Sunday, July 06, 2008

# Posted 1:38 PM by Patrick Porter  

BETWEEN THE STRATEGIC AND THE HEROIC: Either this sort of thing gives you a lump in your throat, or it doesn’t.

Two thoughts come to mind when watching this film (or for me, anyway). First, that we are moved by brave and unyielding soldier-politicians of the likes of Churchill, Roosevelt or even the white-haired veteran, John McCain. A little defiance against the enemies of liberal society, against those who delight in the weakening of America and all it stands for, is uplifting. Like Lincoln, McCain has staked his election campaign on a firm belief in victory, a word deeply unfashionable in the post-modern discourse of war studies. To his credit, McCain also believes in preserving something to defend, committing to shutting down the disgrace of Guantanamo. The spirit of his advertisement is not only one of granite belief and determination. It is that heroism sometimes entails persistence against ridiculous odds. In recommitting Americans morally to a cause that may be unlikely to succeed, heroism cuts against calculated common sense. If Winston Churchill said ‘Never give in, never give in…except to convictions of honour or good sense’, the part of our instincts that loves heroism pays little heed to Churchill’s ‘good sense’ caveat.

Yet in being part of ‘war studies’, we insist and tell our students that war must be approached strategically and cautiously, as an exceedingly unpredictable and dangerous instrument. Take national security policy and Iraq. There are very good arguments for believing that we need to limit and tighten the conditions in which we would commit ground forces anywhere. A war of 2 billion US dollars a week is hardly sustainable. And there are too many dead people. Even if Iraq becomes an Arab Switzerland tomorrow, or even if Afghanistan became a gentle Islamic Republic with the Taliban routed, the large-scale military occupations in those countries have resulted in crises on the flanks, in the menace of nuclear theocracies in Tehran and Islamabad. Sure, we didn’t ‘make’ the Iranian leadership say what it says, but having troops stationed on either side of a paranoid regime has mobilised it, stifled domestic dissent, and accelerated its quest for nuclear capability. Politics in Pakistan is unquestionably radicalised by the war raging on its frontier. Like Austria-Hungary in 1914-1918, we could start with a war against an underground terrorist movement, and end with war against powerful states.

In other words, we can be caught between two instincts, the heroic and the strategic. So in Iraq, American and local forces have struck hard against Al Qaeda, in offensives that mark a staggering shift in the struggle. Building on a bottom-up revolt by former Sunni insurgents and tribes and powers who have learnt to hate AQ’s brutality (not to mention its competition for crime markets), the coalition has pulverised the tv beheaders and amputating thugs. In a virtuous cycle, their atrocities have alienated Muslims everywhere, even their own old allies. Then reduced to ineffectual and sporadic violence, they are further discredited. They look worse than bad. They look weak. Iraqis are tired of the violent onslaught on their civil society, their constitutional government is holding on and getting stronger, and violence is being lowered. Under General Petraeus, the US has helped drive a heroic turnaround, with unbelievably brave people creating a critical space in which some now talk of victory. As Margaret Thatcher might say, ‘just rejoice.’

Yet the strategist in us never ‘just rejoices.’ We recall that triumphalism is often premature. That these gains may be reversed and snuffed out by new waves of ethnic cleansing and sectarian killings, by AQ’s ability to regenerate itself in new training camps. Even in the best-case scenario, if AQI is decisively beaten, the newly empowered northern tribes are flush with weapons, cash and experience, and may turn this new strength against other Iraqis. The dream of a stable federal democracy, freed by new alliances of Americans and Arabs, may go the way of the confidence that was building amongst US troops who were steadily mastering the art of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, circa 1969.

This is one of the real problems faced by the ‘big story’ of the war on terror, which was then rebranded as the Long War, and lately, the Global Counterinsurgency. It is based on the view of a long-term, complex and shifting struggle, where we won’t have the clarity of victory and defeat. Yet politically, and as humans, many people haven’t lost their instinct for the climactic language of heroism. There remains something down in our gut where we can’t only think in terms of pure strategy. The leader who announces that this war, unlike those of our grandfathers, will not be settled by a formal surrender and a fixed terminus, is the same man who declares combat operations over against a banner saying ‘Mission Accomplished.’
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This is precisely why the U.S. cannot reverse the temporary gains of the surge by drawing down prematurely. The whole point of the Petraeus strategy was to provide sustained security, so that in the future, even if AQ recoups, the Iraqi army with American help can re-marginalize it. This is what I'm talking about:

By the way, I'm a big fan of your blog. Keep up the good work!
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