Blogs > Cliopatria > The Historian as Soldier: Shadows and Fog (3)

Jan 26, 2006 3:05 pm

The Historian as Soldier: Shadows and Fog (3)

Chris Bray is a member of the HNN blog Cliopatria, currently on extended leave from graduate school at UCLA to serve in Kuwait with the US Army. This blog entry is one in a series recording his reflections on his experiences. Click here to read the introduction to this series. Click here to read part one. Click here to read part two.

Measuring Success and Failure in Iraq

The February 24, 1865 edition of the Augusta County, Virginia Vindicatorpoured out vitriol over the defeatists who claimed that Confederate armies were doing poorly in their war against the North. Warning that the" croakers" were causing more damage to the Confederacy than the enemy could, the newspaper argued that victory was just a matter of continued firmness in its pursuit:"Our military condition is really better now than it has been at various periods in the past...The spirit of our soldiers is unshaken...They only ask the people to be firm. The women are ready to make every sacrifice -- the very children show fight. The concentration of our troops is inevitable -- the success of our arms certain, if we will only put ourselves (we mean those of us out of the army) under the lead of our women."

Six weeks later, facing reality, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Societies that go to war don't like to consider the possibility that the costs they've paid have failed to purchase success. More particularly, neither do soldiers, who pay the highest costs of all. In a letter to the Stars and Stripes this month, an American sergeant in Iraq wrote that the military's overseas newspaper should not have published a cartoon mocking aspects of the ongoing war there."I find it offensive," he wrote,"to read a comic strip that tries to make our sacrifice seem as though it is all for nothing...Comics like this do not, in any way, help young soldiers see that what they do is making a difference in the world... No one joins the military with no faith in their country or country’s leadership, and it should not be negatively projected, especially by those who are not in the current situation servicemembers find themselves in, i.e., deployed to Iraq. Don’t say we are out here giving our lives for nothing."

Given the disinclination to face the hardrealities of war, we could expect that the United States would have significant difficulty recognizing a losing effort in Iraq. I have argued here previously that the United States military appears to have great difficulty reading ground-level facts in Iraq, struggling to identify enemies and enemy intent in a little-understood foreign society; and I have argued that the U.S. military, caught in long-established strategic and tactical habits, appears to be using forms of force that are unsuited to the nature of stability and support operations in Iraq. If those arguments are correct, then the U.S. is shooting in the dark, misdirecting inappropriate force in an opaque setting. The problem of judging success in such an environment -- where neither the means being used to act nor the thing to be acted upon are clear -- is even tougher than usual. (I noted in an earlier post, by the way, that a training NCO at Camp Shelby, Mississippi told my company in October of last year that the insurgency would probably lose steam when Saddam Hussein was captured -- an event that had long since passed, by then.)

Under those conditions, the American military appears to be having the success we might expect to see as it tries to guess at the actual state of the war in Iraq. In a January 29, 2005 briefing in Baghdad, for example, Brig. Gen. C.D. Alston told reporters that insurgents in Iraq were"showing little capacity to sustain numerous and persistent elevated attack levels." The U.S. trumpeted that good news around the world. A week later, insurgents launched a massive wave of attacks in several cities, killing hundreds of people -- including eleven American troops -- in the fourth bloodiest day of the war since the president declared the end of major combat operations. And the violence grinds on, as the insurgency (or the insurgencies) show a clear capacity to sustain numerous and persistent elevated attack levels.

Attempts to quantify success have skipped off into the weeds. The Iraq Index Project at the Brookings Institution, in particular, has produced some exceptionally strange numbers, as a recent UPI report explained:"The project also notes that the U.S. estimate of the number of insurgency combatants killed or captured remains very rough and approximate. The estimates are rounded off at 3,000 per month for the five months of August, September, October, November and December. There is good reason to question the accuracy of these estimates. If correct, they would mean that the insurgency lost 15,000 troops in only five months when other U.S. military estimates have calculated that there are never more than 20,000 insurgents active at any one time."

But it's even a little stranger than that, since U.S. military officials were estimating in February, 2005 that there were actually 13,000 to 17,000 insurgents in Iraq. You can add up the numbers of estimated insurgent deaths from the chart on page 15 of this Brookings report (PDF file). Total estimated insurgent deaths, February to October, 2005: 18,000. That's an estimated 18,000 insurgents killed out of an estimated insurgent population of 13,000 to 17,000 insurgents. By October of last year, we had killed 1,000 more insurgents than the insurgency had, raising the question of who was left to kill in November and December. Or who launched all those attacks in January, but never mind. This is, historians will recognize, a very familiar dynamic.

