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May 07, 2006

Washington Post Is Flummoxed By Yet Another Impenetrable Mystery

Why o why don't American leaders know how to win? This is the question that bedevils Henry Allen, an editor at the Washington Post:

"In war, we have to win," said Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.

This was on television about 20 years ago, a PBS series about the war in Vietnam. Giap was sitting behind a desk, as I recall, a picture of lethal ease. He seemed amused to think he knew something that the Americans still hadn't figured out. He added: "Absolutely have to win."

For me, a former Marine corporal who'd heard some Viet Cong rounds go past at Chu Lai, Giap spoke and the heavens opened -- a truth seizure, eureka. I finally had a useful, practical explanation for why we had lost after the best and brightest promised we were going to win. And nowadays, thanks to Giap, I have a theory, no more than that, about why winning is so elusive in Iraq... our high-ranking leaders believe, like Giap, that we have to win?

...I'm just saying that I want us to win the wars that we fight. And I'm worried that Iraq was never one of them because it was started by people who knew everything except how to win -- who have yet to learn that in war we absolutely have to win.

I myself have a theory, no more than that, about why our leaders haven't learned that in war we absolutely have to win. My theory is they haven't learned that we absolutely have to win because WE DON'T ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO WIN.

Let me illustrate this with some suggestive numbers:

Distance from America to Vietnam: 8,000 miles
Distance from Vietnam to Vietnam: 0 miles

Distance from America to Iraq: 6,000 miles
Distance from Iraq to Iraq: 0 miles

My point here is that leaders may be more motivated to win when they're fighting against people who invaded the country they live in.

There might even be a deeper point—that countries get different kinds of leaders when the country is defending itself from invaders than countries do when they're invading other lands thousands of miles away.

For instance, let's consider an imaginary nation named the Dunite Esstat of Caameri. Right now Caameri has leaders named Beorge Gush, Chick Deney, and Ronald Dumsfeld. Gush, Deney and Dumsfeld like to invade other countries thousands of miles away. However, many citizens of Caameri oppose these wars. And leaders like Gush seem to have a hard time winning these wars halfway across the earth.

But then Caameri is actually itself invaded by another country, and things aren't going well. And interestingly enough, Gush, Deney and Dumsfeld are no longer the country's leaders; in fact, at the first sign of real danger to themselves, Gush, Deney and Dumsfeld began collaborating with the invaders. That's because their motive before the invasion was to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else in their country, and this motive remains unchanged after the invasion.

Meanwhile, new leaders have arisen in Caameri. They're the kind of leaders Henry Allen wishes for—leaders who believe they absolutely have to win. And interestingly enough, many are the exact same people who opposed the wars started by Gush, Deney and Dumsfeld. In the end, with their leadership, Caameri drives out the invaders.

But again, this is no more than a theory. Surely the answer couldn't be so simple, or the Washington Post would have figured it out by now.

Posted at May 7, 2006 11:32 AM | TrackBack

"In war, the moral is to the
physical as three to one."

Napoleon Bonoparte

Our leaders don't know history.

Posted by: donescobar at May 7, 2006 12:53 PM

My favorite Caamerian newspaper is "A Thing Now Stops."

Posted by: cp at May 7, 2006 01:41 PM

CP - awesome!

Jon - I must correct you.

Iraq is in fact 24,000 miles away from Iraq. Iraq is 0 miles away from Iraq only in the special case in which you are allowed to turn around and look behind you. This special case obviously does not apply to Caamerians.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at May 7, 2006 04:08 PM

If I recall, bin Laden's reason for attacking the US was because unbelieving Christian troops were in Saudi Arabia, home to some of the holiest shrines in Islam. Islam puts great value in shrines. Iraq is dotted with all kinds of shrines. It is also filled with all kinds of Muslims. Muslims believe in holy war and are willing to kill themselves in the defense of Islam.

Am I missing something here?

Oh yeah, Afghanistan too.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at May 7, 2006 04:38 PM

Minor correction SK,

As a Chinese friend pointed out to me many years ago, "things" are oriental, but "people" are Asian.

Maybe such ignorance on our part contributes to our not understanding Asians as well as we should.

Posted by: spiiderweb at May 7, 2006 06:28 PM

Pardon my grammatical faux pas. I was referring to the Vietnamese "character"--one of many byproducts of the Orientalist ideological imaginary--not to the "people" of Vietnam.

