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Victory Is Not An Option

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In all the antiwar demonstration and prowar patriotism of the day, one question is seldom asked: What if we lose? “Lose” is a relative term in this case. After all, we lost the Vietnam War, but only in the sense that our goal of reunifying a democratic Vietnam, or maintaining an independent South Vietnam, was not met. In body count, we scored a decisive victory. Sure, we lost tens of thousands of troops, but the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong lost hundreds of thousands more.

Certainly it can be argued that I’m proposing this question way too early. Hostilities in Vietnam lasted for more than twenty years, with significant American commitment for at least ten. But even our own Vice President has declared that the war in Iraq is to be an accelerated war. “Weeks, not months,” he said. Perhaps accelerated judgment of the progress of an accelerated war is not out of line.

So, what if we lose? By lose, I mean fail to take and secure Baghdad and other primary targets throughout the country. Or discover that peaceful occupation of Iraq is an untenable endeavor even in the short term? Presently, whether motivated by intimidation or nationalism, grassroots resistance is stiff across Iraq; and we’ve yet to do any ground-based fighting in the capital city itself. The community of Arabic nations continues to condemn U.S. actions in the region and, unofficially, non-Iraqi Arabs are committing themselves to expelling us from the region. What will happen if a coalition of Arabic nations forms and jumps on an opportunity to exploit U.S. military weakness? What if, instead of merely fighting Iraq, we are suddenly fighting two or three other militarized Arabic nations?

There are other ways we can lose. For example, significantly decreasing our concern for civilian casualties. If in order to realize our goal of controlling Iraq, U.S. forces cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of noncombatants, our international reputation, already marred, may collapse. The U.S. will be perceived as a military behemoth willing to sacrifice untold numbers of civilian lives to achieve military dominance. We will become a threat to international peace.

Another, particularly heinous way to lose: resort to nuclear weapons. President Bush has made it clear that he is more than willing to consider the use of nuclear weapons in combat if he deems it necessary. Now, the U.S. performed quite a trick after bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki: we closed Pandora’s box; we put the genie back in the bottle. Nuclear weapons have not been used in combat since World War II. Sure, several nations are now loaded for bear, but they all insist that they would never be the first to touch off a nuclear conflict. Indeed, we seem to be the only nation admitting we may use nuclear weapons in an offensive first strike. If we do so in Iraq, how will we ever convince the world we wouldn’t do it again? How will we convince North Korea that they have nothing to fear from our nuclear arsenal?

It’s a valid question: What if we lose? As a nation, are we strong enough to accept valorous defeat over an inhumane victory? I’m not proposing that we are on the verge of defeat; I’m not a military strategist and I have no better access to news of the war than you do. I’m not associating Vietnam in an unfounded or inflammatory manner: I only bring it up as an example of a superior fighting force outwitted by the complex nature of the conflict. I simply ask, What if we lose?

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About Martin Blank

  • san

    Of note: The title of Kagan’s book is Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. For some unknown but possibly portentous reason, Amazon lists it as Of Paradise and Power: America Vs. Europe in the New World Order.

  • Eric Olsen

    If the tactics of the Iraqis cause us to “significantly decreasing our concern for civilian casualties” that will not equate to “loss.” We have thus far been absurdly concerned for civilian life to the detriment of our own troops. If a change in tactics causes civilan loss of life into the low thousands, that will be regrettable but acceptable. I do not see civilian casualties rising above that under any circumstances.

    The Iraqis must bear some responsibility for their own government, especially now that the option is there to reject it. Those who remain loyal to the government have another option, are aware by now of that option, and if they are foolish enough to choose the wrong option, we aren’t responsible for their safety.

    The US military is flexible – this is a great strength. A change in tactics is not “loss,” simply dealing with reality.

  • san

    Eric, I was pretty specific about the number of civilian casualties that might be equated with “loss”. Hundreds of thousands, or millions. Perhaps merely tens of thousands. I think, however, that “low thousands” has been expected, or at least contemplated, all along. As I originally stated, civilian deaths would have to rise above the “low thousands” to meet the “loss” standard.

    If Iraqis are choosing the “wrong” option, that is, allying with the government, or national sovereignty, it certainly calls the whole “liberation” campaign into question. The light bulb has to want to change.