Be sure to then scroll down one page in the Brookings report I link to above. On page 16 of that report, you'll find an estimate of the number of insurgents in Iraq. In October, 2005, with 18,000 of the 13,000 to 17,000 insurgents killed, the insurgency had an estimated strength of (go ahead, guess)...15,000-20,000. (The footnote for this claim is plenty strange, giving as a source nothing more than"Author's estimate." I'll have to remember that technique when I write my dissertation.)

The Brookings Institution isn't the Department of Defense or the headquarters of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, of course, but neither of those organizations are attempting detailed numbers in public, apparently preferring broad pronouncements and (as Tim Cavanaugh recently noted) absurd declarations of picayune successes like the MNF-I press release titled,"Village dedicates new pump." Worth every life, that one.

So we have an ongoing military effort in Iraq that sweeps the same villages four and five times, declaring them free of insurgents and then returning later to clear the village of insurgents; we have estimates that show more insurgents being killed than the estimates of the number of insurgents that ever existed; we have generals declaring that the insurgents can no longer sustain operations, followed shortly by large-scale, coordinated insurgent operations that are now approaching the three-year mark, suggesting a substantial ability to sustain operations; we have insurgent attacks that climbed from 26,496 in 2004 to 34,135 in 2005. And we have a political and military establishment that has continuously claimed, since 2003, that the insurgency is desperate, on its last legs, and lashing out before it blinks out of existence.

Different people are addressing that list of apparent realities in different ways. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has been telling soldiers that Iraq is"on the verge of a civil war"; his bosses are rushing to the microphone to announce that Sanchez is mistaken. And Christopher Hitchens is squaring the circle, announcing the good news that guerillas in Iraq are now shooting at each other in addition to shooting at Americans:"[Al Qaeda's] zealots are now being killed by nationalist and secular, as well as clerical, guerrillas." Nationalist, secular, and clerical guerillas: Success!

Say this for Christopher Hitchens, at least: He appears to be no more confused than everybody else.

One question, then: If we can't define or measure success, how would we attain it? An army that estimates it has killed more enemies than it ever faced would not seem likely to achieve great success at war. And the normal human tendency to hide from reality when a war is going badly would not seem likely to help us reach the necessary clarity.

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More Comments:

Lisa Kazmier - 2/3/2006

FYI: I enjoy your articles and your thought process. I hope you are able to use this to assist earning your degree or getting good employment when you return. Great insight.

Lisa Kazmier - 2/3/2006

You really think people dissenting from this war are preventing the US from winning it? In what way? If I was helping the insurgents, you shoudl arrest me, no?

Chris Bray - 2/3/2006

Of course, Christiane Amanpour and Anthony Shadid have both reported from the ground in Iraq -- so you must think their reporting is really terrific, right?

As for me, you've got me dead to rights. I'm a hothouse flower. That's why I enlisted as an infantryman.

I do nothing interesting in Kuwait, although here's a secret just for you: The United States Army does not generally ask soldiers where they feel like going. I got orders; I got on the plane. Had the orders been for Iraq, I would be there instead.

I find your comments entirely consistent with a political culture that smears John Murtha as a coward. And swiftoats another Democratic combat veteran as a coward, and attacks Max Cleland as anti-military, and on and on. Support Our Troops (unless they say something we don't agree with, in which case they should be attacked). I enlisted. I'm sorry that's not good enough for you.

And I'm done addressing your aggressively stupid misreadings of plain English.

Michael Charles Benson - 2/2/2006

"If you wish to, read the reports of Michael Yon, which are superb and are nominated for a Pulitzer.

Compared to Yon's reporting from the most hotly engaged US units in Iraq, Mr. Bray's reports are weak indeed-a true hothouse flower, enjoying the easy life of one away from any actual combat. But an even bigger difference is that Yon can really write."

So, your argument is that Chris's writing aren't as good as a pulitzer prize nominee and thus are crap? Or are you arguing that you can coach Chris into a pulitzer?

