Losing the Iraq War

Victor Davis Hanson takes aim at many critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, beginning with my assertion that it is likely to turn out to be "the greatest strategic disaster in American history" ("In War: Resolution," Winter 2007/08). Virtually all of his references to military history, however, do not address my charge, i.e., that President George W. Bush got it wrong from the very beginning. Nor does he explain how a positive outcome can be attained when the war primarily benefits Iran and al-Qaeda. Rather he regales the reader with examples of past operational and tactical resolution in time of war. 

Launching a war that served the interests of Moscow and North Vietnam was the strategic mistake President Johnson made when he committed U.S. forces to South Vietnam to block China's expansion into Southeast Asia. Both Moscow and Hanoi were already committed to blocking that expansion. How can a war be won that serves the enemy's interest but not one's own? 

President Bush has put the United States in precisely this strategic predicament by invading Iraq. Before the war, al-Qaeda was urging a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Why? To overthrow a secular Arab leader who prevented their cadres from entering the country. Iranians were ecstatic to see Saddam dethroned and the Iraqi Shiites given a chance to take power through democratic elections. It probably exceeded the ayatollahs' wildest dreams that American forces would provide them revenge for Saddam's invasion of Iran in 1980. 

Of all the wars Hanson cites in his effort to overcome our "historical amnesia," Vietnam was the only defeat. He fails to note that in all others, "resolution" served American interests. It is also true that the strategic balance in each one so favored the United States that poor weaponry, incompetent commanders, and other such problems made defeat highly unlikely. In those, resolution paid. 

Upon learning of the nearly three-to-one ratio in Union to Confederate casualties at the first battle of Fredericksburg, Abraham Lincoln remarked that if a full week of such battles were fought, the Union would soon exhaust the Confederacy's manpower pool. He grasped the Union's strategic advantage, recognizing that the brilliant tactical and operational performance by Confederate commanders could not save the Confederacy. Much later, General Grant would give Lincoln that "week of battles" in Virginia, although not in one week. 

Field Marshall Irwin Rommel observed, when he realized U.S. aircraft had entered the war in North Africa, that the strategic balance had shifted decisively against Germany. The American power advantage over Japan in 1941 was so overwhelming that the outcome was never in doubt. 

In all of these wars, favorable outcomes were not only conceivable but entirely plausible in light of the huge U.S. strategic advantage. Not so in Vietnam and Iraq. Both undercut American interests while enhancing those of our enemies. General Casey apparently understood this in Iraq and began husbanding U.S. forces, preparing for their inevitable withdrawal with as few losses as possible. 

With his "surge," General Petraeus never promised to achieve a political consolidation under a government that will remain pro-American. Petraeus only promised to reduce the violence while someone else produces the political consolidation miracle. None of these generals can be held responsible for the president's decision to initiate the war. And no amount of "resolution" can remedy a major strategic error. 

A strategic withdrawal sometimes can create a second chance. In this war, a second chance would require a hasty and complete withdrawal from Iraq coupled with some kind of rapprochement with Tehran. I doubt, however, that the president and his aides have either the wisdom or the moral courage to implement such a withdrawal and then successfully exploit the strategic flexibility it would make possible. I would, however, like to be proven wrong.

Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, 
U.S. Army (Ret.)
Yale University
New Haven, CT

Victor Davis Hanson replies:

Lieutenant General Odom apparently did not read the same essay I wrote. I argued that critics of the Iraq War, such as General Odom, too often have resorted to hyperbole and superlatives to condemn it. Yet, however one feels about the effort, in terms of costs, mistakes, and strategic miscalculations, Iraq does not compare to the wars of our past—especially the Civil War or World Wars I and II. Odom misses that simple point, but then goes on to make a series of statements that are quite baffling in that every one of them is wrong.

Al-Qaeda said a lot of things before the war, such as the old claim that our presence in Saudi Arabia and the embargo of Iraq had prompted its declaration of war against all Americans—later conveniently dropped when a new casus belli was needed. To take literally what al-Qaeda asserts would mean believing Ayman al-Zawahiri's expressed gripes about our lack of campaign finance reform or America's failure to sign the Kyoto Treaty. And despite Gen. Odom's apparent cynicism, we are beginning to see that Iraqis are more likely Arabs first, and transnational Shiites second, and are by no means simple pawns of Iran. Iranian agents, Wahhabi money, Kurdish nationalism, al-Qaeda jihadists, ex-Baathists, and Turkish invasions have all failed to trisect the Iraqi state. Despite spiraling oil prices, Iran is not stronger than before, but isolated and often condemned by the world community, including regional Arab states. It faces reform governments on its borders, with a wrecked economy and a rising dissident population. Al-Qaeda, as the most recent trove of captured documents reveals, has suffered a terrible defeat in Iraq, and is in the embarrassing position of being routed from the ancient caliphate by Iraqi forces, along with the American military, that have better captured the hearts and minds of Iraqi Muslims.

Gen. Odom seems to think in our past wars strategic advantage so favored the U.S. that our lapses were mostly irrelevant to the ultimate outcome, and thus resolution was apparently predicated largely on the degree to which strategic considerations made it likely we couldn't lose. But by 1776-77 it seemed more, rather than less likely that England would put down the rebellion. By late 1862 the Union was facing strategic stalemate, unsure how to defeat and occupy an area the size of Western Europe, with England pondering whether to lend material aid, if not more, to the Confederacy. By late 1917 Germany was concentrating on only one front, the French army was in near rebellion, and few thought the U.S. could send sizable competent forces before 1919. The 1942-43 Army Air Corps' unescorted daylight raids over Europe were considered by many to be a strategic catastrophe. We forget that by May 1941, all of Continental Europe was under German occupation, Russia was a de facto Axis ally, Japan sympathetic, an isolationist United States poorly armed, and a lone Britain on the verge of losing the war. Churchillian resolution, not "strategic balance," was the critical factor that saw England and later America through those initial years of war.

It was the bleak summer of 1864, not winter 1862, that proved the pivotal period of the Civil War, a time of crisis after a series of disastrous Union losses, when the North was contemplating granting the Confederacy autonomy. Only the unexpected successes of Gen. Sheridan and Sherman's gift of Atlanta staved off stalemate and a brokered truce, and allowed Grant to continue with the politically unpalatable, murderous strategy of attrition in Northern Virginia. McClellan's candidacy (read the 1864 Democratic platform to appreciate the haunting similarity with the present Democratic Party's opposition to the war) collapsed only after a string of late summer Union victories. 

The U.S. never had "huge strategic advantage" in "all of these wars." In World War II we were forced into an alliance with a Stalinist state that had killed 30 million of its own to thwart an equally horrific Nazi state and erstwhile Soviet partner—with the understanding that as soon as we defeated Hitler we were faced with an even greater threat from an enabled Soviet Union and a newly Communist China. We fought Korea on the borders of both China and the Soviet Union, to save a near lost South Korea and protect a defenseless Japan. Note that the nearby Soviet Union had acquired the atomic bomb by 1949 and its hydrogen successor in 1953—very little "strategic advantage" in all that. In short, the forces of North Korea and its patrons were every bit as formidable as what we opposed in Vietnam and Iraq.

A "hasty" withdrawal from Iraq hardly requires "moral courage." It is, in all honesty, a euphemism for defeat. Lincoln resisted such counsel in 1864, as did the British in 1940, and the United States in 1950. Let us hope that Senator Harry Reid's and Speaker Nancy Pelosi's assurances that Iraq is "lost" and that the surge has "failed" likewise fall on deaf ears.

Islamic Tribal Terrorism

We read with great interest Stanley Kurtz's review of the work of Dr. Akbar Ahmed in "Tribes of Terror" (Winter 2007/08). On one level, Kurtz's timely and important analysis goes so beyond the accepted discourse on Islam that any number of Washington "experts" would become dizzy reading his penetrating analysis of tribalism in Pakistan. On another level, however, the essay's discussion of Islam is misleading and dangerous, which is surprising given his approach. 

Kurtz is sympathetic to the dangers Ahmed faced as Waziristan's political agent but he surprisingly concludes that it was not Ahmed's inclusive policy toward the tribes that resolved the situation but Pakistan's use of overwhelming military force before Ahmed arrived. Kurtz approvingly quotes a British viceroy of India who advocated the idea that the "steamroller" was what was needed in Waziristan. 

The tribes followed "good cop" Ahmed, Kurtz writes, because they were terrified by two more frightening "bad cops": the Pakistani army, which had bombed them and killed their popular mullah, and the Soviet Union which had launched an invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in 1979.

But this is misleading. For one thing Kurtz's timeline is wrong, as the Wazirs were responding to Ahmed's initiatives in 1978 and 1979, before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. As for the Pakistanis, saying that the government's strong-arm tactics led the Wazir to roll over is absurd. The Wazir were not defeated in 1978; they were furious. 

Kurtz also succumbs to a false dichotomy according to which we only have two options when confronting Muslims: either coddle and appease inherently violent tribes and terrorists, or "get tough" by unleashing the steamroller. 

