The other night – a few days before President Bush’s speech on Iraq – I spoke to a group of Republicans; a man there stood up and said, ‘I’m a navy veteran, I was in Vietnam. And what I don’t understand is why the politicians can’t just get out of the way and let the soldiers win the war.’
It’s an old but still valid sentiment.
The next day I read a quote by President Bush in the newspaper about the war on terrorism: “…we will accept nothing less than complete victory.” And last night I listened to President Bush’s speech.
Americans have a pretty simple standard – given to us by General Ulysses Grant – for complete victory. It’s called ‘unconditional surrender.’ That is the standard we applied to the Germans and Japanese in World War II. But complete victory is not easy to achieve. To win a total victory you must destroy your enemy’s ability to fight back.
That has not happened when our leaders – for political reasons – have told our soldiers to fight ‘limited’ political wars. It has happened when the political leaders have said to our armed forces, ‘Go win the war. Period.’
Which have we done in the war on terrorism?
I have no problem making war on people who cut innocent hostages’ heads off on television, or people who support terrorists, or people who tolerate terrorists in their country.
But what is the cost of ‘complete victory?’ Have we paid it in this war? Are we willing to pay it?
What if we can’t win the war on terrorism with the roughly one hundred and sixty thousand men we have in Iraq? And – more sobering – what if the roots of terrorism run through Syria or Iran or half-a-dozen other countries? What will ‘complete victory’ cost then? What if it means we need an army of 500,000 men? What if it means we need a draft?
And that, of course, is a question no politician dares to face. Because no politician in the United States thinks a draft is going to fly. And if that’s what it takes to win ‘complete victory’ – then for political reasons ‘complete victory’ may be beyond our grasp.
My point is simple: We are in the fifth year in the war on terrorism. We have now been fighting this war for months longer than World War II. And we have not destroyed our enemies’ ability to resist as we did with the Germans and Japanese. The terrorists are still fighting back. Every day.
The argument over Iraq has come down to President Bush and the Republicans saying we should keep on doing what we’re doing and the Democrats saying we should pull out.
But what if neither strategy will lead to victory in the war on terrorism?
Of course, no one – no political leader – has dared to stand up and ask, ‘Do we need to do more? Is the price of complete victory higher than we thought and, if so, do we have any choice but to pay it?’ Because no politician thinks the American people are going to look on him kindly if he does that. But ultimately, we may not be able to escape that question. We may be forced to answer it.
That is unless the whole threat of terrorism is an illusion and there was never any need for a war on terrorism at all.