Chris is a fantastic writer. The series could obviously be better if Chris were say reporting on major policy meetings. But, that's not what our fine army wanted Chris to do for them. So he's reporting on the things he sees.

The fact that they manage to be so effective, and engaging is a testimony to how talented Chris is.

Frederick Thomas - 2/2/2006

Mr. Luker,

If you wish to, read the reports of Michael Yon, which are superb and are nominated for a Pulitzer.

Compared to Yon's reporting from the most hotly engaged US units in Iraq, Mr. Bray's reports are weak indeed-a true hothouse flower, enjoying the easy life of one away from any actual combat. But an even bigger difference is that Yon can really write.

I will be offline for a couple of days-enjoyed engaging with you on this one.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2006

Mr. Thomas, Your false accusations and snide insinuations about an American soldier in arms have gone beyond anything that is acceptable here. Stop embarrassing yourself now.

Frederick Thomas - 2/2/2006

Mr. Bray:

Permit me to assist you with your English usage. You associated your ridiculous water pump with a link containing the entire toll of dead and wounded, all of them, then you asked sarcastically, "...worth every life, that one (ie the water pump)."

So you have thus * stated * that the water pump caused more than one US death, and * implied * by the link containing the complete toll that it was all of them. That is what I meant by "by implication". Got it?

You may wish to also evaluate your comment on the incident count. The article states that incidents against Americans were down, but attacks on the defenseless Iraquis were up. That is a different point than you were making.

Mr. Bray, perhaps you should request a transfer to Camp Fallujah so that you can learn some more, and render more credible pieces. Meanwhile I would like to know your source for the following assertion, the names of the villages, the US units, the dates, etc.

"So we have an ongoing military effort in Iraq that sweeps the same villages four and five times, declaring them free of insurgents and then returning later to clear the village of insurgents..."

It must be difficult to obtain such information credibly at the beach, movie or PX in Kuwait. To you, Iraq is a computer screen. By the way, what do you do in Kuwait?

I was serious about improving your writing, by the way.

Chris Bray - 2/2/2006

Thank you.

David Silbey - 2/2/2006

A 4 Step solution:

1. Clicked on link
2. Searched for Sanchez
3. Found:

"“A daunting task lies ahead, but I have no doubt you are well-trained,” said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, V Corps commander since 2003, who spent a tumultuous year in Iraq. He told the soldiers that conditions there have changed, and although ultimately Iraq has a “prosperous future,” its current condition is problematic.

“The country’s on the verge of a civil war,” he said, and told the soldiers the mission now is to transfer responsibility for Iraq stability to Iraqi troops, including what he said had been “neglected police capacity.”

4. There is no step 4.

Chris Bray - 2/2/2006

And, by the way, I invite you to take these postings and direct them to whatever military authorities you believe are appropriate. Be sure to let them know that I said there was a mass-murdering water pump in Iraq, and good luck with that.

A shame Sterling Hayden is dead.

Chris Bray - 2/2/2006

I've attributed 2,000 deaths to the installation of a water pump? Meaning that I've argued that the installation of the water pump caused the 2,000 deaths?

Are you under institutional care, somewhere? Do the nurses know you have Internet access?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2006

Mr. Thomas, I understand that you are still having trouble adjusting to electronic forms, but the links provided by Chris Bray are quite adequate (and preferable, actually) for documents that are electronically available. My sense is that your ideology informs your determination to correct Chris's writing. He's got considerably more experience and talent at the writing business than you do. But, please do not repeat your erroneous charges -- you've been forewarned.

Frederick Thomas - 2/2/2006

Mr. Bray:

Attribution, if present, should be done properly in a scholarly document, assuming that's what this is. You know exactly what I mean.

Merely asserting that the quote in question may be present in one or another of the links is not attribution. (Which link? I searched and could not find "Sanchez" in any of them.) I assume that footnoting or in text attribution is still required for papers at UCLA.

I assume you are aware that under the UCMJ, publishing hit pieces helpful to the enemy in time of war is not a wise thing for a soldier to do, and some of your statements do seem to approach the legal standard. I would lighten up a tad, or you may have JAG in your future.

By the way, since the Iraq invasion, almost 90,000 Americans have been murdered-in America, and 200,000 have died on our highways. Should you not be thinking at least a little about them, rather than spending full time on the 2,000 volunteers who have died in Iraq?

