Shedding the illusions of shock and awe
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Consider this assessment: a "dysfunctional" administration mired in "bureaucratic chaos" and leaving in its wake a trail of "goof-ups," "ham-handedness," and sheer "incompetence." Extracts from a Kerry speech? No, those are the views of Max Boot, whose weekly column in the Los Angeles Times serves as a platform for the unabashed advocacy of a global American empire. When it comes to lamenting the Bush team's ineptitude in Iraq, the liberal Kerry and the neocon Boot stand arm-in-arm.
But this improbable consensus obscures a larger truth to which neither the Kerry campaign nor neoconservatives have yet to own up. It's not mismanagement that has us mired in Iraq. There is a more fundamental explanation: the misleading and dangerous conception of modern war to which Democrats and Republicans alike have subscribed.
The fact is that in the aftermath of the Cold War, Americans became enthralled with military power.
Central to this infatuation was the conviction, emerging out of Desert Storm, that the United States had unlocked the innermost secrets of warfare. For the world's sole superpower, gone were the risks and uncertainties endemic to past conflicts. Gone too was the prospect of massive destruction and incidental slaughter. Armed with its high-tech arsenal, the United States could henceforth employ its military might with laser-like precision and unerring effectiveness. Ignoring the contrary evidence of Mogadishu, American political elites during the 1990s came to view force as a readily available, economical and surefire instrument of policy.
In the wake of 9/11, this vision of warfare lent plausibility to grandiose claims that armed force could enable the United States to "transform" the Greater Middle East. The ostensible invincibility of the American military juggernaut -- seemingly affirmed by the preliminary results of Afghanistan -- made ambitious politicians like Kerry hesitate to speak up in opposition when the Bush administration next trained its sights on Iraq.
By all rights the actual experience of U.S. forces since ought to have shattered such illusions. Uncertainty, error and painful losses suffered by combatants and noncombatants alike: All of these form part of the daily reality of Iraq.
Meanwhile, the advanced weaponry that had presumably changed warfare forever has proven to be of marginal relevance. The crude IED ("improvised explosive device") rather than the sophisticated smart-bomb dominates the battlefield. The videotaped beheading has become a more effective method of waging information warfare than anything that American technology has been able to devise.
In short, the campaign launched amid claims of unveiling a military revolution has taken a decidedly counter-revolutionary turn: in this conflict as in so many past ones, unanticipated consequences are a fixture; surprise a constant; decision elusive; and the human and material costs staggering.
Time and again, history has made a mockery of man's efforts to effectively harness violence for political purposes. During the interval between the Cold War and 9/11, Americans had indulged in the fantasy that history no longer constrained the United States. Our soldiers in Iraq must now deal with the consequences of that delusion.
In its handling of Iraq, the Bush administration has indeed blundered repeatedly. Those blunders have become the grist of daily political discourse. For the likes of John Kerry and Max Boot -- the one unable to provide a coherent account of his early failure to oppose the war and the other eager to distance himself from the enterprise that he had previously promoted with such gusto -- the incompetence of others serves as a convenient dodge. For the rest of us, uneasy at the prospect of Iraq forming just one theater of a "global war" expected to last for decades if not generations, that dodge is intolerable.
The truth is that unless American political leaders disabuse themselves of their misconceptions about war, today's Iraq may well be a preview of similar disasters yet to come.
Don't count on Max Boot or any of his fellow hawks to let you in on that secret. But to demonstrate his fitness for the presidency, Kerry must summon the courage to do so. The issue of the day is not Iraq alone but the imperative of finding our way back to a more prudent and realistic understanding of the role of military power, one consistent with our moral traditions and actually existing U.S. national security requirements.
Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University. He is the author of "The New American Militarism," forthcoming from Oxford University Press.