Monday, September 27, 2004

Two Wars

Robert Kaplan summarizes the real task before America in the coming years. It is not to find "an exit strategy from Iraq", as if there were somewhere on the planet it could hide from terrorism; nor is it simply to find Osama Bin Laden as some, ever anxious to reduce the current conflict to a law enforcement problem, would claim as a goal. It's task is to hold back the dark until a new global civilization can find its footing.

The American military now has the most thankless task of any military in the history of warfare: to provide the security armature for an emerging global civilization that, the more it matures -- with its own mass media and governing structures -- the less credit and sympathy it will grant to the very troops who have risked and, indeed, given their lives for it.

And the dark is everywhere; in the vast, decayed structure of the Third World where the shambolic post-colonial architecture has rotted away, leaving areas of chaos the size of continents.

Indian Country has been expanding in recent years because of the security vacuum created by the collapse of traditional dictatorships and the emergence of new democracies -- whose short-term institutional weaknesses provide whole new oxygen systems for terrorists. Iraq is but a microcosm of the earth in this regard. To wit, the upsurge of terrorism in the vast archipelago of Indonesia, the southern Philippines and parts of Malaysia is a direct result of the anarchy unleashed by the passing of military regimes. Likewise, though many do not realize it, a more liberalized Middle East will initially see greater rather than lesser opportunities for terrorists. As the British diplomatist Harold Nicolson understood, public opinion is not necessarily enlightened merely because it has been suppressed.

Kaplan, who is writing a series of books on the US military experience in different parts of the world, realized that Iraq was only a part, and not even the best part, of the global war on terror. In Mauretania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Mongolia, Columbia, Afghanistan and the Philippines, Kaplan found small bands of men who were remolding blank spaces on the map in ways unknown since the 18th century. What they valued most of all were not "more boots on the ground" but freedom of action. The freedom above all, to do the commonsense thing. "Who needs meetings in Washington," one Army major told me. "Guys in the field will figure out what to do."  Who needed meetings in Washington it turned out, were the vast retinue of camp followers, reporters and sutlers, who followed a great army to battle. Kaplan writes:

In months of travels with the American military, I have learned that the smaller the American footprint and the less notice it draws from the international media, the more effective is the operation. One good soldier-diplomat in a place like Mongolia can accomplish miracles. A few hundred Green Berets in Colombia and the Philippines can be adequate force multipliers. Ten thousand troops, as in Afghanistan, can tread water. And 130,000, as in Iraq, constitutes a mess that nobody wants to repeat -- regardless of one's position on the war.

What of that extreme pole on the cursed end of Kaplan's Law: Iraq? Writing in the Weekly Standard, Lt. Col. Powl Smith, the former chief of counterterrorism plans at U.S. European Command and currently in Baghdad sees that campaign not as a screen before the advancing vanguard of global civilization but as a battlefield where the main force of the enemy has been brought to battle. Powl compares Iraq to Guadalcanal, which depending on one's point of view is either exceedingly ominous or optimistic.

In one of our first counteroffensives against the Japanese, U.S. troops landed on the island of Guadalcanal in order to capture a key airfield. We surprised the Japanese with our speed and audacity, and with very little fighting seized the airfield. But the Japanese recovered from our initial success, and began a long, brutal campaign to force us off Guadalcanal and recapture it. The Japanese were very clever and absolutely committed to sacrificing everything for their beliefs. (Only three Japanese surrendered after six months of combat--a statistic that should put today's Islamic radicals to shame.) The United States suffered 6,000 casualties during the six-month Guadalcanal campaign; Japan, 24,000. It was a very expensive airfield.

While Midway is enshrined in popular glory, it was really Guadalcanal that  represented the graveyard of Japanese forces, the Island of Death upon which Japanese naval and military reinforcements were dashed heedless and seriatim, until there were no more left to send. But no one knew it at the time; and when US forces embarked on a final sweep of the island they discovered to their surprise that the remainder had been totally evacuated by Japanese forces. The most popular account at the time, Richard Tregaskis' nearly-forgotten Guadalcanal Diary is useless as a work of history, written too close to the events and burdened by the misconceptions of the time, though it faithfully preserves the atmosphere of the early 1940s. Officers rarely use historical comparisons without intending some point and Powl leaves us in no doubt that he means Iraq to be the graveyard of the global Jihad.

It is possible that both Kaplan and Powl are right, as were the Blind Men of India in their differing descriptions of the elephant. We are truly in the midst of a world war as far flung and various as any in history: one so large as to defy description even by so talented a writer as Robert Kaplan . No one suspected what lay beyond the door constituted by September 11. Not even the enemy.

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
-- Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach