June 18, 2006

Vietnam Redux: Staying the Course Is Not a Policy

A series of explosions ripped through Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 23 people and dealing a shattering blow to the new Iraqi government's attempts to impose a security blanket on the capital.

The seven separate blasts at locations across the city are likely similarly to frustrate the efforts of the White House to demonstrate a degree of progress in Iraq since the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earlier this month, and the surprise visit to Baghdad last Monday by President George Bush.

In the meantime, a new Pentagon investigation revealed details of abusive treatment of detainees in Iraq early in 2004 by members of US special forces. The report said the soldiers were continuing to use interrogation techniques that had been ruled unacceptable several months earlier by the Pentagon because they were too harsh, including feeding one inmate on bread and water only for 17 days.

After President Bush stressed to Iraqi leaders the importance of their taking greater responsibility for security, the new government responded on Wednesday with a huge deployment of forces in Baghdad designed to bring an end to the cycle of violence.

The security campaign included a ban on the use of private cars during the hours of prayer on Friday. However, even that measure was thwarted when a suspected shoe bomber detonated a powerful explosion inside one of Baghdad's most important Shia mosques, killing 13 people.

Police described scenes of carnage in the capital after yesterday's bombings, which began with a mortar attack on one of Baghdad's oldest markets in the prominently Shia suburb of Kazimiyah. At least four people died. Shortly afterwards another market was struck by a bomb left in a plastic bag, killing two civilians. And a car bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol left seven dead and 10 wounded.
The headline of this story in the U.K. Independent is: "Baghdad Blasts Mock US Claims of Progress."

They also mock this latest piece of robotic, "stay the course" mindlessness from David Brooks. Memo to Mr. Brooks: we've heard all this before, over and over and over again. Greg Sargent demonstrates in detail how out of touch Brooks and almost all other elite pundits are with American public opinion about the catastrophe in Iraq. I want to focus briefly on one other utterly empty argument advanced by Brooks.

Brooks tells us he consults regularly with his "own personal War Council," which he proudly announces he has "formed" himself. Words fail me. In his most recent survey of his "own personal War Council," not one member of this illustrious body "said it's time to admit defeat and withdraw." Color me amazed.

Brooks goes on:
Their faith that success is still plausible is based on a few key realities. First, the morale of American forces remains high. As Barry McCaffrey, a retired general, reported after his recent trip to Iraq, "In every sensing session and interaction (with U.S. forces), I probed for weakness and found courage, belief in the mission, enormous confidence in their sergeants and company grade officers."
Permit me to offer a brief reality check.

Of course the soldiers in the field -- that is, the soldiers in the front lines of this conflict who might be killed almost any second of any day -- are going to express confidence in the officers leading them, and even in the mission. They have to -- to maintain their sanity, and to believe they will get out alive. They have to believe these things, if you understand the most rudimentary elements of human psychology.

But beyond this, there is a more general point. The military is one of the strictest command structures in the world. Unquestioning obedience is required for the military to function at the most basic level. Dissent is not only discouraged, it is actively disapproved of. This is a deeply damaging approach for countless reasons in ordinary day-to-day life (and when barbaric and inhumane practices are engaged in by the military itself, it is very significantly more damaging), but even as someone who is profoundly opposed to our aggressive foreign interventionism, I must recognize its necessity for our armed forces. [Added later: On further reflection, I realize this is inaccurate, because my recognition of the necessity for obedience in this manner even in the military is a highly qualified one. It will take a separate post to explain what I mean; there are a number of issues involved. I'll try to get to it in the next few days.] The military's purpose is to defend us against threats to national security, and to engage in organized violence and killing as required. It is not precisely the time or place for a freewheeling discussion about the pros and cons of foreign policy, or about the specific mission itself, or about most other matters.

In other words: what on earth does McCaffrey think the soldiers are going to tell him in the kinds of settings he describes? I would be amazed if they said anything other than what they did. Some and perhaps even a sizable number of military personnel might have very different thoughts, and we learn of the dissenters' views from time to time, but not as regular fare (and usually only after they have left military service). But if a soldier hates the mission, distrusts his officers, or has any other serious reservations, he's not likely to tell someone like McCaffrey. (And beyond this, we have countless examples of how this administration vilifies, maligns and tries to destroy all those members of the military, active or retired, who dissent in any way from the official line. I'm sure the soldiers in Iraq know those stories, too.)

Brooks's argument is entirely meaningless -- and it is especially meaningless since our troops' morale is far from being a decisive factor in terms of what the future holds in Iraq.

In short: David Brooks is still an idiot. I fully realize this is far from being news. I only mention it for whatever it may be worth, and in case you happened to be wondering.