Vietnam is one autopsy too many

I'd never given it much thought, but it's startling to think that there are people who actually see war in economic terms:

...[A]s every undergraduate economics student knows, that strategy is a disaster. Hence the principle of "sunk cost." The fact that I've lost a pile on some enterprise or investment is no reason to lose an even bigger pile. The smart move, economically speaking, is to reassess your decisions on a regular basis. When an investment isn't working, get out. Put your money, your talents, and your energy to better use somewhere else.

All of which seems to apply to Iraq, in spades. A seemingly quick and easy military victory has turned sour. The costs, in blood and treasure, have escalated. Victory looks uncertain and distant. It seems the time has come, if not to cut and run, then surely to cut our losses. If ever the principle of sunk cost applied to warfare, it would seem to apply here.

But that instinct is wrong. Warfare is not like investment banking. At precisely the moment an economist might say to stop throwing good money after bad, a wise military strategist might say to double the bet.

Glenn Reynolds liked the piece (by Harvard professor William J. Stuntz) enough to link it twice, which means it's getting around and has probably been commented on with approval by so many bloggers that there's not much point in adding my two cents...

But here's my two cents anyway. (Common sense, I hope....)

War is far, far more serious than a business investment. Few things are as serious as war, which is on the level of defending your home, your life, the lives of your family and loved ones. In many cases it is exactly that. When your home or family or threatened, you do not think about cost. War involves risking everything, and therefore, everything must be risked.

I've always believed "limited war" is a dangerous oxymoron, yet it is one this country has not yet shed from its vocabulary. It does not matter how a war starts, once it is there it must be dealt with as an absolute commitment, and seen through to the end. To do less is a form of surrender.

"Cut and run" is often a sound business decision. If your stock is sick or a business is failing, there's no particular disgrace in getting out. I say this as someone who failed to bail out from a failing business, and lost nearly everything in the process, so it's a lesson I learned the hard way.

But bailing out in war is a disgrace. The very fact that we seemed to do that in Vietnam will always haunt this country, and as I argued not long ago, it would be a dire tragedy to allow that to happen again.

I think the medical model is better than the economic model. If a patient's body is overrun by cancer or other disease which would be fatal if left untreated, a physician has a responsibility to wage war against that disease with every tool in his medical arsenal. To do less would not only constitute medical malpractice, it would be morally atrocious. Imagine telling a patient's family that while there are treatments which would save his life, they're just too expensive to be considered cost-effective, so we ought to just let the patient try to fight the cancer or infection on his own.

Iraq may not be a family member in the truest sense, but I think the argument can be made that in many ways, Iraq is our patient, and we have at least as much moral responsibility to continue the effort to cure this patient from its malignancy as would any doctor with a cancer patient.

Unless, of course, we are prepared to say the malignancy has won. Far from being one of those cases where it's time to pronounce death along the lines of "the operation was a success but the patient died," there's no question that given enough time and troops, success is possible. In that respect I agree again with Professor Stuntz:

Between September and November of 2005, another 23,000 soldiers were deployed in Iraq; once again, both Iraqi and American casualties fell. In the early months of 2006, the number of soldiers fell again, and casualties spiraled up.

The picture is clear: More soldiers mean less violence, hence fewer casualties. The larger the manpower investment in the war, the smaller the war's cost, to Iraqis and Americans alike. Iraq is not an unwinnable war: Rather, as the data just cited show, it is a war we have chosen not to win. And the difference between success and failure is not 300,000 more soldiers, as some would have it. One-tenth that number would make a large difference, and has done so in the past. One-sixth would likely prove decisive.

If terrorists and mujahedeen can be likened to metastatic growths, would any doctor scale back treatments shown to be effective, if the cancer later spread when they were withdrawn?

I realize the medical model has its limitations. For starters, malignant metastases have no PR department to claim that the physician trying to remove them is actually spreading them and causing them to further metastasize.

But even if we assume that there were such malignant PR forces and they did make such a claim of malpractice, would that alter the moral duty of the physician to save the patient?

To carry the analogy further, assume the malpractice claim were found to be true. How would that give any newly appointed physician the moral right to let the disease have its way with the patient?

(What would be worse would be to have the living patient carted off for a premature autopsy in a politically biased morgue...)

MORE: "UH-OH," is Glenn Reynolds' reaction to this -- "a Vietnam-type cut-and-run plan that will leave the Gulf far more dangerous than it is now."

Makes me wish I could have voted early and often.

posted by Eric on 11.12.06 at 11:42 AM


The term "cut and run" is part of the problem in this debate. "Cut and run" implies a panicky and disorderly rout, like what happened at Dunquerque (or 'Dunkirk' if your're British.) British and French troops broke ranks, abandonded their weapons, and ran for their lives. No one in Congress is seriously advocating anything like that. They are talking about what is more accurately known as an "orderly withdrawal." In politics, the sound of words does matter.

Chocolatier   ·  November 12, 2006 1:02 PM

I'm more concerned with the effect of the withdrawal than its logistics. Obviously, it's better to withdraw in an orderly manner, but if the withdrawal is based on the principle of "cutting losses," I think that's poor strategy in war. (Assuming, of course, that the goal is seeing it through.)

Eric Scheie   ·  November 12, 2006 1:29 PM

"Seeing it through" to what? There is no military objective in this war, and armies are not good at acheiving political objectives like "nation building" or "spreading democracy throughout the region." Cutting losses is a poor strategy, but if there is no strategy that can result in winning, it is often the least bad option.

Chocolatier   ·  November 12, 2006 1:37 PM

I am on my second extended in Iraq, and as much as I dislike being away so much, I do see progress being made, even in the Anbar province. For us to withdraw now would make the situation here far worse.

SFC SKI   ·  November 12, 2006 1:59 PM

Clausewitz said that the key to success in any war is having a clearly defined and limited military objective before you begin, and stopping as soon as you have achieved it. Iraq is a war without a clearly defined military objective. Things may get better in Iraq, and I hope they do, but fighting a war without an objective is like running a race without a finish line.

Chocolatier   ·  November 12, 2006 2:22 PM

I don't think there's too much argument that the goal is defeating the enemy and stabilizing Iraq.

In May 2004, Bush stated it thusly:

Our coalition has a clear goal, understood by all -- to see the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations. America's task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy, it is to give strength to a friend - a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf. And the sooner this goal is achieved, the sooner our job will be done.
It might not be an easy goal, but I don't think there's been a failure to state it.
Eric Scheie   ·  November 12, 2006 2:48 PM

Yeah, that sure sounds like a goal, but there is a difference between an objective and a wish - and that is a plan for achieving your objective. What is the plan for 'defeating the enemy and stabilizing Iraq'? It seems like the plan is to wait until the warring factions in Iraq are exhausted or just plain tired of the bloodshed.

Also, Bush's goal above is political, not military. As I said before, armies are not good at "spreading democracy." Bush says his goal is "to see the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations." This is making democracy the goal of the war. Although he is a nasty SOB, no one questions that Saddam Hussein and his cronies were all Iraqis.

Chocolatier   ·  November 12, 2006 3:23 PM

What if the goals are stated and unstated? What if, the complexities of the new geo-political world don't make for nice soundbites and the reasons for taking down Saddam are not easily laid bare in a nifty slogan?

1)Saddam was thumbing his nose at the world, America and Israel in specific particulars.

2)He was shooting at the fly-by's, bribing the UN, stealing food, building an underground arsenal...all with help from the French, Russians and Germans. (forget the rape rooms and the woodchippers for a moment)

3)It is now clear that he...along with the other 2/3 of the Axis of Evil...had nuclear intentions. North Korea and Iran now show EVERYONE with a modicum of sense and an ounce of political integrity that it was at the time and is now...a ridiculous notion to even try to suggest that Saddam would have NOT been seeking nuclear capability.

4)No serious person suggests that we shouldn't have gone after Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Let's presume that we don't have any quality opposition to that axiom in our analysis.

5)So, we play offense in Afghanistan...and defense in Iraq. Don't give the bastards a place to recoup and set up camp elsewhere.

Saddam is wildly unpopular, a brutal dictator, a murderer of epic proportions AND the leader of the MOST likely place where...IF WE LET THEM...Al-Qaeda would have been given safe haven. Forget the nonsense that Saddam and Bin Laden were at odds. That's a ridiculous notion...because they easily would have made fast friends when each had an "itch" that could be scratched by the other.

6)Instead of sitting back and waiting to watch and SEE where they reappeared...we kept them on the run with no place to land, settle in...and become STATE SPONSORED again...which is when they are most dangerous.