Mr. Luker:

Sorry you got your feathers ruffled regarding your young protegee, but be comforted: I am just trying to improve the quality of his writing and his logic, which is pretty weak right now, starting from his assumed premise and proceeding through selective referencing, non-attributions and breathless "leaps," such as when he implicitly attributes the entire 2000+ dead to the installation of a single water pump, which doubtless cost no lives at all. If he wishes to become an academic, he should learn to write like one.

Normally I would be a little annoyed at your "liar" epithet, but then I considered how it is you know so much about lying, and all became clear.

Chris Bray - 2/1/2006

1.) The header of the piece -- in italics, at the top, before you even start reading the piece itself -- tells you very clearly that I am in Kuwait. You also cannot have read the introduction to the series.

2.) As for "quoting Gen. Sanchez without attribution," I LINKED TO THE ARTICLE THAT CONTAINS THE QUOTE.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/1/2006

Mr. Thomas, Enough of this. Chris Bray's graduate work at UCLA was interrupted by his being summoned to military service. He has _nowhere_ claimed to be in service in Iraq. Every headnote to his series has indicated that he is in service in Kuwait. To suggest that he has said otherwise is simply false. You've been told that now. If you repeat it, you are lying. We are proud of Chis's series for HNN and Cliopatria. Your suggestion that he is, somehow, "out of line ethically" is a measure of your own weak sense of ethics.

Frederick Thomas - 2/1/2006

Mr. Hirsch-Schell:

The word Kuwait appears once, in the bio section, not in to the article itself. Can you advise me of exactly where "He (Mr. Bray) has clearly stated several times that he is in Kuwait?"

Perhaps sloppiness with details is something of which you should be more aware in your own posts. Or perhaps you should simply check your facts twice before trying so pathetically to demean someone else.

And, by the way, read the article. Mr. Bray reports repeatedly on events in Iraq as if he were there, and knew what he was talking about, for example quoting Gen Sanchez without attribution. If indeed Bray was elsewhere the whole time, then he was out of line ethically for writing this unattributed work in the first place. His words have no further meaning than they would if written in the student center at UCLA.

Dylan Justin Hirsch-Shell - 1/31/2006

Mr. Thomas,

A gross inattention to details in your reading of Mr. Bray's posts is belied by your repeated references to his being in Iraq. He has clearly stated several times that he is in Kuwait. How can anyone take your comments seriously if you cannot even glean such basic facts from the things which you read? It makes me wonder how carefully you consider other sources of information upon which you base your worldview....

Michael Charles Benson - 1/31/2006

Frederick Thomas:

You argue that Chris's argument is unconvincing because of the lack of solid evidence:

I appreciate your partly reporting this from Iraq, but as you may also have noticed, the lower ranking guys, such as you, never see the big picture, at least not until much later. It all comes through as griping. History is a dish best served cold, and putting together a few Brookings Report numbers and a series of unattributed statements and assertions does not make it any cooler. You might as well quote from the NY Times.

In reading your reply, I didn't find even "a few Brookings Report numbers" or even "a series of unattributed statements." In fact all I see in your reply are a series of assertions, with no cited evidence of any kind to back them up. I don't see links to any government documents, logistics reports, newspaper articles, interviews, or other forms of evidence at all.

Perhaps if you are going to critique Chris for his lack of information, it might be worth bringing some of your own to bear.

Frederick Thomas - 1/31/2006

Mr. Bray,

By any grammatical construct, you were surely making a comparision. Even the choice of words from the 1865 article, so parallel to what one reads in various pro-war media, was certainly intended to give the idea that the situations were parallel.

As regards "the habit of wishful thinking in wartime," I believe that is true only for inept leaders. Would you say that Frederick of Prussia engaged in wishful thinking, or Hannibal, or Julius Caesar, or Rommel, or MacArthur? The winners are uniformly hyper-realists, which would not, I believe, include William Westmoreland, Walt Rostow or fatuous LBJ.

I would very much appreciate your take on my comments on the tactics presently used in Iraq.

Matthew Robey - 1/31/2006

I speculate that Cheney and Rumsfeld also wanted to prove the wartime viability of outsourcing military support and logistics to private companies. Of course, that does not seem to panned out. On the other hand Halliburton has gone from being on the verge of bankruptcy, because of Cheney's acquisition of Dresser Industries to having record profits last year. (Even I'm not cynical enough to think that rescuing Halliburton was the real reason for the war, but I do believe that some people in Washington saw it as an incidental benefit.)

