How to Lose a War

There's a lot of beating around the bush in Washington, in the media, and in the think tanks these days. Everyone has something to day about the disastrous war in Iraq - how we should pull out, how terrible mistakes were made. But no one dares utter the L word. But there it is. The US lost. Again.

It's very hard for Americans to admit defeat. We like to be plucky and confident and upbeat. We don't really have a national narrative that allows defeat (unlike, say, the Polish, who suffer from the opposite problem). But it would be healthier to just own up, say we have been defeated, and figure out how to move on.

We have experienced this before, of course. Vietnam. Yes, the United States was defeated, whipped, driven out in a humiliating manner. But in the years afterwards, the politicians and rulers slowly, relentlessly, built their case, built their edifice of lies and deceptions. At first it was simply a comment that, "We won't be having another Vietnam," a tacit admission that it was a defeat. But then over the years the myths were built up. We could have won except for the cowardly politicians. We would have won except for the antiwar movement that was mean to the poor G.I.'s and spat on them. We actually did win but the liberal media never let us know.

These are all lies and myths but they have become accepted wisdom. Finally they declared that we had shaken off the "Vietnam syndrome" - like it was a psychological tick - and we were ready for a new foreign war adventure.

So here we are again. Another defeat. And no words to say it. Current politicians find themselves in the same dilemma as the congress in 1972 - how to get the hell out, knowing it is a lost cause, while wanting to not look like the ones who pulled the final plug. The Democrats are willing to let the war drag on another year so the bloody disaster will be on the Republican front porch come election time; if they succeed in getting us out too fast, they might get that old finger pointing from the Republicans.

We who fought against the Vietnam War knew that we faced decades of the "war to explain the war" - the struggle to define the meaning and significance of the defeat for the US. And for a long time, the establishment continued to get the upper hand. But the new disaster demands that we revisit the lessons of Vietnam and now of Iraq. If we had properly faced the lessons of Vietnam, the US would not be bogged down in Iraq.

For the Pentagon, those lessons are encapsulated in tactics - the problem is our errors in understanding how to deal with "asymmetric warfare," the clash between the powerful and the weak. They can take the field with a huge force of high tech machinery, but a small guerrilla assault might make all their efforts worthless.

Part of the problem for the west is that we have grown up thinking that war is a violent confrontation in which the side that exerts the greatest violence, and creates the greatest damage to the enemy, wins. But in reality war is a violent confrontation which goes on until one side or the other gives up. You can "win" battle after battle but still lose the war. Look at Israel, whose every victory puts them in a worse position.

But, even in their extensive discussions of asymmetric and uneven warfare, the American military thinkers are stuck in tactics and are unable to grasp the fact that war is not simply a military confrontation. It is also political, psychological, and even moral. Ultimately, these factors are key in deciding the outcome.

The key reason the US continues to suffer defeat is because it is involved in adventures of conquest in a world determined to throw off today's version of colonialism. The United States is dead wrong in its aggression and people fighting on their own land are always going to outlast them in determination. In the meantime, the think tanks in the US come up with more and more bizarre explanations for the quagmire.

Perhaps one of the most grisly explanations comes from the popular new book, The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam's Threat to the West by Lee Harris which was discussed by Edward Rothstein's article in The New York Times (August 5, 2007). Harris' thesis is that the liberal democracies of the west are naïve in our approach to conflict in the Middle East. I certainly agree that other parts of the world are reluctant to embrace liberal democracy. But the tale Harris tells is something much more insidious.

In his view, the Islamists are driven by a kind of tribal fanaticism, a primordial form of civilization which demands sacrifice, blood vengeance, and terror. We Americans, deluded by our liberal ideology of multiculturalism, make the mistake of trying to battle in a civilized way when we face an adversary that is so vicious and primal. The implication is, of course, that we'd better get ready to do some serious damage, and terror, in order to have any hope of victory.

Harris, along with Rothstein in the Times, suffer from the typical American conceit of innocence: we are simply democrats, shocked by the madness of our adversaries. This racist reversal of reality is a recurrent theme in western culture. A good example is in every high school kid's introduction to political psychology, Lord of the Flies. William Golding posits the Hobbsian notion that we are all vicious at heart and, if not tamed and controlled by civilization, we would go crazy and do violence to each other. So his British schoolchildren, left alone on an island, sink down to the tribal core - they paint their faces, brandish spears, and commence to slaughtering each other. In other words, absent British civilization, we might become "like them," frightening, tribal, something like the Indians or Africans. It's a great scary bedtime story to give your kid nightmares, but it's a lie. Tribal people, indigenous people, lived relatively benign lives, hunting, gathering, and developing crops. Yes, there was violence - small violence between groups or with strangers. But it was the civilized, the British for instance, who developed real industrial-strength slaughter, who learned to kill in the millions. Why fear that we might become "them" when the real heart of darkness is in us?

Likewise with Harris and Rothstein. Their bogeyman is the suicide bomber. And indeed such fighters do horrible, despicable things, to civilians. But suicide bombers are a tiny blip in the world scale of violence. Harris builds up a whole theory around these bombers, who are a small part of the populations they live in. But they ignore the huge violence. What about the American destroyer, hundreds of millions of dollars worth, lobbing shells into Arab cities? How about American fighter planes dropping not-so-smart bombs? Are the Palestinian bombers the bad guys while the Israeli helicopters that hover outside of apartment buildings shooting rockets into them are representations of liberal democracy? Only in our blinkered, racist, culturally stupid (and tribal, in the Harris sense) do we not see this reality. If you put on a uniform, carry expensive equipment, and bestow official titles on your forces your violence is somehow sanitized? If you are a poor person without access to airplanes and you use the sacrifice of one person to deliver the bomb, then you represent evil incarnate? It will sell lots of books in America but won't help us come to terms with the real world we live in.

Harris and Rothstein indulge the classic jingoistic device of demonizing the "other." Conrad nicely exposed this conceit in Heart of Darkness, signaling that all of our representation of the evil of the jungle and the indigenous people was just a projection of our own cruelty and evil.

In the end, it comes down to resources. As long as we continue to amass a huge treasury of wealth extracted from the rest of the world, and enforce that resource inequity with massive violence, we will be the target for small but painful blows of retaliation. Ultimately, in order to be safe and in order to join the civilized world, the west must move towards a more equal distribution of resources. You don't see the state of Indiana carrying out suicide bombings against Ohio. No, because they live with relatively balanced levels of resources and they are not in constant conflict to challenge or defend the inequities.

It would be wonderful if this balancing of wealth and resources could happen through peaceful means. But if it can't happen through peaceful means, it is likely to happen through violence and wrenching crisis. For our children's sake, let's try to bring about this equity sooner rather than later.