August 10, 2005
Troubled thoughts on the War on TerrorBy Steven M. Warshawsky
The headline on last Thursday's New York Sun read: 'Grim Reminder of War as 14 U.S. Marines Die in Roadside Explosion.' The New York Daily News simply declared: 'Hell Day.' Surprisingly, the New York Times headline was the least evocative: '14 Marines Killed by Roadside Bomb in West Iraq City.' But all three headlines gave me the same sick, sinking feeling in my stomach. A feeling of loss, of sadness — and despair.
Although I have always been a staunch supporter of President Bush and the War on Terror, the daily, unrelenting reports of American troops being killed in Iraq (and, less frequently, Afghanistan) are starting to take their toll on my confidence in the war effort. I'm sure I'm not the only Bush supporter who feels this way.
My growing uneasiness with the War on Terror has nothing to do with any disagreement with the President's strategic vision. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the President's view that any hope for long—term peace in the Middle East and an end to Islamic terrorism requires the spread of freedom and democracy to that part of the globe. I also agree that this will never happen without active American involvement and support, through political, economic, and, yes, military means. And so far, the President's strategy appears to be working.
The repressive Taliban regime was rooted out of Afghanistan, and that country held the first free election in its history, which included the participation of women. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's 24—year reign of terror came to an end, and that country also held its first democratic election. Of course, Osama Bin Laden remains at large, and Al Qaeda continues to stage significant terrorist attacks on western soil (see Madrid and London bombings). Nevertheless, due to Bush's willingness to take aggressive military action (a willingness we cannot assume of the next president), significant progress has been made.
So what is it that troubles me? It cannot simply be the fact that Americans are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, the total number of combat deaths to date in the entire War on Terror — 2,035 — is a fraction of the 6,300 who died in a mere three days at Gettysburg or the 12,000 who died during the Second Battle of the Marne in World War I or the 19,000 killed on the beaches of Okinawa. Yes, these were great sacrifices to achieve great goals. But the goals we are pursuing, and achieving, in the War on Terror are also great.
Thankfully, our sacrifices have not been as large. But even lesser goals sometimes require great sacrifices of human life. For example, each year 42,000 people are killed on the nation's highways. That's 115 per day! This is one of the costs, however unintended and unfortunate, of maintaining a dynamic and flexible economic and social system that has produced unprecedented levels of freedom and prosperity for all Americans. Should we give up our cars to stop the bloodshed on the streets? Of course not. So while we mourn the loss of every American soldier, this is no reason, by itself, to lose faith in the war.
What troubles me, and what I think troubles a lot of other people who support the war, is not the fact that Americans are dying in Iraq, but that they seem to be dying defensively, passively. While our troops are fighting bravely, the message that the news media, and even the Bush Administration, is sending is that we are simply trying 'to hang on' in Iraq until the newly elected government is able to take control of the situation — not that we are trying to defeat the enemy, totally and unconditionally.
Hence, the stories we read in the newspapers and watch on television are stories about suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices wreaking havoc on American and allied forces. We rarely hear stories of American—led military actions in which enemy combatants are killed and hostile territory secured. Even in Bush's otherwise excellent speech this past April to the troops at Fort Hood, the only specific examples of military successes he cited were the liberation of Baghdad and the taking of Fallujah, nothing more recent.
Why not? Are such successes not occurring?
The Washington Times recently reported that allied forces have
Admittedly, these numbers are unverified (and there is a world of difference between killing and arresting terrorists), but neither the news media nor the Bush Administration is making an effort to keep the general public informed of these events. While this is to be expected from the Left—leaning media, the Bush Administration's failure to trumpet, regularly and loudly, American military successes in Iraq is puzzling and inexcusable.
I think this is part of the reason for my and others' waning confidence in the War on Terror. According to a recent Newsweek poll, 50% of Americans believe that we are 'losing ground' in Iraq. How can this be?
I think part of the answer lies in human nature. Despite the geopolitical successes Bush has achieved, the ugly, human truth about war is that, at bottom, it involves killing the enemy — the more, the better. In judging a war's success, the first question that comes to mind, consciously or unconsciously, is 'Are we killing more of them than they are killing of us?' If the answer to that question is 'no' (or 'I don't know'), then it is natural and inevitable for people to start losing faith in the war effort and to start wondering whether all the killing 'is worth it.' I strongly suspect that many Americans believe that the insurgents are killing more American and allied troops than we are killing of them. Although this is far from true, the perception is enough to erode the public's support for the war.
