Losing Higher Ground

Before we turn our attention to Tuesday's reactionary and indicative-of-utter-ignorance comments made on Capitol Hill by Senator James Inhofe, let's first revisit Sunday's Washington Post. Under the headline "Dissension Grows In Senior Ranks On War Strategy; U.S. May Be Winning Battles in Iraq But Losing the War, Some Officers Say," a number of career Army officers -- including the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Coalition Provisional Authority's first director of planning -- said that in strategic terms, the U.S. military has made a mess of things in Iraq, and perhaps fatally so.

The willingness of such prominent military officials to go on record may be surprising, as was the Post's finally reporting that the officer corps thinks Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz are a couple of dafties who've been allowed to flail about for far too long in the sandbox they call the Pentagon and need a permanent time-out. But the probability of career military people sounding the alarm on likely strategic disaster is low. In the days before and after the United States charged into Iraq, there was no lack of articles and studies produced by the military's own war colleges and scholarly journals that have highlighted the perils of poor strategic planning -- and strategic wishful thinking -- in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

To many of these observers, what's new is not just old but really unchanged since Vietnam: U.S. forces do well tactically but poorly strategically, especially when they're operating in a counter-insurgency situation and when they fail to consider how certain actions play with the indigenous population (which may not be on quite the same wavelength as their "liberators" or "defenders").

But whatever parallel one chooses to draw, when discussing strategy, there's one element that, as both Carl von Clausewitz and St. Augustine held, remains constant: the matter of moral authority. In the more buoyant moments of "major combat operations" last year, many commentators -- and even some officers -- cited the quick besting of the Iraqi army as the quintessential application of maneuver-warfare theories developed by the late Colonel John Boyd, a maverick military reformer. But as Boyd's more savvy associates and students noted at the time, it was both perilous and premature to equate the possible success of some of Boyd's more tactical ideas as vital to "winning the war," because the thrust of Boyd's work was on the importance of strategy.

Central to Boyd's conception of strategy was the creation of institutions that, above all, could adapt to changing realities around them -- and that effective strategy works only with high physical, mental and moral standards. On the latter point, Boyd described the importance of moral authority to strategy as fundamentally an issue of trust (something that definitely matters when one is fighting an unconventional war as an occupier). "With trust," he once said, "you gain respect, loyalty, and common purpose. ... The way to maintain moral authority is by deed, not word alone." Failure to match word and deed, he further held, creates an ethical gap that an enemy can take advantage of; and if properly exploited, that gap not only results in uncertainty and mistrust but entropy. With the onset of entropy in your own ranks, your own forces have effectively undermined themselves, and all the enemy has to do then is avail himself of your own self-made failings.

It's hard to look at the Abu Ghraib mess and not see how, in Boydian terms, a critical lapse of moral authority has undermined strategy -- that concept which another insightful modern military thinker, Albert C. Pierce, has usefully defined as "the art and science of how policy and policy-makers wrestle to the ground primordial violence, hatred, and enmity and the other powerful emotions of war on the battlefield, at higher headquarters, in the corridors of power, and among the people."

Like Boyd, Pierce, currently director of the U.S. Naval Academy's Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, also emphasizes the importance of moral authority in warfare and notes that the many criteria that define St. Augustine's concept of a "just war" should be central to all strategic thinking. Among those is the idea of proportionality or the standard that the damage done in the course of war must not outweigh the overall good a war would achieve. But as Pierce notes, in the Augustinian equation, meeting the standard of proportionality is arrived at not by focusing on the obvious righteousness of the potential good. Rather, as he noted in a 2002 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, "Proportionality drives the statesman to make reasonable, conscientious, and prudent calculations, and not to use rose-colored glasses in the attempt, and not to succumb to the temptations of overly optimistic assumptions and scenarios."

Looking through the Boyd and Pierce prisms at Abu Ghraib serves to underscore how poorly the Bush administration, and the Pentagon's civilian leadership in particular, has grasped strategic thinking: As numerous articles and investigations have amply documented, the prewar planning certainly didn't hew to rigorous Augustinian strategic standards, and the civilian ideologues were blind to the potential that an insufficiently trained and equipped force they were responsible for coulld only undermine a strategic vision that was dubious to begin with.

Credit should, however, be given where credit's due: While his apology was slow and lacking, Rumsfeld at least tried to ameliorate this very real strategic crisis by accepting responsibility for the appalling systematic and personal breakdowns broached by Abu Ghraib. But then along comes Senator James Inhofe, reeking of Karl Rove and cutting loose with an epistle of such vile pandering to a reactionary domestic constituency that one wonders how long it'll be before a stray artillery round from Fort Sill takes out Inhofe's Oklahoma home. One active duty officer I talked to in the wake of Inhofe's remarks -- like, "I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment" -- actually wants Inhofe indicted for giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

What better way to chip away at tattered U.S. moral authority than to characterize untried and unlawfully violated prisoners as "murderers, terrorists, insurgents" with "American blood on their hands"? What better way to endear U.S. occupiers to a restive and resentful population by presumptuously ascribing a view to those whose Geneva Conventions' rights were violated as vaguely grateful ("I would guess that these prisoners wake up every morning thanking Allah that Saddam Hussein is not in charge of these prisons")? (Abdul-Basat al-Turki, Iraq's U.S.-appointed minister of human rights, would probably disagree. As he explained upon resigning on May 4, "I never imagined that what I saw in those pictures was going on," adding that he was "horrified" and was resigning "not only because I believe that the use of violence is a violation of human rights but also because these methods in the prisons means that the violations are a common act.")

What a useful message to then send -- adding insult to injury to both Iraqis and the concept of humanitarian law -- by essentially saying that torture is a relative thing: Because Hussein tortured people to death and we didn't, it really isn't that big a deal, even if international law was violated. And then the final insult to Iraqis, Americans, and citizens of the world alike: "I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human-rights violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying." Of course it's good for long-term, post-Hussein strategy that a U.S. senator should damn, among others, the International Committee of the Red Cross (which people in the U.S. government liked three decades ago, when it struggled to get access to American POWs in North Vietnam, and which many World War II POWs were tremendously thankful for, as are many the world over), Iraq's own Human Rights Organization, and, apparently, the U.S. military personnel conducting the five other related investigations in the service of such trivial concepts as "transparency," "accountability," and "rule of law".

As revolting as Inhofe's comments are -- and as problematic as they're likely to be for the service people who have to deal with the all the aggregate damage done in Iraq -- they are, nonetheless, refreshing, as they very well may reveal what is the true Republican id. (Whatever the case, it's one clearly devoid of an appreciation for the process of sound strategic thinking.) But perhaps most importantly, they also recall a special category that Drew Pearson and Robert Allan created for certain senators when they penned their sequel to Washington Merry-Go-Round in 1932: "Those Who Sometimes Open Their Mouths, But Say Nothing of Value."

Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent.

Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.

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