March 1, 2006
There are military
historians who can list for you battles in recorded time in which
one of the contending parties knew ahead that his side was doomed.
In such cases it was sometimes necessary to fight on because there
was no alternative. Genghis Khan offered zero inducements to surrender.
Whether the opponent would die from the enemy's sword or his own
was worth reflection, but none of it was given over to life or
death: There would be death in any case.
In ensuing centuries,
wars became less than final events for many soldiers, and terms
of engagement changed. Robert E. Lee did not reasonably expect
to be executed if he surrendered. Nor did General Lee expect,
after General Sherman's march, that the South would win the war.
But he fought on.
By what was he driven?
Contemporary concepts of honor? It was something other than reason
-- he was too skilled to have misjudged, at that point, the outcome
of the war. If Hitler had known in June 1941 what would befall
the German army -- and him -- in four years, he would not have
invaded Russia. Four years! In four years we marched from Pearl
Harbor to the heart of what was left of Tokyo and Berlin. In three
years we can't yet take a cab from Baghdad to its airport without
an armed guard.
Princes and generals
do not communicate to the troops what are the high command's private
reckonings. The matter of morale is with us in victory, and sometimes
even begets victory. It also sanctifies defeat. To have died on
behalf of your cause makes possible the mystic conviction that
your sacrifice was the marginal contribution. To be dead at defeat
permits mourning for gallantry and for faith -- My country, do
President Bush will
be seen commanding his troops to march on. He will speak of victory.
One's guess is that there will be attenuation in the definition
of victory. Three years ago (March 2003) I wrote in this space:
"What Mr. Bush proposes to do is to unseat Saddam Hussein
and to eliminate his investments in aggressive weaponry. We can
devoutly hope that internecine tribal antagonisms will be subsumed
in the fresh air of a despot removed, and that the restoration
of freedom will be productive. But these concomitant developments
can't be either foreseen by the United States or implemented by
us. What Mr. Bush can accomplish is the removal of a regime and
its infrastructure. The Iraqi people will have to take it from
The special challenge
that Mr. Bush now faces is political. How to pull away leaving
the sense of mission accomplished? He has presided over a great
deal. The deposition of Saddam, his imprisonment and (never-ending)
prosecution; the institution of the working rudiments of democracy.
A government. And a continuing effort to train natives to take
over policing the rebaptized state.
All of this is marred
by shortcomings. Some observers believe them critical, enough
so to conclude that the war to change Iraq's society has not been
won, and cannot be won without an investment of time and resources
we are not willing to make in Iraq. Other challenges loom, in
North Korea and in Iran, which will tax us contingently, on a
larger scale than the Saddam/Iraq war. These will need to take
Mr. Bush is entitled
to maintain, doggedly and persuasively, that he took the right
steps -- up through the overthrow of Saddam and the exposure of
an armory without weapons of mass destruction. From that point
on, the challenge required more than his deployable resources.
His political reputation will rest on his success in making that
point and ceding realistically to realities we are not going to
cope with, and ought not to attempt to cope with.
2006 Universal Press Syndicate