I’ve been bumping into a wandering soul at various stops along the information highway of late who claims to have “lost soldiers in war.” In one discussion thread, this ostensible leader of lost soldiers insists that the surge in Iraq was successful because “we had the lowest number of casualties ever last month, which sounds like a win to me.”
I can’t tell if this person really commanded troops in war, or is a Pentagon viral propaganda operative, or if he’s just a computer generated personality disorder. I’d like to believe that someone who led troops in combat knows that casualty rates (aka body counts) are seldom if ever accurate indicators of how a war is going. The Union suffered more casualties than the Confederacy in the Civil War. The best Vietnam casualty figures we have indicate that roughly 1.1 million North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong personnel were killed in action compared to 47,378 Americans (U.S. combat and non-combat deaths combined totaled over 58,000).
Alas, the people who wear four stars who are presently in command of our wars seem to believe body counts are a perfectly good measure of effectiveness. We hear reports all the time from the Pentagon about the deaths of more evil doing number two men than you can take a number one on, but very little comment about how, given our proclivity for collateral damage, we manage to make two or more new evildoers for every number two evildoer we do in.
My cyber bud who lost soldiers in war informs me that the “metrics of success in Small Wars are things like who collects the taxes, who runs the Courts, and who teaches the kids in the little villages and in the neighborhoods of the large cities.” In a saner American century, other countries’ taxes and courts and schools were their business, and if we stuck our nose in that kind of business, we did it with the Peace Corps, not the military. In the American century we have now, faux scholars of war use things like numbers of “soccer balls handed out to neighborhood kids” and “little Afghan girls going to school” to tout the “success” of COIN, or counterinsurgency, or what in that saner century we called being the world’s mommy.
I wonder if it will ever occur to my friend with the lost soldiers that if “lowest number of casualties ever” sounds like a win, bringing all the soldiers home and having no casualties at all would be an absolute rout. Interestingly enough, at the end of the discussion thread in question, my leader of lost soldiers noted that what “General [David] Petraeus and his brain trust” did to win in Iraq was the “antithesis of ‘body count,’” apparently having forgotten that he started the discussion by saying a favorable body count was the criteria by which we’ve “won” in Iraq. Maybe he got confused. So many people do that these days.
Defense secretary Robert Gates, America’s number two man in charge of losing soldiers, seems confused about the surge and General Petraeus as well. In a September 2008 press conference, as Petraeus ascended from commander of forces in Iraq to head of all Central Command, Gates called the general the “hero of the hour” for presiding over the “remarkable turnaround” of Iraq. Gates also used the opportunity to tell the press, "Let's continue to listen to the commanders in terms of the pacing of these withdrawals so that we don't put at risk the successes that we've had.” The commanders, of course, will always say we should withdraw at the pace of a very sick snail.
Journalist and Petraeus idolater Thomas E. Ricks may be confused about his hero’s merits, but his assessment of the surge is spot on. Ricks slipped Freudian at length about it in a February 2009 interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. We’ve armed the militants “to the teeth” he said. We have “trained and organized” the Shiite dominated army and put the Sunni insurgency “on the payroll.” Thanks to Petraeus, we have poured “a lot of gasoline on the fire,” and if we leave Iraq, “it will be much worse than it was when Saddam was there.”
In a February Washington Post article, Ricks confessed that Petraeus’s goal with the surge was “not to bring the war to a close” but “simply to show enough genuine progress that the American people would be willing to stick with it even longer.” Petraeus’s stratagem from the outset, Ricks revealed, was that “The surge itself would last 18 months,” but “what neither [Petraeus] nor Bush had articulated—and what lawmakers, the public and even some high up the military chain of command did not recognize—was that the new strategy was in fact a road map for what military planners called ‘the long war.’”
How lawmakers and the public and some military leaders failed to recognize the surge’s real agenda is understandable. As Ricks also notes, Petraeus testified at open hearings before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the surge’s purpose was to create "conditions that would allow our soldiers to disengage." Petraeus didn’t bother to elaborate that he meant “allow our soldiers to disengage some time in the next American century.”
One would like to think a venerable Pentagon correspondent like Ricks would be outraged by mendacity of this magnitude on the part of the military, but that would be the wrong thing to think. In his latest book, The Gamble, Ricks states unequivocally that, "The surge was the right step to take.”
In a finer century of American journalism, Ricks’s peers would condemn him for endorsing Petraeus’s grand scale abuse of trust and power. But this century’s American journalists seem to agree with that pseudo-liberal popinjay Matthews, who at the end of their February interview on Hardball thanked Ricks and said, “You‘re going to help us learn.”
We live in confusing times; and this century’s American journalists seem confused about a lot of things related to national security. An amusing April 9 New York Times headline read “Standoff With Pirates Shows U.S. Power Has Limits.” The lead paragraph explained “The Indian Ocean standoff between an $800 million United States Navy destroyer and four pirates bobbing in a lifeboat showed the limits of the world’s most powerful military.” A U.S. warship being held at bay by a dinghy is the state of American foreign policy writ small, all right, but after our misadventures in Iraq and the Bananastans, we hardly needed this illustration to see the impotence of America’s military-centric grand strategy. The difference between our pirate pratfall and the bigger wars is that there is a military solution to the pirate pratfall: a single one of our 11 carrier strike groups, with its organic wide area surveillance, escort, lift and special operations capabilities, could shut down the jolly Somali buccaneering quicker than you can say Avast! Unfortunately, all 11of the carrier groups are occupied with things like dropping bombs and cruise missiles on Muslim weddings.
Whether they contribute to national security or not, all 11 carrier groups will stay in the arsenal until at least 2040 according to the defense budget proposed recently by Secretary Gates. Gate’s budget proposal is another national security issue this American century’s journalists are totally at sea about.
The New York Times, the newspaper that has been America’s propaganda portal of record since it helped Dick Cheney sell the invasion of Iraq, is talking about Gates’s “cuts to an array of weapons” that include the “cancellation of the F-22” stealth fighter. Gates hasn’t actually proposed a “cut” to much of anything. In most cases, he’s merely asking Congress not to give more money to questionable big-ticket projects than have already been allocated to them. The F-22 won’t go away. Lockheed will still make four more of them by the end of 2011 to bring the total buy to 187, as previously arranged, and nothing Gates recommends shuts off the possibility of ordering more F-22s after the present contract has been filled. That’s pretty much the way it is with everything Gates has supposedly “cut.” He’s just kicking the can down the street, a trick that weapons industry friendly defense secretaries have been pulling since President Dwight Eisenhower warned us they were pulling it in his 1961 farewell address.
No one is paying attention to the most far-reaching tenet of Gates’s proposal, his commitment to “completing the growth in the Army and Marines.” The only reason for growing a larger Army and Marine Corps is to continue to squander them throughout the eastern hemisphere in a type of war that the best available study done by the world’s finest national security analysts concludes should be pursued with “a light U.S. military footprint or none at all.”
In The Prince, his seminal work on the nature of power in 16th century Italy, Niccolo Machiavelli acknowledged that the fall of Rome came about largely because emperors like Commodus (the bad guy in the movie Gladiator) couldn’t keep their army under control. Keep that in mind when you read about things like General Ray “Desert Ox” Odierno’s recent decree that he may ignore the Iraq Status of Forces Agreement withdrawal timeline.
A decade from now, Chris Matthews will ask a round table of “experts” how we let our military maneuver us into a state of ruinous perpetual war. The experts will avoid addressing the question, but the answer will be obvious.
We’ll have spent too much time trying to “learn” from the likes of Tom Ricks.