Note: Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.
"A strange game.
The only winning move is not to play."-- Computer's conclusion about the war game "global nuclear war," from movie "War Games" (1983)"You can't win, you can't break even
And you can't get out of the game
People keep sayin' things are gonna change
But they look to us like, you're stayin' the same . . .
You can't win, you can't win no way
If your story stays the same, no, no"
And the big fool says to push on!"-- "The polite-company version of a phrase [President Obama's aides] use to describe the president's foreign policy." Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2014."After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State [which] is still dealing humiliating blows to the Iraqi Army."David D. Kirkpatrick and Omar Al-Jawoshy, "Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq," New York Times, September 23, 2014, p. A12"The United States and five Arab allies launched a wide-ranging air campaign against the Islamic State and at least one other extremist group in Syria for the first time early Tuesday . . .."-- Ben Hubbard and Alan Cowell, "U.S. and Allies Strike ISIS Targets in Syria," New York Times (online), September 23, 2014
There is a rather long list of categories of reasons why our third military adventure in Iraq is a bad idea. They are very briefly reviewed, below.
But for those for whom none of those categories seem persuasive, we now have another: A "war" with ISIS, in which the U.S. is a leading force, can be neither fought nor "won" by the standards of any reasonable definition of those words.
This is not the same as saying America is no longer the preeminent military force in the world, more advanced in technology and larger in resources than the next 10 countries combined. It still is. It is not to say that our military is less able and macho than the ISIS fighters. It is not. It is only to say that there are some places and times in which we cannot fight and win anything resembling a war. Whatever it is we want from others, whatever our "national security" may require, they must sometimes be achieved with methods and strategies other than military -- not just in addition to military but instead of military.
As I once put it to President Lyndon Johnson, "You can't play basketball on a football field." In that instance, Viet Nam was a country in which we would, inevitably, be viewed as only the latest in a centuries-long history of foreign invaders, entering into a form of civil war, in a country with an unfamiliar language, history, mythology, religion, social structure, and geography, where our "enemies" refused to wear uniforms and thus were indistinguishable from our allies, there was no World War II-like "frontline," and land was won, lost and won again with ever-increasing American (and Vietnamese) deaths.
In that war effort, a high administration official and I came up with a couple of alternatives, only half in jest. We calculated a cost of $500,000 for each Viet Cong killed in our effort to "win hearts and minds." What if we were to simply give every Vietnamese $250,000? They would consider it a fortune; it would cut our costs in half; and would probably win more "hearts and minds" than killing them. The other possibility was to withdraw our soldiers and replace them with realtors, whose mission would be to simply buy up the entire country one hectare at a time.
Neither of our proposed options proved to be popular with the President, who decided about that time that rather than continuing my responsibility for sea lift to Viet Nam, I would make a really terrific FCC commissioner.
If you can't play basketball on a football field, you certainly can't play basketball in the desert sand. The ineffectiveness, indeed the negative contribution, of our military efforts in the Middle East have much in common with our failures in Viet Nam.
Others have cited a range of categories of concerns about our Middle East military adventures -- as have I in "Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS? Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands," September 19, 2014; " Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III; Why Do We Accept Words Like 'Islam,' 'State,' and 'Caliphate'?" September 16, 2014; and "Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7; embedded in " Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" September 10, 2014. [The next day, September 24, the New York Times' editorial board outlined some of these categories as applied to Syria in Editorial, "Wrong Turn on Syria: No Convincing Plan," New York Times, September 24, 2014, p. A30.]
Some find our war effort unjustified by their standards, citing rules of war grounded in international law, religion, philosophy, morality and ethics. Others believe the military action is unauthorized under the letter and spirit of our Constitution and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. Frightening the American people into supporting the war on grounds we are under threat of imminent terrorist attack in the U.S. is challenged as, at minimum, unwarranted (e.g., Senator Lindsay Graham, "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home.") Our military actions are self-defeating insofar as they increase, rather than decrease, (a) the ability of ISIS to recruit additional terrorists from now some 74 countries, and (b) the likelihood of terrorist attacks within the United States. The list goes on and on, including in the three prior blog essays linked just above.
Tom Tomorrow, in his usually incisive way, illustrates some of the folly in our Iraq adventure in this week's "cartoon":
[Source: Tom Tomorrow, "Building Blocks of War," September 22, 2014, Tom Tomorrow, "This Modern World".]
There is a kind of disquieting irony in the last three quotations at the head of this blog essay: President Obama's pledge not to do "stupid stuff," followed by the Times report that our numerous air strikes over Iraq, coupled with the Iraqi military's ineffectiveness, have failed to restrict ISIS' hold on Iraq land; and then the news 24 hours later that the bombing strategy that failed in Iraq has now been extended to Syria. (And of course fighting a "war" against ISIS in Syria -- ISIS being the Syrian government's most effective enemy -- is infinitely more complex and futile than fighting them in Iraq.)
As the other opening quotations illustrate in a variety of contexts, there are some wars, as well as some games, that cannot be "won" -- the computer's conclusion from its analysis of nuclear war that "the only winning move is not to play;" the metaphor of a card game in which the players "can't win, break even, or get out of the game;" and Pete Seeger's image of a war in which we "push on," notwithstanding the fact it is getting progressively worse.
We are not winning our military action against ISIS. There is little prospect that we ever will. Even if we did, as with our "defeat" of al-Qaeda, the likelihood is that another, successor organization will only pop up as ISIS did in this ongoing game of "whack-a-mole." If we ever were to, for the third time, "declare victory and go home" ("Mission Accomplished"), the probability is overwhelming that the results will be similar if not identical to what happened the two prior times.
The "solution"? There is none. There is only the "least worst alternative." We shouldn't have attempted a military action that was not fully supported by our Joint Chiefs of Staff and doomed to failure in the first place. Any option that has "the Great Satan" (the U.S.) as the leading aggressor is highly unlikely to be successful. Perhaps we should slowly abandon overt, conventional military action, limiting our involvement to diplomacy, intelligence gathering, economic and trade sanctions, and trying to restrict ISIS' access to financial resources. I don't pretend to have "the solution."
My only position for now is that "unwinnable wars are stupid stuff."
Now here is a 4:05-minute video excerpt from the 1983 movie "War Games," in which the computer's conclusion is portrayed about 3:50 into the excerpt: