Skip to comments.Peggy Noonan: Will America crumple at the sight of its own blood?
Posted on 03/25/2003 3:11:34 PM PST by Pokey78
It is a great unanswered question of the war and one we Americans dont want answered. How much will America be willing to suffer? What kind of losses will America accept and absorb, if it comes to that?
It is on our minds, more so since the war has turned hard, but its not what Americans are discussing. The war has just begun; you dont go on to the field at Gettysburg chattering about likely losses and the impact back home. You go in committed to the fight and confident of victory. To speak of possible high losses seems fear-mongering, alarmist, lacking in faith. No one in the United States has said the word bodybags since before the fighting began.
The world has for some time assumed that America cannot, or will not, accept widespread casualties if the fight proves brutal and bloody. President Saddam Hussein obviously thinks that with enough difficulties and enough deaths America will fold, as it did in Somalia and Lebanon, and retreat. And of course there was Vietnam.
The international assumption is that Vietnam showed that modern America is incapable of accepting heavy battlefield losses, no matter how just or legitimate the conflict. But this cliché demands examination. For ten years of the Vietnam War, from 1964 to 1974, America showed it could take bodybags every day. Fifty thousand of them in all. I remember each Friday night on local TV they would show the high school photos of the New York area boys who died that week. They all had short hair, high cheekbones and big smiles, and it gave you a feeling of emptiness and disorder to see their pictures roll across the screen.
America did turn against the war and its ravages, but the reason was not only those pictures. Americas political leadership was badly split, and even those who championed the wars prosecution spent its last years in desperate pursuit of a negotiated way out. One by one Americas parents decided that they werent going to let their son become the last American to die for an inadequate political settlement.
Bodybags were only part of the story. A lack of confidence in our leaders and growing ambivalence about the justice of our position were the other parts.
After Vietnam the American military establishment began to press for new preconditions of war. They would insist that political backing for any military action be real, clear and sustainable; that military planning include exit strategies in case of insupportable disaster; and that America go into any conflict with full and ferocious force. Thus the heavy bombing, the highly technologised fighting force, the highly trained specialists that we see on the news every night. (There is some debate about whether the initial US onslaught was full and ferocious enough. But after six days our troops are closing on Baghdad, which suggests the first moves were neither weak nor wet.)
The idea was that if you go in with overwhelming force, victory will beat the bodybags home. All of which is understandable as strategy; but it has also tended to support the assumption that Americans cant take battlefield losses; that theyve grown soft and unused to suffering; that ultimately they dont want to pay a price.
What is the truth? The truth is no one knows. Those in the US Administration do not know. They cant go to a mall and ask: By the way, would a thousand deaths be all right with you? Would five thousand? When Paul Wolfowitz was pushed by The New York Times, the Deputy Defence Secretary, a prime and early supporter of an invasion, said: In the end, it has to come down to a careful weighing of things we cant know with precision, the costs of action versus the costs of inaction, the costs of inaction now versus the costs of inaction later.
The American people themselves are not sure exactly what as a nation they would be willing to sustain and accept. How could they be? It will be a day-by-day decision. And different parts of the country will likely offer different answers on different timetables. If you asked the question, What kind of losses can America accept? down South, where Americans are both sweeter and tougher, the answer might likely be, Well its a war, and war is hell, and in war you gotta do whats needed to be done. That would probably be the consistent response from George Bushs Republican base: we can take a lot to do whats right. And those last four words to do whats right are the key to the answer.
The novelist Tom Clancy, a great respecter of the military and appreciator of Americans, told me: The American people are the same people they were in 1942. We can take losses, he said, we are just as tough as ever. But there has to be a good reason. The people will accept whats necessary but not what isnt. Meaning the American people will suffer through and accept if they believe the war is needed and Americas position is right.
It may be that America will find out how high a price it is willing to pay to oust Saddam and pacify Iraq. Hopes for an end to war that comes sooner rather than later and with minimal loss rather than maximum continue, and with good reason. But it may be turning tough indeed, and the words Bloody Baghdad may be about to become famous.
My own hunch is that Americans are more patient, persevering and accepting of pain than we know. We found that out on 9/11, and we may be about to find it out again. But Americans are practical. They all know how to do a cost-benefit analysis. They will be patient, persevering and willing to absorb pain as long as they feel they can win and are winning. They will accept bodybags as part of the price of victory, but not for a second will they accept them if they start to see evidence of defeat.
The author is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal
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9 out of ten Americans are for the most part a bunch of spoiled suburban toy poodles. Having the "right stuff" is not "Hoorahing" to have others go die for you because your politicians sit around getting bright ideas.
Rule of war #1 - Never try to predict a damn thing. Be ready for anything, anytime.
Clinton is the one who lost his nerve after the "BlackHawk Down" battle in Somalia. He could not risk declining poll numbers caused by soldiers returning home in bodybags.By pulling out he made the deaths of our soldiers meaningless. What a creep.
Our? Who's "our"? I'm assuming you have several family members on the front line.
God bless them and keep them safe.
No need really as they will surely be replaced come '04.