Our Reptilian Brains

When “Just Win, Baby” sadly trumps everything else.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

After our victory in Afghanistan, the president’s approval ratings soared, only to descend during the acrimony leading up to the March invasion of Iraq. But after the three-week war, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of these same Americans purportedly returned to their earlier support of the president’s initiatives.

That hard-earned endorsement slipped again, however, as the Iraqi insurrectionists picked off Americans in late 2003 and 2004. In response, the media turned almost all its attention to power failures, looting, Fallujah, al Sadr, Abu Ghraib, and general criticism from the U.N. and Europe. Almost everything good that was happening in Iraq — and there was much to celebrate — was ignored, as if free-thinking newspapers, real political parties, public audit and control of oil, and the opening of thousands of co-ed schools were everyday news in the Middle East. Here at home, oil-price spikes overshadowed the amazing turn-around in the American economy.

The president, of course, is responsible for these wild swings in his popularity — to a point. It was Mr. Bush’s tough but necessary decision to invade Iraq, and Americans rightly went along with it on both practical and moral grounds. The majority stuck with him as long as the U.S. seemed to be winning at minimal cost. This latter point cannot be underestimated. A majority of Americans, like a majority of mankind, does not embrace a strong particular ideology that keeps them levelheaded and always resolute through either bad or good news. Most simply wish to win, and to be identified with a winner — they are as giddy with success as they are dejected with disappointment, as quick to blame others for setbacks as they are to claim credit for progress.

But that primordial concept seems to our sophisticated elites too simplistic — although there is a wealth of historical examples to substantiate this depressing trait of mankind. Why was a defiant Pericles lionized in 431 and censured and fined by 430? Most likely because Spartans were in Attica and an unexpected plague was killing 80,000 Athenians. Few cared that he had nothing to do with a mysterious disease, they cared only that thousands had died on his watch. Ask Churchill’s ghost why he was called on in 1939, thrown out as war ended, and brought back again as new dangers loomed.

What made Lincoln popular by October when he had been so pilloried in August? Uncle Billy Sherman had taken Atlanta and suddenly the public saw that the Confederacy was hollow rather than defiant and impenetrable. Had Sherman backed off weeks earlier, Lincoln would have been through — even though he was not much responsible for the degree of nerve and bravery shown by the Army of the West and their mercurial general.

Why was Truman ridiculed as unhinged for removing a MacArthur, who wanted to strike back by crossing into China, and then later praised for such sober presidential judgment? Perhaps it was because Matthew Ridgeway had restored equilibrium in Korea and regained much of the territory that was lost under MacArthur’s tenure. Accordingly, a once emotional and fiery uproar — replete with MacArthur’s ticker-tape parade — evolved into an academic debate about civilian control of the military.

If one goes back to the fifth week of Bill Clinton’s 79-day bombing campaign against Serbia — no U.N. approval, no congressional sanction, NATO partners backing out — one reads of castigation from the American Right about bombing a Christian Orthodox country in Europe, from neoconservatives about not committing ground troops, and from the Left about going to war at all. But with Milosevic in the dock and the mass murder stopped, we now are told that the Clinton administration’s efforts to stop the bloodbath in the Balkans proved to be about the only success of his scandal-ridden administration. Why? He persevered and won — and we can imagine what would have happened had he caved in at week six and called it another Mogadishu.

The truth is that for all our education, nuance, and professed idealism, too many of us think and act with our limbic systems, which are hard-wired to appreciate perceived success and feel comfortable with consensus. Like most in the animal kingdom, man wishes to identify with good fortune and abhors apparent failure, and thus seeks conveniently to find distance from it. After Abu Graib and the insurrections in Fallujah and Najef, the loudmouth critic Michael Moore is praised as a gifted filmmaker at the Cannes Film Festival even as prominent conservatives and ex-generals, now in their newfound genius, trash the war and claim they were brainwashed, naïve, or not listened to.

Our leaders should remember this volatility. In the long run, of course, the present strategy is sound and in a decade will be judged as such by historians. How could it not be sound to remove a mass murderer who posed a threat to the region and our country and then sponsor a consensual government in his place?

But what about the short-term for Americans, who are captives of the 24-hour news cycle? Their support depends on us not merely winning — as the recent routing of Mr. Sadr attests — but winning in such a dramatic fashion that even a global media ideologically opposed to the undertaking is forced to report American success, and report it with genuine zeal.

