A Hawk Questions Himself as His Son Goes to War

By Eliot A. Cohen
Sunday, July 10, 2005

War forces us, or should force us, to ask hard questions of ourselves. As a military historian, a commentator on current events and the father of a young Army officer, these are mine.

You supported the Iraq war when it was launched in 2003. If you had known then what you know now, would you still have been in favor

of it?

As I watched President Bush give his speech at Fort Bragg to rally support for the war the other week, I contemplated this question from a different vantage than my usual professorial perch. Our oldest son now dresses like the impassive soldiers who served as stage props for that event; he too wears crossed rifles, jump wings and a Ranger tab. Before long he will fight in the war that I advocated, and that the president was defending.

So it is not an academic matter when I say that what I took to be the basic rationale for the war still strikes me as sound. Iraq was a policy problem that we could evade in words but not escape in reality. But what I did not know then that I do know now is just how incompetent we would be at carrying out that task. And that's what prevents me from answering this question with an unhesitating yes.

The Bush administration did itself a disservice by resting much of its case for war on Iraq's actual possession of weapons of mass destruction. The true arguments for war reached deeper than that. Long before 2003, weapons inspections in Iraq had broken down, and sanctions, thanks to countries like Russia, China and France, were failing. The regime's character and ambitions, including its desire to resume suspended weapons programs, had not changed. In the meanwhile, the policy of isolation had brought suffering to the Iraqi people and had not stabilized the Gulf. Read Osama bin Laden's fatwas in the late 1990s and see how the massive American presence in Saudi Arabia -- a presence born of the need to keep Saddam Hussein in his cage -- fed the outrage of the jihadis with whom we are in a war that will last a generation or more.

More than this: Decades of American policy had hoped to achieve stability in the Middle East by relying on accommodating thugs and kleptocrats to maintain order. That policy, too, had failed; it was the well-educated children of our client regimes who leveled the Twin Towers, after all.

The administration was and is right in thinking that the overthrow of Saddam's regime could change the pattern of Middle Eastern politics in ways that, by favoring the cause of decent government and basic freedoms, would favor our interests as well. Iraq will not become Switzerland, a progressive and prosperous social democracy, for generations, if ever. But it can become a state that makes room for the various confessions and communities that constitute it, that has reasonably open and free politics, and that chooses a path to a future that could inspire other changes in the Arab Middle East. I still think something like that will happen. The administration believed that the invasion of Iraq would jolt and transform a region bewitched by the malignant dreams that my colleague Fouad Ajami has described so well -- the dark fantasies of Baathists, ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics. And indeed, in the aftermath of the Iraq war the cracks have begun to show -- in Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, and even in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

But a pundit should not recommend a policy without adequate regard for the ability of those in charge to execute it, and here I stumbled. I could not imagine, for example, that the civilian and military high command would treat "Phase IV" -- the post-combat period that has killed far more Americans than the "real" war -- as of secondary importance to the planning of Gen. Tommy Franks's blitzkrieg. I never dreamed that Ambassador Paul Bremer and Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the two top civilian and military leaders early in the occupation of Iraq -- brave, honorable and committed though they were -- would be so unsuited for their tasks, and that they would serve their full length of duty nonetheless. I did not expect that we would begin the occupation with cockamamie schemes of creating an immobile Iraqi army to defend the country's borders rather than maintain internal order, or that the under-planned, under-prepared and in some respects mis-manned Coalition Provisional Authority would seek to rebuild Iraq with big construction contracts awarded under federal acquisition regulations, rather than with small grants aimed at getting angry, bewildered young Iraqi men off the streets and into jobs.

I did not know, but I might have guessed.

You are a military historian; what does

the history of war have to tell us about the future of Iraq?

History provides perspective and context, not lessons. The failures and squandered opportunities of that first year in Iraq do not look that different from some of the institutional stupidities we saw in Vietnam. What is different here is how quickly -- relatively speaking -- the United States changed its course. It took five years before we became serious about training our Vietnamese allies to take our place. It has taken about a year to get serious about training Iraqis.

The political side of insurgency, which is the side that counts most, never really came to the fore in Vietnam, but it has in Iraq. For the presidents who got us into Vietnam, and for that matter out of it, the war was a distraction from other, more important priorities. For this president, the war is the defining decision of his tenure, and he knows it. Whatever his faults may be, a lack of determination is not one of them. And in war, character -- and above all persistence -- counts for a very great deal.

