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Published: Sunday, 12/11/2005

Defining victory a monumental task

More than a year before the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson delivered a remarkable speech on Capitol Hill in which he set out the contours of "peace without victory," a notion that, if you think about human nature and human history, requires unusual magnanimity in a people. At the Versailles peace negotiations President Wilson discovered that the French and British, after millions of deaths in a brutal war, were not quite up to the task of magnanimity.

The opposite of peace without victory, grammatically speaking at least, is victory without peace, which is what the United States ended up with after President Bush declared, to his eventual discomfort, "mission accomplished" after he landed on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003. This concept has proven to be as unsatisfactory as President Wilson's ill-fated hope.

In a set of speeches and in television appearances, the President and members of his administration now are having a second try at defining exactly what victory means in Iraq. It is a difficult assignment in any war but it is particularly perplexing in this particularly unconventional conflict.

That is because the war's end is very likely to be far different from its beginning. It started crisply enough, on March 19, 2003, when missile and bombing strikes were directed at Baghdad and other targets. No one I know can define what the end might be.

"It's not like World War II when Germany and Japan surrendered and new regimes take over," says U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican from suburban Pittsburgh, who just returned from an inspection of war zones in Iraq. "Who's going to surrender? That's what makes this whole thing so tough to define."

Indeed, other earlier conflicts may have been more difficult to end - World War II comes to mind - but their end was less difficult to imagine. Beginning with the Casablanca conference in January, 1943, the Allies were committed to what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the "unconditional surrender" of Germany and Japan, and never mind that the man standing beside him, Winston Churchill, had not signed onto the concept, which the president said "popped into my mind" as he was speaking.

The inspiration for FDR's commitment to unconditional surrender, of course, came from one of his presidential predecessors, Ulysses S. Grant, who, while a brigadier general directing the February, 1862, attack on Fort Donelson in Tennessee, refused to accept anything less from his Confederate opponents. Stubborn and steadfast, Grant sent them a message: "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." It earned him the nickname Unconditional Surrender Grant and it brought to an end a 19th-century tradition of negotiating peace terms roughly congenial to all parties.

A half century later, wary that the sinews holding together the Triple Entente were not particularly strong, the British, French, and Russians signed a declaration on the fourth day of World War I, pledging "not to conclude peace separately during the present war." That seemed like a pretty smart arrangement, given the geographical breadth of the field of conflict and the diversity of language, political philosophy, and industrial sophistication among the allies. No one, however, anticipated that the war would go so badly, that the conflict would go on so long, that the Russian tsar himself would be gone in three years, that the Bolsheviks would eventually take control of the former Russian empire, and that members of the new communist regime would betray allies they didn't seek and didn't want and negotiate a separate peace at Brest-Litovsk in March, 1918.

Now we're in a different world and a different war, and it may be the very kind of war we have repeatedly in the 21st century, so different is it from any of those of the 20th century. In its effort to clarify matters, the administration actually prepared a national strategy document (www.whitehouse.gov), but the problem with it is the problem with the war in Iraq itself: It works better in a conversation about philosophy than it does in the theatre of war.

The goal is clear, and only the churlish among the President's critics will find fault with it: "We will help the Iraqi people build a new Iraq with a constitutional, representative government that respects civil rights and has security forces sufficient to maintain order and keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists." So far so good.

But the administration defines success in three stages, short term, medium term, and longer term. Forget for a minute the last two. The short-term goal is daunting enough: "Iraq is making steady progress in fighting terrorists, meeting political milestones, building democratic institutions, and standing up security forces."

If this document applied to what we now know about the late colonial, Revolutionary, and early Republic phases of our own history, we would devote to this project the entire period 1775-89. To those 14 years, when the nation was built in a land six weeks' ship travel from the power centers of the world, add the complexities brought on by instant worldwide computer, cell phone, and television communications and the dangers posed by hijacked airliners and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

There is a hard road ahead, and though the administration made a brave attempt at defining victory, the very difficulty of the task only underscores how elusive victory might be.

It may seem a facile solution simply to say that we ought to abandon the word victory and seek something a little more modest, but perhaps that is a useful start. This is a war unlike any other and it requires a language, and a conclusion, unlike any other. The officials conducting the war in Iraq may need more soldiers, more weaponry, more patience, but the first thing they may need may be on your bookshelf. It's a thesaurus.



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