How does this acceptance of human nature as it is rather than as we wish it to be translate into the proper daily conduct of the war? Not in the way that most think. The communis opinio goes something like this: too few troops, too little planning, and dilatory democratic reform led us into the present ‘quagmire’ — as if our present problems were strategic rather than tactical flaws or a condescending misreading of the Arab Street.

In contrast, I think the military campaign was inspired, the proper number of troops was subject for legitimate debate, and the plans to reconstruct Iraq were more or less sound. After little more than a year, we see greater likelihood of success than failure in this most audacious enterprise. But where we have failed is in managing the pulse of the war and the perception of our advance, success, and victory.

Here our greatest weakness has been the half-measure: the need to consult all the ill-informed in the Middle East rather than a few of sound judgment; the good intention not carried out; the threat to thwart evil reduced to lecture and then whine rather than audacious action. We worry too much about the one-day response to our use of force and not the 100-hour gradual appreciation that we are winning. Shooting looters to restore order and save the Iraqi infrastructure would have saved lives and enraged the world for a day. But pictures of subsequent strolls in parks and Iraqis stringing telephone wire and pouring cement would have impressed it far more.

Storming Fallujah would have begotten Jenin-like hysteria, condemnations from mullahs and imams, and cries from John Kerry — for a day or two — but begrudging respect inside Iraq that thousands of insurrectionists (among them hated Baathists) were dead or scattered, and it was safer now to be against Saddam’s remnants than with them. The world is not talking publicly as it did a few weeks ago about the injustice of the murderous Sheik Hassin’s departure to paradise, but rather murmuring in private that it saved lives and was long overdue.

It is tricky, risky, and downright dangerous to kill or capture Mahdists inside the Holy City of Najef — and our presence will incite demonstrations throughout the Islamic world. But if Mr. Sadr flees Sadr City, flees Karbalah — flees everywhere we attack to find him — his hordes will melt, and those who loudly castigated us for overreaction will quietly praise our sobriety and resolve. In fact, they are already beginning to. Brave and extremely able American soldiers are systematically dismantling his militias even as the world screams about Abu Ghraib. Again, the key is to win and give all credit to the Iraqis.

Such a recognition of human calculation does not constitute approval for realpolitik or the logic of mere force; rather it is an appreciation that morality should be defined as action rather than empty words or good intentions. In each case, protecting the innocent from looters, ridding Iraq of Baathist killers, and stopping fanatics from hijacking Shiite hopes for democratic prominence was the right thing to do — but impossible without the use of guns and steel. While most people simply wish to associate with victory, we need not pander to that base emotion, only appreciate it and indeed co-opt it for a better purpose.

The only thing worse than the amoral use of force is the failure to act when it is the only right and moral thing to do. In short, I think our sole serious mistake in this war is that we have forgotten the lessons of history, the essence of human nature, and what constitutes real morality. Small armies, whether those of Caesar, Alexander, or Hernan Cortés can defeat enormous enemies and hold vast amounts of territory — but only if they are used audaciously and establish the immediate reputation that they are lethal and dangerous to confront. Deterrence, not numbers, creates tranquility and the two are not always synonymous.

A thousand Marines shooting the first 500 gunmen they saw, broadcast on al Jazeera, would be worth the deterrence of another armored division. Taking Fallujah and killing Baathist killers while putting victorious Iraqi coalitionists on television would have been the equivalent of calling up another 40,000 reservists.

The U.N., the EU, the Arab League, and the host of domestic critics, triangulating pundits, and democratic politicos will never properly appreciate our necessary audit and censure of prison abuses. Nor will they praise the restraint shown in Fallujah. Nor will they try to place the combat losses of Americans in historical perspective — of the near impossibility of subduing a country of 26 million people at such a cost. Nor will they do the hard moral calculus of appreciating $87 billion and hundreds of American lives — at a moment of all-time high petroleum prices and during an acrimonious election year — spent to end fascism and inaugurate democracy, at least not when they can scream “No blood for oil” for psychic satisfaction on the cheap. But they most certainly will go silent when al Sadr relents or is in chains, calm returns to Baghdad, and al Qaedists flee from or are killed in Iraq.

For now, forget the potential paradoxes of the transition (in Korea, after all, U.S. troops remain autonomous). Ignore cries for more troops (as if 40,000 — or 100,000 — Americans could stop a North Korean invasion). Pay no attention to what the New York Times predicts will befall us (as if it were right about Afghanistan or the three-week war).

Instead, stay true to our values — but also realize that we are judged by those who think reptilian and will thus join us for the pragmatically wrong, rather than the morally right, reasons. Or as the sometimes vulgar and crass Al Davis put it far better, “Just win baby.”

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This