The Hobby war

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the German army at
once took the offensive. According to its doctrine, all acts in battle were to be governed by one thought: forward against the enemy at any cost.8 Since Germany’s strategy was tied to the ‘short war’ concept, the German high command under Helmuth von Moltke the younger gave little thought to the state of public opinion, although it was ready to ‘energetically suppress all attempts to undermine the political truce’. In mid-August 1914 the chief of the general staff of the field army was satisfied with the ‘popular unanimity of enthusiasm’ and ‘the united attitude of the parties and the press towards war’.9 The so-called spirit of 1914 thus entered German war mythology.10
– “Ludendorff and Hitler in Perspective: The Battle for the German Soldier’s Mind, 1917–1944” by
Jürgen Förster

One of the mysteries of the war in Iraq is that the war’s most ardent supporters are also the most ardent supporters of Bush. On the face of it, something is wrong here.

Supporting the war would seem to mean that one desires a winning strategy to a goal.

In this way, supporting the war in Iraq shouldn’t be that different from, say, supporting your local football team. If that team is the best in the country and it went through a series of matches in which it started to lose, fans would soon be asking pointed questions about the coach and about the star players. Money would be brought up – money, in America, is tightly coupled (it is our favorite myth) with merit. Radio station talk shows would be deluged with callers pointing out that the quarterback has a multimillion dollar salary, or the coach has a multimillion dollar salary, and that they aren’t delivering, and what are we going to do about it, etc. , etc.

The analogy is not perfect, of course, but it says something about the rationality of “supporting a side.” The counter-argument would be something like, well, the true fan should bear with the team as if loses, since the moral support thus lent leads to better team performance. The latter is a case of “magic thinking” – that is, the idea that an event can be willed into existence without the intermediation of an act. Mass magic thinking goes into such things as reviving Tinkerbell, dieting, and finding Jay Leno funny.

In the case of Iraq, the criteria for success were laid out, very clearly, by the Bush administration at the beginning of the war. They laid out how much it would cost; they laid out how many troops it would take to win it; and they laid out the goal of installing democracy in Iraq. The last entailed privatizing the economy, federalizing the state, creating a division of power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and guaranteeing human rights.

In the past fourteen months, they have been wrong to an n-tuple on the amount it would cost, wrong on the amount of troops it would take to win it, and unable or unwilling to hold an election, or even to make stick the constitution that they so widely publicized before the dissolution of the CPA. (one of the many surprising and interesting things in Peter Galbraith’s NYRB article about Iraq was that the constitution, which made headlines in the NYT as it was being contentiously sewn together, turned out to be illegal. Under international law, the moment sovereignty is transferred from the occupier to the host country, the occupiers laws are null and void. In other words, the Allawi government quietly liquidated the constitution. This provoked not one headline). The markers of the failure are clear not only in money spent, but in terms of lives lost and number wounded.

Now, in this case, failure has many fathers, and they have made themselves prominent. We know who decided to invade and occupy Iraq with 150,000 men: Donald Rumsfeld. We know what happened to the General who claimed that that figure understated the reality by half or a third: he was retired. We know who claimed the war would cost in the region of 10 billion dollars: Paul Wolfowitz. We know who went through the intelligence about Iraq: Douglas Feith. Their actions are in the public record.

And we also know this: not one subordinate has suffered for these failures; not one lesson has been learned. Dramatic tactical shifts have occurred on the field as the U.S. military, responding to political pressure, has started to fight a war that is almost a replica of the Vietnam war – take a territory, withdraw from a territory. However, the overriding feature of this war remains the same: the Bush administration wants to fight it while refusing to finance it, or man it. It is a new thing: a superpower hobby war.

