The Aftermath

by Jonathan Wallace

I like to be right, or at least not proven wrong, in what I say in the Spectacle. This is partly an art of making predictions so vague or so long-term they cannot be "falsified" in any time frame you care about. However, I can also point to instances where I weighed in on the right side of an issue early: I said Newt Gingrich was a loose cannon, and ultimately even the Republican Party agreed. This has happened often enough that in the nine years I have been publishing the Spectacle that I have acquired a certain arrogance about it.

I can't think of an instance where I went astray as rapidly as I did on the war in Iraq. It is bitter to say these words, but I have an ulterior motive: I want to plant that stake in the ground immediately so I can start maneuvering around it.

In several lead articles I wrote in the past six months, particularly Waist Deep in the Big Muddy and Vanity and War, I suggested that Operation Iraqi Freedom would be a swamp, a morass, a long, drawn out, bloody affair into which we dived with an unwarranted self-confidence. I felt somewhat superstitious about some of the statements people in government and influential hawks outside of it, had made: the Iraqi government would fall like a house of cards; getting to Baghdad would be a cakewalk. These seemed like the kind of hubris that life usually punishes. In my eyes, doing a hard job without bragging about it is most respectable; doing it with braggadocio is sleazy; bragging and then failing is pathetic and pathological.

The people who made these statements seemed to be nervously disclaiming them, backing away by the second day of the war. In retrospect, it is amusing that the attention-deficit-disordered rantings of the press can still have such power over people who should know better through long experience. "Things are going fine! Things are going fine! Things are going fine!" we heard while receiving the world every twenty-two minutes, and then, with no transition, "Things are terrible!" And people began saying things like, well, "cakewalk" may have been too strong a term. But in the end it really was a cakewalk, and the Iraqi government did collapse like a house of cards. (Truth over self-justification always. I should add this as a corollary to the Ethical Spectacle Mission Statement.) We fell into that middle category: we bragged in advance about the outcome of a difficult job, but then we did it. Right there is the personality of this administration: Donald Rumsfeld is a braggart who should know better, and the President doesn't know any better.

Once we launched it, I am glad the war was over rapidly; the deaths of more people would have been an unacceptable price for being right and I couldn't wish for that. Now for the maneuvering (actually, reconnaissance is a better word).

One thing I could have done differently is been more careful about the distinction between practical and moral considerations. This is an area I have highlighted in the past; for example, I have analyzed how opponents and proponents of the death penalty seem to slide from ethical to practical arguments without even noticing (the death penalty is barbaric and wrong; it is not a deterrent; it is too costly). I should have more clearly separated these two types of arguments in my writing, and been more circumspect, more conditional, in my practical arguments. Only in fiction do immoral actions fail precisely because they are immoral. In our real world, people who believe purely in force are frequently the most effective at wielding it; horrifying acts (eg, the Nazis randomly shooting x members of each European nationality in retribution for the death of a single German soldier) can be extremely effective on a practical level. Practicality and morality exist on separate planes, and we usually mingle arguments from each plane only because we wish to have as many arrows in our argumentative quiver as possible.

The real debate should have been whether the war is moral or not, rather than whether we were equipped to win it as rapidly as we said. I allowed these two issues to blur together for a reason. As I acknowledged, I wasn't sure the war was completely wrong on a moral scale (though after applying "Just war" doctrine I was pretty certain it didn't fit the definition). So I allowed the perceived impracticality (about which I was wrong) to stand-in as a short-hand, or really a beard, for the confusing moral issues. When Talleyrand said that Napoleon's assassination of the Duc d'Enghien was "not only a crime, but a mistake", he may have been thinking that mistakes are much easier to characterize as crimes.

However, before I give in too abjectly, I also wish to mention that the war in Iraq is not over, any more than the war in Afghanistan, where we are still losing soldiers, is over. Not that either place is likely to turn into the kind of dramatic quagmire that I predicted (how bitter I will feel if that gratuitous admission also turns out to be wrong!). However, both places are swamps if I revise my definition slightly (always a good way of getting off the battlefield with honor): they are both places where things did not turn out quite as we expected, and cannot be as we expected unless we make a much greater commitment of manpower, and possibly not even then. And they are both places where we have broken Colin Powell's rule about having a clear exit strategy.

The contrast between our cleverness in conducting the war and our cluelessness about the aftermath is fascinating. We apparently had no idea that elements of the Iraqi people would rise up to loot every museum, every university, every archaeological dig. More than a month later, the looting continues, while the intermittent sparks of a suppressed debate fly out of the administration's black box. The general, soon roundly slapped by his superiors, who said it would take 300,000 troops to occupy Iraq, is looking pretty good in retrospect. It would take at least that many, possibly more, for us to make the streets safe for ordinary Iraqis, confiscate the arms, stop score-settling between Kurds and their enemies, and end the looting. And until we reach some solution to the problem of allowing civil life to go on safely, what does anyone have to thank us for? Liberty is not defined as swapping the danger of being murdered by your leader for the opportunity to die at the hands of a car-jacker instead.

Most of us are complacent about the victory in Afghanistan, but even before the recent resurgence of violence against Americans and their Afghan military allies, dissenting voices had been pointing out that Hamid Karzai doesn't govern anything outside Kabul. If this is so, both wars may stand as being less "finished" than the famously incomplete first Gulf war.

Cleverness about military strategy, combined with blunt cluelessness about cultural issues and relations with people of radically different cultures, looks more and more like the limitations of the Texas mind-set projected worldwide. The state where our President was formed stands proudly in the camp of the states with the fewest government services, the most egregious poverty, most prominent use of the death penalty. With its "concealed carry" policy, Texas officially believes that strong weapons, not human relations, guarantee security. Project this style of thinking internationally and you have our go-it-alone, we-don't-care-what-they-do-to- each-other-as-long-as-they-leave-us-alone administration. No matter what anyone says, our complete lack of preparedness for the aftermath demonstrates persuasively that the war was about removing Saddam and possibly about oil, but emphatically not about freedom for the Iraqi people.

The decision to distribute a pack of playing cards with pictures of "most wanted" Iraqi governmental figures was very entertaining. In the meantime, we are playing "52 pick up" with the entire country.