Michael Wolff

A nation wobbles

Americans are growing tired of the Iraq war, says Michael Wolff. In his speech this week the President was making a desperate appeal to his people

Text settings

The New York Times publishes a daily box score with the latest list of the soldiers killed in Iraq under the rubric ‘Names of the Dead’. For instance:

KAUFMAN, Charles A., 20, Specialist, Army National Guard; Fairchild, Wis.; First Battalion, 128th Infantry.

MUY, Veashna, 20, Pfc., Marines; Los Angeles; Second Marine Division.

POWELL, Chad W., 22, Cpl., Marines; West Monroe, La., Second Marine Division.

VALDEZ, Ramona M., 20, Cpl., Marines; the Bronx, N.Y.; Second Marine Division.

Kaufman, Muy, Powell and Valdez, whose deaths the New York Times noted on 28 June, were the 1,727th, 1,728th, 1,729th and 1,730th American soldiers killed in the Iraq war.

So, 1,602 soldiers have been killed over and above the 128 who lost their lives during the invasion itself and whose deaths were recorded in the New York Times on 20 May 2003 under the rubric ‘A Nation at War’. Still, 1,730 with a total deployment of 138,000 troops is little more than 1 per cent, which might yet be tolerable. Total losses in Vietnam, after all, reached about 10 per cent of deployment (though the anti-war movement was at its peak in 1968, when losses were running at about 3 per cent of deployment).

If the present cumulative kill rate in Iraq is maintained over, say, the same nine-year time frame that US troops fought in Vietnam, we would lose fewer than 7,000 soldiers. But it is unlikely that the present rate will remain the same: either it will fall because our strategy is working — as it appeared to be doing for a time early this year — or it will rise because the strategy isn’t working and the insurgency becomes more proficient, as now appears to be the case.

Furthermore, the death rate doesn’t have to rise by much for the numbers to become dramatically more menacing. From the beginning of the war, we have cumulatively averaged two American soldiers killed every day. Recently, however, that has risen to an average of three a day. At present troop strength, we reach Vietnam-level kill rates — 10 per cent of troops deployed — with the deaths of just over four soldiers a day.

Declining kill rates spell success, and help foster a level of public tolerance, even of optimism, allowing the administration to stay longer in Iraq (for years, possibly) as it slowly reduces its troop count, or establishes a permanent presence. Rising kill rates, on the other hand, spell failure, since they will almost certainly encourage a loss of support for the war not only in the population as a whole but in the Republican party, too.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican with presidential dreams, was saying last week, ‘The White House is completely disconnected from reality. It’s like they’re making it up as they go along. The reality is that we’re losing in Iraq.’ Senator Mel Martinez, a former Bush cabinet member, was openly speculating that Guantanamo might have to be shut down. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales, who is substantially at odds with the White House position, was suddenly proclaiming that all options on the Gitmo issue were open.

Before a Senate committee, meanwhile, General John P. Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East, was dismissing Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’. The insurgency, said Abizaid, was undiminished and, indeed, the number of foreign fighters coming into Iraq was growing. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who, up to now, has insisted on the effectiveness of the US military against the insurgents, was suddenly explaining that ‘insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, ten, twelve years’.

For his part, Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., commanding general of the multi-national force in Iraq, was confirming that American and Iraqi officials had begun meetings with Sunni leaders. And while the Secretary of Defense denied that these were insurgency leaders, he added, ‘we’re not quite there yet’ — seeming to suggest that we might be soon enough.

All in all, after more than two years of combat and any number of cycles of triumphalism followed by dismal comeuppance, you’d have to be a cockeyed nitwit not to realise that the Iraq war might not end happily. People are now talking of a new Tet moment. During the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Vietcong, who were said to be demoralised and on the run, were suddenly storming the doors of the American embassy (and on television). In Iraq the insurgents, with their supposedly poor leadership and declining support, are suddenly upping their kill rate, with attacks of terrible ferocity and obvious strategic smarts.

The Iraq election — that high moment of triumphalism — now seems not to have done the administration any favours. At the time, however, it seemed to be a vindication of Bush’s policies. Even liberals were getting on board. Kurt Andersen, a soft-middle-liberal Manhattan voice, argued in a column in February for New York magazine that liberals had to come to grips with the fact that ‘Bush, despite his annoying manner and his administration’s awful hubris and dissembling and incompetence concerning Iraq, just might — might, possibly — have been correct to invade, to occupy, and to try to enable a democratically elected government in Iraq.’

