Thursday, March 02, 2006

The edge of war

I usually miss the Sunday news-discussion shows, because I'm usually in church. But this Sunday, I was at the airport waiting to catch a plane, so I caught almost the whole of CNN's Reliable Sources on the TV monitor at the gate. This is a weekly show hosted by Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media reporter, that is supposed to take a critical look at how the news of the week has been reported.

I read Kurtz from time to time -- smart guy, sometimes with intersting things to say -- but I've seldom seen his show. This time I watched it with some interest. The focus of the first half was a panel of network reporters (CNN, CBS, ABC) discussing news coverage of, among other things, the port-management controversy and the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Iraq and the subsequent troubles there. Gradually it began to dawn on me: All of these people agree. About everything. They all believe that the press has done a bang-up job covering just about anything you can name. The only criticism seemed to be that, because Iraq is so violent and dangerous, reporters have not been able to go to the dangerous areas and report how dangerous it is. In other words, Iraq is much worse than it has been portrayed. They agreed that the press has been too reluctant to talk about "civil war" in Iraq -- that this should have been the story six months ago. Here's Frank Sesno of CNN, who also teaches at George Mason University:

I think that there's a problem here, is that the media didn't talk more about civil war, a lot more, a lot more vocally earlier. This is an issue that has been put on the table in the last Gulf war, when Brent Scowcroft and others said we go there, we break it, we own it. And one of the reasons that they've talked about and they've talked about publicly since that they didn't go in is that they saw these centrifugal forces that could pull Iraq apart and destabilize the region.

And I thought, oh my gosh, the situation must have really deteriorated in the last couple of days. See, I had been at a physics conference, and I'd been thinking a lot more about quantum entanglements than foreign ones. So when I got home, I read some news stories. Sure enough, there had been some terrible violence in Iraq. Scores had died -- not nearly as many as the Washington Post reported, maybe, but still a grim tally. Yet there had also been some amazing displays of unity from all three corners of the Iraqi equation -- Shia, Sunni and Kurd. It did not appear that the violence was escalating, or that events were driving wedges into the political system. Trouble? Terrible trouble. Crisis? Yes indeed. Civil war? At the moment, that seems to be an exaggeration. But on Sunday morning, the conventional wisdom of a respected panel of broadcast journalists was that "civil war" has been the story in Iraq for months.

Among the bloggers I read regularly is Dr. Sanity, who comments on current affairs and other things from a psychiatric perspective. She is sometimes passionate and intemperate, but she is always smart and always worth reading. Yesterday I read a post in which she commented on a Ralph Peters column about press coverage in Iraq. (Got that? Peters to Sanity to me, a triple play.) Peters says, in so many words, that we're being lied to by the mainstream media. Sanity highlights this and delves further. And then she proposes a rather startling point of view: We have already won in Iraq. Things aren't rosy there, but what we are seeing is an aftermath of war, not a continuation of it. Yes, Iraq may yet descend into chaos. But that does not change the fact that we liberated Iraq, that we toppled Saddam, that he's on trial for his wicked deeds, that there have been three amazing elections in a part of the world that doesn't see them very often, that Zarqawi has been driven to more and more outrageous acts leading to an erosion of Al Qaeda's general political support. However future events turn out, Dr. Sanity says, that picture looks a whole lot like victory.

Did we really win the First World War, I wonder? The shooting stopped, our boys came home, the Boche went marching back to Germany, there was a peace treaty, etc. But history did not stop at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Things continued to happen. And if you wanted to make a case that the war was not really won by the Allies, there are plenty of points available. The human cost of the War was horrific, with an entire generation decimated in Britain and France. Russia, in even worse shape, had succumbed to the Bolsheviks, who held onto power despite the efforts of domestic opposition and foreign intervention. The peace treaty did not so much solve problems as kick them down the road, and within a generation Europe was in the grip of an even bloodier war. The German republic lasted less than a decade and a half, after which it was replaced by a regime immeasurably worse than the Kaiser ever was. The League of Nations proved to be impotent to secure the peace.

It seems to me that the Allies did indeed win in 1918, but the events of history kept happening -- as events tend to do, including events that later prove disastrous. The Armistice simply marked a pause, a period when the power configurations of Europe shifted, after which war erupted again in an even bloodier form. Was that a new war, or the same one?

I think it quite possible that an historian, looking back on our era from a hundred years hence, will actually draw the line sometime in the last year or so and say, "This was the end of the Iraq war, though terrorism and civil unrest continued for some time." Inasmuch as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were wars against nation-states, they have certainly come to an end, for the enemy was defeated in battle, driven from power and replaced by friendly regimes. The fact that those new regimes face dangers and troubles does not detract from the central fact.

It is also possible that our future historian will say that we are still in the middle of the real war, for which we have no name. Call it the Long War. It began in 2001 or 1991 or 1979 or 1948, and we might not see its end in our lifetime. This is probably closest to my own view, on most days. Nevertheless, there are individual campaigns in the Long War, and these may have definite beginnings, middles, and ends. Iraq is one such campaign.

How do we draw the boundaries of war in space and time? How do we say when the war begins, when it comes to an end, and what events are part of it? This is a semantic issue, of course, but we have to think about semantics when we judge the merits of this or that point of view. For instance, there are people who claim that the Iraq war has nothing to do with the War on Terror. The Bush administration, in their view, simply seized on post-9/11 jingoism to support their bid to remove Saddam from power. I do not altogether agree, but let's stipulate it for the moment. This is a point about the origin of the war. Yet the same people claim that continuing terrorism in Iraq is a sign that the war is still going on, that we haven't won, maybe that we can't win. Isn't this trying to have it both ways? To put it another way, whatever disagreements there are about the connection between Iraq and the War onTerror at the outset, is it not clear that the conflicts are inseparable now?

Then again, many want to connect the violence of this last week with the US invasion of three years ago, and say that they are part of the same conflict. They did occur in the same place, yes, and one set of events did lay the historical conditions for the other. But the players have changed. Saddam did not bomb the Golden Mosque. The US has not participated in much of the fighting that has ensued.

And when did the Iraq war begin? The US invasion? Why not Saddam's invasion of Kuwait? After all, we have more or less been in a state of armed hostility ever since. We signed a "cease fire" in 1991, not a peace treaty, and Saddam did not live up to its terms. For twelve years, scarcely a week went by when Iraqi air defenses did not fire on US or British aircraft. Saddam tried to assassinate Bush pere. More than once we lobbed cruise missiles into Iraq. Should we therefore count 2003 as just a new and more decisive campaign in a war that really began in 1990, and continued under three different Presidents?

This sort of question does not affect events, perhaps, but it does affect how we think about events. It affects what we say.

Wars blend into each other. They divide and merge and affect one another. It has always been so. Official "start" and "end" dates are useful handles for the mind, but they are artificial. The key question for most of us is when our boys (and girls now) come back from those dangerous foreign parts. Wars end when the warriors go home. By that measure, the Second World War never did come to a definitive end. So it will be, I fear, with the Long War.

At my physics conference over the weekend, I had dinner with my former student Jada, whose husband Tim is a Marine captain in Iraq. (I posted a letter from Tim last October.) Jada tells me that Tim is scheduled to be rotated home in a couple of weeks. This has been Tim's second tour in Iraq; it has lasted most of their married life. It appears that Tim will be taking up duties stateside for some time to come, which makes Jada very happy. One warrior, at least, is coming home.


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