“No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.”
Those sentences were written in 2001 by John McCain. They are from his foreword to a new edition of David Halberstam’s book “The Best and the Brightest.”
Halberstam’s magisterial book, first published in 1972, remains the definitive history of the policies that led this country into the Vietnam War. Halberstam is unsparing in his indictment of the smart, experienced, and ultimately delusional men who created and implemented those policies.
Vietnam was a tragic episode in our country’s history, the more so for being wholly avoidable. The rationale for intervening in the Vietnamese civil war (the Gulf of Tonkin incident) was fabricated by the Johnson administration, which used it to persuade Congress to pass a resolution authorizing a military response.
As American involvement deepened, and the casualty lists lengthened, neither the Johnson nor the Nixon administrations could admit the obvious — that America’s interests were ill-served by our continuing presence in Southeast Asia.
Does all this sound familiar? Of course it does — in Iraq we’ve made the same mistakes by trusting a new generation of arrogant smarties. Hastily intervening in a country about which we knew little, with soldiers and civilian advisers who couldn’t even read the street signs, let alone speak the local language, with no goal other than the vague and impractical notion of “creating democracy,” we were doomed to failure.
And it wasn’t as if no one predicted such an outcome — it was simply that dissenting voices were drowned out by the frightened patriotism that arose after 9/11, which gave credence and legitimacy to fairy tales about Saddam’s fearsome arsenal of WMD’s.
So here we are in Iraq, with 130,000 soldiers fighting multiple enemies on scores of different fronts. By all accounts, the country is in chaos — in fact, it’s scarcely a country at all, just an aggregation of armed militias killing for revenge, for profit, for power and for survival.
The question that we have to ask ourselves is simple: is our presence in Iraq in the national interest of the United States?
In Vladimir Lenin’s words, “A nation has neither friends nor enemies — only interests.” That statement, as cold and unsentimental as the man who coined it, is nonetheless true.
It seems to me then, that all the debates about “civil war” vs. “sectarian violence,” about “stay the course” vs. “cut and run,” about “strategic re-deployment” vs. “robust re-engagement” are rhetorical exercises.
The central question, one which the Iraq Study Group tiptoed around, and never directly engaged, is this: Should we be in Iraq? If not, should we leave as soon as possible?
But even if we ought to leave immediately, we won’t. Politics and character will prevent us from so doing.
A few years ago, most of us admired and supported President Bush because, in the wake of 9/11, he showed the character that we wanted and needed. He was our president — firm, resolute and determined. He named the new conflict the “War on Terror” — and he vowed to win it.
Today, those virtues are seen as faults. Rather than firm and resolute, the president is seen as stubborn and bullheaded. His character, for good or for ill, cannot allow him to abandon Iraq to its fate, to withdraw and by so doing admit that he was wrong.
Meanwhile, politics will govern congressional action (or inaction). The newly-empowered Democrats might have a voter mandate to solve the Iraq problem, but there are practical limits on their ability to do so. Will they shut off funding for the war? Withdraw congressional authorization for its continuance?
Not likely. Either step might have terrible political consequences for Democrats in 2008 (how about “Democrat Surrender Monkeys” as a GOP campaign slogan?), and that, in the view of the Leninist realists that rule the renascent Democratic Party, is not acceptable.
Rather than engaging the Iraq situation in a serious, bipartisan manner, we can expect Congress to hold hearings, pin blame, pass the buck to Bush, and try to keep the war on the front burner until November 2008.
After Vietnam, we seemed unable either to understand or to learn from our own missteps and failures, much less celebrate the bravery of our soldiers, so many of whom gave their lives in dubious battle. We spent years — decades — in futile argument, in pointless self-reproach, refighting the social and political battles of the 1960s.
Perhaps because of Vietnam, the country seemed to be in a funk, lacking any sense of mission, any sense of its own indispensable role in the world.
Times changed. Ronald Reagan’s election brought a new confidence, a renewed sense of what America means to its citizens and to the world.
But now we’ve gone full circle.
We’ve made the journey from shell-shocked timidity to overweening self-confidence — and the fates have brought us to a new reality. We need to understand, post-Iraq, that we can’t win every skirmish in the long struggle against terrorism. Equally, we need to give up the idea of finding villains to blame for our failures.
The president and his advisers did what they thought right, as did their predecessors in Vietnam. But sometimes, all courses run ill.
We can’t move forward, and we can’t go back. Sophocles or Euripides could have created this script, one in which the actors, prisoners of their own device, move inexorably toward a preordained fate.
We’re just beginning the final act, and, given what’s gone before, we can expect a terrible denouement — not one spoken on a stage, but written in the blood of the innocent and the guilty alike.
So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
“With our own feathers, not by others’ hands,
Are we now smitten.”
(Aeschylus, 525-456 BC, frag. 135)
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.