Sunday, June 29, 2008

The "blame game" over the Iraq War

It still amazes me sometimes that military journals will discuss some major issues relating to the military and to our current wars with a clarity and frankness rarely seen in the Establishment press. And by "clarity and frankness", I mean discussions that don't always put the Republican administration and the current military leadership in the most flattering light.

This article in the July-Aug Military Review reminded me of that again, After Iraq: The Politics of Blame and Civilian-Military Relations by George Mastroianni and Wilbur Scott. They write that the discussion over the next several months is likely to intensify over the topic of who is to blame for the disaster known as the Iraq War:

At issue will be who to blame for what has gone wrong up to that point, and who to blame if things go wrong in the future. The question, "Who gets the blame for mistakes made in prosecuting the war in Iraq?" has shifted focus since the surge. The 2007 increase in the number of boots on the ground and the new counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Iraq mark an important transition in public perceptions of the war. The administration’s decision to surge additional troops to Iraq despite congressional and public opposition provoked an acrimonious debate that foreshadows the next phase of the blame game. Congress debated the inclusion of timelines for withdrawal from in legislation and the administration's plan to surge additional troops to Iraq. The administration and its supporters attacked those who advocated timelines for troop withdrawals or reductions (mainly congressional Democrats) by portraying them as opponents of our troops in the field, determined to cut off funding for Soldiers in harm’s way, to "cut and run," and to offer our enemies easy victory by setting a "surrender date," thus throwing away our chances for "victory."

The administration also worked hard to identify the surge as the preferred strategy of respected, competent military authorities, not politicians. They frequently invoked the views of commanders on the ground to justify the policy and praised General David Petraeus’ COIN expertise, academic credentials, and earlier successes in Iraq. As a result, the public’s perception of the military (particularly its leaders) is now linked to the success or failure of the surge (and the war). The post-surge blame game will implicate senior military leaders far more directly than they have been thus far. (my emphasis)
When our Savior-General David Petraeus (peace be upon him) loses his current infallibility, he is likely to be dumped on heavily by military analysts and retired officers for allowing the Cheney-Bush administration to make him for all intents and purposes the chief political spokesperson for the Iraq War policy these last two years.

This Republican habit of trying to dress up everything they do as simply going along with our infallible generals is dangerous in all kinds of ways.

Mastroianni and Scott are pointing here to something that pretty obvious to those paying attention, which evidently does not include most of our Big Pundits: the Iraq War is an obvious disaster, and everybody involved is scrambling to pin the responsibility on someone besides themselves. As Jack Kennedy commented after the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, success has many parents but failure is an orphan. (Actually he said many fathers, but I thought I would update it.)

They also correctly identify the most important immediate model for the emerging stab-in-the-back theory:

The Vietnam War was a social and cultural watershed for America. Many Vietnam veterans felt betrayed when they returned home amid controversy over the war. Today some feel the U.S. accorded them little of the respect and gratitude now so generously given to veterans of current operations. Some Americans and many veterans believe "stab-in-the-back" antiwar protests at home led to restrictions on the use of military power that tied the hands of the military and caused South Vietnam to fall to the Communists. Others point to misguided policies that top civilian and military leaders pursued at the time. In the coming months, variations of these two failure narratives about Iraq will likely surface.
But I don't really like their formulation here. For one thing, these debates are already furiously under way. By saying they will "surface" in the coming months, they momentarily descend to the level of Big Pundits.

The High Broderism recedes in the next paragraph, though it doesn't vanish entirely:

When the inevitable drawdown begins in Iraq, the battle to interpret the war will begin anew. Thus far, respect for the troops in the field has somewhat muted partisan conflicts over the war. However, divisive, destructive instances of social conflict have occurred. Some compare those who question current administration policy in Iraq with participants in the Vietnam antiwar movement and counterculture. Others on the political right seek to lay exclusive claim to the loyalty of military members by asserting that the media, "liberal elites," and others who oppose administration policy have anti-military, antiwar, and anti-American tendencies. Similarly echoing policy disagreements in the Vietnam era, many on the left summarily dismiss the administration's vision of an achievable and sustainable political-military solution in Iraq. (my emphasis)
At least they leave the (correct) impression that the rightwing criticism is far dingier than that coming from most war critics. Still, there's a bit of the "this side says, the other side says" treatment here. That last sentence doesn't make much sense. After over five years of this war, it's scarcely summary judgment on anyone's part to see how difficult the situation remains. Or that "the administration's vision" has no solid basis in reality. Nor does McCain's magical mystery plan for Victory.

