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Some cold words about war

LI has noticed a very American thing in the papers: an unconscious reversal of one of the benchmarks of the Bush escalation. The pro-war people and the anti-war people are seemingly agreed that one of the benchmarks of the success of the escalation is a downturn in American casualties. This is … wrong. And very typical of the struggle for the soul of the American war machine since Grant and McClellan’s day – I refer you to various tiresome posts I’ve made on this point. The number of American soldiers killed per diem since American forces concentrated in Baghdad has gone up. But – and here is the sick thing about war – it has gone up way too little, if what the Americans really intend to do is pacify Iraq. This points to the central flaw of the American strategy - it refuses to confront violence on every front in Iraq, but allows the carriers of violence elbowroom in which to operate. You often see hawks bemoaning the 'restrictions' on the American military. Just let em go! Except that the increase in American casualties is what would inevitably result, no matter what other consequences one would see. When Americans start seeing sixty soldiers killed per diem, as in Vietnam, the hawk dream would truly be over. The Bush idea - all war, no sacrifice - is founded in a pile of deep, smelly shit, and would quickly be exposed as such if the Bushies actually went for real war - and thus, real sacrifice.

The Petraeus strategy is nothing more than pork and beans counter-insurgency. This means, in some ways, shedding the defensive sheathe within which the American military operates. American military technology has always been a straddle between the McClellan pole – affording maximum protection to American life and limb – and the Grant pole – visiting excess devastation on the enemy, no matter what the cost in American lives. The logical end result of the dialectic is in such things as the firebombing of Japan, one of the greatest war crimes ever committed. This was justified, by all concerned, as a way of saving American lives. By establishing that as a standard, one can, of course, justify unlimited and unregulated warfare. The McClellan-Grant dialectic is, obviously, a subset of the dialectic of vulnerability that is at the heart of the American war culture.

However, wars are unlike bowling, in that there is no machine to exactly place and line up your pins. Going into war with a rigid set of parameters, Americans will be placed at a disadvantage if the war does not conform to those set of parameters. This is why, back in 2004, when great military minds like Christopher Hitchens (ho ho ho) were mewling on about how America can’t lose the war in Iraq, militarily, they were talking out of their assholes. In the same way the same position, voiced about the Vietnam war, long ago, was also pointless shit. Wars aren’t defined by what the American military can do best – they are self-defined. There isn’t an arbitrary divide that allows one to divide the political and the military in a war, as opposed to a war game. War games have no casualties, and cost very little. Wars have casualties and, the way Americans fight them, cost a lot. Cost is a time line – credit always comes with a clock inside it, ticking away. When you read military men saying, in some Washington Post article, that the war will last for another five years, you are hearing military men saying, we lost the war. It’s over with. Another five years, at current costs, would be well over 700 billion dollars. Against this, the insurgents and the militias are going to spend, tops, maybe 500 million dollars. That is the huge insurgent advantage when facing a better equipped army that can neither sluff off that equipment – thus, perhaps, extending its time of action, at the expense of dramatically inflating its casualty figures – nor unleash the weaponry it has spent the most on.

Oh, fuck it. I’m gonna quote myself. This is my post from February 13, 2003 – from before the war. I think it stands up pretty well:

"A few days ago we mentioned McClellan and Grant as the two poles of the American attitude towards war. The more we've mulled over this point, the more we think there is a tasty essay here. The point is simple. Empires persist because of a willingness of the citizens of the empire to endure a certain constant level of casualties in the course of maintaining the empire. If we take the British empire, for instance, its expansion through numerous small wars in the nineteenth century was made possible, at home, because of a willingness to sanction an annual tribute of British lives to the ideal of maintaining and expanding the empire in India, Central Asia, and Africa. From the Sepoy Mutiny to the Boer War, this willingness was often tested, and rarely provoked the kind of backlash that would rein in the imperial ambitions of the British Government.

In contrast, the United States did not seek that kind of empire. Briefly, the U.S. embarked on an expansion at the turn of the century, but in comparison to the French, the British, and even the Germans, the American effort was relatively minor. A recent book by a Wall Street Journal writer, Max Boot, documents the many small wars that America has engaged in to shore up the idea that Empire is, indeed, in the American grain. However, more significant is the rarity of any long-term occupation resulting from those wars. Occupation means more than soldiers being stationed in a place -- it means the gradual transfer of a whole administrative apparatus. This was the backbone of the British empire, but only the Phillipines, and, briefly, Cuba, tempted the Americans to do likewise. There's a reason for that: while Americans have traditionally shyed away from situations that involve attrition over the long term. It is that reflex which dooms the imperial project.

It is not that Americans are averse to bloodshed. While the British were constructing their empire out of multitudinous border wars, Americans did endure, in the Civil War, violence of a much more concentrated and horrific kind. And in the twentieth century, the U.S. engagement in World War I and II also saw committment to wars which were comparable, in terms of casualties, to any of the participants. However, I think the pattern of American behavior is more normally represented by the Korean and Vietnam war. In both wars, the reality of high casualties and the expectation that optimal victory would exact more of the same had a determining effect on the American conduct of the war. General Westmoreland once said, famously, that more American lives were lost on the highways during the sixties than were lost in the Vietnam war. This was taken, and should be taken, to be a callous statement. Nevertheless, the callousness it reflects is necessary for any sustained imperial effort. There are no painless empires.

