This comment by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle on yesterday’s Memorial Day post makes an excellent point that needs to be addressed:
Suppose that a war is commenced, based on incorrect assumptions which at the time of going to war were not understood as incorrect. However, with the progress of the war, it becomes clear that the assumptions were, in fact, incorrect. In such a situation, continuing to “have the will” to prosecute the war isn’t honorable — it’s just stubborn. This logic leads to the mindset that more lives need to be sacrificed just so that the lives sacrificed earlier can be justified. As I hope is clear, this leads to an infinite loop and the war becomes never-ending.
Ninja Turtle is using what might be referred to as the John Kerry argument against “staying the course.” In a 1971 statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry famously said of the war in Vietnam (in fact, it may just be the most famous thing he ever said), “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
The argument, then and now, Vietnam or Iraq, hinges on the meaning and definition of that one word, “mistake.”
If you read Kerry’s entire statement you will find a number of assertions that are taken as articles of faith by the Left. I could (and many have) spend a great deal of time attempting to demonstrate that they are in fact, “mistakes”—amassing evidence of errors, evidence that readers could then argue about for the next few decades, as we have for the past thirty or so years.
Suffice to say that Kerry’s statements were primarily based on the testimony of the exceedingly controversial (and probably mostly bogus) Winter Soldier investigations that he conducted, assertions that have enraged many Vietnam vets ever since (see this and this for background on why); that his assertions about the number of war crimes committed by US forces were enormously inflated; that his assertions about the Vietnamese not knowing or caring whether they lived under democracy or communism have been given the lie by the mass exodus known as the boat people; and on and on and on (see this for a more thorough discussion of some of the many myths of Vietnam).
But of course Iraq is not Vietnam, although the arguments used to show it was a “mistake” are sometimes similar. In his/her comment, Ninja Turtle is making the point that the original justification and expectations for the course of the Iraq war were erroneous, and that therefore there’s no reason to keep sacrificing US lives there in order to justify that mistake.
The issues of initial “mistake”(or, at times, “lie”) have been debated ad infinitum and ad nauseum (did Bush lie or was he mistaken? Did Saddam have weapons of mass destruction that were hidden in the long buildup to the war? Would Saddam have had the capacity to reconsitute his weapons program, and was he eager to do so once sanctions were lifted, which they soon would have been? Were the planners of the war too sanguine in their expectations for its aftermath?). We’re not going to solve those issues today, either. What I would prefer to discuss is whether any of this matters now.
Let’s concede for a moment that much of this was error, and that there were no weapons of mass destruction there and that the planners were too optimistic in their projections about the difficulties of reconstruction. This doesn’t obliterate any of the many other arguments for the war: humanitarian, Saddam’s future intent, his violation of UN resolutions and the terms of the earlier ceasefire. And the fact that miscalculations were made in the prosecution of the war and especially its aftermath isn’t a compelling reason for saying the entire endeavor was an error, either. As I’ve reiterated before, mistakes are part and parcel of every war.
The important questions in deciding whether to continue with the sacrifice (for this is the conundrum we now face) are these: is this war being fought for a good purpose, and is it still possible to achieve that purpose?
Those who cry “No blood for oil,” “Imperialism,” and the like believe the answer to the first question is “no.” If that’s true, the answer to the second question is irrelevant, although I’m sure they would answer it the same way: “no.”
I believe the answer to the first question is “yes,” and have discussed the reason for that belief many times. Which brings us to the extremely important second question; I believe the answer to that one is “yes, ” as well (and have written about it at length before)—with the following qualifications: it will be difficult, and it will not be quick. One thing is certain: that purpose cannot possibly be achieved if we lack the will to do so.
That is the context in which I agree with Bush’s words spoken yesterday, Memorial Day, “Our duty is to make sure the war is worth the sacrifice.” If you don’t believe it was worth the sacrifice at the outset, either because the cause was unjust and/or because it was inherently unwinnable, then the sacrifice of more men and women makes no sense, just as Ninja Turtle says. But if you believe the goals to be both just and still achievable—although difficult—then it really doesn’t matter whether mistakes and errors were made, either at the beginning or up until now. Oh, it matters in that we all wish there had been no errors, just as we all wish not a single American life nor a single innocent Iraqi life would have had to have been lost. But none of these are realistic expectations or demands.
Our abandonment of South Vietnam in 1974/1975 was driven by ideas such as Kerry’s that the war there was both a moral error and unwinnable. Note the last paragraph of Kerry’s 1971 statement, in which he imagines that people thirty years into the future might look back on American’s part in the Vietnam War as a “filthy obscene memory,” and that a pullout would be the way to reverse that tide. But one must also remember that when we ultimately did pull out of Vietnam we had no fighting forces left there, and it would have taken just a small sum of money to keep the South Vietnamese army fighting—-money which we denied them, thus sealing their terrible fate. As Melvin Laird has recently written:
…during [1973-1975, when US combat forces had withdrawn], South Vietnam held its own courageously and respectably against a better-bankrolled enemy. Peace talks continued between the North and the South until the day in 1975 when Congress cut off U.S. funding. The Communists walked out of the talks and never returned. Without U.S. funding, South Vietnam was quickly overrun. We saved a mere $297 million a year and in the process doomed South Vietnam, which had been ably fighting the war without our troops since 1973….
This guaranteed that the entire sacrifice, both of American and Vietnamese lives, was indeed in vain. And for what? In the end, it came down to saving a sum of money that was miniscule in the grand scheme of things; the cost of further support was small, the stakes high. In that sense, even though the Vietnam War had been going on for a very long time, the final withdrawal was nevertheless premature, penny wise and pound foolish.
Things are different in Iraq. American fighting forces are still involved there and their lives are still being sacrificed; that makes the cost to the US much higher, although the US casualty figures don’t even begin to reach anything like those of the Vietnam era. But the nasty fact (and one that Democrats and other antiwar activists generally fail to confront) is that much is at stake in our participation in Iraq that would be lost by our withdrawal, and not just for the people of Iraq.
Right now there are reasons to believe that the new approach of Petraeus is bearing fruit—for example, the populace seems to be trusting the US soldiers more and informing on terrorists, leading to finds such as this. I submit that any withdrawal in the next few months would be premature by definition,and would guarantee that the previous sacrifices we and the Iraqi people have made there will have been in vain.