Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Victor Davis Hanson and the Polemics of "Will"

A dear friend sent around an essay by Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford historian, as a general manifesto in support of the Bush regime. It begins:

The terrorists cannot win either a conventional or an asymmetrical war against the United States, should it bring its full array of assets to the struggle. Indeed, the Middle East, for all its revenue from inflated oil prices, has a smaller economy than Spain's. It has never won a war against a Western power. Arab nations lost in 1967, 1973, 1991, and 2004. Hence the fatwas must go back to millennia-old glories about Saladin, the siege of Cyprus, the Moors, and the Caliphate — about the last examples of Islamic victories over the West. The Middle East's only successes in 1956, or during the 1980s in Afghanistan, were due to either a United States' veto of British operations or the importation of American stinger missiles. The Iranian hostage crisis, Lebanon, and Mogadishu were Western retreats, not battlefield defeats — grievous, yes, but hardly arbiters of relative military advantage. The present terrorists are a nasty sort, but they are still not the SS or millions of Tojo's crack Japanese troops; nor do they have the organization or the skill of the Vietcong or NVA. These are losing hundreds of jihadists every week in Iraq and have failed to retake Afghanistan.

So why do the now-surrounded and desperate insurgents in Fallujah think they can prevail, especially after the rout of the Taliban in six weeks and the implementation of a consensual government in less than three years in Afghanistan?

~Victor Davis Hanson
"The Power of Will: Winning Still Matters"
National Review Online, October 29, 2004

One hopes for Hanson's sake that this diatribe was generated by politics, because as history it is made of pretty flimsy stuff. By moving seamlessly from "the terrorists" to "the Middle East" Hanson casts the current crisis as a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, one in which the struggle with Al Qaeda and Operation Iraqi Freedom were a priori parts of an organic whole. Even if we grant Hanson his first principles his historical analysis makes no sense. If we further probe the logical basis of his arguments the absurdity of his claims becomes even more starkly apparent.

Allowing for the moment that the situation in the Middle East today may be viewed, a la Hanson, as a clash of civilizations, his rock-solid assessments of sure victory are built on a gossamer net of distortions and ellisions. Glaringly absent from the roll call of historical precedents deployed by Hanson is the Algerian War of Independence, fought from 1954-1962. Perhaps France does not pass muster for Hanson as a "Western power." Nonetheless this case not only completely subverts Hanson's totalizing historical thesis it is also (as has been pointed out to me by my colleague, Stuart Schaar) indisputably the closest analogue to the current U.S. dilemma.

The French were operating at a much shorter logistical distance from their home country, could count on the support of thousands of French settlers and Arab collaborators, could draw upon the experience of more than one-hundred years of colonial engagement, and were willing to fight for eight years and lose 18,000 men. Despite all this they suffered a complete strategic defeat in Algeria. The assymetry between French and Algerian forces was no different than that between those of the coalition and the Iraqi insurgency today, and the tactics employed on both sides in either conflict are identical. From the beginning of the industrial age until 1962 no Arab army could boast a victory like Port Arthur or Dienbienphu or Dunkirk. In the end, however, not only did Algeria win independence but even second-order French strategic goals such as control of Algerian oil production or legal guarantees of the rights of French settlers and pieds-noirs were abandoned.

The experience of Algeria makes the "lessons" Hanson would draw from history all the more strange. Later in the same piece he writes:

"In short, the more sophisticated, the more technological, the more hyped and televised war becomes, the more pundits and strategists warn us about "fourth-generational," "asymmetrical," "irregular," and "new dimensional" conflict, the more we simply forget the unchanging requisite of the will to win that trumps all other considerations. John Kerry has no more secret a plan than George Bush — because there is no secret way to pacify Iraq other than to kill the killers, humiliate their cause through defeat, and give the credit of the victory, along with material aid and the promise of autonomous freedom, to moderate Iraqis. Victory on the battlefield — not the mysterious diplomacy of "wise men," or German and French sanction, or Arab League support — alone will allow Iraq an opportunity for humane government."

Hanson's basic strategic principle, that "the will to win...trumps all other considerations," is so obvious as to be a perfect tautology. A truism that can be applied equally well to either the First Punic or Vietnam War is about as informative as the advice that "hunger is best fought with food" or "nothing cures poverty like money." If we take Hanson seriously for the moment, and apply his analysis to the comparison between Iraq and Algeria, his posture of supreme confidence becomes quite phantasmagoric.

Hanson's "will" in fact has two aspects. In the above quote only one is highlighted: the will to kill ("kill the killers"). Examining Algeria, it is difficult to fault the French on this score. The French commander in the final phases of the conflict, Jacques Massu, was mandated to use "any means necessary" to secure victory. Among the tactics he applied were the deployment of paramilitary terror squads and the internment of 2 million Algerians in concentration camps. The French government's own (conservative) estimates place the number of Algerian dead at 350,000.

Comparing coalition efforts in Iraq with the French campaign in Algeria one can not find them wanting on this score. A recent survey by Johns Hopkins University scholars places the Iraqi dead at 100,000- an impressive sum when one considers that Iraq has only about 2/3 the population of Algeria and the Iraq conflict has lasted just over one year thus far. Even if the previous estimate of 12,000 Iraqi dead is more accurate, the coalition is well on pace to kill the same number of Iraqis per capita as the French achieved over the span of an eight year conflict.

