VDH: In War: Resolution
In War: Resolution
"Iraq," swears Al Gore, "was the single worst strategic mistake in American history." Senate Majority leader Harry Reid agrees that the war he voted to authorize is "the worst foreign policy mistake in U.S. history," and indeed is already "lost." Many of our historically minded politicians and commanders have weighed in with similar superlatives.
Retired General William Odom calls Iraq "the greatest strategic disaster in United States history." Senator Chuck Hagel (who voted for the war) is somewhat more cautious; he terms Iraq "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Jimmy Carter takes, as usual, the loftiest view: the Iraq War, and Great Britain's acquiescence in it, constitute "a major tragedy for the world," and prove that the Bush Administration "has been the worst in history."
Certainly there are legitimate questions about Iraq, as about all wars. Why, for example, did Tommy Franks, the Centcom commander who led American forces in a brilliant three-week victory over Saddam Hussein, abruptly announce his retirement in late May 2003—prompting a disruption in command just as the successful conventional war ended and an unexpected insurgency in Iraq gathered steam?
Why were looters allowed to ransack much of Baghdad's infrastructure following the defeat of the Baathist army? Why "disband" the Iraqi military and purge its officer corps of Baathists at precisely the time law and order—not tens of thousands of unemployed youth—were needed? And weren't there too few occupying troops in the war's aftermath, along with too restrictive rules of engagement—but too prominent a profile for the American proconsuls busily dictating to the Iraqis?
The queries don't stop there, alas. Why in advance weren't there sufficient new-model body armor and armored Humvees to protect American troops? Why did we begin to assault Fallujah in April 2004, only to pull back for six months and then have to retake the city after the American election in November? Why were the country's borders left open to infiltrators and its ubiquitous ammunition dumps kept accessible to terrorists?
The catalogue of military error could be multiplied ad nauseam. Then there are also the inevitable strategic conundrums over the need to attack Saddam's regime in the first place, given the nature of the terrorist threat, the ascendant Iranian theocracy next door, and the colossal intelligence failures concerning imagined vast depots of chemical and biological weapons.
But what is missing from the national debate over the "worst" war in our history is any appreciation of past American military errors—political, strategic, technological, intelligence, tactical—that nearly cost us victory in far more important conflicts. Nor do we accept the savage irony of war that only through errors, tragic though they may be, do successful armies adjust in time to discover winning strategies, tactics, and generals.
Preoccupied with the daily news from Baghdad, we seem to think our generation is unique in experiencing the heartbreak of an error-plagued war. We forget that victory in every war goes to the side that commits fewer mistakes—and learns more from them in less time—not to the side that makes no mistakes. A perfect military in a flawless war never existed—though after Grenada and the air war over the Balkans we apparently thought otherwise. Rather than sink into unending recrimination over Iraq, we should reflect about comparable blunders in America's past wars and how they were corrected. Without such historical knowledge we are condemned to remain shrill captives of the present.