He is not to blame for our difficulties
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
The Washington Post recently warned that doctors are urging interested parties of all types to get their flu shots before the “scarce” vaccine is thrown out. But how is such a surfeit possible when our national media scared us to death just a few months ago with the specter of a national flu epidemic, corporate malfeasance, and Bush laxity? That perfect storm of incompetence and skullduggery purportedly combined to leave us vulnerable to mass viral attack. So how can the Post now characterize something as “scarce” that is soon to be discarded for a want of takers? Was there too much or too little vaccine?
The answer, of course, is the usual media-inspired flight from reason that overwhelms this country at various times — hype playing on our fears and groupthink to create a sudden story when there really is none. And now with the renewed attack on Donald Rumsfeld we are back to more of the flu-shot hysteria that has been so common in this war. Remember the pseudo-crises of the past four years — the quagmire in week three in Afghanistan or the sandstorm bog-down in Iraq?
Let us not forget either all the Orwellian logic: Clinton’s past deleterious military slashes that nevertheless explained the present win in Afghanistan, or his former appeasement of bin Laden that now accounts for the successful doctrine of fighting terror. Or recall the harebrained schemes we should have adopted — the uninvited automatic airlifting of an entire division into the high peaks of Islamic, nuclear Pakistan to cut off the tribal fugitives from Tora Bora? Or have we put out of our memories the brilliant trial balloons of a Taliban coalition government and the all Islamic post-Taliban occupation forces?
So it is with the latest feeding-frenzy over Donald Rumsfeld. His recent spur-of-the-moment — but historically plausible — remarks to the effect that one goes to war with the army one has rather than the army one wishes for angered even conservatives. The demands for his head are to be laughed off from an unserious Maureen Dowd — ranting on spec about the shadowy neocon triad of Wolfowitz, Feith, and Perle — but taken seriously from a livid Bill Kristol or Trent Lott. Rumsfeld is, of course, a blunt and proud man, and thus can say things off the cuff that in studied retrospect seem strikingly callous rather than forthright. No doubt he has chewed out officers who deserved better. And perhaps his quip to the scripted, not-so-impromptu question was not his best moment.
But his resignation would be a grave mistake for this country at war, for a variety of reasons.
First, according to reports, the unit in question had 784 of its 804 vehicles up-armored. Humvees are transportation and support assets that traditionally have never been so protected. That the fluid lines in Iraq are different not just from those in World War II or Korea, but even Vietnam, Gulf War I, Mogadishu, and Afghanistan became clear only over months. Yet it also in fact explains why we are seeing 80 to 90 percent of these neo-Jeeps already retrofitted. In an army replete with Bradleys and Abramses, no one could have known before Iraq that Hummers would need to become armored vehicles as well. Nevertheless all of them will be in a fleet of many thousands in less than 18 months. Would that World War II Sherman tanks after three years in the field had enough armor to stop a single Panzerfaust: At war’s end German teenagers with cheap proto-RPGs were still incinerating Americans in their “Ronson Lighters.”
Second, being unprepared in war is, tragically, nothing new. It now seems near criminal that Americans fought in North Africa with medium Stuart tanks, whose 37-millimeter cannons (“pea-shooters” or “squirrel guns”) and thin skins ensured the deaths of hundreds of GIs. Climbing into Devastator torpedo bombers was tantamount to a death sentence in 1942; when fully armed and flown into a headwind, these airborne relics were lucky to make 100 knots — not quite as bad as sending fabric Brewster Buffaloes up against Zeros. Yet FDR and George Marshall, both responsible for U.S. military preparedness, had plenty of time to see what Japan and Germany were doing in the late 1930s. Under the present logic of retrospective perfection, both had years to ensure our boys adequate planes and tanks — and thus should have resigned when the death toll of tankers and pilots soared.
Even by 1945 both the Germans and the Russians still had better armor than the Americans. In the first months of Korea, our early squadrons of F-80s were no match for superior Mig-15s. Early-model M-16 rifles jammed with tragic frequency in Vietnam. The point is not to excuse the military naiveté and ill-preparedness that unnecessarily take lives, but to accept that the onslaught of war is sometimes unforeseen and its unfolding course persistently unpredictable. Ask the Israelis about the opening days of the Yom Kippur War, when their armor was devastated by hand-held Soviet-made anti-tank guns and their vaunted American-supplied air force almost neutralized by SAMs — laxity on the part of then perhaps the world’s best military a mere six years after a previous run-in with Soviet-armed Arab enemies.
Third, the demand for Rumsfeld’s scalp is also predicated on supposedly too few troops in the theater. But here too the picture is far more complicated. Vietnam was no more secure with 530,000 American soldiers in 1968 than it was with 24,000 in 1972. How troops are used, rather than their sheer numbers, is the key to the proper force deployment — explaining why Alexander the Great could take a Persian empire of 2 million square miles with an army less than 50,000, while earlier Xerxes with 500,000 on land and sea could not subdue tiny Greece, one-fortieth of Persia’s size.
