HH: Joined now by Victor Davis Hanson, military historian, classicist, friend of the program. Victor, good to talk to you this 2007.
VDH: Thank you for having me, Hugh.
HH: You’re down in Southern California today, and you’ve written a column called A War Of Endurance. This is not a message that a whole lot of people are going to want to hear, is it, Victor Davis Hanson?
VDH: No, I don’t think more than 30-40% would agree with what you or I advocate.
HH: Let’s walk through it, the realities of the war in Iraq. First, Islamists have just enough Western arms to achieve parity. What’s that mean?
VDH: It means that in certain situations on their own turf, that somebody with an RPG or an AK-47, even if he has Levis and a T-shirt, he doesn’t have very good food, he doesn’t have GPS support, he can still kill Americans, either through snipers, or planning an IED. And we don’t have the ability to bring our vast infrastructure of billion dollar carriers, drones, F-16’s, to play in those environments. Almost everybody that’s being killed in Iraq are being killed by snipers or IED’s.
HH: And car bombs, yeah.
VCH: Yeah, car bombs, suicide bombers. It’s not like even Vietnam or Korea, where the enemy tried to engage us in firefights. This is a very different war. Every time they’ve tried, they’ve not just lost, they’ve been annihilated.
HH: When you write that our weaponry was not intended to fight hundreds of terrorists hiding in houses, we have confronted enemies in urban areas many, many times in our history. Now I don’t know if anything has resembled Sadr City, that slum in Baghdad. But when you cleared Okinawa or Iwo Jima, you cleared nests of tunnels and elaborate defenses. What’s different about Baghdad?
VDH: And I would add, too, Hue as well in Vietnam.
VDH: That was a wonderful, if I can use that term wonderful, it was a very effective campaign on the Marines. What’s different is two things. One, we have a global media that’s been able to broadcast 24/7, and is very anti-Western in general, and anti-American in particular. So we…they’re watching every move that we make. And then second, and I think this is different, that the perception of casualties is far greater, both the number we kill and what we lose. When we went into Okinawa, nobody knew what happened for two weeks. And we took 12,000 casualties in Okinawa. We lost over a thousand people in the Hue campaign. And so today, immediately, people know that somebody died in a back alley in Fallujah, and there’s going to be a New York Times story about that person’s family, about how much sadness is rippled through his community because of that loss. And in World War II, we would be on to the next campaign. And it’s just very different, and it means that it’s very hard to fight in these urban environments where we don’t really see the enemy, we don’t get credit killing him, we can’t lose anybody, and it’s all broadcast 24/7.
HH: You know, two weeks ago, Professor Hanson, I sat at a wedding dinner with a Marine Corps captain. It was another Marine Corps captain getting married. And he matter of factly, with great grief, stated his brother had died in Baghdad two weeks earlier, and then explained that it was a worthy mission, his brother was with the Lord, it was what he was supposed to be doing. And I wonder if we estimate the American resolve in this situation to get the job done, rather than have it drawn out over three years? In other words, Fallujah I could have been waged, and maybe Baghdad I should be waged.
VDH: I think you’re right. I think all of us realize that for all the acrimony over WMD, or over the elections, or over Iran, or over Syria, the real anger is coming from people who want to win. And the WMD issue would have never even arisen if Iraq had been pacified in May, let’s say, May or June of 2003. And so what happens is when you don’t have a sense of winning, a progression of progress, then all of these things come out of the woodwork, shoulda, coulda woulda. And I think in a postmodern society, especially the military’s got to be told and reminded, look, you guys just have to win, and the duty of a political apparatus is just to support it and defend it as it wins. I think the President and the administration after Abu Ghraib could have gone on TV, instead of just profusely apologizing, say these were misdemeanors, they were not felonies. We are very sad that it happened, but we’re not going to apologize to thugs and mass murderers, and this is not what Saddam did, and we’re going to continue to arrest people, rather than after Abu Ghraib, letting people out three and four times that were detained. It ended up with a lot of Americans getting killed.
HH: Now what about the page from the Nasrallah handbook that Hezbollah showed this summer, that if an offensive unfolds in Baghdad, and a building collapsing, whether engineered by the Shia militias or by our own artillery, and a lot of civilians are killed, what will be the effect of that?
VDH: Well, they’ll try to do what they did with Lebanon. But we have been accused of preempting, and I’d like to see us preempt in the media and propaganda war. I’d like the President to say look, we’re sending a surge into Baghdad. We’re going to see more people being killed, and there’s going to be more propaganda, and this is the kind of stuff to be prepared for.
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HH: Professor Hanson, before we went to break, you said we’ve got to wage a preemptive strike on the propaganda. I want to pick up on that, because I think it’s very, very important.
VDH: Well, what I mean is after what we saw in Lebanon, as you pointed out, Hugh, that we can expect doctored photos, we can see stringers from locals that will make up stories, we can see non-existent sources being quoted, and I have to say that when we go surge to Baghdad, it’s not just a question of increased manpower, but there’s going to be a different more offensive approach to killing these terrorists, and we should assume that everybody who’s invested in us losing…it’s not just the terrorists, it’s a lot of the surrounding governments in Iran, even parts of Saudi Arabia and Syria, and their supporters, even in the liberal West who want us to lose, will probably use propaganda techniques to see that we don’t look too well, and that could be everybody from Reuters to some of the networks. Let’s be prepared for it, let’s expect people to lie, let’s expect photos not to be accurately transmitted. And I think that would help enormously. Then when it happens, we can say we told you so.
HH: And how does that preemption occur?
