Are We to Be Led in War by a “Tiger” or a Kitten?

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

I agree with many here that the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is positive news. And, yes, we should be thankful to President Obama that (for now) Generals Petraeus and McChrystal have at least 18 months and greater resources to secure the country before the promised withdrawals (supposedly) begin.

But the problem is that the commander-in-chief was clearly pained by the decision — sometimes fobbing off his dilemma on the prior administration, at other times trying to contextualize the war as a complex socio-legal problem rather than a struggle to force our enemy to accept our own political aims (i.e., a consensual government in Kabul that is inhospitable, rather than welcoming, to global terrorists).

And when a war leader visibly regrets the situation he has found himself in — rather than being determined to prevail in the struggle at hand — that hesitancy inevitably ripples through the ranks. Think of the British or French war effort between September 1939 and May 1940, or America in Vietnam between 1964 and 1969. Chamberlain was no Churchill, and LBJ, like it or not, was not a Nixon, at least when it came to trying to win in Vietnam.

In contrast, with the ascension of the “Tiger,” Georges Clemenceau, as prime minister in 1917, his will to win (“la guerre jusqu’au bout”) filtered throughout the French ranks and soon made an enormous difference in the trenches. Take away a win-at-all-costs Lincoln in the dark days of spring and summer 1864, and the Army of the Potomac, Grant or no Grant, would have lost its soul. During the Cold War, American forces, down to the level of private, were more enthused with a “tear down this wall” president than an earlier “free of that inordinate fear of communism” commander-in-chief.

So, yes, in the short term, troops will be sent. Two brilliant generals will have leeway. And we will have a year and a half at the new troop levels. But no nation can — or should try to — win a war when the heart of the man at the top is not in the struggle.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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