Buried Victories

A war's end has its necessary rituals. The defeated must bow their heads and acknowledge failure. The victors must have their triumph, plus the privilege of dictating the terms of peace as they see fit. If this process does not occur, then there is no closing, no climacteric. The war remains unended on the symbolic and psychological level, which means, for all practical purposes, that it hasn't ended at all.

Victory goes a long way toward shaping a war. A mishandled victory often leads to a failed peace. Consider WW I: the brutal provisions of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, which humiliated Germany, made it impossible for the Germans to recover in good order and set the stage for the rise of Hitler. It also  did nothing to redeem the anguish and misery of the four years of the trenches, much less the 16 million-plus dead.

Then turn to our own Civil War. During the last months, there was talk among Rebel forces of refusing to surrender, of taking to the hills to really make the Yankees bleed. That ended at Appomattox, in large part due to two distinct gestures. The first by Grant who, distracted by the gleam of Lee's sword, added a line to the surrender document directing that "officers will retain their sidearms". The other was by the legendary Joshua Chamberlain, at that time holding the rank of brigadier general. As Confederate troops approached to lay down their arms, Chamberlain ordered his men to salute as they passed. The Rebels gazed back stunned for a moment, then returned the salute. That was all it took. From that point on that war was over. Despite regional tensions between the South and the rest of the country that continued for a century, the thought of secession never seriously recurred.

Without a just ending, war is merely a parade of atrocities and massacres, killer apes doing what killer apes have done for three million years or more. It is the victor who gives shape to the ending, who decides whether it will be yet another episode in the long Halloween or something that partakes of the higher aspects of human nature: mercy, honor, and reconciliation.

Which is why victory is hated by antiwar types, no matter what their ideology and motivation. (This is not even to mention the agendas of the hard left and the Democrats, which we don't have space to get into.) They don't want war redeemed. Anything that lessens its loathsome aspects makes it easier to view war as a possibility. Victory is one of the failings of war that must be gotten rid of. But of course, in any conflict (excepting wars of exhaustion, which we don't often see) there will be winner and a loser. Victory can't be denied to that extent. But the rituals, the salutes, the expressions of respect and magnanimity, can be undermined. And so we get buried victories.

A buried victory is one that has been downgraded and ignored, one that has been hedged with so many qualifications and second thoughts that it is scarcely a victory at all any longer. A buried victory is one from which all the human aspects have been drained, and replaced -- if that's the word -- with bureaucratic procedure.

We've seen this for fifty years or more. U.S. forces had effectively secured most of South Vietnam by 1972. The Viet Cong had been a nullity since being effectively wiped out during the Tet Offensive, and the People's Army of North Vietnam had to a large extent been chased across the borders into Cambodia and Laos. South Vietnam was a stable political entity, and with adequate support could have remained that way.

But the American left, for purely political reasons, portrayed the situation as a defeat, and in a series of Congressional actions through 1973 and 1974, cut off support for the Saigon government until it was hanging by a string. It fell at last on April 30, 1975, after a heroic final defense at the gates of the city.

In the years that followed, close to 3 million were murdered in Southeast Asia.

In 1991, having wiped out the bulk of the Iraqi Army in a matter of days, the U.S.  contented itself with an incomplete victory. It unilaterally brought the war to a close without demanding recognition of defeat from the Iraqi military, and above all, from Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party. Instead of a clear victory, we were treated to the spectacle of U.S. forces standing by while thousands of innocent Shi'ites and Kurds were slaughtered. Twelve years later, we had to do it all over again, under -- as we are all now well aware -- far more difficult circumstances. (Being self-inflicted, this is another case of Bush Senior adapting the ideas and behavior of his opposition -- "read my lips" in military form.)

(Compare those two incidents to the Grenada and Panama conflicts. In both cases, the U.S. fought to the finish, destroyed enemy capabilities, brought down the tyrannies, and remained to oversee the reestablishment of civil government. Today both are free and prosperous nations.)

But the most egregious example is the Cold War. Only those who lived through the period have any clear idea of the miracle embodied in that conflict's end. For decades, it was widely believed that the Cold War could climax only with a universal catastrophe, or at least a paroxysm that would leave tens of millions dead. But thanks to Reagan's boldness and acumen, (and not to forget Gorbachev's humanity) it closed without a single ICBM so much as quivering in its silo.

It was one of the great victories of the modern epoch, one of a trio of defeats handed out to the enemies of human freedom during the 20th century: absolutism, fascism, and at last, communism. A victory at the highest levels of human endeavor, with nothing of the primitive or brutish about it. "One of the great unsordid acts," as Churchill once put it. At the same time, it was a victory of the common and workaday, in which the average and unheralded individual shared as much in the triumph as any general or diplomat or premier. A glance at the footage of the destruction of the Berlin Wall will reveal as much.

And it was buried.

"Let's not engage in triumphalism," we were told by the media, by the left, by the academics. "Let's not humiliate the Russians... Both sides were at fault here." We were even told that "Now capitalism must be defeated." As if capitalism ever built walls, or Gulags, or massacred millions for the sake of demonstrating a theory.

In not taking its place as the rightful victor, the U.S. was unable to mold the post-Cold War world as it molded Europe after WW II. Bush Senior could talk all he liked about a "New World Order", but nothing of the sort came into being. An individual transported to the present from the mid-1980s would have no difficulty recognizing the world he saw about him -- a belligerent Russia, a conniving and expansionist China, a Latin America flirting for the hundredth time with Marxism, an Africa on the skids. Even Burma in a state of political chaos.

The sole new aspect is the internationalization of religious terror by the Jihadis. In 1989, the U.S. was given a once-in-a-century opportunity to remake the global community in the manner of the Treaty of Westphalia  or the Congress of Vienna. We decided to be a New Age, politically-correct country instead. Does anyone like the result?

