The Emerging Mythology of Defeat

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I’ve long been worried about just how Republicans and conservatives (or rather, the muscular, militant nationalists who pretend to be conservatives these days) are going to deal with the defeat of the US arms in Iraq. Some version of the “stabbed-in-the-back” mythology will be the prevailing explanation, but just how that “stabbed-in-the-back” myth will work, given that the war was planned, launched, conducted and overseen by Republicans — who have for as long as I can remember sold themselves as the only people competent enough to wage both foreign policy and war in the world in which we live — I do not know.

Alan Bock, Orange Counter Register columnist and weekly contributor to Antiwar.com, thinks he knows, and in a review of an essay by Spencer Ackerman in the The New Republic, I think he’s right on the money:

In brief, they [war supporters] have shifted from emphasizing the prospects for victory to warning about the dangers of defeat — and placing the blame for possible defeat not on conditions on the ground or the wisdom of the war itself but on a lack of will to win among strategic elites back home. We’re losing not because the future of Iraq is not, or should not be, America’s to dictate, but because critics of the war, and even of the administration’s prosecution of the war, are sapping the will to fight brutally enough to win.

In short, it is the fault of all of us who failed to have faith in our leadership — and that would be Bush Jong Il and his ill-fated administration (odd, but these rules about faith in wartime leadership never seem to apply in quite the same way to Democrats, like Lyndon Johnson or the militarily promiscuous Bill Clinton) — that cost the United States the war.

This is magical thinking. To believe that doubting the regime is the cause of that regime’s military failure is akin to believing that harboring bad thoughts about someone is the cause of their misfortune should misfortune arise. Yes, war is about the will to fight, but that’s not all war is about, and simply having the will to fight is pointless if the goals put forth are simply not achievable. And the domination of and rule over others against their will is, in most cases today, not an achievable goal. Especially if one leaves home and travels halfway across the globe to wage that war.

This “lack of will” talk is a recipe for authoritarianism and tyranny. It gives government the power, in fact the duty, to punish those who do not believe in the war, because the fate of the war hinges entirely on whether everyone supports it, and not whether it was smart to start the war in the first place. And it allows people to ignore their contributions to the disaster. The best example of this is what happened to the German Imperial Army following its defeat in late 1918. Because the German army was never forced to face its very real battlefield defeat (in the allied offensives beginning in late August), because the German government that launched and waged that war was never forced to face the consequences of losing the war it launched (this, however, was Woodrow Wilson’s fault, and not that of the Germans), the German right easily and eagerly accepted the story of the “November criminals” (those Social Democrats who led the post-imperial republican government and accepted the armistice), and that story became an essential part of German right-wing mythology in the 1920s. And Nazism as well.

We know what Republicans did with this kind of talk after Vietnam — the war in Southeast Asia was winnable, if only "the politicians" (code for "Democrats") had let the military do its job properly and without restrictions. (Whatever that means. More bombing? Was it possible to have bombed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia more than it was actually bombed?) In fact, all American wars are winnable if only the right people wage them (code for "not Democrats"). And America needed to "flex its muscles" and use its power in the world. The long, sorry march to Baghdad in the early spring of 2003 can really be said to have begun in the Gulf of Sidra in 1981, when US Navy jets downed two Libyan MiGs in what was, for the time, an amazing and brazen show of force. And will.

It remains to be seen how the failure of the Iraq war will play out in Republican politics — it may be that because the war was in fact launched and conducted by a very self-consciously Republican and supposedly conservative administration, that some reasonably smart people will be inoculated against the kind of thinking I’ve described in this essay. But I rather doubt it, because bad ideas die hard. What I’ve seen on the web tells me that some, at any rate, are willing to blame the media and Democrats exclusively for the defeat. How that works mechanically, especially given how little power they have in determining policy, is anyone’s guess. But we are talking about magical thinking after all.

It also means that Republicans, if they take this line of thinking to its logical conclusion (and thankfully most of them don’t), are going to demand something akin to one-party authoritarian government the next time they wage war. A government with the power to keep all possible secrets, detain all possible opponents and control all domestic media. Why do anything less if success in war — and thus the future of civilization itself — hinges on it? Given the level of love for an unbound, near-dictatorial presidency among Republicans (a feature of Clinton Democrats as well), these things are a distant, but very real, possibility.

But not even dictatorship will save Republicans from the consequences of stupid and unwinnable wars. Because dictatorship doesn’t save anyone. (Did it save Hitler? Mussolini? Brezhnev? Saddam Hussein?) Which means the next logical step is the rack and the inquisition — “Do you support the war? Do you love and trust your leaders?” And torture and death for those who do not. That is, after all, what the state does when it demands the allegiance and support of all its citizens. However, how they will explain defeat in those circumstances is beyond me. But magical thinking tends to have no bounds and is rarely accountable to reason.

At any rate, the Bush Jong Il regime will likely run out the clock on Iraq, keeping soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen killing and dying there until the dear leader himself can hand the entire disaster over to his successor. Who can then take the entire blame for the debacle. Especially if he (she) is a Democrat.

Bock continues with a short but important review of American “grand strategy”:

Most of all, it can’t be because the grand national strategy of “extraregional hegemony” — which Christopher Layne, author of the fascinating new book The Peace of Illusions, argues has been the de facto U.S. grand strategy since at least shortly before World War II — by its very nature gets the U.S. involved in conflicts that are not only hard to win but utterly marginal to core U.S. interests. Almost all elected Republicans and Democrats, while they might not cop to the term, subscribe to this territorially and ideologically aggressive foreign policy, though they may quibble over where to intervene to create yet another test of American “credibility” next. We certainly can’t expect them to rethink something so intrinsic to their very political natures as to be virtually unnoticed as an ideological position at all.

And this, I think, gets to the heart of the matter. Ruling the world is not only intrinsic to the identity of America’s permanent ruling elites — those who populate and make up what Murray Rothbard called the "Rockefeller World Empire" — its college-educated, development and international aid do-gooders (all of whom have tremendous economic stakes in the preservation and extension of America’s world empire), but it has also become very important to the millions of men and women who populate the heartland and the suburbs, people who know little of the world and respect it even less but somehow see American soldiers as missionaries of order and civilization, bestowing upon the world something it needs, or merely beating it into submission and keeping it at bay. This identity is too important, I think, for Americans of all political flavors to ever question in any great depth or ever consider any alternatives. Even alleged "progressives" are far too attached to an American world empire to ever give it up voluntarily. Or even contemplate giving it up.

I would like to see Americans lay down their aspirations to global power. It has gotten us nothing of value (certainly neither prosperity nor real national security) and frankly, it would be the best course for us and for everyone else in the world. However, I also know this will almost certainly not happen. I don’t think it will be ripped from our hands either. But it is crushing us, this overweening desire to rule the world, this notion that we think we can, and we will go bankrupt, we will collapse, under the weight of it. That is both my fear. And my hope.

Because it is the only way we will be rid of it.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.

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