Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 17, 2002
WAR: Victory or Doom?
The Wall Street Jounal hosts a lively debate about how the war is going; yesterday, Mark Helprin argued that Bush has failed to identify the enemy, build up the military, and use it before our enemies could regroup; today, Victor Davis Hanson argues that "the first year of the present war has been a spectacular success--one rarely paralleled in military history." I'm sympathetic to both views, and both have their partisans on the Right. Helprin has been arguing for many years that we are dangerously disarmed, unable to sustain repeated or extensive military operations; Hanson has argued since the outset last September that our cultural and technological advantages would overwhelm our enemies as Western societies have done to non-Western societies since the dawn of war.
On one level, Helprin's view grates on me because I don't buy into the idea, which has much currency on the Left as well, that war is not war unless the whole of society is conscripted and asked to sacrifice. The logical end point is Orwell's argument that onlt a socialist society can fight effectively. (It is true that we need to make some sacrifices at the airport, but that's another issue). A society should sacrifice only so much liberty as is essential to the war effort. Even his argument that we should measure our commitment to the military by percentages of GNP or GDP (I'm skeptical because he switches between the two in mid-analogy) makes some assumptions that need to be justified. After all, as the wealth of our society has increased dramatically over the past 22 years, we have had to spend a smaller percentage of that wealth on certain necessities, like food and shelter and clothing and energy; why should it require a fixed percentage to keep our forces strong and vigilant? I'm not saying Helprin's wrong; the rise in the nation's wealth has not even kept pace with other costs, like health care and education, and maybe the same is true of the military. But the percentages alone don't prove the point (for a more detailed version of Helprin's argument, and one that occasioned much debate at the time, see his April 22 cover story in the National Review).
At any rate, it is entirely legitimate to ask why Bush seems to think that the force we need to subdue Iraq is only a fifth of the size of the Gulf War forces, which after all had a more limited objective than unconditional surrender and regime change. Let's go down the list:
1. Saddam's forces are a shell of their former selves. This is certainly true; beyond the average Iraqi's hatred of the regime there is the simple fact that we killed something on the order of a quarter of a million of his best men last time around, taking with them much in equipment, and we have since impoverished his country. Saddam's pursuit of WMD means that we're not the only ones skimping on conventional forces.
2. We have grown stronger. This, too, risks arrogance, but American technology has made gigantic strides since 1991, as we saw in Afghanistan.
3. Bush prizes speed and surprise over massed forces. This is the Israeli lesson; Arab armies are most vulnerable to surprise and maneuver because they are poorly organized and poorly led. A big force requires a big buildup; a smaller one can move faster, requiring Saddam to either abandon most of the country or try to defend every possible avenue at once.
4. Diplomatic and internal political obstacles prevented us from massing the forces we wanted, where we wanted. In other words, it's the Saudis' fault. I hope this is not true, but suspect it was part of the calculation.
5. Saddam's WMD capacity is sufficiently worrisome that we want to keep our forces dispersed and not establish basis close to Iraq. The Saudis may also, not unreasonably, take this view. If it's true, though, that only strengthens the case for war.