Today we see a similar process occurring in Iraq and in the Afghanistan/Pakistan arena. None of the achievements of the Coalition or the Iraqis has gained more than momentary recognition. The purple revolution, the elections, the reconstruction -- all have been dismissed or ignored. What has replaced them is an endless chronicle of suffering and destruction - of war without victory. (In what other conflict would Arthur Chrenkoff's sorely-missed "good news from Iraq" column have been necessary?)

The "Mission Accomplished" incident set the tone. George W. Bush's appearance in a military flight suit beneath the banner bearing those words was greeted with a storm of insults and mockery that grew more frantic as the violence in Iraq failed to abate. Today, many believe -- because they were led to believe -- that the banner was placed there by the administration itself, in the kind of cowboy gesture often ascribed to Bush, though seldom actually seen. In truth, it was the work of the ship's crew, who had completed a difficult job with no serious losses and were proud of the fact. This truth failed to get across, and now it will never get across. There will be history books a century from now explaining how Karl Rove put that banner up personally.

Once burned, the administration -- along with other branches and agencies of the government -- has been unwilling to claim any accomplishments whatsoever. Saddam Hussein's capture passed without much in the way of acknowledgment. (Quick -- what troops captured him and how were they rewarded?) The same with the killing of Zarqawi and numerous other incidents. Even when making a claim, government spokesmen end with the same sorry whimper, "Of course -- we still have a long way to go.... " providing the media with the precise peg they need to hang their stories on.

And the media has obliged. News reports of Coalition or Iraqi achievements became conventional, their form and content as invariable as a Noh play. First would come the announcement of a Coalition triumph -- the capture of an Al-Queda emir, the breakup of a bombing ring -- written in what amounted to a dull monotone. Then the counterpoint: how many bombs went off that day, how many civilians had been killed, how many troops (always ending with the number added to the war's overall total). This part was usually longer than the first, and often enlivened by quotes, eyewitness reportage, and local color, in contrast to the dull prose of the "official news". So each announcement of a triumph was accompanied by its own negation. A narrative has been created in which the impression of victories simply could not occur

Now we're achieving the real thing, on the most massive scale. The major element of the "insurrection" (an unsatisfactory term, but does anyone have one better?), the Al-Queda, is being chewed to pieces. The new "surge" strategy -- actually a classic counterinsurgency strategy similar to that utilized in the final years in Vietnam -- has proven itself as clearly as any on record. The enemy has been unable to respond, and is on the run wherever engaged. The Sunnis have been coming over in ever-increasing numbers, fulfilling one of the basic requirements of a successful counterinsurgency effort: the full cooperation of the civilian population. A serious reconciliation has been blooming between the newly-dominant Shi'ites and Sunni minority.

Barring unforeseen setbacks, the Coalition appears to be set to prevail. (A number of critics newly cognizant of counterinsurgency are pointing out that it takes years for such an effort to succeed, overlooking the unique aspects of the Iraq situation: the "insurrection" is actually a form of invasion by outside forces, namely Al-Queda. Destroy them, end the invasion, and the "insurrection" becomes a matter of bandits and diehards, easily handled by domestic Iraqi troops.)

And how is all this being depicted? It isn't. Early coverage of the surge emphasized how it could go wrong. A "September surprise", a sudden rise in casualties prior to General Petreaus's report to Congress, was predicted. Discord between Iraq factions was emphasized. Several Jihadi "offensives" were announced. None of it came to anything. No "surprise" occurred. The factions are, for the moment, reconciled. Al-Queda offensives, if they ever existed, fizzled out.

And in recent weeks... almost nothing. Suddenly, Iraq is not a topic. Achievements in the field have gone unmentioned in a media that couldn't get enough of car bombs, IEDs, massacres, and assassinations. The focus has shifted to the domestic: the endless campaign, bogus "health-care" bills, Al Gore's latest prize. If Iraq is mentioned at all, it's in the context of scandal, as in the Blackwater shooting incident, quite serious in and of itself, but nothing to overshadow the events of the past three months. It's as if news of Pvt. Eddie Slovik's execution overwhelmed any mention of the Allied advance into Germany.

We will see more of this. Last Friday, the New York Times, which has granted no meaningful coverage to the surge, featured no less than three stories dealing with civilian casualties. Reportage of a speech by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez ignored his criticism of the media's role in Iraq (or the fact that he calls for redoubling our efforts there), in favor of his attacks on the administration's war efforts. Last week the UN demanded not greater support for the newly-invigorated Iraqi government, but an investigation into the Blackwater incident.    

There are muted lanterns in the graveyard, the clink of shovels on gravel. Victory in Iraq, one of the hardest-fought in recent American history, is being buried before our eyes.

This is unacceptable. American victories are not those of a Tamerlane piling up skulls, of SS units reveling in genocide. As Victor Davis Hanson revealed in his classic study, The Soul of Battle, American wars are fought to free the enslaved, to punish the tyrant, to set right what has been overturned. American victories are nothing to be ashamed of.

Pacifist opposition to victory in war is a case of misapplied idealism creating more of the very horrors it decries. A war not properly ended simply engenders more conflicts and creates more misery.

If war is useful for anything, it is for solving intractable problems completely and finally. Victory is a key element of this. Victories that are not victories, but simply cessations of combat, will always end up being only temporary.

They used to ring bells, the bells of churches, in both thanksgiving and celebration when a war ended victoriously. We don't do that anymore. But we do need to discover the equivalent for the new millennium. The rituals that will enable us to reclaim victory, and with it a lost portion of our humanity.

Many thanks to Arthur Herman for his thoughts on the matter.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.