Hanson would no doubt decry this type of accounting as a manifestation of "postmodern Western guilt." How else, however, is one to empirically gauge this facet of Hanson's strategic "will?" Suspending all normative considerations of these figures their message is yet clear- despite the fact that the coalition in Iraq is already ahead of the pace of French lethality in Algeria Hanson would admit that there is yet much more killing to do. Hanson is undoubtedly correct that the coalition will eventually attack cities such as Falluja, and that when they do (as he writes elsewhere in the essay), "Fallujah [will] not stand as a mecca for the jihadists, but an Armageddon better to watch on television than die in." But Hanson is deluding both himself and his readers if the lesson he would draw from history is that easy victory only awaits our resolution to take this one last, small step. He might argue (though it must be stressed that he has not) that the lesson to draw from Algeria (and apply to Falluja) is that the French were not lethal enough, but he is demonstrably wrong that our difficulties in Iraq thus far can be put down to a failure to show a kind of resolve that Westerners have shown in the past.

The other aspect of Hanson's "will" which he would exhort Americans to embrace is the will to die. He laments that "those who endured Omaha and Utah or scaled Suribachi are long sleeping in their graves, and that a few thousand creeps in Fallujah scare us more than a quarter million in the Bulge did our parents." Hanson would have us believe that the moral courage of the current generation is not even a fraction of that of the "greatest generation" who defeated Hitler and Tojo. But a look at actual numbers tells a different story. Of the 16,111,566 servicemen and women who served in all theaters over four years of WWII 405,399 were killed. Of the 350,000 or so U.S. forces who have served in Iraq, in just over a year already 1100+ have died. Doing the math, one sees that the per capita casualty rate in Iraq is already about half that of WWII. So the question posed by Hanson, "why is U.S. resolve so weak," might well be supplemented by the question "are the objectives in Iraq worth half the rate of sacrifice in WWII?" It would be wrong to claim that the answers to either of these questions is clear or easy, but it would be equally wrong to leap to Hanson's conclusion that our generation lacks the moral courage to pay a cost to which our parents blithely acquiesced.

The tautological nature of Hanson's reasoning becomes especially clear when we pause to reflect upon his "will to die" principle. During the course of the Algerian war the French suffered no battlefield defeats, no Arab army was able to strategically invest any Algerian city or significant swath of Algerian territory. Had the French been willing to lose 28,000 rather than 18,000 men Algeria would undoubtedly have remained a French colony beyond 1962. If the French could have tolerated a yearly loss of 2,250 soldiers a year (assuming casualty rates did not rise after 1962) Algeria would remain a French colony today.

The point is that no honest exhortation to the American people to embrace sacrifice can be divorced from at least the attempt to assess what those sacrifices might be. Hanson may or may not be right when he states, "Al Qaeda and their appendages in Iraq do not know the requisite numbers of dead or wounded Americans necessary to break the resolve of the United States, but brag that with 1,000 fatalities they are nearing their goal." I do not think that Hanson is correct in his scorn for the American public, but even if he were America might perhaps be forgiven for cherishing its 1,100 sons and daughters and wives and husbands more than either Al Qaeda or Victor Davis Hanson. That aside, what is beyond doubt is that the coalition can NOT brag, with 100,000 fatalities, to be nearing the goal of breaking the resolve of the Iraqi insurgency. Hanson can rightly predict that U.S. forces will kill scores or hundreds of insurgents in Falluja (along with hundreds or thousands of Fallujan noncombatants), but he can not confidently augur that this will bring an end to the insurgency.

As Hanson himself admits, the insurgency does not depend on control of a city or the integrity of an army- it persists wherever anyone is willing to risk deploying a roadside bomb: "The improvised explosive device is a metaphor for our time. The killers cannot even make the artillery shells or the timers that detonate the bombs, but like parasites they use Western or Western-designed weaponry to harvest Westerners. They cannot blow up enough Abrams tanks or even Humvees to alter the battlefield landscape. But what they can accomplish is to maim or kill a few hundred Westerners in hopes that our own media will magnify the trauma and savagery of their attack — and do so often enough to make 300 million of us become exhausted with the entire 'mess.'" Hanson writes as if the fact that the insurgents may depend upon low-tech tactics somehow counts AGAINST them. This is of course absurd. The fact that the insurgents can not blow up Abrams tanks or Humvees might matter if these assets were of any aid in achieving the strategic goals of the coalition. Humvees and Abrams tanks and Blackhawk helicopters are useful in destroying buildings and other high-tech weapons. If only the insurgency depended upon such things these assets might make a difference in this conflict. As the situation stands a roadside bomb will serve just as well as an Abrams tank in the "kill or be killed" contest Hanson himself describes.

