November 29, 2006
When Killing is Enough to Defeat AmericaBy Denis Keohane
Thanks to the development of mass media inclined to oppose the nation's efforts to obtain military victory, a new path to victory has opened up for America's enemies. Historically there have been instructive and useful criteria to gauge whether one was winning or losing a war. Most often, the tracking of such was a matter of looking at a mix of setbacks and advances, tactical or strategic. A linear path to victory or defeat is somewhat rare.
There have been, of course, exceptions. WWII France and First Gulf War Iraq fashioned an unblemished advance to utter defeat in almost record setting time. More often than not, though, the path to either victory or defeat was a mix. Our experience in the WWII Pacific theatre began with Pearl Harbor, followed by the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, and then at Midway things turned. During the Civil War, the Federal Army of the Potomac suffered defeat after defeat for two years, before achieving ultimate victory.
Yardsticks used to measure loss or gain were tangible, if not always clear to the general public as to the tactical or strategic implications. Ground seized and held was easy to see, especially if the enemy had held that ground and was forced into retreat, as with the German army's retreat from the Stalingrad. Despite the repeated failure of the Army of the Potomac to ‘take Richmond', tacticians both North and South saw the slow but inexorable Union seizure of the strategic Mississippi northward from New Orleans and culminating in Grant's movements south to Vicksburg as the strategic stranglehold of the Confederacy that it was.
Then there were battles won and lost, surrenders, retreats and casualties. When one side ‘quit the field' it was an easy benchmark. If the casualties taken in a battle by one side were dramatically worse than the other, as were Federal losses at Fredericksburg, it was easy to score as a defeat.
During the Vietnam War, public perceptions of what was a win or loss, strategic or tactical, began to change, and it is simply a fact that such change in perception came about through the evolution of the media. The Tet Offensive of 1968-1969 is now and belatedly admitted by virtually all sides to have been a major battlefield defeat for the communist forces, but the perception of the public in the United States was that it was a defeat for us. The communist forces made short term gains, took and held ground for a time, but were beaten back, and decisively so, suffering ten times the KIA as the US and our allied ARVN forces .
Yet Walter Cronkite took that opportunity to inform the American public that we were not winning, an idea that took hold here even though it was at odds with even the conclusion of the North Vietnamese commander, General Giap. It was a psychological victory, based on emotion, but psychological victory was and is sufficient to sap a nation's will to win.
The acceptance of a defeat when the facts said victory was in large part the result of a media onslaught on the public's emotions. There has been no battle of history, whether won or lost, for which still photos, film and impassioned reporting of tragedy and loss could not have been presented for either the victorious or losing side. Simply put, if in June of 1944, American newspaper and periodicals were flooded with photos of the torn bodies of hundreds or thousands of dead Americans littering the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy, and likewise showed images of some of the 12,000 French civilians killed during the six weeks of Operation Overlord, the nation might have seen something less than a victory and possibly something as not worth the high cost.
In all the years of the Vietnam War, US forces never lost any battle or engagement with the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong larger than company size. No US battalions or regiments were overrun, wiped out or captured, as had happened to the French in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Yet the years-long imagery of our young men wounded and dying and Vietnamese civilians suffering most certainly cemented the idea of constant loss and ultimate waste in much of the public's consciousness.
Then another crtical development occurred. The ability to kill, to kill anyone, became a credential for legitimacy and a criteria for being granted some respectability at the bargaining tables and in the media of the world. In the seventies, both the IRA and the PLO showed that murder obtained political respect and got attention.
From those events and since Iraq, there is an evolving new standard of measurement of victory or loss taking hold in our perceptions of warfare, that has serious and potentially disastrous long term implications for how we understand, if we do, the wars we are in or may be in. We are establishing a generally held war psychology whereby something like victory is granted to one side based on nothing more than that side's willingness and ability to kill, even indiscriminately kill, soldiers, non-combatants and civilians.
Almost every TV report on the War in Iraq seems to begin with something along the line of ‘The killing continues in Iraq...' or ‘Despite administration claims of progress in Iraq, more bombings today claimed the lives of....' Democrats and Iraq War opponents repeatedly point to the continuing, or periodically escalated spikes in, levels of violence and killing as evidence that we cannot win or are not winning. Yet the various insurgent and terrorist groups can kill our soldiers and Iraqi forces, but only in numbers that, while individually tragic and an irreplaceable loss, pale in comparison to our experiences in other wars.
When our nation's population was one tenth of what it is now, we suffered more KIA in the one day Battle of Antietam than we have suffered in both Afghanistan and Iraq combined since both wars began. On D-Day alone, the US had 1,465 KIA. We lost over 6,800 KIA in the battle for Iwo Jima. We suffered almost 54,000 deaths in Korea in just three years. In every year from 1966 through 1970 in Vietnam we suffered between 6,000 and 16,000 deaths.
We have had no bases overrun in Iraq. No unit as small as a platoon has been wiped out or captured. At Corregidor in WWII, 11,000 American troops surrendered and were taken prisoners by the Japanese, and another 15,000 were taken at the Fall of Bataan. Many thousands of those died under brutal conditions imposed by their captors. If one or two American soldiers are captured in Iraq, and we presume with cause that they will be killed, it is indeed a tragedy, but it is treated in the media as something of a cause for national trauma.
The various insurgencies and terror groups from the Sunni-Baathists to the Shia militias to the Al Qaeda affiliates can and have held ground, but as at Tal Afar, Ramadi, Fallujah and elsewhere, when pressed, cannot hold that ground. None of those groups has been able to rally enough Iraqi public sentiment to its side to be seen as anything like the popular favorite and inevitable winner in the bloody Iraqi intramural. None has the popular leader or vision of governance that is rallying ever more popular support, and each simply maintains its particular and mostly stagnant core of support. Each of those groups has taken more and more to hitting soft targets. Unable to gain even minor real tactical victories against coalition and now even Iraqi national forces, all are targeting civilians, with death squads and bombings that intentionally kill civilians in large numbers at Mosques, markets and even soccer fields.
More and more that death toll is being presented as evidence that we are not winning, and cannot win. That makes the reverse true: that if they can merely kill, even civilians, they are winning tactically and even strategically.
Merely killing a lot of civilians is not a high bar to attain, and that lesson will be learned and copied, again and again.
If we withdraw from Iraq before the country is stable, and do so on the grounds that the continuous killing of civilians and our forces at historically low levels is unacceptable, we will have taught many an able and willing student that victory in war can be had simply by slaughter, constant, repeated, indiscriminate slaughter, of anyone, including women and children.
If the ability of the enemy to kill even the unarmed is what grants victory, Iraq cannot be won. All the various insurgents need to do when any area or region becomes too hot, is go elsewhere and kill! If we seal the supply routes from Iran and Syria and deprive them of arms and weapons, just remember that in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands were killed by clubs and knives.
Success will be copied by the next determined group of murderous psychopaths and thugs, and we will have allowed it to happen by granting psychological victory fed by imagery that preys on emotions and saps our will. If we withdraw and lose this one out of a desire to stop the violence, just because we can't stop all killing while there, we will guarantee a massive amount of worldwide murder in the future!
Forget Sun Tzu, ClausEwitz or Mahan! Al-Zarqawi will posthumously be granted the distinction of having been a great military theoretician. Just kill! Anyone. Continuously.
If we do not meet murder on a horrendous scale with resolve and retribution but rather with retreat, a simple path to victory opens up for any thuggish group or regime, and the world will descend further toward a state of nature.