Tuesday, March 06, 2007

No one wins a war.

According to USA Today, “only 28% say the United States will probably or definitely win the war, down from 35% in December and the lowest since the question was first asked in September 2005.”

Now think about the concept of winning a war. What does it mean to win a war?

Most people have a very limited definition. To them it means to have the other side give up, it means military conquest. But is that winning? Is that enough? Can a war be won?

Consider the war everyone uses to justify war: World War II. There was a demonstrably bad guy in Germany doing bad things. Various nations went to war with him and in the end he was dead. “We win!”.

The British empire collapsed as a result. Now whether you think that good or bad (I think it good) is not important. The war was bad for the British empire, it ended it. London was bombed. Millions lost their lives. Was the war good for freedom?One result was that a dictator, more genocidal than the one who was killed, took over dozens of nations and his regime (though not him personally) continued to inflict suffering on those nations for almost another half century. Some victory.

Even if we look at the horrors inflicted on the Jews there is is reason to doubt this war helped. The war started in 1939 but most Jewish deaths started several years later. Prior to the start of the war thousands of Jews were escaping to safety. The war made that escape difficult or impossible. A delay of a few months may have saved thousands more, perhaps tens of thousands, we will never know. And we know the closed border mentality kept more Jews in harms way. Another year of peace, with open borders, could have saved tens or thousands of people.

We know that the German high command wanted to surrender and overthrow Hitler. They approached the West via Turkey with this offer. They were turned down by Roosevelt (at Stalin’s urging -- an end of the war would have interfered with Stalin’s desire to use the war to take over Europe). That rejection dragged the war out for another two years and it was during those two years that most the deaths in the concentration camps took place. Saying yes to that offer would have saved the lives of millions and stopped Stalin in his tracks.

So “we won” may describe a military victory. But it doesn’t describe the reality of war. We lost. Britain lost. Germany lost, The Jews lost horribly. Every nation in Europe lost. You can’t win a war. You can only lose less than others.

Suppose that tomorrow the attacks in Iraq stopped completely? Imagine every problem disappeared. There are still over 3,000 American families who have buried someone they love. There are thousands of children who have no father, thousands of weeping widows and lonely mothers. Victory? Not on your life. Even under the best possible outcome there is immense suffering and pain and loss.

But it won’t end that cleanly. Saddam is dead. And the world is no safer today than it was when he was alive. The Islamist fanatics are now running rampant in Iraq where before Saddam had kept them under wraps. The number of Iraqis dying each month under liberation is far higher than the numbers killed by Saddam’s thuggish regime. The Middle East is less stable than before. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died and the American economy has lost billions of dollars worth of productivity making everyone a bit poorer. Even a military victory won’t change that.

The reality is that you can’t win a war. You can only lose less than the other guy. This doesn’t mean that there is never a reason to fight. Sometimes there is. But don’t imagine you come out ahead. You can only cut your losses. No one wins a war.