How Will We Know What Victory Looks Like In Iraq?
By Neil Steinberg
Friday 11 July 2003
CNN just flashed the tally, backed by a jarring shade of orange: 217 U.S. soldiers killed so far in Iraq. For some reason, they broke that figure down into soldiers killed through hostile action and those killed in accidents; surprisingly, the ratio is about 2-1. But my guess is, for the families of the dead, it's a meaningless distinction. They're all equally dead, all 217. I couldn't help flashing back to Walter Cronkite. The CBS Evening News was a ritual in our house. My dad was devoted to Uncle Walter, and woe to any of us who spoke while he was delivering the news.
At some point--in my memory it was every day--the tally went up over Walter Cronkite's shoulder. Three flags: American, North and South Vietnamese. Next to each flag, the number of soldiers from that nation killed that day.
It was like a score, a football score, and underlying it was an unspoken fallacy grounded in the mentality of sports--that if we got more of their guys than they got of ours, if we scored more, then we were somehow winning.''
That was not true because the North Vietnamese were not going to give up just because they were suffering grievous casualties. They were going to dig in, take their losses, and fight, year in and year out. It was we, after a dozen years and 50,000 lives, who would give up and go home, sadder and wiser.
Iraq is not Vietnam. Not yet, anyway. Having purged our attitudes, finally, of the taint of Vietnam by the joint success of the Gulf War and Afghanistan, we went into Iraq, it seems to me, more with images from World War II in mind. We would liberate a nation from its tyrant, as with Germany. They would be grateful, eventually, and renounce their past evils, as with Germany. We would hang around for a couple of years, doing good, rebuilding a shattered nation, establishing a democratic government, as with Germany. Then depart with a friendly backward wave at our newly minted pals, the Iraqis.
But that isn't what seems to be happening. Americans are facing organized opposition and being killed more than two months after the war's supposed end. This isn't in the script. The Germans sure weren't conducting low-level resistance (at least I think they weren't. That's one of those things you don't know about until you're walking through Brent Books and pick up a volume with a title like, For the Fatherland: Nazi Resistance Against the Allies, 1945-52. But I've never heard of any).
The Germans didn't resist occupation because Hitler was dead and the gig was up. That Saddam Hussein may or may not be dead changes everything. And while it is premature to declare Iraq a quagmire--the war only ended May1--it is not premature to start wondering under what circumstances we are going to get the heck out of there.
What if we never find the guy? It seems to me, no matter what kind of coalition government we set up, no matter how well-wrought the new constitution, it won't mean diddle if Saddam or his sons are still alive. What will the point have been, say three years from now, with another thousand troops killed, two and three at a time, if we pat the provisional government on the head, conduct a little ceremony and bug out, only to have a pistachio vendor in downtown Baghdad stand up and pull off his headscarf to reveal Saddam Hussein, a little older, his mustache a little grayer, but still there and mad as hell.
Sure, one likes to imagine that, at that point, our New Iraq would simply arrest Saddam and turn him over to The Hague for trial. But nobody believes that would happen. Iraqis are afraid and rightly so after 23years of terror. We were naive to expect that the former henchmen, Baath party bad guys and other assorted thugs would go through some kind of magic conversion, like the guards of the Wicked Witch of the West after she was melted in a bucket of water all kneeling at Dorothy's feet in "The Wizard of Oz.''
I was all for going into Iraq, not so much because of Weapons of Mass Destruction (how many garage bands must have that name by now?), but on general principles. I think it was healthy to kick some Middle Eastern tyrant butt, as a lesson to all the others. Nor do I think we should simply turn around and go yelping home, merely because our soldiers are being harassed on a daily basis.
But I sure would like to know what victory will look like, so we can recognize it when it comes. I thought rolling into Baghdad meant victory. Obviously that wasn't it, because we're still there, and soldiers are still dying.
Tommy Franks says that the United States might have to be in Iraq for another four years. That sounds like a long time, and I'm not sure what is supposed to happen at the end of that four years.
Victory shouldn't mean finding Saddam Hussein, because we might not find him, and that would turn into a recipe for staying there forever, which nobody wants.
Through it all, I keep seeing Saddam Hussein, sitting on a crate in front of his little brazier, roasting pistachios, a henchman or two lounging discreetly nearby. The sun is high and hot. He is in no rush. He barely looks up, handing a little bag of hot nuts to a passerby, accepting a couple of coins. He knows his big day of return is coming.