Works and Days:
Most genres don’t require footnotes—the memoir, the essay, the journalistic dispatch. I’ve written histories that had too many footnotes—The Other Greeks had citations to ancient sources in the text, explanations with asterisks at the bottom of the page, and formal endnotes at the back of the book—and memoirs like Fields Without Dreams and Mexifornia with no citations.
But when you write history, and especially history of a contentious nature about Iraq, in which so much is at stake, it is incumbent to identify primary sources. The last three books about the supposed mess in Iraq—Cobra II, Fiasco, and now State of Denial—violate every canon of intellectual courtesy. Check who said what in Cobra II and you find the following: “Interview, former senior military officer”, “Interview, former senior officer”, “Interview, former Centcom planner,” Interview, Pentagon Officials,” “Interview, U.S. State Department Official,” or “notes of a participant.”
When the readers encounter the most controversial and damning of verbatim quotes in Fiasco, they are presented with “said a Bush administration official” or “recalled one officer.” Woodward is ever more derelict, in imagining not just the conversations, but even the thoughts of characters. And lest one think I am unduly critical in questioning the veracity of these unnamed sources—whose authenticity can never be checked by anyone other than the journalists who now write out popular histories—examine the recent record of journalists at the New York Times and Washington Post, and more recent stories such as the Koran flushing at Guantanamo or the photshopped pictures from Lebanon. But even more specifically, Ricks himself in the course of promoting Fiasco, repeated rumors from unidentified (“some”) sources that the Israelis deliberately exposed their civilians to rocket attacks from Lebanon to gain sympathy from the world community: “According to some U.S. military analysts … Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they’re being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.” He was immediately called to substantiate those unproven charges. After considerable damage done to the reputation of the Israeli Dense Force had been done, Ricks backed down and apologized for his unsupported allegations with a weak mea culpa about his revelations “Ugh. I wish I hadn’t.”
Every source in Cobra II, Fiasco, or State of Denial, may be accurate, but we will never know that, because for a variety of reasons the authors who claim they worked from notes and recordings, chose not to identify the most inflammatory sources by name. It would be as if I wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War and, to support my most controversial points, added footnotes that stated “A manuscript in the Vatican,” or “Private letter to author from anonymous Greek shepherd attesting a stone altar in his field”
Finally, note the silence from the numerous critics of the “Path to 9/11” who objected to the film’s adaptation of the 9/11 report. But that docu-drama clearly identified itself as a fictionalized rendition of a document, and made no claims as history. In contrast, this new genre of journalistic exposé purports to give us the real story of Iraq, but denies us the very tools of determining whether what we are reading is true, half-true, or simply made up.
Everything that needs to be said about Iraq has. Long gone is any surprise that most current critics of the war were its one-time boosters, much less that it matters much.
Still, a book will be written about the public fickleness of prominent columnists, pundits, politicians, and TV talking heads and hosts, who now damn our efforts, but once were gung-ho in their support of removing Saddam—and crowed as much when the statue fell.
My rule of thumb is that almost every current, know-it-all critic, whether a Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Chris Matthews (“we are all neo-cons now”), Francis Fukuyama, etc., at one time or another voiced support for removing Saddam and bringing war to Iraq.
One constant in their various escape hatches is that a particular lapse, a certain mistake alone explains their abandonment of earlier zeal—too few troops, disbanding the Iraqi army, not trisecting the country, the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld, etc.
In contrast, the simple truth is too bitter to confess: their support follows the pulse of the battlefield. When the statue fell and approval for the war hovered near 80%, few wanted to be on the wrong side of history. But fast forward three years plus: after well over 2,000 battle deaths, and chaos in Iraq, most not only don’t wish to be associated with the stasis, but contort to assure that they never supported the war in the beginning (hard to do with footprints on the internet), or were supposedly betrayed by the incompetence of others.
I admit to being somewhat jaded: 80% of most people have no ideology or widely-held views, but simply reflect perceptions of failure or success. Those who praised Lincoln to the skies when Sherman reached Savannah in December 1864, just months earlier had hated him during the awful prior summer. Those who later sang Churchill’s praises after El Alamein and Normandy Beach surely did not earlier after the string of disasters at Dunkirk, Singapore, and Tobruk. Those who wrote in praise of massive B-17 raids deep into Germany in early 1945, escorted by hundreds of lethal P-51 Mustangs, had written off daylight unescorted bombing in 1942 as an aerial holocaust. The point, again, is that in the middle of a war, savvy is apparently defined as changing positions and views to keep pace with the upside-downside battlefield, rather than looking at the long-term conduct of the war.
My own views remain the same. While I didn’t support removing Saddam prior to September 11, I am glad we did afterwards. While there were plenty of errors committed—no American should ever have appeared on Iraqi television; Tommy Franks should not have abruptly abandoned the theater; instant ad-hoc solutions were preferable to long-term utopian efforts at perfection—none of these lapses were as serious as those in the past in the hedgerows, in the skies above Germany in 1942, on Iwo Jima, or during the days before the Bulge, and none cannot be corrected and learned from.
Iraq is 7,000 miles away, in the heart of the ancient caliphate, surrounded by a hostile Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shiite Iran, and treacherous Jordan and Syria. The war was conducted through three national elections, and became the focus of a hostile global media — much of it predisposed to be critical of the US government and military.
Nevertheless, that we now have a consensual government fighting for its life against terrorists is nothing short of remarkable. Everything and everyone now hinge on the outcome.
The safety of millions of brave Iraqi reformers, the prestige of the United States and its military, the policy of fostering democratic reform in the Middle East, the end to the nexus between failed autocracies and scapegoating the West through terrorists; success of the Bush Administration; the effectiveness of the Democratic opposition; the divide between Europe and America; the attitude toward the United States of the Middle East autocracies; the reputation of the Islamic terrorists — all that will be adjudicated by the verdict in Iraq. Rarely have so many ideologies, so much politics, so many reputations been predicated on just a few thousand American combat soldiers and their Iraq allies.
I also confess, at this point I have a very reductionist, very Jacksonian view now of Americans in Iraq: America went in for the right purposes, conducted itself with honor and humanity, was still good when it was not perfect; and can leave something far better than what it found—if it will make the necessary adjustments, as in all of its past wars, and persevere. 130,000 took us at our word and are in harm’s way as a result. So I don’t care much to refight the argument over who was smart and who stupid—only how best to support out troops and ensure they win at the least possible cost.
A final note. At some point all these retired generals need to simply quiet down and think. In World War II, Nimitz or Eisenhower never blamed the Secretary of War or FDR for the mistakes on Iwo Jima or the Kasserine Pass. Instead, they called in their top brass, drew up a plan, followed it, and then presented a successful fait accompli to their civilian overseers. In other words, our four-stars need to summon their colonels and majors in the field, draw up a military strategy that ensures our political aims of seeing a stable consensual Iraq, and then win. Blaming Bush, or faulting Rumsfeld is a waste of time; figuring out as military officers how to achieve victory over a canny enemy is all that matters."