Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Long View on Iraq

Everyone’s taking the long view of things in Iraq today amidst all the good news: the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an American air strike in Baquba and the successful formation of a new government. Bush has learned the lesson of “tough talk” indeed. In the Rose Garden this morning, the President almost seemed chastened. "We can expect the sectarian violence to continue," he warned. Does Bush really have the long view of things in mind? Or is the battered leader of a party facing a referendum in November on its rule simply insulating himself politically at a time when the number two Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, can say of today’s announcement, “"I think any day the headline is anything but another car bombing is a good day?”

The answer isn’t so simple. It’s a commonplace that the war in Iraq will be Bush’s legacy, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the man himself so believes. Don Rumsfeld has been criticized since (at least) 2003 for his long-term vision of transforming the US military into a slimmer, sleeker version of itself.

I’ve often wondered myself how the average observer of this war can possibly take a longer view. One suggestion I heard from an Islamic historian at the height of the sectarian violence that broke out after the bombing of the Golden Mosque was this: the centuries-old Sunni-Shia rivalry in Mesopotamia has yet to produce a full-blown sectarian war. Though what worries me now is the resources at stake, the ambitions to redraw the political geography of the region, that this could be the impetus that history has hitherto lacked.

There is much “contemporary history” being written on the current struggle in Iraq, from Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack to fascinating official US government histories of the war and reconstruction effort in all their phases. Now comes the rather authoritative-looking analysis by Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times and General Bernard E. Trainor (ret.), Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. Commentary has published a review of the book by the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson, an ancient historian by training and author of The Western Way of War, is a military historian who moonlights as a something of a conservative populist pundit, provocateur and intellectual. In this review, he sounds some of the same themes I heard in his speech to the University of California-Berkeley ROTC a few months ago; that 9/11 and the prosecution of the War on Terrorism ought to be viewed against the backdrop of ca. 2800 years of military history (taking things back to the “hoplite revolution”). Do military historians have the answers – or at least the perspective – we need? Hanson complains that the authors of Cobra II write
“as if going 7,000 miles into the heart of the ancient caliphate, taking out a mass murderer in three weeks, and then birthing three elections at the cost of 2,300 American fatalities might not be considered successful in the long and tragic annals of military history.”


John said...

It's funny that this Hanson guy seems to regard "the long tragic annals of military history" as some kind of universal, super-historical benchmark. I find it somewhat amusing that he suggests that if one looks at the past millenia some kind of "military history lens" (and he makes it sound as if that lens somehow transcends history) then everything comes into focus. Give me a break. What is the connection between the Islamic Caliphate and modern Iraq? Sure, there are Islamists that want to resurrect the "Caliphate" in "Mesopotomia" and the rest of the Muslim world, but the meanings they attribute to that are undeniably shaped by their present context and by the way they are interpreting it. Sure, we can look at the centuries-long conflict between Shi'a Persia and the Sunni Ottoman Empire to try to explain current tensions, but does that have to be most suitable frame of reference? I mean, why not look at other confessional conflicts/civil war situations around the world?

Noah Kaye said...

One reason I posted this I suppose, is that for better or worse, this guy seems to be like a court intellectual for the Administration; meets with Bernard Lewis, brings Fouad Ajami into the Hoover Institution. So this long and tragic view of military history is really big for this guy. That was the theme of his speech to the ROTC at Cal. That war is nasty and it's here to stay. You can see how this guy would get along with somebody of Cheney's temperment. Check out the review tough, because, and he's not the first to do this, nor are the author's of Cobra II, but the comparandum here is WWII (Cobra was the name of the mission into Normandy, I guess). I excerpted a rather shrill quote, and this guy has a reputation for being shrill. But read a bit of the review. I think he's actually most interested in comparing this conflict to other confessional conflicts and, generally, wars around the world. I don't know anything about military history, so maybe I'm gullible, but one thing that impressed me about this guy was his ability to whip around military history. Also: there was a New Yorker piece several years ago (damn we've been in Iraq a long time), that described a State Dept. Reconstruction project team of historians, this particular guy had done a PhD at Harvard on the reconstructions of Japan and Germany. The storyline was, this guy lived in Iraq, read up on regional history in the tent, and tried to do some comparative history. Of course, Defense wouldn't listen to him -- just like they didn't listen to the long, long findings of State's forums of Iraqi exile engineers, intellectuals, et al.

Amos said...

The Hanson review is very interesting. He is actually not all that concerned in the "long tragic annals of military history." The main bases of comparison are conflicts in the twentieth century. And yes, it is true that compared to those, the Iraq invasion (even with its aftermath so far) might still be judged a success. Strange as it sounds. On the other hand, for the Iraqis it has been an unmitigated disaster, not just by the standards of the early 21st century. That should count for something in our evaluation of the operation's success or failure - even though Iraqis and foreign terrorists are the ones responsible for almost all of the carnage.

John said...

Oh, ok, now I get it. He just wants people to keep things in proportion! For that I definitely commend him (without of course denying the sacrifice and human costs that this war has entailed).

Amos said...

By the way, Noah, where did you get that photograph? Is that from somewhere in Berkeley?

Zach said...

Hanson seems perplexed that the public continues to view warfare as an irregularity or abberation in history.
He's made his name studying how warfare is the sole constant in human history; the study of war is essentially the study of how humanity performs its oldest, most enduring tradition.