Monday, June 27, 2005
Do we have the will to win?
A confluence of events now lead me to wonder whether we as a people still have the strength of character to see this through, even as far as we have come, and as much blood and treasure as we have spilled. It is not just the ceaselessly and reflexively pessimistic way in which the news media spins events in Iraq and Afghanistan through a defeatist lens. Read, for example, the way the Washington Post covered the smashing of Taliban remnants as they massed in formations large enough to potentially be combat effective: Their destruction, rather than a victory for the forces of democracy and liberalism against those of an indisputably fascist reaction is through the alchemy of tendentiousness miraculously transubstantiated into "fresh evidence of the Taliban's resilience..." But we have all grown accustomed to the strange little biases of the chattering class, so it's more than that which has set me to thinking. - I am old enough to remember the shameful way in which our returning Vietnam veterans were treated by some among those who opposed the war. The soldiers were all too often vilified, hounded with epithets like "baby killer" and "war pig" and "murderer." They were young draftees, for the most part, people who had only answered their country's call to arms, like their fathers and grandfathers had before them. But they were unfortunate enough to have grown up in a time when Cold War turned for an extended period into proxy war, and from proxy into intervention at a moment when large swathes of the opinion making elite had had either grown too personally comfortable, morally relativistic or fundamentally wooly-headed about the foundational values of our society to be able to distinguish between an imperfect democracy in our ally and near-total tyranny in our foe. And anyway, what did all of that have to do with us ? We were coming dangerously close to a place where people wanted "perfect lives." A place where someone who got beaned with a foul ball at a baseball park felt that they had a right to sue somebody. A place where someone spilling coffee in their own lap had a right to damages. A place where nothing should be attempted in the world unless it be perfectly motivated and perfectly executed. - Such vilification of those who actually served where the bullets were flying, as much as anything else, laid an almost indelible mark upon an impressionable young Lex, and colored my (I admit it) prejudices against the latest manifestation of anti-war groups. But although I recognized with grim disdain some of the animating forces behind their protests, I also appreciated the fact that most of the anti-war protesters scrupulously avoided demonizing the troops sent forth to do the country's fighting, and for that they received my grudging respect. The ones I spoke to promised to oppose the strategy, but not the soldiers. Fair enough. - For two long years that has (mostly) held, as people of good will on all sides disagreed, often vehemently, about the war's motives, means and effects - but in doing so, left the troops aside. It must have been frustrating for many on the anti-war left: They were agitating for the removal of troops from combat who were 1) not draftees, but volunteers, and 2) apparently very supportive of the mission, vis re-enlistment rates in the Army well in excess of historical norms and in the Marine Corps (an organization whose need for young, first tour riflemen far outstrips its need for second tour sergeants) far in excess of what could be supported by end-strength mandates. The soldiers clearly looked at this as a national security issue rather than a political one, but for the anti's the effect was the same: Their passion for the mission they were executing, and their ability to express themselves both in the traditional media and in newer ways as well, kept public support (always the center of gravity for a democracy) high. This public support, in turn, served to energize troop morale - American soldiers are profoundly motivated by the love of their countrymen and for them it is possible to gracefully bear nearly any burden, so long as they believe that the sacrifices are appreciated by the folks at home. - But now public figures (as opposed to fringe radicals) have for the first time dabbled their toes in the fever swamps of soldier-smearing. And then quickly (but not too quickly, nor too well) rowing the boat back when they were caught well outside the boundaries of respectable public opinion. - But even now the public mood seems to have shifted from support for the soldiers, the war and its architects to opposition to the war itself, and the administration responsible for getting us in it. The soldiers, at least, are still spared. This is an opposition fostered not merely through the relentlessly negative mainstream spin, nor the politicization of the war, but also one has to admit from a series of disappointments in expected outcomes, lost opportunities and above all the steady drip-drip-drip of casualties with no apparent end in sight. That, and the appalling bloodlust of our adversary, the kind of brutal, orgiastic bestiality from which a peace-loving civilization naturally recoils in shock and horror. We ask ourselves, who are these people? Are these the same people with the ink-stained fingers whose courage we applauded in January? How do we square such a jarringly dissonant circle? It is too much: We would, collectively, like it all to go away. We have grown tired of the world, tired of its inhabitants. And we have been here before. - And in spite of the fervor for the mission by troops in the field, the Army and Marine Corps are struggling to make their new accession quotas. Too much of the youth of our nation, grown on a diet of crass corporate commercialism and cultural relativism, appears to fear a draft more than it resents the importunities of the Salafist Jihad. Let someone else fight the war. Many parents feel the same way - and who can blame them? The burger line at Hardee's is as good as Harvard, so long as it keeps their children out of Haditha, or Habinaya or Hit. - When the Army, like all the services faced with limited resources, quite wisely attempted to narrow their search for new recruits to a demographic which has historically proven to be most receptive, privacy advocates (and, one suspects, opponents of the war) parried with privacy concerns - neglecting to mention, or forgetting, that every 18 year old male must in any case register for the (still defunct) selective service administration. Just in case. So much for privacy. - Now, freedom and democracy are generally taken to be the same thing in an ordered society. And as an advocate for the one and defender of the other, it would be churlish of me to do