National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 11, 2003

Living with the costs of winning

In 281 B.C. King Pyrrhus of Epirus, champion of Greek civilization whose skills as a general were said to compare favorably with those of Alexander the Great, landed in southern Italy to lead his army into battle. His intent was to defend Greek settlers from Roman domination. Pyrrhus won the battle, but lost half his men. Dismayed by those losses, he is reputed to have exclaimed: “One more such victory and I am lost.”

And so he gave Western history the expression “Pyrrhic victory.”

While at this point it seems that excessive loss of American life will not be a consideration in the current war, Pyrrhus’ remark is still relevant when applied to the conflict in Iraq.

How great a price is acceptable to change the regime in Baghdad? Given growing anger in the Arab world amid apparent and significant miscalculations on how the Iraqis would react to a U.S. invasion, one has to wonder what amount of new information will cut the administration ideologues from their hawkish moorings.

When will President Bush and his advisers begin to weigh the political as well as the military components of warfare?

For weeks NCR has questioned the suppositions that underpin the current drive for U.S. military dominance. Along the way many others also have argued that the costs of achieving a military victory are too high. With each passing day, the costs get higher.

Few doubt the United States has the military power to depose Saddam Hussein, though many have questioned the wisdom of going it virtually alone against him. Now that war is underway, the fear is that our actions are only fueling more extremists in the Middle East who, in turn, will topple moderate governments with modest Western ties. How many new Saddam Husseins are being created? How many new volunteers are we sending into al-Qaeda ranks?

We are caught in an old spin of violence and self-righteousness. The greater the Iraqi anger, the more ferocious the resistance to U.S. and British forces. The greater the resistance, the more the United States and British get bogged down.

Day by day, as the heat of battle grows so, too, does the temptation to tolerate larger civilian casualties in the pursuit of military victory. But such casualties help ensure long-term defeat -- and Saddam Hussein understands it.

With each Iraqi child maimed or parent killed, with each misguided bomb and missile taking a toll, with each humiliated POW, each image that in the Arab world can be translated as Western imperialism, the U.S. posture weakens.

It is abundantly clear by now that the hawkish policymakers within the Bush administration had persuaded themselves -- and promised a reluctant citizenry -- that the war would be short, maybe a few days, a couple of weeks, and that Iraqi nationals would greet coalition forces with open arms and wild cheers, welcoming the “liberators.” This has not happened.

The miscalculations already evident raise eerie echoes from another conflict that was supposed to be a quick and easy victory. While the differences between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War are many and obvious, some of the similarities are more important than military tactics or hardware. In his candid reflections on the Vietnam War and his role in it, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara listed “11 major causes for our disaster in Vietnam.” Among them was exaggerating the dangers to the Unites States of the enemy; underestimating the power of nationalism as a motivating force among a people; ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the enemy country; failure to recognize the limits of modern, high-tech military equipment; and failure to “draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale U.S. military involvement … before we initiated the action.”

Two points, particularly relevant to the current situation, are worth citing in their entirety:

“We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Where our own security is not directly at stake, our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.” That is a point that is worth pondering in retrospect, given our history in the Middle East.

“We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action -- other than in response to direct threats to our own security -- should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.”

Unfortunately, considerations regarding Iraq seem not to be those derived from humility or self-reflection, but from the bluster of a country that deems it a God-given right to shape others after its own image.

The hubris and arrogance that led us down the path to invasion of Iraq may not be repaid in American battlefield casualties, but the costs will still be real and long-term, both in the Middle East and at home.

Even before the first bomb dropped, the United States was toting up the costs of the war in battered U.S. honor and commitments, a broken Western alliance, a shredded United Nations and a scarred Bill of Rights. Facing mounting budget deficits and with the war only hours old, the Bush administration finally shared with the America people an initial price tag for the war. We were told that it would require $75 billion in emergency appropriations -- and that was figuring an approximately one-month operation with almost nothing set aside for reconstruction.

To finance the war, we risk bankrupting state governments, more crises in developing affordable health care, suspension of Social Security reform, and decreasing attention to and funding of vital education and welfare services.

The question we face today is not: “How do we depose Saddam Hussein?” Rather it should be: “How much will we lose with our victory?”

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 2003

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