With finals week approaching, many of us at The Review are preparing term papers and final essays for our classes. I wrote one such paper recently: a critical analysis of three assigned books on the Bush administration and the War in Iraq.
While writing the paper, I found myself reflecting on a comment made by political science professor Kenneth Schultz during our “History vs. Polisci” debate last month. Observing that both disciplines exist to distill the complexity of the world into something simple and understandable, he explained, “the assumptions you’re making about what’s important and what isn’t have to be spelled out explicitly, precisely because you know you’re simplifying the world”.
Now, the authors of all three of my books—Noam Chomsky, Bob Woodward, and George Packer—have very different academic and ideological backgrounds, and their theories on the Iraq War differed a great deal in many ways, but all concluded that at its core, the war was conducted incompetently and has not yet had a positive impact on American national security. All three also shared a powerful sense of misunderstanding or confusion on just why the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq in the first place.
In 1873, military theorist Karl von Clausewitz penned the following observation on the nature of war: “Now philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.”
The heart of the mistake, for these three authors and for so many critics of the Iraq War (and indeed of the entire War on Terror) is that they suppose, as Clausewitz observed, that an implacable enemy can be overcome mainly by cleverness, rather than by “blood, sweat, toil and tears”, not to mention the willingness to learn from painful mistakes. Surely there is no such thing as war without many costly mistakes. Almost from the beginning, President Bush’s critics have seized upon the abundant evidence that war is very difficult, and have chosen to interpret that evidence as the sign that the President’s entire policy has been misguided. “If it isn’t easy, then we must be wrong,” they tell us in effect.
When those in charge of a war have that attitude, they lose. When those analyzing and writing about a war have that attitude, they cannot truly understand what they are analyzing, and they certainly can’t explain it to the rest of us. Perhaps, as Professor Schultz suggested, if the three authors had prefaced their works with the disclaimer “I philosophically disbelieve in war unless it proceeds without significant mistakes or too much hardship,” their readers would have had the right perspective with which to judge their books.