    Lastly, I did not mean to imply that a change in conventional tactics is “losing”. Militaries change battle plans all the time in the course of a war. However, do you support the notion that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is an acceptable addition to the scenario? With or without the use of chemical or biological weapons by Iraq or their allies?

  • Eric Olsen

    Nukes will not be used other than if they are used on us. Iraqi citizens sticking with the regime is mostly a matter of ingrained fear and brainwashing, and as long as Saddam is believed to be alive – whether he is or isn’t – the fear will remain.

    I cannot envision a situation where civilian deaths will get into the tens of thousands unless Saddam does it himself, which is always a possibility, but wouldn’t be by our hand.

    Yet another reason to get this over with as quickly as possible.

  • san

    So you think the defense policy outlining the use of preemptive tactical nuclear weapons is just posturing? If so, I greatly prefer that to the alternative.

    Backed into a corner, Saddam may well begin killing off his own people. He’s done it before, though he probably doesn’t consider the Kurds to be his own people. Granted, I’m not sure I would be able to accept this scenario as our “fault” or “by our hand”. But, in the diplomatic community, it might be perceived along the lines of, “Well if you hadn’t started this in the first place…”

  • Eric Olsen

    I do not believe the United States would ever use nuclear weapons unless they were used against us first – the American people would not stand for it, and I can’t think of any circumstances under which they would be necessary. The stronger we are the less likely we are to resort to such extremes. That is why relatively weak nuclear powers such as Pakistan, or insane countries like North Korea are the greatest nuke threats.

  • I have to admit I was surprised by the Iraqi resistance. I had been accepting the neoconservatives’ best-case scenario, largely because even considering their best-case scenario, the motivation behind this war is poisonous.

    But now that things aren’t going as planned, and the Iraqis aren’t sticking to the script, I’ve backslided into a little moral relativism. I’ve actually tried to imagine myself in their shoes. I know I shouldn’t do that. I know it’s un-American. But I have to admit, I’ve actually used my imagination to put myself in the place of an Iraqi.

    I imagined…What if I lived in a country where the leader was not legitimately elected? What if I lived in a country where the government eroded civil rights? What if I lived in a country where people could be detained without cause? What if I lived in a country where those who were considered enemies of the state could be tortured? What if I lived in a country where “justice,” for some people, meant a secret “trial” and a secret punishment, including execution? What if I lived in a country where the leader appeared even to take pleasure in mocking the condemned?

    What if I lived in this country, and some foreigners came in to invade? They said what they wanted was to oust the illegitimate leader and change the anti-civil-rights policies of the government. I have a choice–do I believe them? And, if I do, do I still welcome them as liberators?

    Or do I fight the invaders, even knowing what I know about my government and its foul leader?

    I haven’t quite figured out what I would do in that position.

  • Eric Olsen

    Brian, being that humans are human, you will find elements of the sins you enumerated in ANY government, but to compare the US in time of war (which began 9/11) to Saddam’s Iraq is to so expand perceived “similarities” and deny clear dissimilarities as to create a grotesque parody.

    Bush may have won a disputed election, but he didn’t get, um, 100% of the vote for one example.

    Come on – there are no similarities other than rhetorical, and if I was an Iraqi I’d want that fucker out of there and I would welcome the troops that have sacrificed their own to protect my fellow civilians.

    It’s fear and inertia holding tings together – that’s all.

  • san

    “It’s fear and inertia holding tings together – that’s all.” Yeah, exactly. In both countries.

  • Eric Olsen

    What – structurally – would you change here?

  • san

    Structurally or legislatively? Structurally, very little if anything. Legislatively, tighten up the presidential power to command forces without articles fo war. Void (repeal) Patriot Act I and stop Patriot Act II.

    The foundation is, I believe, still as sound as it was two-hundred some odd years ago. The interpretation is getting skewed, but the foundation, the skeleton, was always meant to have parts grafted on to keep things in check. There are no checks and balances on a President who can wage war without Congressional approval.

    Get the right Congress in, all this can be accomplished under our existing structure: no Patriot Act II, repeal Patriot Act I. Amend the Constitution to make absolutely clear, being as specific as possible but relative enough to last the next 50 years, under what conditions the President can command the military to action without Congressional approval.

  • Eric Olsen

    Surely the difference between the US now and the US you would choose does not merit the comparison to Iraq.

