Eliot A. Cohen: A Military Historian Whose Son Is Headed to Iraq Reflects on the War He Supports

Roundup: Historians' Take

Eliot Cohen, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (7-24-05):

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

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 speak at Fort Bragg recently to rally support for the war, I contemplated this question from a different vantage than my usual professorial perch. Before long my oldest son 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....

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 is how quickly 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. Whatever his faults may be, a lack of determination is not one of them. And in war, persistence counts for a very great deal.

That's particularly true here because counterinsurgency is inherently a long, long business. 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 the amount and effectiveness of the violence.

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 Algeria or the Viet Cong were far more cohesive and directed. This makes the insurgency harder to figure out, but also less likely to succeed.

And with all its errors, the United States remains an extraordinarily wealthy and formidable foe. 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 in the end.

Unfortunately, that philosophical detachment is cold consolation in the here and now, as young men and women go off to war....

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