That's particularly true here because counterinsurgency is inherently a long, long business. Conceivably, the Iraqi insurgency could collapse in a year or so, but that would be highly unusual. More likely Iraq will suffer from chronic violence, which need not prevent the country as a whole from progressing. If the insurgencies in Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, Sri Lanka and Kashmir continue, what reason do we have to expect this one to end so soon? Most insurgencies do, however, fail. Moreover, most insurgencies consist of a collection of guerrilla microclimates in which local conditions -- charismatic leaders (or their absence), ethnographic peculiarities, concrete grievances -- determine how much violence will occur and with what effect.

This is an unusually invertebrate insurgency, without a central organization or ideology, a coherent set of objectives or a common positive purpose. The FLN in 5lgeria or the Viet Cong were far more cohesive and directed. The decentralized ad hoc nature of the insurgency makes it harder to figure out, but also less likely to succeed; there is a reason why it is well-organized and disciplined guerrillas who eventually occupy presidential palaces. And with all of its errors and follies, the United States remains an extraordinarily wealthy and formidable foe. By any historical standard, our resources are immense, our technology fabulous, the quality of our people on the ground superb. We have far more power than the Britain of the 19th century or the America of the 1960s. That fact may invite hubris, but it also provides solace.

None of this predetermines the outcome, of course, or foretells the consequences of a muddled success or a blurred failure in Iraq. Historians have the comfort of knowing how past wars played out. But short of clairvoyance, no one can forecast the outcome and the second- or third-order effects of events as they unfold. Five or even 10 years from now, we still may not be able to judge our Iraq venture in a definitive way. Unfortunately, that philosophical detachment is cold consolation in the here and now, as young men and women go off to war.

Your son is an infantry officer, shipping

out soon for Iraq. How do you feel about that?

Pride, of course -- great pride. And fear. And an occasional burning in the gut, a flare of anger at empty pieties and lame excuses, at flip answers and a lack of urgency, at a failure to hold those at the top to the standards of accountability that the military system rightly imposes on subalterns.

It is a flicker of rage that two years into an insurgency, we still expose our troops in Humvees to the blasts of roadside bombs -- knowing that even the armored version of that humble successor to the Jeep is simply not designed for warfare along guerrilla-infested highways, while, at the same time, knowing that plenty of countries manufacture armored cars that are. It is disbelief at a manpower system that, following its prewar routines, ships soldiers off to war for a year or 15 months, giving them two weeks of leave at the end, when our British comrades, more experienced in these matters and wiser in pacing themselves, ship troops out for half that time, and give them an extra month on top of their regular leave after an operational deployment.

It is the sick feeling that churned inside me at least 18 months ago, when a glib and upbeat Pentagon bureaucrat assured me that the opposition in Iraq consisted of "5,000 bitter-enders and criminals," even after we had killed at least that many. It flames up when hearing about the veteran who in theory has a year between Iraq rotations, but in fact, because he transferred between units after returning from one tour, will go back to Iraq half a year later, and who, because of "stop-loss orders" involuntarily extending active duty tours, will find himself in combat nine months after his enlistment runs out. And all this because after 9/11, when so many Americans asked for nothing but an opportunity to serve, we did not expand our Army and Marine Corps when we could, even though we knew we would need more troops.

A variety of emotions wash over me as I reflect on our Iraq war: Disbelief at the length of time it took to call an insurgency by its name. Alarm at our continuing failure to promote at wartime speed the colonels and generals who have a talent for fighting it, while also failing to sweep aside those who do not. Incredulity at seeing decorations pinned on the chests and promotions on the shoulders of senior leaders -- both civilians and military -- who had the helm when things went badly wrong. Disdain for the general who thinks Job One is simply whacking the bad guys and who, ever conscious of public relations, cannot admit that American soldiers have tortured prisoners or, in panic, killed innocent civilians. Contempt for the ghoulish glee of some who think they were right in opposing the war, and for the blithe disregard of the bungles by some who think they were right in favoring it. A desire -- barely controlled -- to slap the highly educated fool who, having no soldier friends or family, once explained to me that mistakes happen in all wars, and that the casualties are not really all that high and that I really shouldn't get exercised about them.

There is a lot of talk these days about shaky public support for the war. That is not really the issue. Nor should cheerleading, as opposed to truth-telling, be our leaders' chief concern. If we fail in Iraq -- and I don't think we will -- it won't be because the American people lack heart, but because leaders and institutions have failed. Rather than fretting about support at home, let them show themselves dedicated to waging and winning a strange kind of war and describing it as it is, candidly and in detail. Then the American people will give them all the support they need. The scholar in me is not surprised when our leaders blunder, although the pundit in me is dismayed when they do. What the father in me expects from our leaders is, simply, the truth -- an end to happy talk and denials of error, and a seriousness equal to that of the men and women our country sends into the fight.

Eliot Cohen is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company