Democrats & Liberals Archives

Four Digits and No Excuses

A thousand dead. Republicans are right that over the course of history, there have been bloodier wars. But that’s history, and distant history at that. In the three decades since Vietnam, it’s the largest death toll we’ve had.

I keep hammering this point, because in many ways, it’s what makes me want to see Bush gone the worst. I have always been proud of those who’ve served their country honorably. To see over a thousand of those people dead for a pre-emptive war we can no longer say had a threat to pre-empt in the first place is a great tragedy.

It's a cliche, but only because it's important to repeat it: taking our soldiers to war is the gravest responsibility that a president can exercise.

I've seen three presidents send us to war in my lifetime, including the current president's father. World War II was the ideal, Vietnam was the most recent. When I was a child, I didn't even realize we lost that war. Had to get a little older to learn that. Panama was over pretty quickly, nobody expected much out of it, nobody got much out of it, except the sense that not every war would become Vietnam.

The Gulf War would be the war my generation remembers best from our childhood, the smart bombs, the night sky lit up over Baghdad, the high gear patriotism, and the unending hymn of Gulf War praise, "God Bless the USA" It's a perfect patriotic war song, over the top, but with it's heart so earnestly on its sleeve, you don't mind.

I was operating, at that age, under the WWII paradigm of defeat and occupation for our enemies. So it kind of bothered me when we stopped short of occupying the country and deposing Saddam.

That's right, friends and neighbors, it bothered me. I was just a kid though. All that fanfare, only to not kick him out. If you had asked me at that point whose side I was on, I would have said Bush. Hell, if I had known what Neocons were, I would have been one.

I suppose I've changed since then. But not totally.

There were always two elements to what I would require of a war- that it be for a true cause, and that we not start it, at least not unprovoked. Whatever I believed as a kid, I never believed that it was right to invade a country as an aggressor, uninjured, unprovoked, even if we were fighting for a good cause.

Unfortunately, with this war, Bush has crossed that line.

I've never had a problem, I think, with the notion of pre-emptive attack, of attacking an enemy when there's a clear and present danger coming from them, but darn it if I don't want to be on the wrong side of a call when we're striking first. At least, if we are fighting a war in defense, it's clear we're doing the right thing. I don't mind going in to defend an ethnic group being slaughtered. The world should not say that we only fight for our own selfish interests.

I think that phrase is important: selfish interest. That as opposed to self-interest. Self-interest, as in winning the war on terrorism, and in particular that on al-Quaeda. It's in our interest to fight an intense, unrelenting war on Al Quaeda, even if the toll will be worse than what we've already suffered.

But the price of that resolve, I believe, is that the American people not be lead down a path of uncertainty and incompetence. If Kerry screws things up in this fashion, having been elected, I will seek his apology, and then if he persists, another candidate.

Look at Kerry, and you'll find a guy who voted for most of the military involvements of our time. He's more a hawk than a dove. He's had his issues from time to time, but I believe it's important to emphasize that he was willing to give Bush the authority he did.

What I think is germane to this subject, is what Kerry and the other legislators required of Bush- That he seek cooperation from the UN first, and that he take a good, thorough look at the war he was about to get himself into. He did neither, and that is why I criticize him on this war.

Bush painted us into a corner, I believe, long before we even knew what he had done. While we were paying attention to where the real battle was being fought, Bush was preparing Kuwait to be the jumping-off point for our invasion. To me, this seems an inversion of a proper approach to a war. With Afghanistan, we were convinced first (boy were we convinced) of the need to go to war, then we went. With Iraq, though, Bush essentially leveraged us into it, frogboiling us with this buildup to war, until we were having to choose the whethers and whyfors of this war with our reputation already on the line.

It never should have happened that way. We should have never have had to choose to go to war without first having had both a true and compelling case made first. Bush knew early on that our intelligence on the matter was thin, even thinner than the European's. But he committed us anyways.

What makes this worse is that this was submitted to the rest of us as a pre-emptive war, a kind of war that would place a heavier burden of proof on us than any other kind. Bush not only gambled with our nation's reputation, he gambled as big as he could without going into outright imperialism. Such a situation would have called for the greatest care, and the strictest standards of intelligence, not to satisfy some innocence-before-guilt standard, but to keep this nation's word honored throughout the world. Our word on these matters should never have been called into such doubt by such irresponsibility.