If the pro-war side were animated by the same rationality that dictates the behavior of, say, the fan, one would imagine that, for instance, the warbloggers would be spewing the blackest kind of bile at Bush. One would imagine that there would be widespread demands for more troops to be sent to Iraq – a lot more troops, double the amount now on the ground there. The scandal of not having spent the 18 billion dollars in Iraq that was earmarked for the place a year ago would be constantly a theme. Although the goal of installing democracy is a bit hazy, and the support for it in America seems to be a massive act of bad faith more than anything else, surely there should be widespread unhappiness with fourteen months spent appointing the Iraqi power structure out of a pool of exiles who, every man jack, have created militias for themselves, and, to put it kindly, “usurped’ property for their leaders.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, a curious other thing has happened.

On Paul Craddick’s website a few days ago, Paul linked to an article by Victor Davis Hanson , who has been writing about the war for the NRO for two years now. LI doesn’t much care for Hanson as a military theorist or historian. John Keegan, equally conservative, is infinitely wiser. So is Anthony Beevor. However, the quote Paul extracted seems so typical of the moral frivolity, the non-engagement, of the prowar party that we had to quote it ourselves:

"It is always difficult for those involved to determine the pulse of any ongoing war. The last 90 days in the Pacific theater were among the most costly of World War II, as we incurred 50,000 casualties on Okinawa just weeks before the Japanese collapse. December 1944 and January 1945 were the worst months for the American army in Europe, bled white repelling Hitler's last gasp in the Battle of the Bulge. Contemporaries shuddered, after observing those killing fields, that the war would go on for years more. The summer of 1864 convinced many that Grant and Lincoln were losers, and that McClellan alone could end the conflict by what would amount to a negotiated surrender of Northern war aims."

There’s something so bathetic about these heroic instances, a separation from the reality principle so deep, that it cries out for the proper novelistic treatment. In the Civil War, Lincoln issued the largest call up of volunteers ever effected in the U.S. By 1864, the North had experienced two years of the draft. Grant relied on the manpower that Lincoln was willing to provide him, and in the Virginia campaign lost the equivalent of the number of American soldiers in Iraq. This, to hold a territory that is one tenth the size of Iraq. By WWII, of course, totale Mobilmachung, as Ernst Juenger put it – total mobilization – put all the hostile states on a war footing. Even the Vietnam War was resourced, although Johnson feared to mobilize the country on the scale the war called for.

The case of the Iraq war shows that a superpower can be wealthy enough to start and engage in a losing war for a number of years. Support for the war and Bush is conjoined by one shared mental trait: willing the end and refusing to will the means. Instead of a draft, the pro-war people demand – a comforting analogy. It is as if the doctor prescribed warm milk for gangrene. Instead of holding the people who botched the occupation responsible, instead of drawing the obvious conclusion from their pack of analogies – that the number of soldiers is critical to winning a war -- the prowar side holds that the analogies themselves will win the war. Meanwhile, the military, who insisted for months last year that there were only about 2,000 insurgents – or “terrorists” – in Iraq, can calmly announce that they killed 2,000 insurgents in Najaf in August without anybody raising an eyebrow. Even Hitler’s propaganda machine, at the time of Stalingrad, would have hesitated to put these kind of lies over. But partly that is because the people of Germany were experiencing the war. The chief thing about the war in Iraq so far is that the experience of it is segregated, for the most part, to expendable populations: the Iraqis themselves, and a volunteer army composed mostly of working class kids. Hence, the hobby of killing them off is, at the moment, politically cheap.

And so the prowar people collude in shifting the one criteria that counts in a war – who is wining and who is losing – to the criteria of whether the U.S. is good or not – to the question of how many schools have been built, rather than the question of how many school children have been killed. That school children will be killed is an inevitable corollary to waging a modern war – LI doesn’t doubt that. That is the burden of supporting a war. But that those school children are being killed in a war that is being waged as an expensive hobby, an airplane model war, transforms those deaths into an indictment of post 9/11 America, where obliviousness has been fatally merged with power lust. This war retains its precarious popularity only to the extent that it is conducted frivolously, which is why Bush is the perfect person to wage it.

Our quote, from Jürgen Förster’s article about morale in Germany during two world wars, will be the occasion of our next post.