This American pattern is often ignored by American policy makers. The latest example is the kind of ambitious policy in the Middle East being promoted by the circle around Paul Wolfiwitz. According to this circle, America is, in reality, an empire. So using that imperial power, we can remake social and political situations that we don't like in our image. The language of empire now fills our foreign policy journals, as well as conservative weeklies. The opposition to the Bush administration's aggressive plans in the Middle East has concentrated mainly on the cost of war in the narrow sense -- the cost, that is, of invading and defeating Iraq. However, the real question is about the cost of the war in the larger sense -- the cost of exposing an occupying force to the constant attrition of a guerilla war, and to the unexpected violence of factional conflict. This is where the imperial model has failed in the recent past, from Saigon to Somalia. Empires require some legitimation that goes beyond the mere aggrandizement of power. Americans have never accepted any legitimation, over the long run, except national defense. Neither glory nor ideology have garnered American support for a war.

To explain the paradox of American power -- that combination of a high level of military spending with a low level of acceptable risk -- I believe this, it is useful to use McClellan and Grant to represent the two poles of the American dialectic. Both McClellan and Grant started from the same premise: the prerequisite to fighting a war was amassing a force disproportionately greater than the enemy's. However, while the strategic premise was the same, the tactics were much different. McClellan Civil War career has become infamous for the chances he refused to take. He was tender for the lives of his men. It was a this caution that doomed his Virginia campaign of 1862. As one private wrote, "We are at a loss to imagine whether this is strategy or defeat." (Gallagher)

Grant's tactics were very different. He used the advantage of a more numerous army to raise the level of casualties he would accept. This made it possible to continue inflicting casualties on the enemy in a more prolonged way than was ever seen before, in the campaign. The general stress broke the army of Northern Virginia. It is easy to forget that Grant's ultimate success was preceded by general shock at the the bloodletting he was prepared to countenance -- a shock that so shook the Union side that Lincoln, in the middle of the election campaign of 1864, thought he was going to lose. Grant's position was made plain in a telegram Sherman, with whom he was in perfect agreement, sent to Halleck, one of the incompetent Union commanders, after Vicksburg:

``War is upon us, none can deny it. It is not the choice of the Government of the United States, but of a faction; the Government was forced to accept the issue, or to submit to a degradation fatal and disgraceful to all the inhabitants. In accepting war, it should be `pure and simple' as applied to the belligerents. I would keep it so, till all traces of the war are effaced; till those who appealed to it are sick and tired of it, and come to the emblem of our nation, and sue for peace. I would not coax them, or even meet them half-way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it....

This is the kind of language spoken by legendary American commanders, like Sherman, Grant, Patton and Macarthur. The words are stirring. We shouldn't be deluded, however, into thinking that the feelings are typical. McClellan's caution has never been submerged by Grant's boldness in the mix of American foreign policy and military strategy. In fact, it is the McClellan pole that drives the fundamental US military strategy of the moment: replacing the manpower of battle with military technology. The goal is to achieve Grant's objective with McClellan's tenderness for American life. This works in the case of those military engagements that can be decided solely by weaponry. However, occupation is, by definition, not one of those strategies. In fact, by raising the optimistic vision of a bloodless (at least for our side) war, it prepares the guerillas advantage -- blows struck against the occupying forces will be illogically magnified because they are judged against the background of a military technical utopia.

The best argument against the imperial design of the Wolfiwitzes is to appeal to the reality of this American pattern, in which the cost of an enterprise is judged rigidly against the benefit it brings. The benefit brought by regime change in Iraq is obvious -- but the benefit wrought by invading and occupying Iraq is not. The landscape, as it appears to D.C. foreign policy honchos, is one of overwhelming American power. But the landscape since 9/11 has changed. Guerillas may not possess nuclear missiles, but they can forge the weapons of mass destruction out of boxcutters and American airliners. in treating Iraq as though it were merely a problem amenable to a Grant-like solution, we are putting ourselves into a situation in which all alternatives are impalatable. Assuming that 9/11, and the suicide bombers in Israel, are omens of things to come, the occupying U.S. forces in Iraq will be subject to the constant low attrition of guerilla warfare, with its morale breaking concomitants: a desire to strike blows against a dispersed enemy driving general dispersed acts of mayhem against the native population, which in turn creates mutual distrust between American forces and the native population, which in turn creates a gap between the ostensible reasons for the American presence (that they somehow 'represent' the aspirations of the native people) and the reality of it. Bush is edging into a situation in which the choices will be an unacceptable withdrawal from Iraq, and an unacceptable occupation of Iraq.

This situation should look familiar. It is Vietnam.


northanger said…
hmmm, no on the McClellan & Grant thing. it's more like McClellan & Saks Fifth Avenue.