Frederick Thomas - 1/31/2006

Mr. Luker:

I never did claim that the left cost us Vietnam, although it had everything to do with our leaving there. The reason why we lost was that, except in certain instances, we fought the NVA/VC's war, not ours.

That decision was made in Washington, by LBJ and NSA Walt Rostow, using the same miserble thought process as got us so bloodied in Korea, which was utterly inane from the soldiers' perspective. It was common knowledge to the American soldiers that we were fighting as the VC would prefer us to fight. We had enormous ability to maneuver large forces, but did not use it. We had enormous technology and firepower, but except in some cases we did not use it effectively. Instead, far too much time was spent exchanging rifle fire and patrolling in the enemy's turf, which negated our advantages.

To a much lesser degree, that same argument can be made as regards our tactics in Iraq, in this phase of the war. I suspect that bureaucratic considerations are also at work in this case, since the CIA controls much ELINT and the drone technology in Iraq, which Mr. Bray could well investigate.

Barry DeCicco - 1/31/2006

Here's an item on the effects of the war on officers:,0,4783289.story?coll=la-home-headlines

Barry DeCicco - 1/31/2006

That's seems to be what happened; Rumsfield wanted to use this war as a showcase for his high-tech light-on-the-ground army, Cheney wanted power, Bush wanted his war to make him a
Great President (he said as much in a pre-2000 interview).

Once it became actual hard work, they all lost interest, except as they could use the state of war for domestic political purposes.

In short, highly corrupt states have problems fighting wars competantly, I'd guess.

Chris Bray - 1/31/2006

Here we're approaching an area I can't really go, but there's a part of me that wonders if elements of our leadership -- not naming names! -- lost interest in the project when it didn't go to plan, and have turned their attention elsewhere. This is speculation about discussions happening way, way above my pay grade, but I do sometimes see little flashes of the possibility that the tactical choices are guiding the strategy, rather than vice-versa. This is cryptic, yes.

Chris Bray - 1/31/2006

I didn't compare the Confederacy in March 1865 with the U.S. in Iraq. I used the example to illustrate a dynamic: the habit of wishful thinking in wartime. It takes a particularly inattentive reading, or a willful misreading, to make that direct comparison to the Civil War.

Richard F. Miller - 1/30/2006

Mr. Bray: I could not agree with you more on the subject of front-line soldiers actually setting policy or influencing policy (I believe the Marines, perhaps the Army as well, actually has a name for the phenomenon you describe--the "critical Marine") despite the pratings of senior military and politicians.

That which you further posit--that not all missions are properly equipped to execute the policy being advertised stateside is also true. The likely span (and this war is no exception) everything from blunting political and media opposition, selling the costs in blood and treasure to the public, and spinning tales for allies and adversaries alike. Neither of us would have much difficulty coming up with numerous examples from U.S. military history of soldiers sent without the right tools for the job; or soldiers sent in the wrong numbers, to the wrong places, at the wrong times, ad infinitum.

However, I want to share with you a comment that came to me from a reliable source (just assume, arguendo, that I'm being truthful here) about a conversation with Secretary Rumsfeld. Shortly after the first year of the occupation, he was urged to commit more troops for the usual panoply of reasons and reportedly replied--"Why on earth would I want to do that? I'd just be creating more targets to no purpose."

The comment puzzled me then and only began to make sense as the domestic and international politics unfolded. It's partly a function of all of the factors mentioned above--principally political opposition--to which you can add an emphasis on force protection that actually competes with strategic objectives, budgetary considerations relative to the overall deficit, as well as adjusting strategy in the face of a variety of miscalculations, beginning with underestimating the insurgency and the long-term unwillingness of NATO or friendly ME regimes (e.g., Turkey) to bear some of the manpower-defense burden as well as overestimating the degree to which the Shia majority would be able to control "their end"--al Sadr in the early days. Frankly, to play out one counterfactual, had the administration not miscalculated, force levels would be appropriate (if not too high by this point) and Iraq would be rebounding smartly.

