Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Fog of Reporting

Victor Hanson takes on Thomas Ricks' Fiasco (I earlier commented here):

But above all there is a regrettable absence of perspective, both contemporary and historical. Abu Ghraib is a centerpiece of the narrative. But it pales when compared to the terrorists’ own penal horrors, as we learn from a sentence or two devoted to the lopped limbs and worse that were found when Fallujah was retaken. And might we judge our folly in pulling back from the first siege of Fallujah, for example, by what happened to the U.S. in the hedgerows in 1944, the Bulge, Okinawa or the Yalu to determine whether such blunders are specific to Iraq, the American military, or war in general?

And when Ricks on rare occasions does cite wars of the past, the results confound the force of his narrative. In talking about the Israeli rebound in the 1973 war, he states approvingly, “Shocked by surprise attacks from Syria and Egypt, the Israelis quickly rallied and launched a counteroffensive, losing only 250 tanks and 772 troops.” His “only” suggests success and adept leadership, although such losses to tiny Israel in a matter of hours constituted almost a third of our deaths in three years of fighting in Iraq and ten times as many tank losses as during our far longer “fiasco.”

And consider that twenty percent of our casualties are non-combat. In a three-week war as the 1973 war was, there was little opportunity for troops to get sick or injured.

And Ricks' narrative of success for the Israelis requires you to ignore the ongoing fighting in southern Lebanon and Gaza that are the successors of the 1973 war. Syria wages war on Israel in Lebanon; and Egypt--at a lower level to be sure--supports Palestinians in Gaza. But because Ricks defines the ongoing struggles in Gaza and Lebanon separately from the major combat operations of October 1973 he can pronounce "mission accomplished" for the Israelis; while blasting us simply because he includes the current campaign against insurgents, terrorists, and militias as part of the conventional campaign that dethroned Saddam and his Baathist thugs.

Remember that historians speak of the Spanish-American War as the "splendid little war" of three months. The long insurrection that is still waged by opponents of the Philippines government--and not just the insurrecntion fought against our troops into 1902--is not considered part of that short and victorious war.

Heck, our Civil War ended with the surrender of Lee at Appomatix in 1865, right? No need to consider a decade of Reconstruction in that narrative. Or the rise of the KKK to resist the Union victory. And official segregation in the former Confederate states or the Civil Rights legislation enforced by federal troops one hundred years after Lee surrendered is just domestic history, right? We won our civil war cleanly and it had an endpoint firmly reported in our history books. Or perhaps not.

I have no doubt that Ricks is reporting on real glitches and mistakes. What he fails to consider in his damnation of the war is that these glitches and mistakes are all part of the friction of war.

War is a series of mistakes and poor judgment interspersed with good decisions and acceptable exectution. All done under fire, without sufficient information, and with the need to decide ten minutes ago. It is a wonder that winners emerge in war at all given the conditions under which they are fought.

So Ricks sees our mistakes in the war. But not the enemy's mistakes. And mistaking what is common in warfare for a unique sin of America in this war, he damns our leaders for incompetence.

Every war has its tales of woe, ineptness, and errors. Yet somebody emerges victorious in almost all of them. Ricks lacks the appreciation of perspective and so has transitioned poorly from reporter to historian. If Ricks had more historical perspective and less of his crime-beat reporting instincts, he would see that we've waged this war with amazingly few blunders and errors.

When we've won this war in Iraq, these errors will just be historical oddities interesting to professional historians, military planners, and amateur war buffs, but swamped in their significance by the larger picture that we won the war anyway.

And in the fullness of time, the fog of reporting will lift and the doomed insurgencies by Baathists, jihadis, and nationalists will just be a footnote to the Iraq War of March and April 2003.