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?