7)This places us on Iran's doorstep...also a huge tactical and pyschological advantage. (which is why Iran exports almost ALL of the effective terrorism...both in Iraq and in Lebanon)

8)We keep them fighting THERE...occupied primarily with disrupting Iraq from establishing a foothold for democracy and, of course...staying alive, hidden and undetected... (Iran has seen firsthand how strong that footprint can be, when their own people get a taste of freedom via democratic or semi-democratic process)

9)We choke off their financial resources, keep then from becoming STATE SPONSORED...and therefore "legitimized" and harder to get at.

10)We build Iraq as fast and as strong as we can...teaching them security and scraping off the rust of the dictatorship. Iran imports chaos as much and as hard as it weaken our resolve...and to try to build antagonism toward us. It's a race to the finish line...but Iraq has an ally. Our leftists and our leftist media. BOTH seek to weaken our resolve.

11)Militarily we have to keep Iraq as the Maginot line, fight off the Iranian imported APPEARANCE of dissatisfaction and chaos, teach Iraq how to become secure and deal with running a free society and fighting the enemies of the free market, all the while giving the "feel" of being simply on "defense".

Let's face it...we do offense much better than we do defense. When you play defense...the leftists will jump on you EVERY time the other guy gets you...AND whenever you retaliate. They count OUR deaths with partial glee..."I told you so"...and THEIR deaths are always "needless" and "civilians" matter what they have strapped to their chests...and even less reported...that they and/or their orders originated in Iran.

No war ANYWHERE has ever been fought under these circumstances. Islamofascists want the world to bend to their will. There is no Al-Qaedaland that we can neatly declare war upon...and grind into hummus. Iraq was a nest of scheming bastards...some who were pretending to be our allies. It was and is as important a war as this nation has ever fought. And slapping down the vile intentions of the Islamofascists is every bit as important as it was to slap down the vile intentions of the Social Democrats.

The leftists opposed us then...they oppose us now. The appeasers/isolationists on the right opposed us then, they oppose us now.

The left has learned (other than John Kerry and the Kos Kidz) to not hurl insults and slander and feces DIRECTLY at the troops. They "support" them...they say...that is...until they actually have to DO something.

And what they have to this simply fight off the Iranian induced "chaos" until the Iraqi's take a strong foothold themselves on protecting their own sweet freedoms. It's not a pretty looking playbook...but it's the only one we've got...because that's the way the world is set up right now.

cfbleachers   ·  November 12, 2006 5:39 PM

We didn't get into this war to stop an unmitigated evil (or else we'd go around invading many, many other countries). Our reasons weren't deontological, they were consequentialist. Given that, it'd be incoherent not to think of the costs involved.

jpe   ·  November 12, 2006 10:13 PM

The goals, so far, have been fairly simple :

Find and remove as many remaining chemical weapons from pre-1991 as possible. (In Progress, >600 at current count)
Find and remove reported uranium/yellowcake/enriched uranium (Presumed Complete, enough material found to create four dozen Hiroshima-sized booms)
Find and remove all "Project Babylon" tech and notes. (Presumed Completed)
Restore communications, electrical, footwork, and waterworks infrastructure to base life conditions. (In Progress/Complete?)
Confront and defeat as many insurgent attacks as possible until the Iraqi Self-Defense Force is capable of taking up position. (In Progress, the map of this has been posted in several right-wing blogs)

It's not a great goal, and unlike the mythical Democrat plan, it's not going to turn Iraq into a paradise with a bright flash of light and pretty colors, but it seems fairly reachable, even simple.

gattsuru   ·  November 12, 2006 10:48 PM

Why is Iraq compared to Vietnam. Vietnam had
over 60,000 casulties.
US casulties in Iraq per year hardly equal the toll on US highways for a week, but no-one is willing to do anything about highway safety. Most casulties don't even make back pages.
TV reporters report Iraq bad news instantly, incessantly and repeat ad nausium until the next piece of sensationalism is created.
Some reality in all things please.

Hugh   ·  November 13, 2006 7:50 AM

The deaths aren't too high, but the costs ($) are enormous, and no one was prepared for either the human cost or the financial cost. This was sold as a cakewalk, and it has turned out to be considerably more difficult and inextricable.

jpe   ·  November 13, 2006 10:14 AM

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