Yet the election, rather than defining the strength of the quiescent population, defined the size of the insurgency. While 70 per cent was a grand turnout, it soon became clear that the 30 per cent unified Sunni population that did not vote were supporting an insurgency against both the occupiers and the rest of the nation. It was a civil war as well as an insurgency.

What’s more, the election produced legislators who turned out to be no help at all. The current US strategy — we put together a working government and then get the hell out — depends on these would-be parliamentarians performing in a minimally acceptable professional manner. But they are simply not getting on with the job. In some sense, this is even more problematic than the war itself — there aren’t too many Republicans who are going to have unlimited patience with recalcitrant Iraqi politicians. Whom do they think they work for?

More than any other war in the history of the nation, this is one man’s war. The association is absolute: it’s Bush’s war. But now, as we start to come to the end of the Bush years, the unavoidable question is: who else wants it? Not that many, it seems. After all, it requires signing on to all that Bush family meshugas, and all those neocon intellectual contortions, not to mention all that Bush jut-jawed toughguyness. Indeed, it’s quite impossible to see this war without Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney and Rove and the rest. Once they’re gone, the imperative, indeed the very nature, of the war is gone.

And, in fact, the political reality is that they’ll be gone before they have actually left office. That’s the inescapable second-term curse. Everybody’s career is beginning to shift. Your best people have one foot out the door, or have already left. People who have supported you, because you have supported them, are suddenly a lot more iffy. You simply aren’t the man you were. Indeed, you’re a sinking ship. In a second term, fighting a war — a long-running, expensive, bloody, never particularly popular, largely unsuccessful war — looks almost impossible.

There is another unsettling aspect of a second term. A second term demands a denouement — and it’s almost always operatic. Impeachment for Clinton. Iran-contra for Reagan. Watergate for Nixon. Partly this happens — can happen — because politically you become weak and your enemi es get stronger. But it also happens because so much media attention has been focused on you for so long that there is an inevitable push to wrap the story up, to drive it to its most dramatic climax. Then, too, the media, having let a president (especially this one) get away with so much while he was gaining power, invariably take it back while he’s losing it. And to make matters worse, the president invariably digs in — and for this stubbornness and churlishness and insensitivity he’ll be punished.

It’s starting. The President’s speech on Tuesday defending the war had hints of that mystical and delusional view that necessarily begins when you’ve bet the farm. The President’s ‘clear path forward’ had a cadence and desperation disconcertingly similar to Lyndon Johnson’s ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.

Most insistently, the President’s address to his wobbly nation was about the moral imperative. Beyond cost or method, we are doing this because it has to be done. These insurgents are ‘followers of the same ideology’ as those who attacked us. If we don’t fight them there, we’ll be fighting them on our shores. ‘Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it....’ There was an unmistakable plaintiveness. That’s why he was here — desperately trying to hold on to the crowd. Was there a hint of tears in his eyes? Some Johnson-style self-pity welling up?

But back to the numbers. Has there ever been a failing business or a flagging war where they didn’t try to fudge the numbers to come up with a better story? Although the President said on Tuesday that he had no plans to send more troops to Iraq, someone in the Pentagon is certainly calculating the effect on kill rates if troop levels are increased, likewise if troop levels are reduced, likewise if more civilians are used (these last are off-balance-sheet kills). Of course, the better spreadsheet projection concerns the speedy deployment of better-trained Iraqi troops and police. This, assuredly, has been worked out in great and variable detail: the effectiveness of Iraqi troops, measured by such and such a formula, reduces the kill rate of US troops by such and such a factor. Two days before the New York Times announced the deaths of Specialist Kaufman, Pfc. Muy and Cpls Powell and Valdez, it ran a story about the Pentagon’s new confidence that the Iraqi troops would not necessarily cut and run.

It’s just that these gambits and projections and little fictions and recast assumptions are so much harder to maintain and argue and sell — especially as those great salesmen in the White House begin more and more to consider their retirement — than it apparently is for the insurgents (whoever they are) to roll out every day and up the kill rate by one or two more.

Michael Wolff is a columnist for Vanity Fair. He covered the invasion of Iraq from Centcom headquarters in the Persian Gulf.