Entry from December 8, 2015

Everybody noticed the conspicuous presence of one word in President Obama’s address to the nation on  Sunday — in fact, it was almost the only thing about it that was worth noticing. But besides that word, "terrorism," there was another word that you have rarely heard the President utter, at least in the context of foreign wars: "victory." Even more remarkable was the fact that he used it not to describe the hopeful result of what he was proposing to do against the Islamic State but about what he was doing already: "The strategy that we are using now," he said, " — air strikes, special forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country — that is how we’ll achieve a more sustainable victory, and it won't require us sending a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil."

In what sense can you have a victory in a war you’re promising not to fight? The word "victory," in case you hadn’t noticed, has long been in eclipse in the realm of military strategy where it originated. Ever since General Douglas MacArthur, after his dismissal by Harry Truman from the command of U.N. forces in Korea in 1951, appealed to the public with the maxim that "in war, there is no substitute for victory," there has been something faintly scandalous about the idea of victory in war. Now our managerially oriented generals talk instead about "exit strategies" from quasi-imperial wars that would otherwise have no end, let alone a victorious one. That’s why it was so shocking to some on the left when Ronald Reagan said: "Here's my strategy on the Cold War. We win, they lose."

Historically, President Obama doesn’t even bother with exit strategies. He simply declares that a war is over when he feels like it and expects it to stay over, obedient to his command. When, as in Iraq, it stubbornly persists in not being over, he just ignores it, when possible, and makes symbolic gestures of good intentions when not. So often, indeed, had he made a point of boasting about having ended the Iraq war, begun under his predecessor, and having killed Osama bin Laden that it must have struck a jarring note to many when he said last night that "Our nation has been at war with terrorists since Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11."

How can that be? Elsewhere in the speech he seemed to be speaking as if war could still be avoided. We mustn’t send combat troops to Syria or Iraq, he said, since "That’s what groups like ISIL want. They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield." Wait a minute. ISIL wants us to send in ground forces because they know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield? Something doesn’t add up here. Perhaps what he really meant is that it’s not what ISIL wants but what his political opponents want — but that it is not necessary because ISIL already knows that it cannot defeat us on the battlefield, so we don’t have to prove it to them. That would echo Bill Clinton’s stunningly obtuse riposte to those who accused him of weakness in opposing the country’s enemies: "Can we kill ‘em tomorrow? ‘Cause if we can kill ‘em tomorrow, then we’re not weak, and we might be wise enough to try to find an alternative way."

At any rate, that’s the only way I can make sense of what Mr Obama had to say. He then went on to say that "We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want." But if the fight is already on-going, what does it matter what ISIL want? In any war, one side, the aggressor, always wants a fight more than the other, but once both sides are engaged that becomes an irrelevant consideration. We can’t be guided by what the other side wants any more than by what we want. War doesn’t care what anybody wants, only what each side is able to do against the other. Mr Obama was simply begging the question by appealing to his own relative reluctance to fight as a reason for not fighting.

In other words, he had no interest in the logic of war because he is, in spite of his words elsewhere in the speech, continuing to deny that we are at war and have been for over a decade. To him it’s always 2009, and we are, regardless of changing international circumstances, eternally on the brink of an unnecessary war, thanks to reckless and belligerent members of the other party. By the same token he is eternally required to restrain these hotheads from "sending a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil." Victory as he understands it, can only be over those who oppose his paramount purpose of avoiding war at all costs.

This bizarre fancy did not arise out of nowhere. Way back in 1995, Tom Engelhardt produced a book called The End of Victory Culture which did much to turn left-wing thinking toward the pacifism that has characterized it in the two decades since. For him, the Cold War too was an unnecessary war against an imaginary enemy, cooked up by America’s political leaders who emerged from World War II unable to contemplate our engagement with the world in the absence of some existential threat to our existence. World War II itself is now remembered as an American victory because "Triumphalism was in the American grain." Obviously, if you believe that the two greatest American struggles of the 20th century were basically just matters of myth-making "narratives," then you are going to find it easy to believe something similar about any other war or potential enemy — even long after it has ceased to be potential and started killing Americans. If victory is an illusion, then war itself is an illusion, and that is what Mr Obama, echoing Tom Englehardt, appears to have been saying on Sunday.

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