Dr. Sanity has a fine rant up about how the defense mechanism of denial can serve to keep a person’s belief system intact and help avoid the difficult and threatening task of changing one’s mind in the face of evidence that contradicts that worldview.
Something tangential to her main point happened to catch my eye, and started me thinking about a different issue: how to plan for war.
Dr. Sanity writes about the buildup to the Iraq War:
It is true that the U.S. planners did not anticipate a delayed and fierce resistance from the dead-enders in Iraq. Everyone did expected a humanitarian disaster and refugee problem–which did not materialize as it turns out. But that is one one of the messy things about war –and reality. Things are not perfect. The unexpected happens.
That got me to thinking: just what did military planners expect would happen in the Iraq war? Do we really know, or do we just think we know? How does one plan for a war and its aftermath?
I have no military experience, much less military planning experience. But it’s my understanding that military planners usually try to plan for any and all eventualities in war. Some scenarios are more likely than others, of course, and that’s the tricky part–choosing the most likely.
It is often said, for example, that generals prepare for the previous war, the one already fought, rather than the one facing them. I doubt that’s because generals are so stupid. It’s just so easy for them to seem stupid, because preparing for the war you are about to enter is notoriously difficult, for the very reasons Dr. Sanity cites: the unexpected happens. Always.
But still, military planners can–and must–try to anticipate all realistic possibilities, and to have a plan for how to deal with each one. Then they have to choose which are the most likely of the lot to happen, and get the people and material in place to meet them. The best they can do if (and when) they happen to guess wrong is to try to adjust as soon as humanly possible, and to implement the alternative plans. If something happens that was totally unforeseen and unplanned for (and it will, it will!), then they better be able to scramble and quickly assemble a force that can deal with it.
We who ordinarily plan for nothing more complex than a vacation or a business start-up or a move may find it difficult to believe that war is different. But it is–although planning for those things is difficult enough!
I think this general lack of knowledge about planning for war comes from our general lack of knowledge of history, combined with the happy fact that, with the end of the draft (an end which I support, by the way), it has become the exception rather than the rule for Americans to have served in the military themselves.
Outside of war buffs, I think there’s widespread ignorance about the way wars work, and the difficulties inherent in them. I may be a good example of the typical student in this regard. When I was in school, I wasn’t all that fond of history, especially its military details. My eyes would glaze over when we’d come to the war part. I had some interest in what might cause a war (what I seem to recall they divided into “underlying causes” and “immediate causes”). But the conduct of the war itself was just a blur of dates and campaigns and battlefield names, to be memorized and forgotten, with no understanding on my part of the strategy involved, and no attempt on the part of the teachers to teach it.
One of the things I’ve learned since that time is the old saying that in war, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. We civilians, the ones who read the newspapers and try to judge the course of a war, find it frustratingly difficult to listen to those words and to truly understand what they mean.
That famous quote about plans not surviving contact with the enemy is actually part of a longer passage, quoted more extensively here:
It was Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian general staff during the wars of German unification, who observed that “no plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force. Only the layman thinks that he can see in the course of the campaign the consequent execution of the original idea with all the details thought out in advance and adhered to until the very end.”
The commander, wrote Moltke, must keep his objective in mind, “undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events….But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.”
Yes, war is a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. And it’s with that understanding that this war–and all wars–needs to be evaluated.
The politicians who feel a war is necessary, and the military they rely on to plan that war, do have a duty to explain the reasons why that war needs to be fought, and what will likely be involved in fighting it (and I think, by the way, that Dr. Sanity’s post makes a good case that the reasons given for fighting the war in Iraq were actually many and varied, although the left may be in denial about that fact). They also have a duty to explain that, nevertheless, the unforeseen and unexpected will happen, and that the course won’t be easy. And yet they have a concommitent duty to show a resolute and stubborn optimism about the endeavor as a whole (Churchill, for example, was the absolute master of that sort of thing). They also have a duty to be basically honest in carrying out all of these prior duties (which, by the way, is what the anger concerning the failure to find WMDs is about on the part of those who truly believe that Bush lied about them–although those people may also be in denial about the fact that most of the world agreed with Bush that Saddam had them).
One of the most common arguments against the administration’s planning and conduct of the war is that it underestimated the resistance that would be put up, saying that it would be a “cakewalk,” and that later events proved them utterly wrong. Is this true? Who made the “cakewalk” prediction? And to what aspect of the war was he actually referring? And why was that resistance or insurgency (or whatever name we give the terrorism and sabotage that has gone on in the aftermath of the war) seemingly worse than anticipated?
(Tune in for Part II, appearing tomorrow….)