THE APRIL 7, 2003 ISSUE of the New Yorker contains an article by Seymour Hersh that will be taught in journalism classes for decades to come: "Offense and Defense: The Battle between Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon." Hersh's opening sentences read: "As the ground campaign against Saddam Hussein faltered last week, with attenuated supply lines and a lack of immediate reinforcements, there was anger in the Pentagon. Several senior war planners complained to me in interviews that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his inner circle of civilian advisors, who had been chiefly responsible for persuading President Bush to lead the country into war, had insisted on micromanaging the war's operational details."
On April 9, U.S. troops controlled much of Baghdad and Iraqis were celebrating in the city's streets and public squares. Victory in Baghdad does not mean the end of the war, of course, but perhaps it could mean the beginning of accountability in punditry.
Hersch was far from alone, and let's not even count the silly caucus of Dixie Chicks, Garafalos, Pearl Jams, and Michael Moore. The March 30 editions of the New York Times and Washington Post carry stories by R.W. Apple and Vernon Loeb respectively, which, had a reader been obliged to depend only upon these accounts for news of the war, would have caused him to believe that stalemate was all but certain. Add in the commentaries of Generals Wesley Clark, Barry McCaffrey, and Merrill McPeak, and the picture of Napoleon's retreat from Russia enters the mind.
Spend an hour in the archives over at Joshua Micah Marshall's TalkingPointsMemo.com. In the opinions expressed there from start of war to present, you cannot find any evidence that the greatest display of military force in history was about to occur or was, in fact, occurring.
It is highly unlikely that Tom Daschle or Robert Byrd, Nancy Pelosi or John Conyers, editors from the Nation or the Los Angeles Times, or any of a score of religious leaders will be making themselves available for many interviews soon. The questions about the children's jail or the torture chambers would be bad enough, but the prospect of rolling videotape will scare them away until a few news cycles pass. (In fairness, Howard Dean did release a seven point plan for Iraq reconstruction on his website. Really, he did. And no, same-sex partnerships and dairy subsidies don't figure in the Dean Plan.)
So given the collapse of credibility among much of the punditry and political class, just how should we judge the accomplishments of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Myers-Franks team and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guard, and Marines who carried those plans out? This is actually an easy inquiry with an obvious answer.
In 18 months, the United States has, with no major advance planning, fought and won decisive victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both of these countries have recent history with war which is relevant in the question of how the Bush administration ought to be judged.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979. The Soviet commitment of forces was never less than 90,000 troops, and approximately 650,000 Soviets served in the Afghanistan theater at some point in the war. The Soviets suffered 15,000 dead or missing, and an astonishing 469,000 other casualties from wounds or serious illness. Soviet equipment losses included 118 jets, 333 helicopters, 147 tanks, and more than 10,000 trucks. After ten years of futility, they admitted defeat and withdrew.
Iraq invaded Iran in September, 1980, but after some initial gains, Iran's massive counterattacks threw Saddam's forces back into their own country. Iran would launch offensive after offensive over the next eight years: "Operation Undeniable Victory" in March, 1982; "Operation Ramadan" in July 1982; three major offensives in 1983; "Operation Dawn V' in 1985, and another major thrust in 1986. The last major offensive by Iran began in January 1987, and caused 20,000 Iraqi casualties. Iran suffered 65,000 casualties in that offensive.
Iraq's forces, which we see retreating and devastated on a nightly basis, did not fold, however, but regrouped and reclaimed the initiative in 1988, and the war came to an end that August. An analysis by the Federation of American Scientists concludes that the "Iraqis suffered an estimated 375,000 casualties, the equivalent of 5.6 million for a population the size of the United States. Another 60,000 were taken prisoner by the Iranians. Iran's losses may have included more than 1 million people killed or maimed."
Approximately 50 Americans have been killed in Operation Enduring Freedom, including the fatalities in both Afghanistan and the Philippines. Others allied forces, including the Canadians and Germans, have lost lives there as well.
The number of Americans and British killed in Iraq is less than 200, though of course the war is not over.
Each of these deaths is an enormous cost, and the pain of the survivors is not lessened by comparison to wars past. Judgments on military success must begin, however, with an appreciation for a war plan that has accomplished so much with so few casualties in places where previous wars have counted battle casualties in the thousands and tens of thousands.
The Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns are measured in weeks, not the years of the Soviet-Afghan War or the Iraq-Iran War. The suffering of the civilian populations in America's wars is so much less than the suffering of the earlier conflicts that it is ludicrous to even attempt a comparison.
The overwhelming strength of the American military is not enough to secure the peace and bring battles and wars to decisive conclusions--they also had strategic brilliance.
It is inevitable that critics of the war will attempt to invent new arguments against Bush and his deputies. The antiwar criticism was always rooted in an anti-Bush animus that has reached pathological levels on the left, so new attacks will be forthcoming as soon as the inevitable difficulties of the post-war effort surface, or upon the occasion of the also-inevitable terrorist attacks on our troops stationed in Iraq. The same crowd that predicted disaster before and during the war will be doing so again.
And, sadly, because there is no scorecard in punditry, editors will run their pieces and producers will book their talking heads.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.