I keep hearing people speaking about the 'War on Terror', and specifically the war in Iraq, in terms of 'winning' or 'losing'. The partisans of the Bush administration claim we must continue until we reach 'victory'; the opponents of the administration claim we have been 'defeated', or probably will be.
I beg your pardon?
This isn't World War II. This isn't even the Vietnam War. This is an irregular war - what they often refer to as 'low-intensity conflict' - and is part of s much larger conflict that has been going on at least since the end of WWI, if not since before the Crusades (hell, in some ways, since Alexander's time). It is one of a series of conflicts that never really begin or end, but just sort of bleed one into the other with no clear boundary.
To put it bluntly, anyone who speaks of 'victory' or 'defeat' in this context either doesn't understand the military and sociopolitical structure of low intensity conflict, or else is being deliberately deceitful about it. This isn't a kind of war you can win - but it also isn't a kind of war you can surrender in, either. If the current US government were to collapse tomorrow, the conflict would continue in a different form. This isn't the sort of war that that has a clean beginning or ending; they keep going until both sides are exhausted, and perhaps even long after that. Only historians in the distant future will ever know who 'won' or 'lost', and perhaps not even they will be certain. Chances are, like the Hundred Years' War, it will only end when some bigger conflict makes the current one a moot point.
Low-intensity conflict is a negative sum game: both parties lose without gaining anything. You can't even say 'the only way to win is not to play', because you don't have that option. You simply lose, and keep losing - and so does the other player. Period. There are no victories in this sort of war, for anyone.
This isn't the sort of thing current military doctrines are well suited to. The only wars that the US has been in like this were the Frontier Wars and the Phillipines War; the former ended when one side was for all intents and purposes were annihilated, the latter ended because both sides had a more pressing engagement with the Imperial Japanese. Neither one really ever ended in any simple manner, and traces of thse wars still linger politically and socially.
It helps to keep in mind that, in the real world, most people don't fight for their religious convictions (or political ones, which are really just another aspect of the same phenomenon). Human beings - regardless of intelligence or education - primarily follow either indoctrinated reflex or the tribe-bond, and then use religion or politics to justify their actions after the fact. People generally don't relinquish such indoctrinations and loyalties unless they experience a crisis of doubt over them, and then in most cases they immediately seize the next available concept they can find which replaces it - the whole thing is quite mechanical, really, even for intellectuals engaged in the defense of their points of view - especially then, if anything (indeed, I wrote this entire essay on autopilot, following my own self-imposed indoctrinations without any trace of thought. Do You Believe That?™). This explains such curiosities as how the people of Germany - including ardent party members - could so quickly discard the Nazi philosophy they had just fought for with such determination: first, because most of them never really understood or accepted the creed, but followed out of national loyalty, and second, because the end of the war made the failure of that religion (if we could so dignify it) palpable, putting them all into an existential crisis which made them adopt the ideology of whichever side they were then occupied by.
I realize that I'm not putting forth any constructive ideas, and quite frankly, I am at a loss as to how I might. I do hope, however, that pointing out what isn't constructive - the entire concepts of success and failure, in this case - will allow us to move on from here.
That having been said, I should add that I still feel that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake, both strategically and politically. Despite what some armchair generals believe (there's that word again), the decision not to remove Hussein from power in 1991 was one of the wisest moves of the George Herbert Bush administration: it pulled Iraq's teeth in a manner that ensured they could not be a threat to US interests in the foreseeable future (including eliminating the possibility of them developing Weapons of Mass Destruction - something the GWB administration was very well aware of), while maintaining Hussein as a bogeyman with which to whip up public fears (something which the Clinton administration happily took advantage of) while deftly avoiding precisely the sort of tar baby we now find ourselves stuck to. The denoument of the first Persioan Gulf War, far from being a failure of will, was a masterstroke, one which the US benefitted from greatly (even if the GHB administration wasn't able to take advantage of it due to their ineptness in other fields, which would prove to be the more important ones at the polls a year later).
The main reason - perhaps the only one - that the George Walker Bush administration chose to invade Iraq when they did and how they did was because of W's need to show that he was a 'bigger man' than his father, by 'finishing the job' that so many (incorrectly) saw as incomplete. This isn't a partisan opinion: it's the opinion that H himself expressed several times before the invasion. He was against his son opening up the Iraqi can of worms from the start, and while he has remained silent on the topic of late out of political loyalty, I know of no reason to think he has changed that opinion. He could see that, far from 'completing' anything, such an invasion would udo everything accomplished by the first Gulf War. Given that H actually is a genius when it comes to his one area of expertise - international affairs (and yes, the double entendre is intended) - despite his obvious failings in other areas, I am inclined to agree with him.
(Which isn't to say that we wouldn't be involved in Iraq of W weren't the president. Political will is inversely proportional to political power: in order to gain power, one must commit oneself to a large number of other interests beforehand, often contradictory ones, and once in power the options are generally more constrained than the general public realize, due to the confluence of factors that are only known to the most rarified of experts in various fields. At the highest levels of power, such as the US presidency, the officeholder has hardly any degrees of freedom. Chances are that events would have gone quite similarly even if Gore had won in 2000. The motives would differ, but the outcome would not.)
Well, at this point I'm not sure I'm still making sense, or if I was making any sense to begin with.
Do You Believe That?™