Winning Isn’t Everything

Copyright © by Len Holman, 12/19/11


  So after eight years and nine months, lots of death, blood and destruction, tons of money spent and the shredding of American basic freedoms, the war in Iraq has officially been declared over. We’re leaving town and the Iraqis are free and the seeds of democracy have been sown and stability reigns, even if electricity is still iffy, and the government is at war with itself, and garbage is beginning to hide Baghdad.  We say it’s over and therefore it’s over.  Which raises an interesting point: we’re gone (mostly), but did we win? 

  Americans have an almost pathological need to win, and if they can’t participate, they need to KNOW who won.  That’s how we measure success.  If we didn’t win, then we lost, ipso facto.  Now, wars can be tricky.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell who won, and someone has to decide what the definition of “winning” is and then apply it to some particular conflict.  America has had its troubles with this.  The Korean War, a “police action,” was won because the North Koreans didn’t set up noodle shops in Seoul, and we miscalculated the Chinese interest in this conflict and had to settle for an imaginary line on a map, which still haunts the region today. Vietnam was a debacle for both sides in terms of death and destruction and Agent Orange for them, and the death and destruction of the Invincibility Mythos for us. But we were the ones getting out of town just ahead of the enemy’s tanks.  Years later, we’re doing business with the enemy there, and not just buying and selling dominoes.  We won in Grenada, but the enemy was basically throwing rocks, so maybe that doesn’t count.  We did some good in the Bosnian War, even though we did bomb the Chinese embassy in error (probably), but we still have troops there after all these years. The war on terror?  Well. It appears our national psyche can’t take much more of indefinite results.  This makes us very dangerous, since we strain, we yearn, to have a clear, black-and-white conclusion to a conflict, and we’ll go to great lengths to achieve that.  And we’ve certainly given it the old college try. 

  In Iraq, we have declared our mission over, because war is not football. You can tell who won a football game by looking at the scoreboard. War results, however are not so clear cut.  What did we do there?  Got rid of an evil man, but we have supported—and continue to support—other evil men. We crashed Iraqi infrastructure and let looters take treasures thousands of years old, many of which are sitting in the vaults of collectors all over the world.  We didn’t manage to keep our promise to use increased Iraqi oil production to pay for at least part of the war.  We did do things to win hearts and minds:  a young soldier of my acquaintance (now going to college), who was an Army MP and a driver of an armored vehicle, spent the whole of one day in the middle of nowhere securing a perimeter with his unit while an Army vet spoke to a farmer about his sick goat.  So for hours these MPs were guarding an interpreter, a vet, a psy-ops guy, a farmer, and his goat, including miles of empty desert.  It turns out that goats weren’t the vet’s specialty.  It turns out the psy-ops guy was there to take notes, though he said nothing.  Right before dark (and no soldier wants to be outside the wire in the midst of a bleak desert when the sun goes down), everyone leaves.  The goat is still not well, the MPs are in a hurry to get back to base, the vet and the psy-ops guy disappear in their own vehicle.  What was accomplished?  Was it enough that an attempt was made, even though nothing tangible was accomplished?  Does a squad of soldiers and two or three vehicles provide an efficient use of taxpayer resources?  Was this a minor victory or none at all? 

  Afghanistan looms large in this context.  When do we leave and declare victory?  When Karzai becomes a Republican?  When the Taliban or the members of the Haqqani network become Rotarians?  Who measures the victory?  And who believes it when the victory is announced?  How many drone strikes will it take?  How much eavesdropping on Americans will it take?  How much will Obama have to become like Bush 2 to be re-elected so he can do more of the same?  Will we finally be victorious when we no longer have any liberties left?  Declaring Iraq had some good results seems to be similar to the guy saying that, although his lawnmower ran amuck, and chewed up three neighbors’ yards, at least it didn’t kill any of the neighborhood dogs.  Leon Panetta declared that we are on the winning road in Afghanistan.  Uh….tell it to the Marines on their fourth deployment.  Next, he’ll tell Sisyphus that if he tries a little harder and puts in a few more years, he’ll get that rock to the top of the hill.  The Marine Corps is currently reviewing its mission and that can only mean that their commandant doesn’t want to do the Army’s job anymore. Originally conceived as a maritime assault force, where are the beaches now?  In the Gulf States and in Africa.  Hotspots for terrorists, warlords and general chaos—good spots to show our mettle, and we can be very meddlesome.  So I’m predicting that we will continue to be the schoolyard bully with issues, and Americans will continue to allow our military, our arms industry, our money players and hard line hawks to disregard what America used to stand for.  Did we win in Iraq?  Who knows?  If the country doesn’t split apart; if it can repair its electric grid and enforce a secure a safe day of shopping for a family; if the Kurds play nice and the Shia-Sunni divisions can be worked out, the MAYBE we can say we had a hand in all that.  But as for winning, maybe we should ask the goat.


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