Posted by: sk at May 7, 2006 06:53 PM

Orient and Asian are totally different concepts. If you want to say Vietnamese, or Southeast Asian, or East Asian, say it. "Asian" refers to everyone from Turkey and Israel to Taiwan and Laos. What a stupid word to use for "people with straight dark hair and pale skin." Oriental means "Eastern," which to those of us in California refers to people in Nevada.

Posted by: hedgehog at May 8, 2006 12:49 AM

But of course, you have to demonize "the enemy" in any war by characterizing them as so different from fine, upstanding people like us that they're scarcely human. This has been going on since the first caveman picked up a stick to whack his neighbor: "Og gots squint, brown hair, he different from me, must hate me, might kill me, I'll kill him first."

Posted by: Mimi at May 8, 2006 06:16 AM

Before Bush invaded Iraq, the single fact I needed to know to be certain the US would be defeated is the one you state above. Coincidentally, I knew more--perhaps more than Bush himself--about Middle Eastern history. But even had I not, I knew that US military might cannot defeat a people determined to be rid of a foreign invader. A simple historical lesson America should have learned in Vietnam. The question now is, how many more Iraqis, Americans and others--I sincerely hope not Iranians--need die before the blind idealogues in Washington are forced to acknowledge the truth.

Posted by: brynn at May 8, 2006 07:39 AM

This has been going on since the first caveman picked up a stick to whack his neighbor ...

Actually, I would say this is pretty much an invention of European colonialism. Romans never went on about the racial inferiority of Carthaginians.

Posted by: saurabh at May 8, 2006 08:34 AM

In the land of Grammaticia, the Grammaticans say, "If it's inside the quotation marks, just say what the butthead said, even if he wuz[sic] wrong."

And I heard that the Grammaticans get awfully upset when you suggest they don't value life, or proper usage-- they're liable to tear you a new colon into a semi-colon.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at May 8, 2006 09:33 AM

Oh, now, come on Jon!

The last thing the military-industrial complex wants is for America to win this war. You’re fighting the Wal-Mart war in Iraq, which says that the worse the equipment and the more of it that’s destroyed, the greater our profits. PLANNED obsolescence, remember?

The last time the United States won a war, it was the American government that oversaw the production of goods and materials which would be used for that war. The privatization of war in the 1950s guaranteed that the sole interest would be profit. Ending a war ends the profit (and forces me, the manufacturer, into the complicated maneuvers necessary to get a new war started in order to balance the books).

So really, Jon. Stop thinking like a war gamer. Strategy and tactics are irrelevant.

You want to win, nationalize your war industry.

(Of course, the country would have to start by voting democrat).

Posted by: Alexis S at May 8, 2006 10:20 AM

"Strategy and tactics are irrelevant" - just as budget deficits are irrelevant. Who loans the money to the U.S. government to give to the war profiteers? China. And where does China get its money? By selling things to Wal-Mart.

As you say, it's the "Wal-Mart war".

Posted by: JustZisGuy at May 8, 2006 10:48 AM

Excellent analysis:

The big money isn't in winning the war (necessarily), but in perpetually fighting it!

After the end of the Cold War, the military-industrial complex was a victim of it's own success. Without sufficiently scary boogeymen, Americans would expect a peace dividend and demand our tax dollars be spent on things that actually benefit us!

Can't have that, though! No, the money must constantly flow from the people up to the defense contractors, reconstruction corporations, their lobbyists, and the congressmen they own.

Welcome to the "War on Terror." A war not against nations, but tactics, with no measurable way to ever truly win it, i.e. a war without end.

Posted by: War4Sale at May 8, 2006 12:47 PM

Ha Ha, hedgehog.

How many units in a measurable distance?

