Is Victory Obsolete?

I want to follow up on the last post as well as this one from Friday on extracating ourselves out of Iraq. James Glanz writes in today’s New York Times about historical precedent for leaving without (necessarily) losing.

… Even in the absence of a sudden and dramatic shift on the battlefield toward a definitive victory, there may still be a slight opening, as narrow as the eye of a needle, for the United States to slip through and leave Iraq in the near future in a way that will not be remembered as a national embarrassment.

Most of the recent parallels do not seem to offer much encouragement for a confounded superpower that wants to save face as it cuts its losses and returns home. Among them are the wrenching French pullout from Algeria, the ill-fated French and American adventures in Vietnam, the Soviet humiliation in Afghanistan and the disastrous American interventions in Beirut and Somalia.

Still, there are a few stories of inconclusive wars that left the United States in a more dignified position, including the continuing American presence in South Korea and the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. But even those stand in stark contrast to the happier legacy of total victory during World War II.

Since World War II, how many wars have been fought on this planet that somebody, totally and finally, won? There’s the Chinese Civil War, which left the Communists in charge of all of China, and North Vietnam certainly won the Vietnam War, even if the U.S. never formally conceded that it lost. But of course Vietnam wasn’t a formal war to begin with, which is part of the problem.

In the old days one nation would declare war on another nation, and then the two of them (and their allies) would pound the stuffing out of each other until one of them surrendered. Then treaties would be signed and the war would be declared over. In other words, there was a mutually agreed upon beginning and end to the war, and a mutually agreed upon result. That sort of thing doesn’t seem to happen much any more, does it?

Instead, we have “police actions” and other military activies that aren’t formally declared wars, and the enemy is not a nation but some amorphous entity with shifting territories, or no territories, and leadership as ephemeral as ghosts. Conflicts go on for years, for generations, with no apparent resolution. That seems to be the nature of war these days.

In our current war, even if some of the big names on the other side, like bin Laden or Zarqawi, were to formally capitulate and signal an end to conflict (which I can’t imagine would ever happen), it wouldn’t mean much. Neither of these guys were elected, notice. They’re just guys who jumped in to lead at a time when people wanted leading. If they go, others will take their place, and the conflict will continue.

In a World War II-style conflict, armies conquered territories and destroyed enemy armies so that the enemy leaders would agree to surrender. And when the leaders surrendered, the soldiers (as a rule) would stop fighting and go home. These days we have enemies with no territory to conquer and leaders who lack authority to surrender. So how can there be an old-fashioned, VE Day victory? It’s odd to even think in those terms any more, yet that seems to be what the pro-war Right wants.

And, Lord knows, Bush intended to give it to them. That’s what the flight suit victory prance was supposed to be. And, in a narrow sense, the enemy Bush set out to vanquish in mid-March 2003 was pretty much vanquished. But in the process we made new and worse enemies. And so the war continues, and there will be no mutually agreed upon end to it. Indeed, in the insurgents v. “coalition” war, as opposed to the jihadists v. “coalition” war, we really have reached a stalemate; the insurgents fight because we’re there, and the U.S. stays because the insurgents are fighting us. And our true enemies, the jihadists, are more strengthened than weakened by our prosecution of the war. The very means we use to vanquish them — bombs, checkpoints, white phosphorous, prisons — give them and their cause energy and focus. Truly, the Iraq War is probably the best thing that ever happened to al Qaeda.

Bush talks about victory without explaining what victory will look like, which is something you have to explain these days. His job is made more difficult by the fact that the objectives presented to the American people before the invasion turned out to be more amorphous than al Qaeda. If you have no firm objectives, how do you know when you’ve accomplished them?

Back to James Glanz:

The highly qualified optimism of these experts about what may still happen in Iraq – let’s call it something just this side of hopelessness – has been born of many factors, including greatly reduced expectations of what might constitute not-defeat there. The United States already appears willing to settle – as if it were in a relationship that had gone sour but cannot quite be resolved by a walk out the door, punctuated with a satisfying slam.

Now we’re in the process of deciding what positive outcome might still be achieved, so that we can achieve that and go home. Yet our political processes are so poisoned we can’t even accomplish that without rancor, even though it’s obvious both major parties are hurtling toward the same conclusion. That’s because our arguments about Iraq aren’t really about Iraq, but about ourselves. You know this is true when Republicans continue to use Iraq to bash Dems even though few Dems have the cojones to disagree with Bush’s stated policies on the war. Note “stated policies,” as opposed to what Bush is actually doing. But that’s another blog post.

Eleanor Clift writes,

When Democrats said we should pull out our troops from Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were quick to label them defeatists. When the administration floated the idea this week of bringing home a third of the troops by election time next year, it was presented as good old patriotism. As the church lady on “Saturday Night Live” used to say “How convenient!”

The striking change of tone is all about politics, and perhaps that’s how it should be in a democracy. Public support for the war has collapsed. The administration wants to avoid an embarrassing debate over who lost Iraq, so there won’t be the precipitous pullout that would look like a retreat. The troop withdrawals will be dictated by the election calendar, both in Iraq and here at home.

Clift writes that “we’re seeing the beginnings of a stampede among politicians to re-position themselves.” I think this is true. The stampede is going to accelerate after the December elections in Iraq, and by this summer there will be considerable troop reduction, although Bush will leave in a token force to save face. Possibly “not enough troops left in Iraq to do the job, but enough to keep taking casualties,” writes Clift, but politics rule. And “victory” will be whatever it is. We’ll know it when we see it.

Update: Read Digby!

As you know, Democrats have long been insisting that the US stay in Iraq indefinitely. It was only through the wise counsel and patient persuasion of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush that they were convinced that a timed withdrawal was the best way to go.