Even more corrosive, however, is the perception — which I share — that we are no longer on the offensive in this war, that the initiative has been ceded to the terrorists in Iraq, in London, in Europe, and across the globe. As we learned in Vietnam, Americans will not support a war that we do not intend to win.
General Patton, as portrayed in the famous monologue by George C. Scott, summed up the American attitude towards war perfectly. It is a great speech, worth quoting at length (a re—telling of the original is found here):
This is the spirit in which successful wars are fought. It is no coincidence that support for the War on Terror was higher when American troops were chasing the Taliban out of Afghanistan and juggernauting their way across Iraq to Baghdad. This was not about casualties; it was about being victorious on the battlefield. I have no doubt that the majority of Americans would feel better about the war today if they knew we were still being victorious on the battlefield, still killing the enemy by the hundreds and thousands, still achieving our tactical objectives.
But this is not what we are being told. So it is not at all surprising that a July CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 21% of Americans think we 'can win, but won't' in Iraq. Unlike the 32% who said we 'can't win' (and who will never be persuaded otherwise), these respondents clearly believe in America and support the War on Terror, but they are discouraged that the war is being fought, as they see it, halfheartedly and ineffectually.
Which brings me back to the Bush Administration's failure, now that 'major combat operations' have ended, to present a positive, offensive—minded picture of American military activity in Iraq. How can this be explained?
Personally, I do not believe that the generally negative tone of reporting over the war accurately portrays the situation 'on the ground' in Iraq. But I'm sure that for many Americans, the lack of cheerleading coming from the White House (not to mention the news media) means that there is nothing to cheer about. I confess that I find this lack of cheerleading disheartening myself. But not because I believe the war is 'unwinnable' or that we are in a 'quagmire.' I completely reject all such trite and easy clich�s recycled from the Left's opposition to the Vietnam War.
No, I am discouraged because I am starting to wonder whether Bush and his people (Rumsfeld, Rice, the Joint Chiefs, et al.) have reached the limit of their willingness to kill the enemy, to destroy their sanctuaries, and to punish those who harbor and support them. I am starting to wonder whether even our 'warmongering' leaders lack the will and the stamina for this bloody, drawn—out fight between us and the millions of Islamic militants across the globe who want nothing less than to see us all dead or enslaved. These insane barbarians, many of whom live among us, revel in the killing, maiming, and beheading of westerners. And as we saw in the most recent videotaped pronouncement of jihad from Bin Laden's top deputy Al—Zawahiri, they are absolutely dedicated to our destruction. The Islamofascists' commitment to their cause does not scare me. What scares me is our seeming lack of commitment to defending our way of life — and to killing them before they kill us.
No serious observer of the War on Terror disputes that it is just a matter of time before another attack on the scale of 9/11, or worse occurs in this country. What will Bush do then? Most of Al Qaeda's leadership has been killed or captured; the Taliban and Saddam have been deposed.
Are we going to go after the mullahs in Iran, Assad of Syria, the Pakistani madrassahs and their Saudi supporters? But if that's the plan, why are we waiting? Isn't the whole point of the Bush Doctrine that we will take preemptive action against our enemies before they strike? That we will employ 'hard' military measures to prevent and deter attacks, instead of 'soft' law enforcement techniques to investigate them after the fact?
What will Bush do, for example, if a nuclear bomb goes off in Manhattan? This is not a fantastic notion. As a resident of New York City, I need to know that a terrible price will be exacted on the Muslim world if this happens. Today I have no such confidence. Instead, I fear that the response to such a calamity (especially if the next president is a Democrat) will be to bring a handful of terrorist fugitives 'to justice,' as the British have done in response to the London bombings — not to widen the war to the countries and communities that continue to harbor and support the terrorists worldwide.
This will hardly even the score after the most important city in America lies in ruins. If that is how we intend to fight this war, then eventually the cowards and appeasers on the Left will convince the rest of the country to surrender, and the Islamofascists will win.
This is why I am discouraged with the War on Terror. Not because it is based on a flawed strategy or has been unsuccessful to date. On the contrary, I think it has been extremely successful. But its very success has brought to a head the conflict between us and the Islamofascists, and I lack confidence that Bush — let alone his successor — is prepared to deal with this conflict as forcefully in the future as he has dealt with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam since 9/11. For the truth of the matter is that, despite vigorous opposition from the anti—war crowd, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the 'easy' first steps in the War on Terror. The truly hard step comes after the next large—scale terrorist attack in this country. What will we do then?
Steven M. Warshawsky frequently comments on politics and current affairs from a conservative perspective. He can be reached at email@example.com.