Posted by: Alexis S at May 8, 2006 01:54 PM

Your article hit the nail on the head. Wars have ALWAYS been fought for profit. Your neighbor has something you want (valuable land, oil, gold) and you have a large military. Simple armed robbery. The Judiaic Wars of the Romans proved that a dedicated population will eventually overcome an invader, it just takes a while. The lesson of Vietnam was "yes AMERICA can lose a war", a lesson this Administration NEVER learned. Charles spent much time, effort, and blood to explain they did not want us in country to bad our President passed up the oppertunity to learn the lesson first hand. Thank You for serving.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 8, 2006 02:51 PM

Actually, I too, remember the lethal ease of Giap, aka Fu Manchu. I think he was crushing the back of a caucasian slave girl as he spoke. The cunning way he ran his long nailed fingers (dirty with the dust of the opium he smoked continually) through his beard, it sent a shiver through my spine. Jeepers! But I think the commentator misremembers Giap's frightening words, perhaps due to the fact that he spoke into an echo machine. As I remember them, he said, we have to win with a cherry on top!

As is well known, it was the cherry, the obscure cherry, that eluded our wimpy leaders. Oh, halfheartedly they dropped more bombs on Vietnam than they dropped on Germany in WWII. Nervous nellies, they ordered up the humanitarian Phoenix program, welcoming many Vietnamese to the wonderful world of live dismemberment. And, in a fit of total cowardice, the American invaded Laos and bombed Cambodia, undeterred by the fact that they didn't even have updated maps to see where they were bombing (going postal to the tune of tens of thousands of Fu Manchu lookalikes, each dying with an evil laugh at the spineless americans, ignorant of the cherry on top theory of victory).

Posted by: roger at May 8, 2006 03:03 PM

Everything still looks to be in place for this one to squeak out as a win for the 'mongers:
- No real threat of Congressional opposition to steadily increasing off-the-books special allocations for war "costs"
- Halliburton stock up 4x
- No traction on any investigations into the "missing" $9 billion by the CPA
- CIA purged, loyal replacements busily classifying any records of profiteering
- Pardons prepared and ready for signature

Posted by: melior (in Austin) at May 8, 2006 04:13 PM

Reading the comments, I have to ask: Don't we have to separate two ideas here, the idea that war is always for profit, and the idea that manufacturers of war equipment are seeking profits? If you put the two ideas together, it begins to look like the manufacturers actually *want* there to be a war, when there's really no need for a war for them to make money. Their products will still be bought, whether they're used or not. The money will flow to them either way.

And, with the first statement, that war is always for profit, is that a useful thing to say? I mean, where does it take us to lump all possible motivations into "profit"? It seems more useful to divide war motives into a few more categories than that (like, maybe, revenge, or PR to boost ratings, or ideological furor, etc.).

Posted by: cp at May 8, 2006 09:52 PM

War is sold to the public (the ones rendering up blood and treasure) as ideological, religious, revenge, but when one digs deep enough one finds GREED. Take Afghanistan, 125 years ago Britian sought to place a pipeline across Afghanistan to carry OIL from Uzbekistan to Karachi on the coast. You've got revenge, religion, PRbut yet the National Guard ends up building pumping stations from Uzbek on down toward the coast. GREED. ONE NEED NOT LOOK FOR HIGH MORAL IDEOLOGY WHEN GREED AND STUPIDITY FIT THE BILL SO NICELY.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 8, 2006 10:51 PM

Their products will still be bought, whether they're used or not. The money will flow to them either way.

CP, check out the profit margins of companies like Raytheon (a profit of 871 million in 2005 versus a loss of 755 in 2001) or Lockheed Martin (1.8 billion profit in 2005 versus 1 Billion loss in 2001.) Then recall that Wall Street values growth, despite Edward Abbey's line about growth being "the ideology of a cancer cell." Those tanks and missiles need to be used up, and the people need to feel threatened enough to keep buying the latest model. Now I am not saying that that need of certain companies controls the course of world events. But their interests are certainly misaligned with that of peace and harmony.

Posted by: Saheli at May 9, 2006 02:10 AM

When Bush was first "elected," a child of some very rich parents was pulled from my fourth grade class in order to attend the inaugral celebration. She came back to class with stuff to share. Most of it was expensive, clay coat invitations to the various happenings. One thing caught my eye. On the backs of all those invitations and agendas was printed the names of the companies that were putting on all the festivities. They were all major defense contractors, Raytheon, Martin Murietta, GE. Quite a long list. I had a strong sense at that moment that this would be the war president. Yeah, Iraq might be about oil, but it is also about clearing out old stockpiles and building more smart bombs, and billing the American taxpayer for both. Gee, thanks George for "Keeping the US safe."

Posted by: Will at May 9, 2006 08:54 AM