Pausing to observe American foreign policy in the making is like pausing to observe a car wreck on the highway: there’s no point in doing it, but there are times when it really can’t be helped. It’s always just the same gruesome scene, but today is Veteran’s Day, so there’s no averting one’s eyes from the mechanism that creates the veterans we’re supposed to be “celebrating.” In honor of that day, today’s blog post will be an exercise in decoding the euphemisms of war-talk, and translating them into our wholesome native tongue.
The lead story in yesterday’s New York Times was, “Obstacles Limit Targets and Pace of Strikes on ISIS.” Three passages in it are particularly instructive. Here’s the first:
President Obama’s decision last week to double the number of American trainers and advisers in Iraq, to about 3,000, and request more than $5 billion from Congress for military operations against the Islamic State was viewed as clear acknowledgment of the challenges in fighting a limited war. They are especially acute when Washington’s allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria need far more training to battle a formidable adversary that offers little in the way of clear targeting.
In an interview broadcast Sunday, Mr. Obama said he had made his decision, announced Friday, in order to accelerate the mission by taking a set of fresh, if incremental, steps toward greater involvement.
“What it signals is a new phase,” the president said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“What we knew was that phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible, and we now have done that,” he said. “And so now what we’ve done is rather than just try to halt ISIL’s momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.”
Here’s the second:
“The airstrikes are buying us time. They aren’t going to solve the problem by themselves,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff and a former top commander in Iraq. “It’s going to take people on the ground, ground forces.”
General Odierno said the priority was developing “indigenous forces” to retake territory from ISIS. “Over time, if that’s not working, then we’re going to have to reassess, and we’ll have to decide whether we think it’s worth putting other forces in there, to include U.S. forces,” he said.
And here’s the third:
Senior American commanders are preaching patience and warning against trying to replay previous air campaigns on the shifting battlefield of Iraq.
“Every air campaign is different and can’t be a reflection of a past one,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey G. Lofgren of the Air Force, the deputy commander of coalition air forces in the Middle East. “A lot of people would like us to drop hundreds of bombs and make the problem go away, but it’s not that kind of war.”
The first passage tells us that we have entered a war that can only be won by the use of ground troops. The two possibilities for the use of grounds troops are either Iraqi troops or American troops. Iraqi troops cannot win the war, but the passage tells us that while we are doubling the military advisers we send to Iraq, we will not be sending American troops there. If this sounds like a classic case of willing the end but not willing the means, maybe it does because that’s what it is.
The second passage, asserted by a subordinate of the president, tells us that in fact, we will have to send American troops, whether the president likes it or not. This claim has the merit of willing the end and willing the necessary and available means to it. It has the demerit of contradicting what the president just supposedly said. It remains unclear whether Odierno is defying the president, in collusion with the president, or simply hasn’t gotten his story straight. The bottom line, however, is that what he says about the insertion of U.S. troops contradicts the president’s assurances that they won’t be sent.
As we all know, anything follows from a contradiction. So what the conjunction of Obama’s and Odierno’s claims amount to is: anything goes.
The third passage, asserted by a subordinate of the president’s subordinate, tells us simultaneously that the war’s course is unpredictable, inscrutable, and discontinuous with past experience–and that it is a war of a knowable and determinate kind, a fact known by past experience of wars of that kind.
That’s a contradiction, too. So the third passage, like the conjunction of the first two, underscores the same message: anything goes.
When it comes to the conduct of our foreign policy, what I think we’re being told is that anything goes. Given that, this video strikes me as the only fitting response to the absurdities of our military leaders.
I’d like to think that we’re bound to answer when they propose.
On a more serious note, in honor of Veterans Day (or more precisely, of the veterans themselves) please consider making a donation to the Walter Reed Society, or some comparable organization. Huge numbers of veterans still need our help–and at this rate, indefinitely will.