In the following, they are carrying water for the advocates of the stab-in-the-back view. Their article seriously downplays, though it doesn't quite ignore, the available indications that Iraq War veterans are at least as opposed to the war and in favor of rapid withdrawal as the general public. The first paragraph calls attention to the perils of too great a separtion between civilians and the military, which the all-volunteer military has encouraged. But these paragraphs are almost purely ideological:

Because service members are volunteers, and civilians do not share the hardships service members accept, many in the military are not especially receptive to civilian opinions. Some are tempted to ask the illogical but emotionally charged question, "If I’m in Iraq, and you’re at the mall, which of our views has more moral authority?" There is also a strong sense among military members that average Americans simply do not know what is going on in Iraq because they are too far removed from the military experience or because the media distort news reports from Iraq, focusing only on sensational, negative events while ignoring good news.

In spite of the substantial skepticism about the war’s costs within the military, service members also view the Iraq war as a success in a way that civilians do not or cannot. The repeated, lengthy deployments, the hardships of service members and their families, and of course, the casualties, motivate many service members to see the sacrifices they and their families have made in an unerringly positive light. American Soldiers are willing to sacrifice, but for a noble purpose - no one wants to waste their lives and livelihoods on a moral mistake. In this case, while critics repeatedly suggest, "the war has been lost," the only acceptable narrative for sacrifice is the administration’s rhetoric about noble victory. Even though these critics do not blame the military for this predicament - the administration is at fault - service members find it nearly psychologically impossible to agree with them. Civilians have less of a personal stake in seeing things the administration’s way. (my emphasis)
The bolded statements are so egregious that they call into question the credibility of the authors. To suggest that virtually all service members basically agree with the Cheney-Bush administration's line is just not consistent with what we do know about soldiers' opinions.

And the notion that soldiers can only deal with their sacrifices or the loss of close comrades in war by cheering for the war and the administration's political positions on it is just plain counter-factual. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist with extensive familiarity with "survivors" or wars and other extreme situations, including the experiences of soldiers in the Korean and Vietnam was, has written about "survivors' missions" which are an important element of the grieving process. Cheering for the cause is one form of a "survivor mission"; opposing it can be another. (See, for instance, A War Over Meaning By Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell The Nation 09/12/05)

But the authors' analysis in their conclusion strikes me as very plausible:

To be sure, there are different perspectives and competing interests represented: those of the military services, senior and junior officers, and officers with different views on the right way to do counterinsurgency, but none of the narratives focus on the role of civil society. In the future, the political right may find it expedient to deflect blame for what has happened or what might happen away from the Bush administration and onto the next administration, the media, or the majority of Americans skeptical of the war. They may try to do this by articulating a new "stab-in-the-back" theory that focuses on the news media, liberal elites, and a permissive and decadent civilian society as the source of the rot. ...

Tensions between the public and the military may grow after the war. The new administration may be Republican, and if so, a “stay-the-course” strategy will conflict with the weight of public opinion and the realities of an increasingly strained defense establishment. The ensuing disputes over Iraq policy will rekindle the debates that erupted over the surge. If the new administration is Democratic, right-wingers will probably attack its new policies as evidence of a lack of concern, support, and respect for military members and their sacrifices. Members of the military may be politically disposed to respond to such representations by adopting attitudes consistent with the seductive "stab-in-the-back" way of thinking. Such a development would be both divisive and destructive of the great progress in civil-military relations that has taken place since the Vietnam War.

As the end game unfolds, there is every reason to think that the blame game will intensify. Once the war is over, the stakes will be the historical and cultural interpretation of what happened, an interpretation that has the potential to shape American political fortunes for years to come. On the surface, civil-military relations have never been better, but the underlying structural asymmetries between military and civil society could be crucial under certain conditions. Let us hope that our politicians and generals will resist the temptation to make good relations between our citizens and our Soldiers the last casualty of the Iraq war. (my emphasis)
I hope so, too. But I'm sure from what they are saying already that the Republicans will continue to work hard to make sure that such a "last casualty" occurs. In fact, the way things are going, it may be far from the last casualty in that war.

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