But the administration did miscalculate, and in my opinion, sometime during the first 12 months of occupation, they had a decision to make--do we attempt to transform the sitation to Germany/Japan/Italy c. 1946? If we do, what's the cost? And if we don't, what's the play? In my view, they settled on the strategy I mentioned in an earlier post--containment, hold-and-wait, suppress U.S. casualties during the interim, and hope the ISF and constabulary steps up to the plate. Politically, withdrawal was not an option and dramatically increasing U.S. force levels and actually engaging the enemy in an ongoing, aggressive war truly runs a Vietnam style risk, especially on the casualty/public relations front.

In the meantime, there were certain "benefits"--if indeed they prove to be--with maintaining 130,000-150,000 troops in theater. Looking at a map, some 21st century version of the Great Game is being played out--Syria is now technically hemmed by Israel/Iraq and, in an unexpected bonus, Lebanon. With U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have become a "front-line state" with the Iranians, something that the latter doesn't even enjoy with its supposed nemesis, Israel. What influence this has for good or ill--one can argue it both ways at this point--only time will tell.

And alas, for ultimate truth-telling historians such as we must rely on evidence which is not yet available and may not even have been created --letters, diaries, memoirs, emails, oral histories, official correspondence and other records. Thus, so much of my belief remains much like my religious convictions--unmeasurable, and largely faith-based. Still, I suppose it's no better than the old playground taunt--look at what I do rather than what I say. The only evidence I have of "what we do" is how we're deployed.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/30/2006

Mr. Thomas, I take it that you are still blaming "the Left" for the United States' loss in Viet Nam? How about laying aside the polarized and polarizing ways of thinking? They aren't particularly helpful.

Frederick Thomas - 1/30/2006

Mr. Bray:

Let me get the first part off of my chest: comparing the US in Iraq in January 2006 to the Confederacy in March 1865 is so lame that I wish you had spared the rest of the article the burder of carrying this initial comparison - it makes the rest seem inconsequential, which it is not.

I appreciate your partly reporting this from Iraq, but as you may also have noticed, the lower ranking guys, such as you, never see the big picture, at least not until much later. It all comes through as griping. History is a dish best served cold, and putting together a few Brookings Report numbers and a series of unattributed statements and assertions does not make it any cooler. You might as well quote from the NY Times.

The basic facts are simple: If leftie academics and journalists are not successful in their political attacks on US war policy, we will win. Failure by the left is the only condition for success.

Not to say that we do not need to do a better job with tactics. You do not win against these turkeys by shooting it out with rifles and MGs, or by driving around in Humvees in ways so easy to ambush. Instead you place your strength against the enemy's weakness, as happened in Afghanistan last week, with a Predator drone, or C130 gunship, and great signals intel smashing the Al Quaida soiree.

If we do a better job of leveraging our technology, then we will win that much sooner, but we will also win without it. If the journalistic cabal is partly successful, then it will take longer and cost more US lives.

This war may not have been needed if Mr. Clinton had not pulled support from our contingent in Mogadishu, then sent a platoon against roughly an enemy brigade, then cut and run because of the casualties. Of course, Reagan did much the the same in Beirut.

This made Al-Quaida types understand that if they keep up the pressure at whatever cost, they can win, with their de facto allies the US Press and the left wing of the Democratic Party. They have learned to game the US political system, as Saddam when he distributed dozens of copies of "Black Hawk Down" to his cronies before the war.

I am a much older man than are you, and fought a much nastier war. In my zone of operations we did the obvious, using our strength against the enemy's weakness, and pacified a four-provines A/O in about 10 months. They could not get on the radio, cook food, gather in groups, or even move around at night without all hell landing on them, and that was 1969.

Tactics were key, technology was key, but the method of fitting tactics to situations is ancient. I hope that the victory in Iraq comes quickly through better use of our technology, but in any case we must win. To lose as the leftists wish will give us 100 more years of war, something even George Soros might understand.

Barry DeCicco - 1/30/2006

Let's see:

#1 was ridiculous, and pursued in a ridiculous matter, and, as a matter of cold fact, can't be judged now (hint: compare the differences: 2001-1993 and 2006-2001).

#2) Has been accomplished, in a big way; Al Qaida has been handed a sweet - what? *not* a breeding ground for terrorism? Oh, never mind.

#3) Luckily, Iraq did not have WMD's, or Al Qaida would have them now. We're in a weaker position with Iran.

I think that the proper term here is, 'three strikes and you're out'.