VDH: I think the President, when he gives this much expected speech about the reasons for this surge, and the nature of the surge, should also indicate to the American people that casualties in the pursuit of victory, not just the status quo, will probably increase. And with that increase in casualties will be increased hysteria, and misrepresentation of the type that we’ve seen not just in this war, but Israel’s experience in Lebanon, and that’s not going to have an effect on our resolve.
HH: Okay, and now let’s turn to the man who’s being sent there, David Petraeus. Have you had a chance to meet him?
VDH: I haven’t met him, but I’ve read a lot about him, and I’m highly impressed with him. I think everybody is.
HH: And do you think that that is a significant…a lot of times, people have been saying, you’ve written about this extensively, that Bush was going with the generals he had, and wasn’t doing a Lincoln. Does this represent a change of that tactic for Bush?
VDH: I think it does. I think it represents that I think General Casey and General Abizaid thought that they could finesse this thing, and that they had enough of a political window to turn the war over gradually to the Iraqis to stop the jihadists. And I think now President Bush is saying that window has closed, and I don’t have the political capital or the time or the opportunity more to give you a chance to stabilize this, which may have happened in two years. Now you guys did a great job, but now, given that recent Democratic victory, I’ve got to do something more drastic, and I’m going to bring people in who have a different view, who want to seek out the enemy and kill them, and then create an image of American power, humiliate the terrorists, and therefore, sort of empower the government. It’s almost reversing the cart and the horse. The old idea was we’ve got to get this government up, we’ll kind of stabilize the military side, and then we’ll drain the swamp. And these guys are saying you know what? That government’s not going to get a chance when it’s under assault, so we’re going to go kill the terrorists, and give it a window to gain prestige. So it’s kind of a reversal in priorities.
HH: Now the toughest question has to be, can the American people really believe we’re waging the war to win if Muqtada al Satr is allowed to go unmolested throughout Iraq?
VDH: I don’t think so. And I think…that’s our ace in the hole. We have to tell the Shia and Mr. Maliki that this man has to be arrested, and his supporters have to be disarmed, and we have to expect that that will be quite violent. And we’ve almost done it once before, and it would have continued had be not relented at the 11th hour. And we’re going to do this, and if you don’t want to do it, we’re either going to do it on our own, and if you feel that’s a violation of your newfound autonomy, then we’re going to have to leave, because we can’t ask Americans to go over there and die.
HH: Let’s talk about the alternative, which you lay out in your column. Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton, respectively skedaddled out of Beirut, skipped Baghdad, and fled from Mogadishu, and didn’t risk, lose or solve much against the terrorists. You point out we could retreat and just reprisal bomb, whenever an atrocity occurs against America or our allies, but those reprisal bombings aren’t effective and the menace grows.
VDH: I think that’s what we’ve seen since 1979, that whether it was sending the New Jersey off the coast of Lebanon to shell it, or whether Reagan sent a few bombers to hit Qaddafi, or whatever the situation was, the ideas that more rubble, less trouble, and we’ll just go on with the great life in the United States…and 9/11 came, and we thought wow, you can’t really ever wipe these things out. The pathologies are such they’re always going to create jihadists. Let’s have a comprehensive view that looks at the West Bank, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, there’s a problem of worldwide jihadism. And that was pretty much successful, and was a prevalent mood until the last couple of years in Iraq, when people got tired, and said well wait a minute…the Iraq Study Group, let’s go back to a local solution here, here and here. But I don’t think that that’s been discredited at all. I think that we’ve killed thousands of terrorists, we haven’t had another 9/11, we’ve had some successes with Libya and Pakistan’s nuclear program, Iran is becoming more isolated, we’ve got these new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now it’s just a question of perseverance and will, and we need the military to realize that there’s a time ticking with public opinion. They’ve got to go back to a more, to be frank, a Patton-esque approach, where they’re going to go, be unapologetic and say we’re going to kill these bad people to help democracy.
HH: Well, I can understand why people might suggest that you know, Clinton didn’t really try in Somalia and Afghanistan…but after Israel pounded Hezbollah all last summer, and here is Nasrallah and his millions back active in Lebanon again, it just doesn’t work, Professor Hanson. There’s no way that it works.
VDH: No, it doesn’t, and like I said, it would work if Israel had a more comprehensive view, and we’re going to have to have a more comprehensive view. I think if Israel had said to Nasrallah and to Assad, these missiles are coming to Syria, and here’s a list of targets, here’s an airfield, here’s a power plant, here’s an airport in Syria. And they’re going to be taken out each night when nobody’s going to see them on television. And each night, we’re going to take out another one. It’s up to you to see how much you want to lose. Then they could have turned that into a punitive conventional attack, and Syria might have put more pressure on Nasrallah.
HH: Can we do the same thing versus Iran now?
VDH: I think we can. I really do. I think that the whole key to this war is the deniability of culpability. And that means that a country like Iran that’s fueling both the Sunnis and the Shia, always denies that it’s doing it. And we have to say no, no, it doesn’t matter. Here’s a list of things, and we’re not going to get any American troops inside Iran, but we’re going to tell you exactly what you’re going to lose over the next 30 days, and it’s going to be tit for tat until you stop sending people in. And then it has to be done politically at home by warning the American people that you have a fanatical theocracy at the Gulf of Hormuz that can shut down 40% of the world’s petroleum, and we’re in a real war. And that’s, I think, that’s what we’re looking at.
HH: Very quickly, did you see the London Times story on Israel striking at Iran with tactical nukes?
VDH: I did. I think that was a trial balloon or a warning, or some type of sophisticated intelligence leaked to warn us that we don’t want to go down that road, and we should try to handle this before Israel has to.
HH: Fascinating. Victor Davis Hanson, a happy new year to you. www.victorhanson.com, America.
End of interview.