The young men and women I teach at West Point have no memory of war. To a 20-year-old cadet, the Vietnam War is just history, the U.S. adventure in Lebanon a blurred video image of bomb-rocked Marines. But to me, a somewhat grizzled, middle-aged soldier, war is a living memory. After 14 months of service with the United Nations in Lebanon, and two years as an infantry officer in Vietnam (my second tour ended about the time my students were born), I can only see the folly of war. Maybe this one is different, but I’m not so sure.
But the debate over the wisdom of fighting Iraq did not turn on the immediate outcome of war. It was never really in doubt that Iraq would succumb, though few, if any, of the ubiquitous experts predicted a cakewalk. The real question--the one the debate revolved around--was what would the aftermath of war be. The widely shared sense was that the “morning after” would be a real bummer.
The perennial fear of the warrior is that battlefield sacrifices of blood, limbs and lives will be squandered by the politician. This was certainly the case during the U.S. amateur hour in Lebanon and, of course, in the Vietnam War. Will it be the case in the gulf?
George Bush was eager to deny Saddam Hussein any “linkage” between his withdrawal from Kuwait and the settlement of the region’s lingering disputes, but the President has made his point. Wars are destructive by nature, but they can also be creative. Even as the fighting continues, it is time to talk about what comes next. This is the best insurance that the efforts of noble young men and women will not have been wasted, and to prevent their victory against Iraq from being turned against them.
In this war, most of the initial folly belongs to Hussein. The Iraqi leader made a crucial error when he confused the United States with Iran, his adversary in the bloody eight-year war that ended in 1988. In the span of just a few hours, the United States and its coalition partners, on Jan. 16, wreaked more damage on strategic targets in Iraq than Iran was able to achieve in eight years.
Hussein is a man of the provinces. He has mastered pistol technology, but I’m sure he was unable to fathom the pinpoint accuracy of cruise missiles and modern jets flying in the dead of night.
Whatever my apprehensions about this war, I was awe-struck by the astounding ease and utter competence with which the air war was carried out on Jan. 16. Inter-service rivalry may reign in the halls of the Pentagon, but in war you can count on the soldier cheering the Air Force on. Doctrinally and intuitively, modern warfare is an air-land battle. Soldiers know that Air Force successes are their successes. Of course, this doesn’t deter ground pounders from razzing sailors and air men about their relatively cushy surroundings. But no soldier wants to go to war without their support.
By daybreak Jan. 17, the fate of the formidable Iraqi ground force of more than half-a-million men in and around Kuwait was sealed. Armies, especially Iraq’s army, respond to orders, and by all earthly appearances, Hussein’s capacity to command his forces has been dramatically reduced. The battlefield was quickly isolated and the Iraqi forces are, literally, under siege. The first Arab-American war was a monumental mismatch. And time, Hussein’s insolent ally, will work against him.
The end of the Cold War has hardly ended conflict. One can easily envision flash points in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where armies or navies might be set in motion to avenge old claims or pursue new ones. But war between nations, hardly a minor problem, pales alongside the potential for violence within nations. And internal conflicts often spill over borders, disgorging refugees, inflaming ethnic loyalties and enmities and attracting external actors intent on shaping conflict to their benefit.
As if we needed any reminder, the United States can hardly serve as the cop on the beat around the globe. But it remains to be seen whether the United States has the wisdom to give real definition to world politics that will sensibly emphasize the need to seek collaborative solutions. Up to now, it sounds a bit too much like an advertising slogan. A good start would be evidence of serious thinking, at least, about the regional order in Middle East.
The impressive young men and women who are bearing the brunt of the war deserve nothing less.