The Logic and Language of the Iraq War

“‘War is the continuation of political activity by other means,’ the Great Prussian strategies Carl von Clausewitz wrote over a century and a half ago. His famous dictum, so disarmingly simple and straightforward, is mimicked constantly in discussions about the role of military force in accomplishing the goals of groups or states. Despite its obvious truth and power, it is a statement shallowly comprehended and constantly forgotten.” Dennis Drew and I wrote those words to begin the 2000 edition of our joint collaboration From Lexington to Desert Storm and Beyond (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe), and the statement remains equally true as we ask questions about the outcome of the Iraq War.

The campaign of Republican John McCain has brought into stark relief the question of what constitutes the purpose of the American military action in Iraq. Senator McCain talks about the necessity of something he calls victory, but what does he mean by that assertion? How exactly can we tell when (or if) we have achieved success sufficient in extent to constitute victory? What will the battlefield look like? What will the political situation in Iraq be like? If we are to stay in Iraq until victory is achieved, when will we know we can come home?

Senator McCain’s pronouncements on the subject have not been entirely helpful in answering these questions. Although one can debate the veracity of his claims, he is much more explicit about the consequences of not winning, which he sometimes conflates with losing. Thus, the United States, he argues, cannot abandon Iraq prematurely because the results would be disastrous: Iraq would likely spin into violence and chaos, the terrorists (presumably Al Qaeda in Iraq) would proclaim victory over the United States, and worst of all, they would even pursue retreating American forces back to U.S, soil to carry out terrorist attacks that continued American vigilance in Iraq would presumably prevent. Defeat, he thus argues, is unacceptable.

These evocations are very vivid and colorful, but they do not speak to what the victory he extols would look like. Clausewitz can be helpful here. The major import of the Prussian dictum is that war is a political act, and that the use of military violence is one way for a state to achieve its political objectives (in the historical American mind, force as a last resort when all other methods fail, a rejoinder not clearly followed in Iraq). Clausewitz drew the distinction between the logic and language of war. The logic of war referred to the reasons for going to war and is expressed in the achievement of the political objectives (generally speaking, political conditions or policies the opponent would be forced to accept). By this measure, war is won when its logic prevails: when the enemy either accepts or is compelled to accept the reasons for which war against it was waged in the first place. As discussed at length in What After Iraq? these objectives have various been publicly described as ridding Iraq of WMD and terrorism and instituting political democracy to unexpressed goals like controlling Iraqi oil. The language of war refers to the military actions taken to contribute to achieving the political objectives. The key notion here is the contributory nature of military action: military success (sometimes confused with victory per se) can contribute to victory by facilitating achievement of the political goals. The language of war does not, however, substitute for the logic.

When Senator McCain talks about victory (including the negative statement of avoiding defeat), he seems to concentrate on actions related to the language of war. How can we know that we are moving toward victory, for instance? The answer is that the surge is working. But the surge is an expression of the language, not the logic, of war. It is not enough to say that the United States is enjoying some success in moving toward conditions where it may be possible to advance the political agenda toward some conditions that might constitute achievement of the logic of the war. First, one has to specify where the logic leads. Until that is done, the assertion of progress must be met with the question, “progress toward what?” Your answer, Senator?

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