Wall Street Journal
July 5, 2012
With the heart of an infantryman, the president must feel what Churchill called ‘stress of soul’ for each of the wounded and the dead.
In either 2013 or 2017, a new president will take office. The economy notwithstanding, the world will remain a dangerous place, and military intervention may yet be necessary. Of late America has not fared well in this, and the new president should wipe the slate clean, making sure that we do not fight wars that we need not fight, or lose those that we must.
Although Democrats pretend to have won in Afghanistan so they may retreat, and Republicans so as to absolve themselves of laying the foundation for defeat, withdrawal under fire is not usually a sign of success. Victory is not difficult to detect. We know it when we see or sense it, and the military that relies upon mathematics to assert it cannot but have lost. Leaving divided, violence-plagued, tinder-box nations hostile to American interests, friendly to its enemies, and largely unchanged despite our mission of transformation, is what exactly?
For some it is incontrovertible that the Iraq War was “won” with the surge. But force levels before the surge averaged 195,000, and at the peak of the surge were 219,000, an increase of 12%. If one includes the 160,000 support and security contractors present, the growth was 7%. Relative pacification came rather because of the Sunni pivot (we began to pay and arm our enemy); abandonment of the roads in favor of aerial supply after convoy reduction operations in 2006; proclamation of a withdrawal date; and after the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds staked out their areas of power and control, settling the country into its customary smoldering equilibrium, to which we became largely irrelevant.
As we break our sword to little avail and have elevated an administration that while it dreams of building windmills enthusiastically dismantles real American power, China has been steadily reaching for military parity, which will bring storms such as we have not known in generations. We might have done and can in the future do better by taking heed of certain durable principles. These are usually ignored in our failures, but in our successes they almost always shine through. To forget them is to risk bloodshed and defeat that can echo through the centuries.
Maintain overwhelming reserves of military power. Wars take place in uncontrolled environments. Rather than efficiency, as in business, immense floods of “uneconomical” power deter or end them quickly, proving far more frugal than, for instance, 10 years of blood and treasure expended in vain. The Revolutionary War was the last major conflict we fought merely by pluck, outmatched except in strategy, ingenuity, and daring. Since then, we have relied upon our massive industrial and technological powers. To foreswear them in the cause of thrift is not only self-defeating but unnecessary in light of the fact that military spending often serves as an organizing principle of and decisive stimulus to the economy.
Make the argument, speak the truth, and strike with maximum consensus. Without believing as a nation that we go to war justly, we cannot succeed. Which doesn’t mean that every leftist must enlist, but that America as a whole must support feasible war aims presented to and approved by Congress. And to sustain an always fragile consensus, the government cannot obfuscate, lie, or manipulate, lest it find itself in opposition to the people upon whom it relies and to whom it is sworn. The consensus need not be international. The more allies the better, but America is a sovereign nation and we have the right to strike our enemies even if we must strike alone.
Strike in time. Recent examples of this in the breach are Iran, to which the feckless West may allow nuclear weapons; between September 11 and the invasion of Iraq, the 18 months that permitted political opposition to metastasize; and the civilized nations’ decades-long passivity in the face of terrorism. Had we hit the terrorist infrastructure almost 30 years ago, as advocated then in these pages, today the world would be a different place.
Strike with overkill in relation to the objective. For fear that our scale of our effort might offend Norwegians, French socialists, and perhaps even the enemy, we hold ourselves back and commit inadequate force that then leads to long, indecisive wars. Half-hearted efforts suggest that rather than convinced of the justice of our cause we are embarrassed by it—if so we should not fight—and serve to keep the enemy alive until he can outlast us. If you strike the king, you must kill him, and not take a generation to do so.
Abstain from nation-building, transformation, and counterinsurgency. In Japan and Germany, nation-building and transformation succeeded after the war was won but were not employed as a means of winning it (the great mistake in Iraq and Afghanistan). And counterinsurgency rarely works. If with our material aid a government cannot defeat an uprising, we tend to take its place, turning civil war into war against an occupier who, by definition, will go home. This dynamic has sustained many an insurgency that otherwise might have faded. It is best to intervene only to support a party that barely needs it, to do so decisively, and withdraw quickly. We cannot back every just cause, and sometimes the virtuous will fall, but only a fool does not choose his battles.
Approach war with the mind of a general, but the heart of an infantryman. It is not necessarily true that (to paraphrase T.E. Lawrence) all of Iraq and Afghanistan are not worth the life of a single American soldier. Military action and the tragedy that follows are often necessary to defend our genuine interests or for humanitarian reasons, but never must we sacrifice a single life without wrenching consideration, or merely to show resolve. Attempts to veil the incoming fallen at Dover Air Force Base were beneath contempt. If in its argument the left wishes to highlight casualties, let it. The nation must not under any circumstances turn away from the sacrifices of its soldiers and their families, but only make sure that if sacrifice is to occur, sacrifice cannot be avoided.
With the heart of an infantryman, the president must feel what Churchill called “stress of soul” for each of the wounded and the dead. And thus, with the mind of a general, he must make sure that when we do take to the field we are canny, swift, decisive, and victorious. This is his first responsibility, because, in case anyone has forgotten, war shapes and reshapes a nation more than even a faltering economy.
Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, is the author of, among other works, the novels “Winter’s Tale” (Harcourt) and “A Soldier of the Great War” (Harcourt).