Thursday, September 23, 2004


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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


LI was part of a research project the other day. A graduate student invited us and about four other bloggers to talk with her in a chat room about what we did. It was a pretty enjoyable scene, and we learned some new, fine acronyms – like MSM for main stream media. At one point LI suggested that bloggers don’t report the facts – we aren’t journalists – but frame them. We were surprised that this was generally disputed.

Well, perhaps LI is deluded on this one, but we still think most blog reporting consists of playing Google roulette. In the spirit of which…

The Washington Post published a White House pr release about Iraq in the implausible shape of a news article yesterday, suggesting that, as John Negroponte says in it, "When it comes to calling the plays on the field, especially on sensitive military operations, there's only one quarterback, and his name is Allawi." Negroponte’s metaphor, referring to a game that isn’t played in Iraq, is more truthful than he perhaps realizes. Metaphors, like symptoms, don't lie. The article was a fluff piece in general, in line with a whole history of fluff pieces about various American puppets and proxies that have been installed – with just such heavy breathing by American ambassadors – over the years. We imagine you could substitute Duarte’s name for Allawi, or Thieu’s, or whoever. The imperialist pretence is strictly for American consumption – or rather, American press consumption.

So a forgettable article in the vein of agit-prop, another lie in the mill that keeps running on American and Iraqi blood. But our eye was caught by one sentence in the piece: “Allawi's credibility is also still on the line, despite an early August poll indicating varying degrees of support from more than 60 percent of Iraqis.”

Wow. This 60 percent figure was surely some of that good news that was being suppressed by the ever liberal press. The odd thing about the sentence was the vagueness of its allusion to the poll.

So we looked around via google and finally found the source, something called the IRI, or International Republican Institute..

The IRI institute, from its webpage, looks like it could have been set up by John Negroponte. The place has just appointed a former Bush official president; has just given Condoleeza Rice, of all people, some freedom award; and is right on track with the good news bein’ suppressed by the bad press meme the Bushies have pushed for the last year and a half.

The result is an organization whose polling results are as trustworthy as, well, Saddam Hussein’s vote totals in 2002.

Here’s the killer results for our quarterback in Baghdad:

“Over 51% of Iraqis polled felt that their country is headed in "the right direction," up slightly from IRI's May/June poll. More telling, the number who feel that things are heading in "the wrong direction" has dropped from 39% to 31% over the same time period.

Some of this confidence may be a result of wide public support for the Iraqi Interim Government. Prime Minister Allawi holds an enviable approval rating, with 66% rating him as either "very effective" or "somewhat effective." Likewise, President al-Yawer enjoys the support of 60.6% of Iraqis polled who say that they "completely trust" or "somewhat trust" him.”

Now, usually in a country where there is an exponential increase in the amount of violence – where there are battles raging in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Mosul, bombing strikes against Falluja and the like – the words “right direction” don’t exactly pop out. But not with the hip-happy Iraqis the IRI has polled! They are crazy in love with us – in fact, a full half of them, according to the poll, supported the invasion!

One wonders – did the WP byliners, Robin Wright and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, purposely leave out the name of the source of the poll, or did they even bother to research the White House pr sheet? Reporting or dictation -- you decide.

Comically, after duly announcing that Allawi was running around with the football we bought him, Americans standing about like nature's humble waterboys, the same byliners reported in another story that the Iraqi government announced it would release two women prisoners in response to the demands of the kidnappers – only to be overruled by the waterboys.

“The Iraqi Ministry of Justice announced the impending release of Taha Wednesday morning, insisting it had nothing to do with the demands of the kidnappers of Americans Armstrong and Hensley and their British housemate, Kenneth Bigley.

Later in the day, however, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said that that the women "are in our legal and physical custody. They will not be released imminently. Their legal status, like the other detainees, is under constant review."

That one story totally contradicts another is seemingly no problem for the WP journalists. To keep the war effort going, Americans need to be lied to in small ways and large. After all, this is the war the WP helped whip up last year.

What’s the line in the Dylan song, Highway 61, about promoting the next world war?

“… he found a promoter who nearly fell on the floor
“I’ve never engaged in this kind of thing before, but – yes
I think it can be very easily done…”

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Since LI has been slamming Kerry, fair play (as well as Pavlovian psychology) suggests that we praise him for good moves. So let's get it up for the speech on Iraq yesterday. Sure, he should have made it two months ago. Sure, the delay was inexplicably self-subverting… But the speech was firm, just, and outlined what Bush did badly and what Kerry will do to fix those mistakes. We now actually have two candidates with two positions. It is like having ... a democracy.

Our only complaint is that he should connect, as clearly as possible, what William Saletan, in a rather smarmy summary of Kerry's speech in Slate, calls "opportunity cost." We call it the failure to confront reality. We are talking about the subordination of the war on terrorism part of the war on terrorism to a sideshow. Kerry should learn to say Osama bin Laden's name. And then he should say it a lot. He should take a hint from this column by Joe Conason in the NY OBS commemorating bin Laden's survival and flourishing three years after 9/11. Three years ago we were promised that bin Laden would be taken dead or alive; as Conason reminds us, the dead, here, don't include Osama, but do include 1,000 U.S. GIs, and 10-13,000 Iraqis. It's a joke served very coldly to us this 9/11.

Sunday, September 19, 2004


One of our favorite stories about predictions concerns a bet made in the seventies between Paul Ehrlich, a famous biologist and environmentalist, and Jules Simon, a libertarian economist. Ehrlich, who believed that population would push the use of natural resources to the breaking point, took a bet on a basket of metals in 1980. The bet was about the price of the metals in 1990. If Ehrlich’s thesis was right, the price of the metals would obviously go up. Simon bet they wouldn’t. Simon won.

This is often interpreted, by libertarians, as proof that environmentalism is all hooey. LI thinks that interpretation is all hooey. Actually, the alarmism of Ehrlich, on one end, and the regulatory momentum that was set in place during the Nixon years, worked to make industry greener – both in the U.S. and abroad. In other words, prediction doesn’t happen in a neutral environment: that a prediction is made in a certain context can have an effect on the outcome. Environmental alarmists have been wrong partly because they have been effective – their alarmism had induced changes in the industrial system such that the supply of copper necessary to sustain the system per person in the global system, for instance, in 1980, was much less in 1990. This is called, by management people, loose coupling.

Keeping this in mind, LI has been thinking about the Bush second term.

The most obvious question is: what will that term mean for Iraq, and the Middle East in general?. We don’t have any predictions per se, but we do think we can spot the components of the possible scenarios.

We think that Bush’s re-election has to be viewed in the larger context of the other Republican victories. As this Post story makes clear, Kerry’s campaign doldrums aren’t just affecting his prospects, but the prospects of the Dems in the house. Essentially, if Bush wins big, the Senate’s minority of Democrats will shrink. This will remove what little restraint the opposition party provided in D.C. The House, of course, is going to become Republican to an almost insurmountable degree. Texas, for instance, is on the verge of putting in place about ten new Republican reps.

Given the vast and almost incomprehensible incompetence of the Bush people in managing the ‘war on terrorism’ so far, in other circumstances this would surely signal an expansion of the war in the Middle East to Syria and Iran. The post Powell State Department would certainly be on-line for that adventure. And it will be vigorously pushed by the Pentagon pump house gang. One of the real winners in the upcoming election will be Cheney, whose side – the President’s base – will be massively owed.