While it’s great news that the Iraq war is over and done with (and the liberals can finally stop obsessing over it) it’s going to take some work to get them to stop lobbying for more tax cuts and destroying social security. When are they going to get some responsibility and recognize that there is no free lunch?


13 thoughts on “Is Victory Obsolete?

  1. Well, from the standpoint of the people who lived there, every war they fought for self-government — not always the government we’d like, or the one they might ultimately prefer — was a war, even if the other side didn’t call it one. Vietnam, for instance, was certainly a war to the Vietnamese. And all those former colonies that the Brits and the Dutch and the French wanted to take back — those were wars, at least for the people in those former colonies, even if they were labelled as something else by the colonisers.

    And these were — almost all, if not all — definitely WON, and always by the side that lived there.

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  3. And these were — almost all, if not all — definitely WON,

    Yes, but consider that in every case the “imperialist” nations could have obliterated their colonies had they chosen to. We could have nuked Vietnam into eternity, for example, rather than leave it to communist government. (We’re still arguing about how we could have “won” Vietnam, which we could have, without facing up to the fact that we probably would have had to destroy most of it in the process.) So the victories were not won by military superiority. Ultimately they were political victories. The rules of applying warfare to a dangerous situation seem to have changed, don’t they? That’s why “victory” in the old sense is obsolete.

  4. Though there may be some drawdown of troops I would not count on the US leaving Iraq anytime soon. With Saudi Oil supplies shrinking quickly and new finds so difficult to get to our shores, Big Oil wants Iraqs fields in private hands desperately. They will not stop until they have them, and in my opinion it’s these fiddlers that are playing the tune our government is dancing to – regardless of party. We’re stuck until the american people get sick of this oil addiction and get serious about alternitive energy. Imagine what our energy situation might be in ten years if we had just sunk 400 billion into it instead of into war. Not to mention the hundreds of thusands of jobs it would create and the technological advances it would bleed into other areas (in a similar way the space program did).

  5. One victory we’ll never attain is the vision of the PNAC victory, which I believe was the vision and impetus that launched the Iraqi invasion( in conjunction with Bush’s personal fantasies). According to that vision, victory would be composed of control of the Iraqi people to serve American dominance and world leadership. You cannot break the will of a people to choose their own destiny, as Vietnam demonstrated.

    Once Bush starts the withdrawl of troops, any troops killed thereafter wouldn’t be dying for a noble cause.. you might say, in vain…Who wants to be the last soldier to die for a lie in Iraq.

  6. As for ‘who wants to be the last to die’, come on. No one wants to die, period. But better that there be a last one than an endless series. Best of all, of course, is if the last guy is somebody other than you. But you know that some poor S.O.B. will be told to take it for the team.

    Dying last? The timing’s a detail. But dying for what?

  7. We see war as a game. When one side “changes” the rules, whether it’s really a change, or a perceived change, the other side will not give up. They do not believe that they lost. That’s why there are still people fighting the Civil War: Sherman and Grant “cheated.”

    The parallel here is that we are not even playing the same game as the other side. We see them as cheating, and they see us the same way. As long as that holds, the Game, whether it’s a declared war or a police action, or an insurgency, or a terrorist attack plan, or fighting for freedom, will go on.

    To fix it, there has to be a redefinition of the terms of the game. The gods know I don’t have an answer, but at least I can see there’s a problem defining the question.

  8. From the beginning for the Bushies, victory in Iraq has meant “control of Iragi oil”, and all the other ‘reasons’ given for being there were designed to confuse and quiet public perceptions.
    In terms of being able to control Iraqi oil, one can see that all the continuing turmoil in that country has provided the time and smokescreen to allow mostly hidden developments to try to assure our oil corporations access to that oil. Two developments which get no publicity are: 1] building permanent military bases in Iraq, and 2] rules to be followed by any future Iraqi government first written by Bremer and later fine-tuned by American puppets like Chalabi to make sure that Iraqi oil is controlled by non-Iraqi coalition country oil companies.
    So, for this oil-connected Bush Administration, you can be sure that all their war strategies were designed to ‘slap the Iraqis’ into a desperation leading to compromise on their national oil treasure. This could not have been possible had we gone in and just removed Saddam, or gone in and just assured ourselves about WMD, or had we truly worked to serve the Iraqi citizens with the basics of clean water and electricity. In a real way, the insurgency has served our hidden ‘theft of oil’ policy.
    Remember, this administration is on record for serving itself and its wealthy contributors at the expense of the common folk, whether that is tax cuts for the rich, cutting benefits for the needy, following through on Katrina relief, stealing the heritage of our national forests and parks lands, or designing the Medicare drug plan to deliver new tax-payer monies to the insurance and drug companies.

  9. Maha, the American Revolution was a “political victory”. And that was the old days. The British could’ve fought on and on, spending ever more money and angering it’s citizens, to keep a set of colonies that seemed less and less worth keeping given the costs that were piling up, and the possible threats from other quarters.

    I think if you looked at many, possibly most, wars from bygone days you’ll find that the victories were what you call “political” victories. It’s not a new thing.

  10. QQ:

    “It’s not a new thing.”

    I didn’t say it was. Of course there have always been victories won by just hanging on until an invader gave up. You are missing my point.

    What’s “new” is the increasing inapplicability of what we might call old-fashioned, “total” war, in which nations pull out all the stops to utterly vanquish each other, until somebody surrenders, and then everyone agrees to abide by certain terms, and the war is over. That doesn’t seem to happen much any more.

  11. If the only victories now are political, then are politics overshadowing war? Does ‘rep’ outweigh ‘frappe’? If so, then that’s good news, heralding the arrival of a planetary civil society. Or are you instead saying that the wars merely never end?

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