    Incidentally, I agree that we don’t need patriot 2, but as far as I know the only people to suffer under P1 have been terrorists, sympathizers and illegal aliens.

    Again, no Iraq in sight.

  • san

    There’s a lot of misplaced power between the US now and the US I would choose. Does Bush equal Saddam? No. Does the environment exist right now in the US where we could tip into full-out fascism? Certainly. Will we? I don’t know.

    P1 is too vague. There’s no reason any law enforcement agency should have access to wiretaps, etc., etc., without a warrant for any period of time. The argument has been that they may have to act so fast they won’t have time for a judge to review the warrant. Hah! They wake judges in the middle of the night to review warrants on minor drug cases. If the federal authorities want judicial sanction, it’s there: magistrates are more than willing to make themselves available.

  • Eric,

    “Come on – there are no similarities other than rhetorical…”

    I would put this differently. I would say there are no differences other than degree.

    First, that we are “at war” (if the permanent “war on terrorism” can really be called that–when is it over?) is no excuse. Iraq has been under seige for over 10 years. Whatever claim we have to a wartime government, Iraq certainly has an equal claim.

    TORTURE. We torture now. We used to be dead-set against it. Even discussing its merits was taboo. Not anymore. Now we do it. That’s not “rhetorical,” Eric. It’s a threshold. We’ve crossed it. We almost certainly haven’t achieved the quantity of torture that Saddam’s regime has, but we’re doing it. There is merely a significant degree of difference.

    UNLAWFUL DETENTIONS. We do this now. There is a special category of person who can be detained without a trial or counsel or any other civil rights. “Suspected terrorist.” We don’t do it as much, but we’ve crossed the threshold–we do it.

    SECRET “TRIALS” AND EXECUTIONS. Not only do we hold people without any due process, we try, convict and execute them, too. How many? UNKNOWN. That’s the whole point of secrecy. Is it a dozen men? Two dozen? A thousand? We don’t know. There is no way to get reliable figures, even from Amnesty International. The only thing we know for sure is that we do it. We’ve crossed that theshold.

    It pains me as an American that this is what I have to say in order to defend my country: “But we don’t do it it as much.” That’s good enough for most Americans in conversation with other Americans. But it doesn’t export.

    Put yourself in the shoes of an Iraqi. You know that Saddam tortures and kills to maintain his regime. But you also hear credible accounts that the U.S. is now torturing and killing those Arabs whom it secretly deems to be “terrorists.” You know Saddam jails people who don’t deserve it. But you hear America’s own government state outright that it will hold indefinitely any Arab it suspects of “terrorism.” That much-vaunted “due process” you’ve heard about, which did make the U.S. sound like a superior system, is suddenly thrown out, for a certain category of people. What people? Arabs. People like you. As long as they are “suspected” of “terrorism.” And you know how slippery those terms can be.

    You know that your President, Saddam, is illegitimate. But you’ve also heard that George W. Bush was not elected by “majority rule,” but was instead appointed by Supreme Court justices aligned with his political party, after a skirmish in a state controlled by his brother, in which racial minorities claimed to have been disenfranchised.

    Eric, I’m not asking you to believe that Iraq = U.S. Or that Iraq crimes = U.S. crimes. I don’t believe that. Equality isn’t the issue here.

    I’m saying imagine you are an Iraqi, and the knowledge I outline above is what you have to work with. Why wouldn’t you side with your own country?

  • re: noocular weapons, the USA is already using them. Depleted nuclear shells are being blasted into Iraq, the results which will remain for thousands of years. I also find it interesting that the field testing of electronic pulse weapons is being censored in the US media.

  • Thegcube

    Heroes never even Dream of defeat. Inhumanity takes on far too many forms tobe summed up in so short sighted a question(as if we lose). Victory is not an Option; Victory is all there is. What is it that we have to lose? I do not take the loss of life lightly but lives are lost everyday for what some human being thought was a good enough reason at the time. Choose your sides, choose the winner, but why would anyone choose to lose? I like to call a question like that a symptom of the Al Bundy generation.

  • san

    (Please wait for the page to reload when posting comments. There is a delay, but even if the page load times out, your comments are usually posted. I deleted the extras; they should clear at the next site rebuild.)

    Who said anything about choosing to lose? And I detailed what it is we have to lose in the original essay. Frankly, I call an attitude like yours a symptom of the Ted Bundy generation.