One thing this will certainly mean, given the characteristic bloodthirstiness of this group, is a lot more Iraqi deaths. The Vietnam comparisons are always to the number of Americans killed – not to the number of Iraqis killed. But with the re-installation of an ultra-hawkish wing in D.C. (who will justly take the election as a legitimation of their methods) surely we will see an acceleration of Rumsfeld’s kind of warfare – the terror bombing of Fallujah, the pillage of Najaf, that kind of thing. The Bush people have been pushing a re-definition of the aim in Iraq as ‘working democracy” – which means that they will skew what election process they allow, in January, to put in an American puppet. Allawi is the candidate right now, and he does have one essential quality – he will rubber stamp any terror tactics the U.S. forces take against the Iraqi population. But it is hard to see how an election, no matter how corrupt, could be won by Allawi. Without opposition in Washington, however, there might be no pressure to hold elections at all. Postponing the elections next year would surely be on the Pump house wish list.

What are the constraining factors here? We think the major constraint is the Bush fear of having to resource its war. It has been obvious for some time, in Iraq, that the distance between what Bush says is the goal in Iraq and Iraqi reality could have only been bridged if Iraq were treated as a serious occupation. That would require about two to three times the manpower that is there right now. Instead, this war is being fought like a child playing with the puddles from its bottle of milk on the high chair – American soldiers go into an area, ”pacify” it, then withdraw. Then the insurgents return. Going to war with Iran and/or Syria is going to require a lot more military manpower. We think the fear of that will drive the Bush administration to make threats, and to maybe use its airpower, but not to invade. The worst case scenario would be: seeing that we need a proxy in the Middle East, Wolfowitz et al encourage an Israeli attack on Syria.

The down side of the constraint on Bush’s aggression is that the administration will increasingly use Rumsfeld tactics. That is why we expect a big upsurge in Iraqi deaths – that will be the major characteristic of at least the first year of the Bush administration. At a certain number of deaths, as Saddam Hussein has shown, a country can be pacified. Will the Bush people reach this threshold?

Another component enters the picture, here. That’s the unknown variable of the network that has radiated out from Al Qaeda. Again, the vast, almost incomprehensible incompetence shown by the Bush people in the past, vis a vis Al Qaeda, will no doubt continue. So far, the Bush’s have benefited enormously from their errors – from the attack on the towers itself, from the comedy of the WMD, and from actually colluding in the preservation of a continuing Al Qaeda threat in Peshawar. Each of these were failures that should have brought down the administration. Instead, they renewed the allegiance of the American public to this administration. Will the thinking in the administration change about these things? We’d guess that the answer, for Pavlovian reasons, is no. When the button rings and the animal responds badly, and is rewarded multiply for the bad response, it will keep responding in the same way when the bell rings again. Other terrorist attacks, in Europe, Latin America, or the U.S., will be mishandled in the same way, and surrounded by the same aura of propaganda that will disallow criticism of the performance as a subtle aiding of the perpetrators.

To sum up: four more years of Bush, if these components are near correct, will lead to a multiple of Iraqi deaths, more successful terrorist attacks, and a belligerence towards Iran and Syria that will either encourage a war between Israel and Syria, or will, at the least, lead to some American military action, short of war, targeting one of those countries. Wild cards here are the effectiveness of the Al Qaeda like organizations – will they, for instance, opt for what, to an outside observer, seems like the obvious ploy? Namely, disrupting the flow of oil. Especially Saudi oil. Will the Saudi royals, through its usual combination of mass murder and bribery, be able to tamp down its rebels? And finally, if Israel under Likud has already managed to seize a goodly portion of the West Bank. Will it be satisfied with that amount, or will it try for more?

There is a loose coupling between the economy and foreign policy. We are going to compartmentalize the economy, keeping in mind that the boundary, here, is abstract, and that economic factors – an oil crisis, for instance, or some radical shift in the value of the dollar – can have incalculable effects on the components we’ve outlined above.

PS An excellent preview of coming attractions in the second Bush term is given in today's thuggish Washington Post editorial on Iran. It is extremely useful reading, the real "blood in our mouths" thing: mass murder as foreign policy, from the same people who gave us the invasion last year. No doubt the editorialist will keep his kids well away from any dying -- there's nothing like sending the working class off to kill the working class to make a newspaper feel good about itself.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

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