Novelist Mark Helprin with a completely different perspective of how the war in Iraq is going.
HH: We begin in this week where the emphasis has been on the war, on this program and in the national debate, with a man who knows a lot about it. Mark Helprin is himself a wonderful writer and novelist, his collection of short stories are critically acclaimed. I am a big fan of A Soldier Of The Great War. Many of you have read his pieces in the Wall Street Journal, the National Review. He is also a distinguished professor at Hillsdale College. He is a veteran of both the Israeli Army and the Israeli Air Force. He is a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Graduate School. Mark Helprin, welcome back to the program. It’s good to talk to you.
MH: Thank you.
HH: What did you make of the debate about the war this week, and in particular, the majority leader’s statement that the war had been lost?
MH: Well, I think that he’s correct, but I don’t think that his actions are correct in certifying it, and you know, driving the hammer into the nail, and ending it all, because I think the war has been lost, but there are ways and ways to lose a war. And if we simply withdraw according to the timetable that they offered, it would be a terrible disaster. And people say that, but they don’t explain why. It would be a disaster because it would energize every enemy of the United States throughout the world, and cause much greater pain and suffering, and danger, than we’ve had up to this point in this war.
HH: Now when you say the war’s been lost, who won it?
MH: Well, you don’t have to necessarily have a winner in order to have a loser. But we certainly didn’t win it, and we have not been able to achieve the, I think, unwise goal that the administration chose out of, I don’t know, desperation, or not, just not knowing about war aims of democratizing the entire Middle East, which was, I’ve always said since the beginning, is an absurd goal, or even Iraq, or even, really, making Baghdad or even the Green Zone safe. We don’t control the territory in Iraq, we don’t control anything beyond our own cantonments, and in a sense, not even those. So we’ve gone nowhere. And the pity of it is that we could have won it, and we could have won it fairly decisively, and without much cost, had we chosen the right war aims, and had we gone about it in the right way.
HH: And what were the right war aims, Mark Helprin, in your opinion?
MH: I have always thought that the right, the proper war aim would be the moral of the Muslim world. Had we actually gone to Baghdad, as we could have in three days, had we massed the proper amount of forces and done it in the right way, it would have flipped them into the fatalism that they’re quite used to. You see, if they are beaten by an overwhelming power, then they feel that they’re victims and they’re martyrs, and it’s perfectly okay, and they’re all right with that. And this has happened time and again, and the Israelis did it in 1967. We did it in the Gulf War, really. And the British did it throughout the 19th Century. So it can be done, but when we…our notion of what to do in this war was completely different. And it was something that simply won’t work.
HH: So you’ve got a pox on all their houses approach to this, but I want to ask you, using your novelist vision, perhaps, and your experience as a soldier, what’s going to happen? What do you think in the next five years we’re going to see happen with Iran and its nukes, with Israeli politics in complete collapse, fascinating article on that in the Atlantic this month, and with today, we picked up a senior al Qaeda guy, he’s down at Gitmo now, one of their operational commanders. What’s the world going to look like in five years, Mark Helprin?
MH: Well, if I knew that…I can’t really answer that, but I can answer it in pieces.
MH: For example, I think there’s no question that given a little more time, someone is going to have to take care of the Iranian nuclear program, and it’s going to have to be by force, because although you have all kinds of people running around with mouse voices, saying oh, how can we do that…of course, no one, we should not even entertain the idea of invading Iran. It’s way too big, and it would be impossible at this point, anyway. And it never was necessary. But to bomb those facilities out of existence is going to be done, mostly likely by Israel, which can do it, and possibly even by us. And you can’t let something like that fester, because Ahmadinejad is a person who believes that he is the chosen leader, chosen by the Mahdi, and that nothing he can do will be wrong, and he has an apocalyptic vision. But there are practical reasons why Iran wants a nuclear bomb, which I could list, but probably don’t have time for it. Nonetheless, it’s too dangerous in their hands to let it go, and something will be done.
