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The Quiet Americans

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The Emirates News Agency (the government-controlled press organ of the United Arab Emirates) has recently published a rather interesting speculation about the Baathist war strategy. The basic premise: if America takes enough casualties, she will lose heart and give up.

This reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend not long ago. My short answer to this would be: fat chance.

My friend asked me this one: at what point would popular opinion here in America turn against the war? When we hit 500 casualties? 1,000? 5,000? 50,000?

My answer: I don’t think such a number exists.

We lost about 50,000 men in the Vietnam war, he pointed out. I said that if we took that many casualties this year alone, it would probably not dent popular support all that much.

I believe that casualty figures, and pictures of the dead, have exactly two equal and opposite effects on American sentiment: 1) They cause people who are anti-war to become even more intense in their opposition, and 2) they cause those who believe in the cause to be even more firm about their desire to win the conflict, so those who fell would not have died in vain.

I believe that this is the pattern Americans have followed in all her major wars (note: major wars). Yes, all of them. We pulled out of Vietnam for one reason: Americans became convinced that it could not be won. I believe that this is the only reason, in the end, that really mattered.

So then, to be clear: I believe the anti-war protestors had no effect. Ditto the photos of soldiers coming home in body bags, or the pictures of the war on TV every night. I don’t believe they had any significant impact, except to make those who were against the war more vehement–and those who were for it more stubborn.

Historians like Steven Heyward have noted that probably the most popular bumper sticker from that era was one that has largely been forgotten. It said, simply:

Win or Get Out!

I believe that this probably sums up the attitude of most Americans to most conflicts. We have no stomach for half-measures, for nuanced war. We have no love of violence, no taste for blood. We fight only when we feel we’ve reached the point of last resort, and then we fight with an awesome resolve that rarely wavers until our goals are met.

Americans have always–going back for 200 or more years–held to a mindset that is now called “The Powell Doctrine.” You don’t go if you can (honorably, and intelligently) avoid it. If you can’t do so, then use everything you’ve got to win as quickly, decisively, and thoroughly as possible.

This didn’t originate with Powell. Powell only put words to the rediscovery of something that’s always been there. Americans have no love for conflict, but minimal tolerance for pussyfooting once the fight’s on.

Think of John Wayne in The Quiet Man. There is no movie that better sums of the American ethos of violence. We don’t like it, we don’t want it, and we’re often haunted by it in retrospect. But once the fight’s on, by God we won’t stop until one side or the other has crumpled to the ground.

The movie is a romantic myth. But it’s a myth that resonates with most Americans deeply. If you haven’t seen it, you should make a point of it.

Americans would have put up with more than 50,000 casualties in Vietnam if they’d have thought we could win. They’ve have put up with another 50,000, and another 100,000 still, if they thought we would win. The problem is that they stopped believing that–and at that very moment, public support ended.

This is not to say that Americans are stupid. If casualties reached a point where it seemed obvious that we were doomed to failure, we would shift our thinking quickly. But as long as we believed that we were doing more damage to the enemy than they were to us, as long as we believed would probably win in the end, we would likely fight to the last man.

It’s how we’ve acted in every war in our entire national history. Including, I believe, the Vietnam war.

Anyone who thinks America will cut and run if we get a bloody nose and lose a few teeth is sorely mistaken. When led by a Commander in Chief who makes it clear that there will be no substitute for total victory, Americans will simply not quit unless completely pulverized.

I’m pretty sure this war won’t spread beyond Iraq. I don’t think it will need to, and I’m happy about that. Like most Americans, I detest bloodshed and violence, and have no interest in unnecessary conflicts. (I’m also looking forward to being quoted by some shallow fool who claims I hope we have more war. That seems almost inevitable.)

But I will say this: if this conflict should widen, or go on much longer than anticipated, I have little doubt that public support will only harden.


This article first appeared on Dean’s World. Drop by any time!

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About Dean Esmay

  • san

    “…if this conflict should widen, or go on much longer than anticipated, I have little doubt that public support will only harden.”

    Now THAT is a problem; but I can’t see how your essay could be interpreted as a personal plea for more war.