Here is where Hanson's blind reasoning brings him careening into a logical brick wall. Once you have reduced a conflict to a contest of will you must acknowledge that the same calcus applies on BOTH SIDES. Victory will not be decided only by the coalition's "will to kill/will to die," but also by that of the insurgency. The insurgency's will to kill can not be held in serious doubt- not only have they demonstated their ruthlessness with barbaric scenes of kidnapping and beheading but they may be credited with a significant portion of the 100,000 Iraqi fatalities suffered thus far. What then of their will to die? Hanson asks why the surrounded insurgents of Falluja feel they can prevail, but given his hard-bitten "will to kill/will to die" polemics it is either naive or disingenuous of him to discount the possibility that they do not. It might be as perfectly clear to the insurgents as it is to me and Victor Davis Hanson that they are doomed, and if that is the case then what inevitably follows is that THEY DO NOT CARE.

What might motivate them in this folly? Perhaps a belief that once they have died a fiery death the insurgency will not end. This is the unerring logic of the type of "will to kill/will to die" contest Hanson describes: kill the killers and they may be replaced by other killers. Hanson would no doubt argue that the Fallujan insurgents desire to be replaced by future combatants is a gamble. He would be right, but it is likewise undeniable that the coalition's hope that the fallen Fallujans will not be replaced is no less of a gamble. What can be said as a certainty is that none of the precedents to which Hanson refers are at all useful in predicting the trajectory of the Iraqi conflict beyond an assault on Falluja. "1967, 1973, 1991, and 2004"- none of these dates have any bearing on the Iraqi conflict moving forward. A much more significant date is January 28, 1957, the day from which General Jacques Massu began his systematically lethal counterinsurgency in the Battle of Algiers. The final outcome of those events do not bode well for coalition success in Falluja.

Among the ironies of Hanson's reasoning is that his own emphasis on will helps explain why his fallacious arguments hamper the coalition cause in Iraq. Nurturing national will is as much a function of managing expectations as anything else. The American people's current distress over the situation in Iraq arises principally from the fact that the Bush administration told them the sacrifices would be limited. Hanson now, on the basis of flimsy precedent, has the audacity to claim that a further measured commitment will secure victory. Will he blame the American people for their anger if the coming assault does not, discounting the soldiers who will fall in the assault, reduce the rate of coalition casualties in Iraq?

There is furthermore a less obvious but potentially more damaging consequence of fallacious reasoning like that of Hanson's. The reduction of the conflict in Iraq to a "clash of civilizations" may aid in lumping it together with the struggle against Al Qaeda, but it contributes nothing in the way of strategic clarity to either contest. Hanson writes as if the Islamist control of Falluja was foreordained, but this is of course absurd. People like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would love to have operated in Falluja prior to 2003, but if they had attempted to do so they would have been brutally surpressed by Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime- much more brutally, in fact, than anything they may expect from the U.S.-led coalition. The swift defeat of the Ba'athist regime in 2003 created a power vacuum, it is true, but it is false to assert that the filling of this vacuum by Al Qaeda's confederates was in any way an inevitability.

The initial coalition victory set a clock ticking, counting down the preciously short time in which the moderate Iraqi authority Hanson describes could be formed at least in embryo, giving the people of the Sunni triangle at least the incipient germs of a national project in which to invest their loyalties in the wake of Saddam's collapse. The cultural, economic, and institutional synthesis of this new Iraqi nationhood was admittedly a Herculean task from the outset, but it is the catastrophic failure of that project and NOT the intrinsic appeal of Islamist ideology that has created the conditions in Falluja and Ramadi. Politics, like nature, hates a vacuum. The humiliation of the Ba'athist regime understandably discredited its adherents among the residents of the Sunni triangle (though even this movement is evidently far from a dead letter). 9/11 gave Islamists like al-Zarqawi a basic grounding of credibility among people casting about for leadership, and the deteriorating conditions in the Sunni triangle have provided a golden opportunity for Al Qaeda to build upon that foundation.

Though Hanson writes very bombastically about the imperative to "kill the killers" and "humiliate their cause through defeat," he overlooks the fact that in the current conflict these two phenomena are almost wholly unrelated. Hanson treats the Iraqi insurgency as if it had only a military and not a political dimension, but this of course flies in the face of the strategic experience of the past century. Beyond the credibility it garners from 9/11, the Islamist movement in Iraq draws strategic strength from its admittedly extreme ideology. Mao demonstrated that victory is at least in part a product of the conditions one imposes upon the conflict- one prevails through fighting only the fight one can win. In this regard there is a kind of strategic genius in the ideological framework of the Islamist cause. In Al Qaeda's doctrine martyrdom is an end in itself, thus it is unclear how Hanson can claim that "killing the killers" will result in their being humiliated or defeated. No one can doubt what the immediate tactical outcome of the assault on Falluja will be, but neither can it be denied that the fiery death of all those RPG wielding terrorists ("martyrs") will be hailed by Islamist leaders as a great victory. Hanson may insist that young Arabs' natural aversion of death will overcome the appeal of martyrdom in the anti-coalition cause, but this is at best a gamble, and a very tenuous one. The coming assault on Falluja may slow or stop the Iraqi insurgency, but I would not gamble money on it. Even less would I gamble the will of the American people by feeding them expectations of an event the ultimate outcome of which is shrouded in doubt.