Monday, November 15, 2010

War's apologists

Apologists for George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq — including George W. Bush, who writes in his new memoir that the cause was "eternally right" — point out, quite unexceptionably, that the war accomplished something, even if not the something it was supposed to.

Bush had the decency at least to portray himself as "sickened" by the discovery that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction — before going on to trumpet the war for having eliminated a brutal and threatening regime and instituted democracy (of a sort) in an important Arab country; more-ideological defenders of the war just brush aside the matter of WMD as if it were some nit-picking detail.

(Less logically impressive as a retroactive justification for the war is the oft-repeated mantra that the "surge" "worked," which is rather like endorsing arson on the grounds that such an excellent job was finally done putting out the ensuing blaze. One champion of this line of argument is the otherwise-often sensible David Brooks, who in a column last summer managed to equate liberals who opposed the surge with conservatives who insist that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim.)

It is also a fair point to note that many of the arguments made against the Iraq war are made against every war. Just as every war in American history has been championed by its supporters with soaring talk of honor and freedom, so every war has been damned by its opponents with bitter talk of war profiteers and bereaved mothers.

(The American communists who furiously opposed America's entry into World War II — until they  deliriously championed it following Hitler's attack on Soviet Russia — managed to flip from one to the other with an agility that still must hold a record; at the start of 1941 Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were writing and singing anti-war songs that told of the evil capitalists out to make cannon fodder of Billy Boy:

Can you use a bayonet, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Do you want a silver medal, charming Billy?
No desire do I feel to defend Republic Steel
I'm a young boy and cannot leave my mother.

or defiantly insisted:

Franklin D., listen to me,
You ain't gonna send me 'cross the sea . . .

Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D.,
Seems to me they both agree,
They both agree on killin' me

and a few months later they were belting out rousing choruses of "Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?" and "Round and round Hitler's grave.")

But the question is never whether wars are likely to accomplish something, or whether wars bring death and suffering; the question is whether a war's accomplishments are likely to be worth the sure cost they exact. And one of the most frightening historical facts to emerge about the Iraq war is how little — correct that, no — thought was given to this most basic question by the war's architects.

Bush claimed in his interview on NBC two weeks ago that he himself was "a dissenting voice . . . I didn't want to use force. I mean force is the last option for a President." But as newly declassified government records posted last month by George Washington University's "National Security Archive" make abundantly plain, the war was such a foregone decision in the Bush administration that no decision was ever even made; as the Archive notes (thanks to The Economist's "Lexington" for first calling my attention to this):

Some Bush officials insist the war decision was made just before the March 2003 invasion. The evidence does not support that construction. . . . Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell, observes, “Never to my knowledge, and I’m pretty sure I’m right on this, did the President ever sit around with his advisors and say, ‘Should we do this or not?’ He never did it.” George J. Tenet of the CIA agrees. He wrote, “There never was a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat.” And again, based on conversations with colleagues, “In none of the meetings can anyone remember a discussion of the central questions. Was it wise to go to war? Was it the right thing to do?”

Dwight Eisenhower, a man no one can accuse of sentimentality or pacifism, understood that war was truly a last resort precisely because its consequences were unfathomable and ungovernable, even when the cause was necessary and just. Amid talk in right-wing circles of launching a "preventive war" against the Soviets in the late 1940s, Eisenhower delivered several sharply-worded warnings that "war settles nothing": by its very destructive power it invariably unleashes as many new problems as it solves.

An honest accounting of the consequences of the Iraq war would include some legitimate accomplishments for good; it would also include:

  the strengthening of Iran, which is almost certain (unlike Saddam's Iraq) to soon possess nuclear weapons;

  the death of Iraqi Christianity and the mass exodus of the country's secular intelligentsia;

  the diversion of U.S. and British troops and firepower from Afghanistan and the hunt for Bin Laden;

  and (worst of all to my thinking) the vitiation of American moral authority to summon armed resistance to any future, and potentially far graver, threats

One of the reasons I find the much-neglected War of 1812 such a fascinating study is because of what it vividly shows about the unpredictable consequences of war; for complex reasons, the War of 1812 was a one of those very rare conflicts in which a military stalemate was transformed into an enduring political triumph, both at home and abroad. (In part it was because America went into the war such an utter underdog; in more recent wars America has more often played the role of the muscle-bound giant obliging played by Great Britain back in 1812.)

Far more typical are wars that are won on the battlefield only to be lost in the peace — and in the ensuing seismic disruptions that war inescapably brings.


I have just posted at the "News and Reviews" section of my author website a pdf of the talk I gave this year at the Society for Military History conference on the political ramifications of American and British war strategies in the War of 1812.