Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, June 23, 2005


I think Daily Kos does us a service by shaming chickenhawks, though he overdoes it sometimes. The chickenhawk critique can take an illiberal form, at odds with the principle of civilian control over the military. But if you believe that we should be in Iraq fighting the insurgency, and if you're in good health and of military age, but you're not in uniform, you should be asked: What do you have to say for yourself?

I'm healthy, of military age, and support our ongoing efforts in Iraq, so why am I not volunteering? Because I recently got married and my wife threatened to divorce me if I went. But since I recently got married, I could have volunteered earlier, right? Well, yes, but for the better part of a year before I got married I was engaged, and my then-fiancee would have broken off the engagement if I'd joined the military. Before that I was considering joining, and I went into a recruiting office, but just after that I was sent on a World Bank mission to Africa, which gave my Russian fiancee a chance to join me and give us another chance (she couldn't get a visa to the US before), and one thing led to another...

Would you really be joining the army if you weren't married? Or are you just bragging? A fair question. I'd join. I've considered joining despite being married and risking the divorce, but for religious reasons I'm against divorce, so I haven't done so.

But doesn't everyone have some excuse to make? Maybe. And that's why I like to emphasize that the willingness of Americans to volunteer is a constraint on our power that we should recognize and talk about, even if that does encourage our enemies a little bit.

Congress is increasing the incentives to the military, that's good. I wonder if there's some way to institutionalize non-monetary benefits, too. For example, we could publicly pressure good universities to discriminate in favor of guys who have served in the military. Just one idea.

Can we draw in enough recruits to win the war? Well, it depends on what you mean by win. Max Boot makes an apt comparison of Iraq and (among other places) Colombia:

The biggest weakness of the insurgency is that it is morphing from a war of national liberation into a revolutionary struggle against an elected government. That's a crucial difference. Since 1776, wars of national liberation have usually succeeded because nationalism is such a strong force. Revolutions against despots, from Czar Nicholas II to the shah of Iran, often succeed too, because there is no way to redress grievances within the political process. Successful uprisings against elected governments are much rarer because leaders with political legitimacy can more easily rally the population and accommodate aggrieved elements.

Look at Sri Lanka, the Philippines, El Salvador or Colombia, all fragile democracies that have endured major uprisings that recruited a larger percentage of the population and controlled more territory than the Iraqi rebels — without winning. Other democracies, such as Israel, Turkey and Britain, have also survived brutal insurgencies.

Doesn't this imply that we can leave, and that the Iraqi government, enjoying the legitimacy of elections as it does, will win against the insurgency anyway?

I'm not quite to the point of looking for a timeline from withdrawal, but I'm getting more sympathetic to it. And I think the precedent of Richard Nixon's "peace with honor" after Vietnam is a precedent worth looking at. "Peace with honor" seems like a euphemism now, of course; we remember the last helicopters out of Saigon. But the fall of Saigon took place after Nixon was hounded out of office by Watergate. But for Watergate, the "peace with honor" might have held.

We're in a far better position now than we were at the end of the Vietnam war: there's no draft; most of the Iraqi population is basically on our side and embraces our cause; the war is much less unpopular on the home front; the enemy holds no territory; and our goals are clearer. Clearer, but not all that clear, however. What level of civil peace would constitute victory? If Iraq ends up like Colombia, would that be a victory or a defeat? A victory, surely: Saddam will be gone, to our benefit and to the Iraqis, because a gnawing, moderate-intensity conflict, combined with a hefty amount of freedom and democracy, is better than the dismal, worthless, frightened, lying, doublethinking existence of subjection to a totalitarian state. But after seeing the Iraqis on our TV screens, close up, for so many months, we compare Iraqis' quality of life to our own, not to Colombia's. Leaving Iraq like Colombia would feel like a defeat, or at least a half-defeat. (Vietnam was a victory in a way, too, after all: we lost one country, but we did prevent the "domino effect" from bringing all of southeast Asia under communist rule. But it felt like a defeat.) That's why I say we should look to Nixon: with the help of larger geopolitical maneuverings, he turned Vietnam into a marginal theater before the inevitable withdrawal.

Allawi thanked us for making "our cause your cause." But at the end of the day, our cause is not the Iraqis' cause; it is much bigger. We need to bear that in mind.


  • I'm not sure I buy the "Chickenhawk" argument. For example, I certainly believe we should have policemen and firemen (both hazardous jobs), but I'm not willing to become one myself.

    As long as enlistment is voluntary, I really don't see why support should require a willingness to participate directly.

    However, ensuring that there is adequate compensation for the hazards that the military endure during times of war does seem the responsibility of every supporter of the war.

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 6:47 AM  

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