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"There Is No Substitute for Victory," and Other Flights from Reality


More than a half-century ago, Douglas MacArthur proclaimed: "There is no substitute for victory." John McCain repeated this line the other day. Maybe these bromides are mere red meat intended for the Republican base. If not, McCain is on a dangerous flight from reality. These speeches make me wonder where he has been over the five years that this war has been fought.

There was no substitute for victory against the Nazis, and our nation responded accordingly. In that titanic struggle, the term "coalition forces" comprised a grand alliance of British, Soviet, Canadian, Australian, and dozens of other nations around the world. Our armed forces were 15 million strong. Backing up our troops was a united, mobilized nation that endured gasoline rationing, tax increases, and other inconveniences to advance the war effort. Our commanders in the field were led by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who turned to George Marshall, Henry Stimson, and Dean Acheson for strategic advice. Years before the war was won, our government began serious planning for the aftermath, which was in many ways skillfully managed for the long haul. In almost every particular, the contrast to the Iraq misadventure is appalling.

More pertinent, World War II was one of the few American wars for which "no substitute for victory" provided a sensible and sane guide. As demonstrated in David Halberstam's last book, The Longest Winter, this mentality nearly produced disaster in the Korean War. MacArthur foolishly belittled his battle-hardened North Korean foes. His outnumbered, rather poorly-trained, rather poorly-led, and rather poorly-equipped forces came very close to quickly losing. After the brilliant Inchon landings, MacArthur seized the initiative. He then badly overplayed his hand by crossing the Yalu and marching deep into North Korea. These aggressive moves provoked the Chinese while leaving American forces wide open to surprise attack. The attack came, with devastating effect. Again we came close to losing that war.

In part to compensate for, perhaps in part to conceal his very poor generalship, MacArthur flouted command authority and threatened drastic escalation. He was eventually relieved for defying President Truman. Halberstam makes clear that MacArthur might wisely have been fired for sheer incompetence. MacArthur never understood the military and diplomatic tasks at hand, which were to save South Korea, to preserve our delicate alliances, and to salvage the least-bloody draw possible without provoking a wider war "at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with the wrong enemy." MacArthur's behavior made it harder to achieve each of these goals. Fortunately he was replaced by Matthew Ridgeway, the more capable man.

Then we come to Vietnam. Victory was sadly impossible by 1968, if not before. Our post-Tet objective -- never achieved -- was to manage an ending that would address core American interests, honor our achievable commitments to our South Vietnamese allies, and stop or slow the ongoing carnage that claimed millions of Vietnamese and ten times the number of American deaths we have thus far experienced in Iraq. Rambo fantasies aside, "there is no substitute for victory" was a thought-destroying empty slogan.

During the first Gulf War, President Bush the father was vilified by many people for not marching straight to Baghdad and finishing the job. There is no substitute for victory, after all.

I was one of those interventionist liberals ambivalent about the original decision to prosecute the Iraq war. I hated Saddam, and viewed him as a serious threat. I fell off the bandwagon around the time it was clear President Bush could not win the support of even Canada or Turkey. I very much regret supporting the run-up to war. I'm not sure what to do now or how fast to draw down American forces. I suspect our forces will be stuck there in some capacity for years. I do not write out of a self-righteous belief that everyone who supported the war was an idiot.

What is idiotic is the claim that "victory" on American terms remains attainable or that this is even the right way to talk about managing the Iraq mess. I hope that our terrific, but overstretched and undermanned forces in Iraq nurture greater stability there. Whatever these troopers accomplish, the sad reality is that America will leave much blood, treasure, and, yes, national honor behind on Iraqi soil.

I understand an old soldier's desperate search for something better. Yet Senator McCain has no feasible plan to repair a deeply wounded Iraq. No one does. Maybe a positive outcome was possible five years ago, had the war been prosecuted with greater skill. It isn't anymore. Too much has happened since 2003. The surge may provide some respite. Yet as my mother once told me: You don't get a second chance to make a first impression.

We are deep, deep in the realm of damage control. If we can leave behind an Iraqi society and state reasonably intact and reasonably free of outside influence, if sectarian conflict is reasonably contained in its barbarity and geographic scope, if Iraq's millions of refugees are treated with reasonable humanity, if we can help the many Iraqis who directly helped us or relied upon us for help and protection, that may be the best we can do.

Senator McCain promises more than our nation, or the Iraqi nation, can reasonably deliver. His rhetoric denigrates the search for painful but realistic alternatives. And so "no substitute for victory" becomes yet another hoax by which this war's architects fool the public, and, perhaps, themselves.