Sunday, November 25, 2007

The dualistic way of [losing at] war

It's one thing to read a sentence like this about a war in the past, say from a history textbook:

While the military finds success in a virtually unbroken line of tactical achievements, intelligence officials worry about a looming strategic failure.

But when it's written today, about an ongoing war, you've really got to wonder why anybody bothers writing history books, since it's clear that nobody reads the damn things anymore. Except maybe Kevin Drum. Moreover, maybe it's worth repeating once more that war isn't something that you can half-win.

American commentary really seems to regard war -- generically, but also specifically in the cases of Iraq, Vietnam, and Afghanistan -- as nothing more than a collection of battles. If America "wins" every time they fight the Taliban in the open, then America wins. Hooray! And yes, it's now officially boring to point this out, but it would be nice to see behaviour change sometime soon.

There really is no clean line between the "tactical" and "strategic" side of the war. This isn't Iron Chef: you don't get to win on style but lose on substance. You just lose. American soldiers killed many multiples more Vietnamese in battle than they lost. So what? The Republic of Vietnam doesn't exist, while the Socialist Republic of Vietnam does. As far as verdicts go, it's pretty clear that the main objective of US military force in that region was a collossal failure.

I can't count the number of times I heard, in 2003, American newsbots talk about how "amateurs think strategy, professionals think logistics". And I thought to myself, wow, what a classically American way of thinking about things: the most important thing is to make sure that weaponry is available, in appropriate volumes, to destroy the enemy. Not, for example, making sure that institutions of power and control are effective and corruption free, but that nothing gets in the way of the precious, precious trucks. Strategy is, in this way of thinking, explicitly subordinated to a task that Wal-Mart performs every day, without the necessity of Abrams tank escorts.

But of course, if we really did think about war strategically, we would have to admit that we keep losing, so best not to think strategically at all.

Meanwhile, the Taliban not only reinforce their control over the rural areas (where most Afghans live) but extend it beyond their core areas in the South. And not to be left out in the annals of military mediocrity, the Canadian government's much-touted Operation Medusa, which was supposed to have wrestled Panjwai district away from the Taliban, is now basically obsolete: according to the same Post story, the Taliban are back to their previous numbers in Panjwai.

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