This dichotomy never existed. In Waziristan, Ahmed was the iron fist in the velvet glove and through this method was able to implement effective policy. It was through his ability to use this "gentle, honor-based rule," as Kurtz patronizingly calls it, that he was able to control the situation and ultimately be successful. This policy is so far removed from the discourse on Islam today that it almost is inconceivable. Instead, U.S. policymakers have embraced an irrelevant paradigm perpetuated by ignorance of the Muslim world and arrogance towards it that is the main cause of so many American foreign policy failures—including Pakistan, where General Musharraf has utilized Kurtz's steamroller multiple times with absolutely zero success. 

Kurtz states that the tribes of Waziristan are inherently violent because of their culture and religion, and thus prone to terrorism. His analysis smacks of a kind of smug Orientalist paternalism. According to Kurtz, apparently, Ahmed's anthropology is the work of a great scholar but as soon as he discusses Islam he is somehow tainted by being a Muslim himself. 

Apart from the steamroller, the only other real solution Kurtz offers in his essay is to "reintroduce somehow the Aligarh University tradition of liberal learning and merit-based employment (independent of kinship ties) to the Muslim world." Aligarh was one of the models for the Muslim world that we devised for our book, Journey into Islam, along with Ajmer (the mystic) and Deoband (conservative).

It is ironic that Kurtz seeks to promote the very same Islamic model that he is helping to eradicate with his views on Islam. In reality, the more the steamroller is used, the less likely Aligarh becomes and the stronger the conservatives become.

We found Kurtz's contention risible that we—who traveled the length and breadth of the Muslim world with Dr. Ahmed, resulting in Journey into Islam—are naïve and actually dangerous for believing that a more nuanced, culturally sensitive policy toward the Muslim world could reap more benefits than incessantly bombing Muslims. When was the last time Kurtz was in a rural madrassa? 

How to deal with Islam is the defining issue of our time, and we, as young Americans, are disturbed that writers as influential and knowledgeable as Kurtz could be getting it so wrong. Policies like those Kurtz recommends have devastated America's reputation and if continued will devastate our future. 

Frankie Martin
American University
Washington, D.C.

Hailey Woldt
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

* * *

Stanley Kurtz's "Tribes of Terror" is an interesting essay that suffers from two fatal flaws. First, Mr. Kurtz has asserted, but not proven, his major contention, namely, that "global Islam is now Waziristan writ large." Nothing that he has said in his essay justifies classifying over one billion Muslims world—wide as terrorists. Nothing, that is, except rank and blind prejudice.

Such prejudice runs throughout Mr. Kurtz's essay and leads him to label Akbar Ahmed as an apologist for attempting to explain that those who qualify as radical Islamists or as terrorists are engaging in practices that go against the tenets of Islam. But the very Akbar Ahmed whom Kurtz dismisses as an apologist is also the Akbar Ahmed whom he cites approvingly for despairing at the way anti-American and pro-bin Laden sentiment has captured the imagination of students at Aligarh University. The difference between Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Ahmed is that the latter tries to understand what prompts such sentiments among young Muslims, especially young Muslims who have been exposed to something approaching a liberal education. Moreover, as a decent human being who happens also to be an observant Muslim, Ahmed seeks to explain why Islam is not subsumed under the categories preferred by Mr. Kurtz. Those interested in understanding that question will be better served by more reading of Ahmed than of Kurtz.

The second flaw follows from the first, namely, Kurtz's conclusion that it appears best to have "the military steamroller…settle the Waziristan problem once and for all." Since Kurtz equates global Islam with Waziristan, this is nothing but a call for exterminating Muslims worldwide. Surely, reasonable readers of the CRB know better than to side with Kurtz in his blind hatred of Muslims, however much he tries to paper it over with analogies to tribal terrorism.

Charles E. Butterworth
University of Maryland
College Park, MD

Stanley Kurtz replies:

Professor Butterworth's tortured syllogism of extermination exemplifies an interpretive technique too common in today's academy: dismiss serious arguments with false attributions of prejudice. Since before the Iraq war, I've called for the spread of liberal learning and merit-based employment as the best long-term solution to the problem of terrorism. I say the same in "Tribes of Terror." How is this consistent with "extermination"?

As I note in my essay, Akbar Ahmed himself rightly "spots tribal themes of honor and solidarity throughout the Muslim world—even in places where tribal social organization per se has receded." Far from dismissing Ahmed, I frequently express agreement with his points and admiration for his achievements, while offering reasoned arguments where we differ. I do think Ahmed draws too sharp a line between Islam and tribalism, yet I've also said it would be mistaken to treat the relationship between the two as a mere identity.

