Wobbly America

Wobbly America
– By Michael Wolff

The New York Times publishes a daily box score with the latest list of the soldiers killed in Iraq under the rubric “Names of the Dead.” For instance: l Muy, Veashna, 20, Pfc., Marines; Los Angeles; Second Marine Division. l Powell, Chad W., 22, Cpl., Marines; West Monroe, Louisiana, Second Marine Division. l Valdez, Ramona M., 20, Cpl., Marines; the Bronx, New York; Second Marine Division.

Muy, Powell and Valdez, were the 1,728th, 1,729th and 1,730th American soldiers killed in the Iraq war.

So, 1,602 soldiers have been killed over and above the 128 who lost their lives during the invasion itself and whose deaths were recorded in the New York Times on May 20, 2003 under the rubric “A Nation at War.” Still, 1,730 with a total deployment of 138,000 troops is little more than 1 per cent, which might yet be tolerable. Total losses in Vietnam, after all, reached about 10 per cent of deployment. If the present cumulative kill rate in Iraq is maintained over, say, the same nine-year time frame that US troops fought in Vietnam, we would lose fewer than 7,000 soldiers. But it is unlikely that the present rate will remain the same: either it will fall because our strategy is working — as it appeared to be doing for a time early this year — or it will rise because the strategy isn’t working and the insurgency becomes more proficient, as now appears to be the case.

Furthermore, the death rate doesn’t have to rise by much for the numbers to become dramatically more menacing. From the beginning of the war, we have cumulatively averaged two American soldiers killed every day. Recently, however, that has risen to an average of three a day. At present troop strength, we reach Vietnam-level kill rates with the deaths of just over four soldiers a day.

Declining kill rates spell success, and help foster a level of public tolerance, even of optimism, allowing the administration to stay longer in Iraq as it slowly reduces its troop count, or establishes a permanent presence. Rising kill rates, on the other hand, spell failure. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican with presidential dreams, was saying recently, “The White House is completely disconnected from reality. It’s like they’re making it up as they go along. The reality is that we’re losing in Iraq.” Senator Mel Martinez, a former Bush Cabinet member, was speculating that Guantanamo might have to be shut down.

For his part, General George W. Casey, Jr, commanding general of the multi-national force in Iraq, was confirming that American and Iraqi officials had begun meetings with Sunni leaders. And while Donald Rumsfeld denied that these were insurgency leaders, he added, “we’re not quite there yet” — seeming to suggest that we might be soon enough.

All in all, after more than two years of combat and any number of cycles of triumphalism followed by dismal comeuppance, you’d have to be a cockeyed nitwit not to realise that the Iraq war might not end happily. People are now talking of a new Tet moment. During the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Vietcong, who were said to be demoralised and on the run, were suddenly storming the doors of the American embassy (and on television). In Iraq the insurgents are suddenly upping their kill rate, with attacks of terrible ferocity and obvious strategic smarts.

The Iraq election now seems not to have done the administration any favours. The election, rather than defining the strength of the quiescent population, defined the size of the insurgency. While 70% was a grand turnout, it soon became clear that the 30% unified Sunni population that did not vote were supporting an insurgency against both the occupiers and the rest of the nation. It was a civil war as well as an insurgency.

What’s more, the election produced legislators who turned out to be no help at all. The current US strategy — we put together a working government and then get the hell out — depends on these would-be parliamentarians performing in a minimally acceptable professional manner. But they are simply not getting on with the job. In some sense, this is even more problematic than the war itself — there aren’t too many Republicans who are going to have unlimited patience with recalcitrant Iraqi politicians.

More than any other war in the history of the nation, this is one man’s war. The association is absolute: it’s Bush’s war. But now, as we start to come to the end of the Bush years, the unavoidable question is: who else wants it? Not that many, it seems. After all, it requires signing on to all that Bush family meshugas, and all those neocon intellectual contortions, not to mention all that Bush jut-jawed toughguyness. Indeed, it’s quite impossible to see this war without Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney and Rove and the rest. Once they’re gone, the imperative of the war is gone.

And, in fact, the political reality is that they’ll be gone before they have actually left office. That’s the inescapable second-term curse. Everybody’s career is beginning to shift. Your best people have one foot out the door, or have already left. People who have supported you, because you have supported them, are suddenly a lot more iffy. You simply aren’t the man you were. Indeed, you’re a sinking ship.

There is another unsettling aspect of a second term. A second term demands a denouement — and it’s almost always operatic. Impeachment for Clinton. Iran-contra for Reagan. Watergate for Nixon. Partly this happens because politically you become weak and your enemies get stronger. But it also happens because so much media attention has been focused on you for so long that there is an inevitable push to wrap the story up, to drive it to its most dramatic climax. Then, too, the media, having let a President (especially this one) get away with so much while he was gaining power, invariably take it back while he’s losing it. And to make matters worse, the President invariably digs in — and for this stubbornness and churlishness and insensitivity he’ll be punished. It’s starting. Bush’s speech in June defending the war had hints of that delusional view that necessarily begins when you’ve bet the farm. The President’s “clear path forward” had a cadence and desperation disconcertingly similar to Lyndon Johnson’s “light at the end of the tunnel.” Most insistently, the President’s address to his wobbly nation was about the moral imperative. Beyond cost or method, we are doing this because it has to be done. If we don’t fight them there, we’ll be fighting them on our shores. “Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it…” There was an unmistakable plaintiveness. That’s why he was here — desperately trying to hold on to the crowd.

But back to the numbers. Has there ever been a failing business or a flagging war where they didn’t try to fudge the numbers? Although the President said that he had no plans to send more troops to Iraq, someone in the Pentagon is calculating the effect on kill rates if troop levels are increased, likewise if troop levels are reduced, likewise if more civilians are used. Of course, the better spreadsheet projection concerns the speedy deployment of better-trained Iraqi troops and police. This, assuredly, has been worked out in great and variable detail. It’s just that these gambits and projections and little fictions and recast assumptions are so much harder to maintain and argue and sell — especially as those great salesmen in the White House begin more and more to consider their retirement — than it apparently is for the insurgents (whoever they are) to roll out every day and up the kill rate by one or two more.

Michael Wolff is a columnist for Vanity Fair
Courtesy: the New York Times


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