Wednesday, October 29, 2003

War isn't cheap

Read this important editorial by Richard Hart Sinnreich that makes a point that few of the Bushies seem to understand: winning is defined by the losers. It is only when your opponent accepts the fact that they have lost that you have truly won.

... Very few wars have ended in the loser's annihilation. Most end instead with his acceptance of defeat, aware that no amount of courage, stamina or self-sacrifice can reverse the outcome. The challenge is to bring that condition about as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

But history repeatedly has demonstrated that fighting a war quickly and cheaply doesn't guarantee winning it quickly and cheaply. Indeed, the two more often than not tend to be mutually exclusive. It was for that reason above all that Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz was right to insist that the most vital judgment before going to war is understanding the kind of war on which one is embarking.

Rumsfeld's "war on the cheap" strategy may be the biggest blunder of all.

Update: Josh Marshal expanded on this concept in a column published before the war (March 19th) about the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II. He makes the point that the success of the post-war program in those countries was based, in part, on the totality of the defeat they suffered at the hands of the allies:

Violence, death and destruction on such a massive scale have a profound conditioning effect on the psyches of individuals. And the same applies to whole nations. Japan and Germany weren’t just ‘defeated’ or ‘occupied,’ they were crushed — not just their armies, but their civilian populations too. This led to a sort of national humiliation and a transformative willingness to embrace defeat and change.

True defeat changes people and nations too. The fact that our subsequent occupation turned out to be so benign was extremely important. But part of that importance was the contrast between how much these populations had suffered during the war and how much better things got for them after we took over.

What is ironic about this is that the idea of "transformative defeat" is a concept embraced by the neo-cons. Yet it is the neo-cons who have also tried to push the idea of "war on the cheap" (both in terms of cash and lives lost), perhaps because they realized that an expensive war, a bloody war, would be a hard sell in modern America. The problem is that the two ideas appear to be mutually incompatible. You can't produce a "transformative defeat" without the humiliation that comes from a total defeat, yet a total defeat is an expensive proposition for the victor as well as the defeated.

What is doubly ironic is that the Iraq war may turn out to be one of our most expensive wars, yet the failure to push it towards a "transformative defeat" may make it one of our most costly failures.

One has to wonder if it could not lead to our own "transformative defeat".

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