A fair reader might have noticed that my essay turns around the contradiction between Curzon's desire for a military solution and his grudging recognition that such an option may be counterproductive, impossible, or both. While I certainly disagree with those who abjure force, I tend to favor gradual cultural transformation and well-chosen alliances over sweeping military solutions. Have we exterminated the tribes of Anbar? On the contrary, we've allied with them against al-Qaeda, thereby turning them from terror. Yet that achievement would have been impossible without a robust military presence. Although difficult to achieve, that is the approach I tend to favor in Waziristan. What's called for is a judicious combination of force, alliance, cultural knowledge, and liberal education over the long term. Challenging though it may be to read the heart of another, it's difficult not to wonder what might have motivated so reductive a reading of a many-sided argument. Blind prejudice?

Whatever the answer, Frankie Martin and Hailey Woldt have fallen into a lesser version of Butterworth's misreading. It is they, not I, who have erected a false dichotomy between the cultural understanding and the use of force. Akbar Ahmed himself acknowledges in Resistance and Control the effects of the Soviet invasion on his efforts, and describes the Wazirs in the wake of Pakistan's successful military assault (just prior to his installment as political agent) as eager to re-establish their loyalty and prove their honor. Far from presenting a simple choice between coddling and getting tough, I explicitly say we have much to learn from Ahmed's wise and gentle honor-based rule. Yet historically, neither the British (whom Ahmed clearly admires) nor the government of Pakistan have separated the use of force from culturally informed policy, and neither should we. Periodic British deployment of military might did not prevent the establishment of a 150-year-old tradition of liberal learning and merit-based employment in India, nor need it do so in the Middle East, South Asia, or immigrant enclaves in Europe today.

Patronizing? My admiration for Ahmed and his methods is real. Martin and Woldt, on the other hand, openly patronize Washington policymakers and mistakenly characterize cultural insight as "inconceivably" far removed from policies that include force. This is the false and dangerous opposition that has rendered the work of today's academy all but irrelevant. Although Martin, Woldt, and Butterworth alike seem incapable of noticing my own clear acknowledgments of truths on both sides of the divide between anthropologists and policy-makers, I wrote "Tribes of Terror" to help bridge the gap.

Kurt Vonnegut, Conservative?

As he tells us in his essay "Folk Tales" (Winter 2007/08), Patrick J. Deneen discovered Kurt Vonnegut's work in stories first published in those great family weeklies of the 1950s, Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. Here, to sell convincing fictions to readers buying those magazines for their Norman Rockwell covers, Vonnegut appealed to the special quality of Americans first described by Tocqueville: that the new American nation was an artifice, in the best meaning of that word. We have the ability to create our social, political, and cultural world—and we're responsible for what we create. That's why Tocqueville's "arts of association" are so important.

Deneen's right about that. He's also correct that Vonnegut had to have a bit of the curmudgeon in him to attack the corporate liberalism that he felt dominated the U.S. in the 1950s and early '60s. But his argument in later years didn't turn against conservatism so much as it decried incompetence and indecency. Take a look at the worst thing he can say in the curmudgeonly essays of A Man Without a Country about President George W. Bush's treatment of our soldiers and Marines: "They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas."

Deneen's wrong when he fears Vonnegut was "a hypocrite for living most of his adult life in an apartment in New York City," presumably isolated from his countrymen, our polis, and everyone's folk societies. In truth, Kurt lived with his second wife, Jill Krementz, in a homey four-story house tucked into a wonderful midtown Manhattan neighborhood called Turtle Bay. He wrote about it affectionately in chapters 56 and 57 of his novel Timequake and again in chapter 6 of A Man Without a Country. These passages are the best argument for Tocqueville's ideals at work, and deserve consideration as Deneen develops his thesis at length. There's still room for more celebrants at the clambake that ends Vonnegut's last novel.

Jerome Klinkowitz
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA

* * *

Talking with his wife Anita in Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, Paul says, "No, no. You've got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you're artistic."

This passage always stays with me any time I re-read Vonnegut—or read someone else discussing him. Was Vonnegut on the Left or the Right?—the arguments seem to go. Patrick J. Deneen offers some of this debate in his essay on Vonnegut, who passed away last year.

I can't help adding: Vonnegut had something tests and machines will never be able to measure: he was an artist! And he was committed to his art and to art in a way that leaves us all scratching our heads—when we aren't laughing them off.

Late in Player Piano, Paul—speaking for Vonnegut, I would argue—asserts: "The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings…not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems." And not to serve any ideology either. 