HH: So you see that happening? Someone is going to do that?
HH: And how long of a bombing campaign would that require? You’re a former member of the Israeli Air Force. How many strikes does that take?
MH: Oh, well, how long a campaign? It’s done within an hour. It has to be, because of the fueling requirements. The actual bombing would be done, certainly within an hour. And it can be done, it can be done in a number of ways. Both Israel and the United States have been working on this for many years, in conjunction with one another, and also in view of taking out other facilities in other places. But the circumstances are such that the people I know, I’ve read in various publications oh, it can’t be done because it’s too far away, and they have missiles protecting it, and it’s underground, etc. It’s absolute nonsense. It certainly can be done.
HH: All right, what about Iraq? Do you see a Hosni Mubarak figure arising, a strongman? Do you see the genocide that Max Boot warned about on this program yesterday, and Fred Kagan the day before, if we are to withdraw? What do you see that country looking like in five years?
MH: Well, you have a genocide, but it’s moving in slow motion, and it has been for a couple of years. Certainly, were we to take out our troops, which are like the control rods in a nuclear reactor, it would increase in intensity, but then it would be over, and there would be some sort of political stability, what in engineering is called the angle of repose. In other words, it would flare up, there’s no question, but then there would be a winner, and the winner would be ruthless like Saddam Hussein was, but nonetheless, then things would quiet down, and you would have the same old situation that you have in a totalitarian country like that.
HH: And would we better off at that point, at the angle of repose, than we were in March of 2003?
MH: We could be, if were to station our forces as we should have in the beginning, in the area in Northern Saudi Arabia, which has a network of military bases insulated by the desert, so there’d be no casualties, we’d not be fighting an insurgency from which we could reach Baghdad, Riyadh, or Damascus within three days in force, to take down any government which crossed us. And those governments, they live for power, and they would reach some sort of modus vivendi with us, by cleaning out their terrorists, restraining them.
HH: Well, you are really going back to the British model then, Mark Helprin, to when the Mahdi approaches Khartoum and wipes out Gordon, then we will strike back and crush him, and then retreat back to our bases.
MH: Yeah, we can’t govern that area or those people. It’s not possible. And certainly not with the 140,000 troops. I mean, that’s absurd. You realize that’s the same amount of people, in proportion, as there are police in the city of New York. But can you imagine if the people of New York were armed with RPG’s and didn’t speak the language of the police, same language, and the police were at the end of a 15,000 mile supply chain, and they had to also build schools? I mean, it would be impossible. It’s a very small amount of troops. By having that small number there, what we did, essentially, was rely upon allies who were always mythical from the beginning. I mean…
HH: I understand your critique, but I also, I don’t understand your characterization of the loss, because in many respects, now I’m reminded of, what you’re saying is sort of what Max said and Fred Kagan said, which is we need to get to an angle of repose, where the Iraqi army and special forces are imposing order, and that there is a government not hostile to us, and hopefully, occasionally supportive of us, in the position that we don’t have to worry about them developing WMD or launching wars on their neighbors, or subsidizing terror attacks on the United States. That sounds like winning.
MH: Well, no, you see, the thing is…you know, that would be winning, that would be close to winning, if we could do that. But you can’t do that by embracing them and being right in the center as we are right now. The only way to do that would be to pull to a position where, which I…look, I’ve advocated this since before the beginning of the war, to have a fleet in being, so that you can strike and threaten, but let them essentially run it and develop it. The people that we’re supporting in Iraq are our enemies. The government is run by the Shia, and they are our enemies. They’re simply using us, they used us in the past years to build up their forces to keep the Sunni down, the Sunnis down while they built up their forces and armed and organized.
HH: Mark Helprin, I hope to get you back next week to continue this conversation, because that’s a completely different perspective than everyone else we’ve heard this week, and it’s not the nutter left. It’s from a man who know his stuff. I appreciate it, Mark Helprin.
End of interview.