It’s the three-year anniversary of the Iraq war, and I’ve read a host of discussions as to how Iraq is doing at this point. Yesterday I linked to Wretchard’s excellent post on the subject (or at least tried to link to it; I hope I’ve been more successful this time). Alexandra has compiled a nice roundup of blog commentary on the subject, and today Dean has posted links to commentary from the Iraqi blogosphere.
Let’s just take a moment and let that last one sink in: the Iraqi blogosphere. Three years ago, such a thing did not exist; or, rather, the Iraqi blogosphere was limited to a single pseudonymous blogger known as Salam Pax, posting clandestinely and at great risk.
The Bush administration says Iraq is not in a civil war, but that terrorists are desperate to foster one, desperate to foment a civil war which would conveniently propel them into the spotlight.
There is no question that one of the important lessons of this war for the enemy (a lesson already learned in Vietnam, but driven home now in modern form) is that the “spotlight”–i.e. worldwide and domestic US press coverage–is worth its weight in gold.
At this point in time, winning the propaganda war is the way to go for militarily weaker entities, be they states or stateless terrorists, if they ever hope to win against the US and its interests. It is actually the only way to do so at present; even the acquiring of nuclear weapons by our enemies would not really change that picture, since it’s highly unlikely that any of those entities would ever achieve parity with the US on that score. Such weapons would merely up the ante and cause more carnage; they wouldn’t change the general equation.
The “spotlight” is another word for propaganda, which I’ve written about here. I’m not an expert on the history of propaganda (although some of my commenters seem to be); maybe some day I’ll take a look at this text. But it’s my impression that, prior to the 20th Century, propaganda was more local in scope due to limitations in communication. It’s only with WWII, and certainly since the advent of television and satellite communications, that propaganda has become not just an adjunct to some wars, but the main weapon of those wars.
All the world is now a vast propaganda stage, and we men and women (and children) merely players (blogs, of course, are part of this).
When I was researching and writing my “change” posts, especially this one, I came across the following quote (taken from this must-read article about the fall of Vietnam) offered by the American officer in charge of negotiating the withdrawal of US troops from the area:
“You know you never beat us on the battlefield,” I said to Colonel Tu, my NVA counterpart.
“That may be so,” he said, “but it is also irrelevant.”
Colonel Tu was a smart man, was he not? As I wrote in that same post close to a year ago:
Lessons learned from Vietnam: all that is necessary to win a war against the US is to turn domestic public opinion against it, even if you are militarily outclassed, even if you are defeated in every battle. It’s a lesson that was not lost on our current opponents. In a sense, our recent task in Iraq has been to reverse that perception…”
It is as true today as it was then. And how do we stack up in that respect? It’s a mixed bag. Yes, we are still in Iraq, despite the complexity of the situation, and the fact that (whatever we might call it: civil war, crime, feud, insurgency, or terrorism) killing is still going on. But there’s also a perception that the only real reason we are there is because George Bush is a stubborn man, and because he happened to have been re-elected by a slim margin. The message of so much of the cacophony of the media is that the American people have to a certain extent accepted their framing of the war as an utter failure, and a chaotic civil war situation, and they want out, the sooner the better.
This perception has its own consequences; I’m afraid that it cannot help but fuel the violence there, even if this is not the intent of its proponents. This is not to say that criticism of the war is verboten. But it is to say that it must be careful, measured, logical, and not motivated by partisanship or irrational hatred.
A great deal of the rhetoric against the war focuses on the toll it’s taken on our military.
That’s an interesting message. On the one hand, we all mourn every military life lost; the human toll is devastating and dreadful (see this).
But the harsh and terrible truth is that, if we are not prepared to incur military losses, we may as well not have a military and not fight at all. We have now advanced so far in the laudable goal of minimizing casualties that the numbers posted on the previously linked antiwar website for the three years of this war–2317 US deaths, 1860 in combat–are considered unconscionable.
“Ah, warmonger!” I can hear some of you cry at what I am about to say next. But pointing out that this is a relatively low death toll, as three-year wars go, is not the same as saying that any of these deaths should not be mourned. They are mourned, and should be mourned, deeply.
But if the message of that mourning is that that is an unacceptably high number, the message is that if an enemy mounts a war of attrition against us, the numbers don’t even have to be very high to defeat us. A slow, steady trickle will do.
Many who are against the war would answer that it is not the sheer numbers that are the issue here, it’s that those deaths are wasted because the war was not necessary, but rather was the whim of a single demented and/or deluded man: George Bush. That’s where all those old arguments about the causes of the war take us. If a person believes, truly believes (for whatever reason) this theory of the war’s genesis, then of course a single death in that cause would be one death way too many, and Bush would be no better than a murderer.
I’m not going to debate that one again here (although it probably won’t stop anyone in the comments section from doing so). I do have a question, though, for the less rabid antiwar critics among you: does a war have to be “successful” in its goals, ex post facto, in order to be justified? Because if the answer is “yes,” there’s a Catch-22 built into every war of the future, and that is the following: while the war is going on, there’s no way to know its end result. Success? Failure? And that leaves almost any war (except the rare case of some sort of unequivocally “just war,” some large-scale invasion of this country by a foreign power, highly unlikely to ever occur) subject to a drumbeat of defeatism and second-guessing while that war is going on, because the outcome is always unknown and the course of every war is to have its ups and downs, short-term.
If every fluctuation along the way is met with cries that the deaths are in vain and we should withdraw, the propaganda value to the enemy is always going to be immense. If a message of weakness is delivered while the war is underway, the enemy will be heartened by the news, whether or not that is the intent of those mounting the criticism.
Messages of weakness of resolve during an ongoing conflict can backfire by prolonging that conflict and increasing the death toll. It’s a paradox for those who have valid criticisms of a war, and who are motivated not by partisanship but by realistic appraisals (and I certainly do believe such people exist among the war critics).
The answer, as I said before, is not to silence all criticism of a war. That would be a very bad direction to take. But my impression is that it used to be that war critics themselves were more likely to weigh such factors before speaking out during a war effort; I would appeal to modern-day critics of this war to be more mindful of the consequences of their current speech, as well.
There are many valid criticisms of the war that can be made, especially in details of its execution (see this, by the way, for some excellent recent criticism of the conduct of the war, from an Iraq war proponent). But focusing on the death toll itself sends a very different message to the enemy, and that is this: all you really have to do to win is to increase that number, slowly but surely.
And that, unfortunately, is relatively easy to do. It turns out that death tolls rarely decrease.