Vonnegut the artist was beyond politics and ideology, but Vonnegut the human being was keenly aware of politics and ideology. Ultimately, his only team was the human race—and he wasn't interested in winning, just running along with all of us because that was living. God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

P.L. Thomas
Furman University
Greenville, SC 

* * *

Patrick J. Deneen is attracted to what he calls Kurt Vonnegut's "intuitive Aristotelianism." He is grateful to Vonnegut's intuitions for "helping [him] and [his] generation want to find [their] way home." I take it that he means Vonnegut helped him see with greater clarity, or poignancy, or wit, than he might otherwise have done how "the American belief in progress" and in the "goodness of machines"—American "faith in technology and moral progress"—sowed "rootlessness" in his soul, undermining his "human dignity," contributing to his "human unhappiness," destroying the conditions for his (or any) human nature to come to fruition. Vonnegut helped him see that he could only overcome his miserable and undignified rootlessness, his soul's homelessness, by finding a home in a form of life that had no natural ground in America. Vonnegut, following an anthropologist mentor, calls this form of life that supports the fruition of human nature "folk societies." The effort to create such societies reminds Deneen of Tocqueville's "arts of association." "[I]n America," Deneen insists, "forms of life that support the fruition of our nature would have to be (in Tocqueville's words) ‘artifically created.'" That is, unlike some other places that Deneen refrains from naming, there is no natural or reasonable ground for human dignity or happiness—there is no home for human nature—in America.

In Deneen's universe, or at least in his essay, there is certainly no American remedy for this emphatically American disease. He seeks his remedy, his home, perhaps intuitively, in emphatically non-American, un-American, anti-American soil. That soil seems to be located in the intellectual neighborhood of the 20th century's most famous homeless advocate and anti-American volk-singer, Martin Heidegger. In his hatred for progress and modernity, as far as I can tell, Mr. Deneen has artificially created a home for his rootless soul in radical post modernity. I'll take my chances with the land of the free and the home of the brave, even if I have to endure the potable water, electricity, and antibiotics.

George F. Thorne
Winnemucca, NV

Patrick J. Deneen replies:

I am grateful not only for such thoughtful replies to my brief essay in appreciation of Kurt Vonnegut, but that Vonnegut's work continues to stimulate such passionate if divergent views, as I expect it will for many years to come. 

I'm honored to have received the attention of Jerome Klinkowitz, one of America's foremost academic authorities on Vonnegut. He misunderstands that I was suggesting that Vonnegut was a hypocrite for living away from the kinds of communities that he valorized in his writing. Rather, it was Vonnegut himself who expressed uneasiness about living in a New York brownstone (I hardly have to point Professor Klinkowitz to Vonnegut's 1973 Playboy interview in which he expresses those misgivings, saying that "I'm used to the rootlessness that goes with my profession"). Rather, in answering the question "where have all the old values gone," he stated "the answer is perfectly simple. We're lonesome. We don't have enough friends or relatives anymore. And we would if we lived in real communities." Whether one calls this conservative or not—and it sounds conservative to me—Vonnegut suggested that he felt some sense of isolation and distance even in the midst of the warm household that Klinkowitz describes.

In this respect, Vonnegut challenges many contemporary assumptions about the meaning of conservatism in ways that can be understood to be conservative. At least part of my ambition in this essay was to suggest that there is an alternative to Mr. Thorne's emphases on the benefits of science and technology (even suggesting that any alternative would be "anti-American"), and even a properly conservative understanding that accounts for the costs of "progress" and embraces those great conservative duties of conservation and stewardship. Such a view would allow us to recognize that there is a rich American tradition encouraging such reflection, including not only Vonnegut but authors such as Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, and, earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Orestes Brownson, and Aldo Leopold, among others.

Such authors suggest that P.L. Thomas's argument that an artist is necessarily "beyond politics and ideology" is problematic at best. I would agree that such authors caution us against ideology—such as the optimistic belief in progress—but do so through a keen political understanding and teaching. Many of the most celebrated novelists in America have been among our greatest, most insightful political thinkers, educating Americans who are less inclined to be philosophic by civic disposition but who are open to fiction. Indeed, Vonnegut himself argued that we ought to understand artists as "canaries in a coal mine"—creatures sensitive to cultural and political tendencies and hence capable of sounding an alarm before many of the rest of us become aware of the dangers we face. I think in his cautions against our neglect of communities and our unreflective exploitation of the world's bounty, Vonnegut kept on "keeling over" in the hopes that the rest of us would notice.