Offensive action, not troop numbers alone, creates deterrence; mere patrolling and garrison duty will always create an insatiable demand for ever more men and an enormously visible American military bureaucracy — and a perennial Iraqi dependency on someone else to protect the nascent democracy. Thus if the argument can be made that Rumsfeld was responsible for either disbanding the Iraqi army or the April stand-down from Fallujah — the latter being the worst American military decision since Mogadishu — then he deserves our blame. But so far, from what we know, the near-fatal decision to pull-back from Fallujah was made from either above Rumsfeld (e.g., the election-eve White House) or below him (Paul Bremer and the Iraqi provisional government).
In truth, the real troop problem transcends Iraq. Our shortages are caused by a military that was slashed after the Cold War and still hasn’t properly recouped to meet the global demands of the war against Islamic fascism — resulting in rotation nightmares, National Guard emergencies, and stop-order controversies. The amazing victories in Afghanistan and Iraq not only set up unrealistic expectations about the ease of implementing post-bellum democracy among tribal Islamic societies, but also allowed the public, the Congress, and the president not to mobilize to confront the strategic challenges facing the United States that now pose a more serious threat than did the 1980s Soviet Union.
We are left with an unhinged nuclear dictatorship in North Korea threatening an increasingly appeasing and pacifistic South. Taiwan could be swallowed up in days or destroyed in hours by a bullying, resource-hungry China staking out a new co-prosperity sphere in the Pacific, one every bit as ambitious as imperial Japan’s. Iran’s nukes will soon be able to hit a triangulating Europe, and Islamists seek our destruction at home while we implement liberal governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All this peril came on us suddenly and without warning — at a time of recession and following the vast arms cuts of the 1990s, a trillion in lost commerce and outright damage from 9/11, oil spikes, huge trade deficits, increased entitlements, and tax cuts. If Mr. Rumsfeld is responsible for all that, perhaps then we can ask him to step aside as culpable for our present absence of enough soldiers in the U.S. military.
In reality, he has carefully allotted troops in Iraq because he has few to spare elsewhere — and all for reasons beyond his control. If Senator Lott or kindred pundits first show us exactly where the money is to come from to enlarge the military (tax hikes, cuts in new Medicare entitlements, or budgetary freezes?), and, second, that Mr. Rumsfeld opposes expanding our defense budget — “No, President Bush, I don’t need any more money, since the Clinton formula was about right for our present responsibilities” — then he should be held responsible. So far that has not happened.
Fourth, we hear of purportedly misplaced allocations of resources. Thus inadequate Humvees are now the focus of our slurs — our boys die while we are wasting money on pie-in-the-sky ABMs. But next month the writs may be about our current obsession with tactical minutiae — if Iran shoots off a test missile with a simultaneous announcement of nuclear acquisition. So then expect, “Why did Rumsfeld rush to spend billions on Humvee armor, when millions of Americans were left vulnerable to Iran’s nukes without a viable ABM system come to full completion?”
Fifth, have we forgotten what Mr. Rumsfeld did right? Not just plenty, but plenty of things that almost anyone else would not have done. Does anyone think the now-defunct Crusader artillery platform would have saved lives in Iraq or helped to lower our profile in the streets of Baghdad? How did it happen that our forces in Iraq are the first army in our history to wear practicable body armor? And why are over 95 percent of our wounded suddenly surviving — at miraculous rates that far exceeded even those in the first Gulf War? If the secretary of Defense is to be blamed for renegade roguery at Abu Ghraib or delays in up-arming Humvees, is he to be praised for the system of getting a mangled Marine to Walter Reed in 36 hours?
And who pushed to re-deploy thousands of troops out of Europe, and to re-station others in Korea? Or were we to keep ossified bases in perpetuity in the logic of the Cold War while triangulating allies grew ever-more appeasing to our enemies and more gnarly to us, their complacent protectors?
The blame with this war falls not with Donald Rumsfeld. We are more often the problem — our mercurial mood swings and demands for instant perfection devoid of historical perspective about the tragic nature of god-awful war. Our military has waged two brilliant campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. There has been an even more inspired postwar success in Afghanistan where elections were held in a country deemed a hopeless Dark-Age relic. A thousand brave Americans gave their lives in combat to ensure that the most wicked nation in the Middle East might soon be the best, and the odds are that those remarkable dead, not the columnists in New York, will be proven right — no thanks to post-facto harping from thousands of American academics and insiders in chorus with that continent of appeasement Europe.
Out of the ashes of September 11, a workable war exegesis emerged because of students of war like Don Rumsfeld: Terrorists do not operate alone, but only through the aid of rogue states; Islamicists hate us for who we are, not the alleged grievances outlined in successive and always-metamorphosing loony fatwas; the temper of bin Laden’s infomercials hinges only on how bad he is doing; and multilateralism is not necessarily moral, but often an amoral excuse either to do nothing or to do bad — ask the U.N. that watched Rwanda and the Balkans die or the dozens of profiteering nations who in concert robbed Iraq and enriched Saddam.
Donald Rumsfeld is no Les Aspin or William Cohen, but a rare sort of secretary of the caliber of George Marshall. I wish he were more media-savvy and could ape Bill Clinton’s lip-biting and furrowed brow. He should, but, alas, cannot. Nevertheless, we will regret it immediately if we drive this proud and honest-speaking visionary out of office, even as his hard work and insight are bringing us ever closer to victory.
©2004 Victor Davis Hanson