Chris Bray - 1/30/2006

Richard Miller is asking some enormously interesting questions here, and I would just suggest another way of answering them: It's possible that the political and strategic vision is what it's advertised to be, and the military is pushing back in a subtle way -- saluting smartly, moving out, and drifting quietly toward the answers military leaders know to be viable.

Pretty nearly every enlisted soldier has watched a senior NCO salute, agree with the commander, and then turn around and quietly say, "All right, here's how we're gonna do this stupid shit so the commander thinks we're doing it his way."

Or we may not even be talking about a conscious or calculated process, but rather an evolutionary process by which servicemembers on the ground believe they are following the intent behind their mission while shaping it around their own judgment to make sense in operation.

Ultimately, it's pretty funny to travel 8,000 miles in order to invade and occupy a country if the mission is force protection and very modest infrastructure protection. So someone has drifted off mission, here, it seems, but the how and the who are the interesting questions.

Richard F. Miller - 1/30/2006

Mr. Dresner: I don't believe that our government is being entirely straight with us about policy objectives. Now, I'm not suggesting that this is a conspiracy--however, after one presidential election ('04) and under withering assault by the loyal opposition in advance of a congressional election ('06) and in the face of the absolutely embarrassing failure to find WMDs, there are a number of repeated public rationales that simply fail to square with actual deployments.

The method I have borrowed begins by ignoring public pronouncements and looking at actual deployments. From there (coupled with the other evidence I noted in my first post), I infer the actual, not the stated mission.

We're fighting a containment action, trying to buy time and space for a government to take hold, and then develop a security force. "A pumped up state highway patrol" was the way one Marine put it to me. Now, if containment is the objective--and I strongly believe that it is--then the question we should be asking is different--are we in fact buying space and time alluded to earlier?

Trying to discuss "strategic vision" is like arguing about religion or an afterlife--one drifts into the realm of immeasurables and present unknowables. Hell if I know what most of the Iraqis I see think "democracy" is--Mr. Bray is right--I don't speak Arabic and couldn't find my way unassisted to the men's room. Looking at the "big picture" I keep telling myself that I understand what Bush is up--the allegedly "controlled" destabilization of a region, much like re-breaking a bone that's healed badly and setting if right, and the introduction of democracy. But I have no way to measure that.

As far as the relationship between tactical success and policy--it's the same as air to life. The question to debate (and it's sure been debated) is whether there's "truth in tactics" or more truth in policy pronouncements, i.e., have deployed enough of the right forces for the job.

I start from a position somewhat different than reflexive Bush critics--I'll assume off the bat that the civilian leadership isn't "stupid" or "irrational," especially when committing U.S. boots. I start asking questions from the bottom up, and not top down. I see plenty of mistakes--some of those wisely observed by Mr. Bray and some others that reflect my own experience.

chris l pettit - 1/30/2006

the terrorists already have WMD...

state terror, ie the type perpetrated by the US and Israel is the same as individual terror...and I speak not ideologically as you do, but legally.

In addition, you aren't actually brining up that tired argument that there actually were WMD in Iraq?

Iran, by the way, has not done anything illegal in terms of the NPT...yet...that there is evidence of. The US, UK and Israel on the other hand...well, why don't you be a bit more consistent.

Your definition of terrorism...actually even the usage of the term...demonstrates the irrelevance of your position in any sort of real discussion of law or global governance.


Jonathan Dresner - 1/30/2006

It's an interesting direction of discussion, to be sure. But it begs the question: what about the stated objectives? What about the strategic vision? Does "tactical success" in the way you've defined it actually achieve policy objectives worth the cost in lives, materiel, and lost respect?

Richard F. Miller - 1/29/2006

Dear Mr. Bray: Putting aside the larger-scale strategic objectives potentially served by U.S. forces in the region, it seems to me (and it's a point I've made in print) that based on actual troop deployments vs. Stateside political rhetoric, the "real" tacitcal objectives are far more modest than those claimed by the civilian leadership: to wit, we deploy largely in garrisons which are tactically "connected" by infantry and air patrols, largely paralleling the MSRs such as Highway 10. Except in rare instances (e.g., Al Fajr) there is no sweep of the countryside, no garrisoning of major towns and cities, and no attempt to meaningfully seal borders.