One thousand dead. This country would have born many times that burden had the weapons been there, the terrorists caught where they were supposed to be before the invasion. The country would have reelected this president in a moment, had we found what we were looking for. I think the Republicans should consider that in a very real sense, our mission in Iraq was a failure.

Not a total failure. Oh, the invasion was successful. So was our deposing of Saddam Hussein, and ultimately our capture of him. But our interest as a nation was to pre-empt a first strike by Saddam by way of the al-Quaeda terrorists done with Weapons of his that would amplify the already considerable striking power that group demonstrated. And in that, Bush's invasion never had a chance to succeed. It never had anything to succeed at.

It will never defend America against terrorists, because the terrorists were mostly isolated in an area in the North beyond Saddam's effective control. In fact, the consequences of this campaign may be similar to that of what occurred in Afghanistan- a battleground turned terrorist training ground for those wishing to learn how to take on a great power and exploit it's vulnerabilities. What's more, we destroyed the totalitarian government that, despite its seriously odious nature, was quite good at keeping unwanted terrorists out. So, inadvertently, instead of slaying the dragon, we've let it out.

It will never defend America against WMDs, in fact, it probably will make it harder for us to do so in the future. If there are no weapons of mass destruction, you didn't save anybody from them. The most we saved Americans from was a threat that was five years or even a decade or more away. The threat that we came to face, that we pre-emptively fought Iraq for, was supposed to be there when we got there. It wasn't. Because it wasn't, the next question we get asked when we tell somebody we're going to war to disarm somebody, is "Are you sure those things are there?" I believe if this war takes enough of a price in blood and treasure, then this war will have the opposite effect intended, and it will become more difficult to ask people here or abroad to support the forceful disarming of a totalitarian government, as everybody tries to prevent another Iraq.

Where comparisons to Vietnam are apt, is in the cost of continuing a failed policy, combined with the cost of the government's dishonest dealings with the public about the war. Vietnam did huge economic and social damage, and became a inhibiting factor in our choice of military action. It meant we let a lot of fires burn that we shouldn't have, especially in the 90s. It politicized war in a way that trapped us in questions of motivations when we should have been answer questions of practical purpose and performance, when we should have been working for better awareness and understanding.

Here again we have the chance to learn from a mistaken war, a chance to reexamine our history, reexamine our political perspective on war, and hopefully draw better lessons as to how and when we use force.

Those who know about swords, know that their usefulness in battle requires that they be both strong and flexible. If the metal is too rigid, it becomes brittle, breaking when hit the wrong way. If the metal is too soft, it dulls easily, and can't keep an edge. Many people look at a sword and just see a solid piece of metal, when in reality, the structure is much more complex, even going down to a molecular level. The weapon's metal is folded over and beaten multiple times, creating multiple sandwiches of thin metal layers. It is only just that swordsmiths took on almost magical status in legend, for the work they did was complex, with nuances that not everybody even knew mattered.

Leadership, especially in war is like that. Too flexible, and the edge of action is blunted. Too inflexible and the complex structure of society breaks apart. Although our society appears simple, and so do the ones we face as enemies and friends, they are not, and addressing them so tempts fate. With true leaders, it's almost a mystical experience to watch them work, to feel oneself brought into a greater purpose, a greater fold.

It will take a great leader to get us past this war, a man who understands the structure and form of the world in an altogether more intuitive fashion. Bush has proven time and time again that he has little respect for that structure or form- he will make it do what he wants it to do. As a result, over a thousand soldiers have died in a war of little value to the fight against international terrorism.

We need a president who approaches his policy the way the butcher approaches carving the cuts of meat from an animal in the old wise man's tale.

The wise man is surprised to find the Butcher has so rarely replaced his knives. He replies that he doesn't have to replace them so often because he knows the animal and the joints well enough that he doesn't waste the edges of his knives cutting against bones, but instead slips his knife around and through them. The elegance of his approach saves the wear and tear.

The president, like the butcher must be elegant in his approach to military policy, because the edges of the knives of his foreign policy are not steel, not in the conventional sense, but men and women who serve their country. It is life and limb that wears away here, when our president inelegantly approaches his work.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at September 8, 2004 10:53 PM