Just like in the last phases of World War II and of Vietnam – of our proudest war and our most shameful – we are scraping the bottom of the war chest. The expense to our treasury is enormous, and the term “war economy”, spoken with an ominous and despair tone, is becoming increasingly familiar. The expense in terms of damage to the minds and bodies of our service people is also crippling on a mass scale, as the Walter Reed, VA compensation and recruiting failures have shown. Things are breaking down. The same holds true for the strongholds of al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia. But to what end are we stacking up the bodies in record amounts? Bush seems to be evading the Iraq issue rather than tackling it with all he has. Certainly the Congress has been fixated on it of late. But both sides talk merely of the military aspect. It is the political failures of the Iraqi parliament that must be at the center of each argument.
And, just as only direct, sustained force can win tactically, only direct, sustained political intervention is going to get things moving in the halls of power in Baghdad. Until then, we can pile our corpses as high as we’d like to buttress those walls. Without providing a strong center with political will, it lets the universal chaos of war drift across the fine line between success and simple suicide.