So given the *actual* deployments what are the *actual* tactical objectives? My belief, supported by my own experience in-country as well as conversations with senior and mid-grade military personnel and a careful reading of what's out there by way of policy papers, is that we're confining ourselves to a containment strategy, which serves the following purposes:

1. Force protection--casualties are vastly lower than would be the case if we were providing something approaching meaningful security;
2. Keep the Iraq economy moving as much as possible since the principal communication network is roads, not rail, air or water.
3. Protect the country's chief resource, i.e., oil--its production, and shipment.
4. Wait--and wait longer than Condi-Bush-Rumsfeld first thought we'd have to--until the ISF and local constabulary could assume the security function.

This might be a reasonable policy and ought to have been more successful than it was, except for 1. miscalculation as to the willingness of Iraqis to "climb aboard;" 2. the double blunders of a dividing military and occupation command as well as disbanding the Iraqi army; 3. an expectation, fed by both our own history and stateside distortions that the occupation of Iraq was somehow going to resemble that post-war Germany of Japan; 4. Political nonsense that we're somehow fighting the terrorists over there instead of fighting them on Long Island--the administration's own policy papers void this notion but still, the political rationalizations grind on, feeding a certain demoralization every time a stupendous terror attack occurs.

Nevertheless, if a holding action is what we're about, doesn't this become the goal against which success must be measured? Here are some reasonably specific questions (not expecting answers here, but just to illustrate my point):

Has the military assisted in keeping civilian convoys on the road?
Has the military assisted in keeping the oil flowing?
Has the general pattern of deployment helped keep the elections on schedule and governments forming?
While the military cannot be blamed for Bremer's self-inflicted wound of disbanding the Iraqi Army, have the Iraqis, with out and without the tutelage of the U.S. military, materially strenghthened their forces?

Obviously, the answer to this last last question is key. But the larger point is that even allowing all of the blunders--including those which can be clearly placed on the doorstep of the military, such as inadequate training--the mission strikes me as SNAFU as wars always have--but still, the effort should be judged by far more modest goals.

In short,are you expecting too much in defining or measuring success? The misinformation that the public face of the military and civilian establishments feeds into the media cycle is one thing--but the only measure that matters, once "boots are on the ground" is where they really are and what they are really doing.

By these measures only (ignoring the public spins), things may be better than you think.

Michael Barnes Thomin - 1/29/2006

Great article! Hilarious and depressing.

Best regards,

Michael Charles Benson - 1/27/2006

You have a gift for finding absurdities. I'm confused as to why this post has not generated more discussion.

John H. Lederer - 1/27/2006

I agree that you have to define success in terms of goals.

Those goals, I think, can be sumnmnarized as:

1. Defend against terrorism here by attacking terrorism there -- an obvious response to the impossibility of defending US borders.

2.Longer term chnage the dynamics of the middle east so it is not a breeding ground for terrism

3. Prevent WMD from falling in the hands of terrorists.

Seems to me we are doing well on #1.

#2 is cloudy but indicates some progress and some loss. My own offhand take is that so long as young people in the mid-east are brought up on a diet of lies and propaganda we will have difficulty making progress.

#3 has the jury still out -- Iran will be a principal determinant over the next two years.

Chris Bray - 1/26/2006

Well, sure. A couple of things:

First, if we accept the premise that the purpose of the war was to counter Islamist extremism in the Middle East, then it's a little jarring that the last election was a significant victory for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. America's hopefuls did very, very poorly. Also, the election was, what, six weeks ago? Iraq doesn't have a government yet.

Second, if all of those guerillas that Christopher Hitchens finds so exciting are now shooting at each other, then Lt. Gen. Sanchez is probably right, and the country is probably on the verge -- or past it -- of civil war. Who knows what happens next if that's true?

And finally, given the economic crises in Iraq -- failing infrastructure, a broken oil industry, brain drain -- I can't see the government, whenever it forms, having an easy time. Radical economic chaos and miserable infrastructure don't lend themselves to political stability.

I hope a moderate and capable Iraqi government can survive despite the hostilities. We'll see.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/26/2006

I find your post most depressing and quite convincing.

However, your search is for a military definition of victory. I can imagine a supporter of the war arguing that victory should not be defined as the end to hostilities or the defeat of the insurgents but as the creation of an Iraqi government that can survive despite the hostilities.

There has been at least some success on that road: the elections.

Any thoughts?