anything but acknowledge the wisdom of the people as their mood begins to swing and passions shift. For reasons of their own, the political class is starting to do the same - whether those reasons are to do with their responsibilities in a representative democracy or whether they have wet their fingers to the breezes of the upcoming mid-term elections is one I leave for history to determine. But it is worth pointing out that in an age of an all-volunteer force, no clearer demonstration of will against the war can be expressed than that passive denial of the tens of thousands of American youth who have declined to offer up their own lives to fill the emerging gaps in the battle line - as is their perfect right. But before we collectively cry "off, enough, no more," it's worth it to at least examine what we might abandon with a too-hasty exit from the field of endeavor we are currently engaged in. To ask ourselves what all of this might mean. - Whatever you may have thought the war was about in the spring of 2003, it is undeniably now the place and time where the avowed enemies of our civilization are maneuvering their forces in a philosophical and martial clash of arms and terror against the best soldiers our society can offer, together with allied Iraqi forces, themselves struggling to stand up and find their strength. This is where the Salafists go to test their will, strength and courage against a civilazation they have been taught to detest, and the modernism and freedoms it represents. And there, in an asymmetric contest of military power on the one hand and suicidal zeal on the other, with the hapless citizens of Iraq caught in the grinding middle, is where our forces have been destroying them root and branch. But like a hydra, every time a terrorist head gets cut off an new one seems to pop up and take its place. This has become, to paraphrase Fareed Zakaria , a war that we cannot easily lose, but one which we are finding maddeningly difficult to win. - I do not fear an indetermination or lack of resolve from this president, or his cabinet - they have staked everything they have ever accomplished in their lives, as Michael Ignatief has noted, on proving Thomas Jefferson's assertion that democracy would eventually triumph throughout the world. But there are many other powerful men in government who have no personal stake in Mr. Bush's war, but rather have a great deal of interest in remaining in office, or enhancing their power - men who know how to tack the ship of state with the breezes of public opinion. And there are some among his opponents who by their words and actions apparently wouldn't mind seeing the infant of Iraqi democracy strangled in its crib by the calloused hands of Islamist tyranny, if that's what it took to cast Mr. Bush and all his philosophies atop the ash heap of history. Regardless of the human cost, both here and there. Regardless of the treasures already spent. - And there are many hard-eyed, even brutal men overseas, with jealous privileges of their own to guard, who are watching us carefully, and weighing our resolve, testing our strength against their own, to see if we really mean what we say, when we say , "Enough - we will not countenance your tyrannies against your captive populations in the name of stability any more. It was always a moral affront, and bought us no security in the end." And there are the captive populations themselves, those who have only know begun to raise their eyes from the dirt, only know have begun to hope that this time it is different, this time we actually mean to stand for the ideals which we promote as foundational. The ideals which form our national myths, those things we still believe about ourselves, even when almost no one else does. If we betray them to their deaths again, our ideals and the lives of those who have trusted us, we can only hope that God may forgive us, for history never will. - After we left Vietnam, and threw the southerners there to the northern wolves, it took nearly twenty years before we could muster the national will to fight even a limited struggle that was clearly in our national interest. If we leave Iraq too soon, leave the task undone, fall back upon ourselves, it will be at least another twenty years before another generation will be able to do anything but talk about the ideal of freedom and democracy. I wonder if we have that much time. - All of human history is a vector, and we look back from where we came to where we are to analyze where we are going. The historian Paul Johnson, in the opening pages of his magnificent "Modern Times," argues that ideas of Freud (correctly) and Einstein (inaccurately) were seized upon by their contemporary cultural, political and artistic elites to destroy the 19th century's philosophy of personal responsibility - what Johnson calls "the joint heritage of Judeo-Christianity and the classical world." In its place, 20th century sophists luxuriated in notions of cultural relativism and psychosexual self-absorption. We were perhaps all of us fortunate that most of our fathers' generation grew up in the harsh crucible of the Great Depression, immunized from the corrosive effects of such thinking by the need to scratch out an existence in trying circumstances. Otherwise it is doubtful that the men who stormed ashore against the guns of a different kind of tyranny at Normandy and Saipan could have done so with a kind of stolid physical courage such that today it nearly defies comprehension. No, it took a number of years before such high brow notions were recycled for the consumption of the public masses. But we have been fed a steady diet of this noxious pabulum ever since, and now I begin to worry what it has done to us. - When America grows tired, and Europe exhausted, from defending our civilization and its benefits, leaving us once again to withdraw from the world, cringing at our own borders, awaiting the next blow - - When the service of one's country in a time of need rests increasingly upon the sons and daughters of servicemen (a petri dish for praetorianism), rather than upon the nation's youth at large - - When we come to examine cost alone, and not value of accomplishment - - When winning at politics trumps winning at war - - When the sacrifices of the many who fight for us are diminished by an unremitting focus on the failures of the few, sapping the morale of all - - When the public will of the greatest power for good the world has ever known, a country of unprecedented moral, material, economic and military power blanches in the face of the brutality of a sadistic few, betraying its ideals and allies - - Then yes, we could lose. - And after that, we will have to ask ourselves, as we travel down our historical vector: What are we now, now that we are not what we were?