“I understand war.” — John McCain III, on many occasions.

With all due respect, he doesn’t. Oh, I have no doubt that he understands, far better than I, the reality of fighting a war. (Then again, he’s never commanded troops, or had to kill someone he could see.) But he doesn’t understand why wars are fought, or really what “victory” means.

Several times in the first debate (I didn’t watch, but I saw the highlights) he claimed that Barack Obama doesn’t know the difference between strategy and tactics. As with so much of the McCain campaign, this was evidently projection; said campaign has continually demonstrated a failure to grasp the strategy of the election process. McCain savaged his biggest strength (his reputation as a so-called “Maverick” who would go against his incredibly unpopular party) in favor of short-term plays to the base and brazen (and untruthful) attacks on Obama. He got short-term gains in the polls out of it, but now he’s found himself increasingly considered a partisan Republican, an identification which Obama never could get to stick before. Tactics (short term) before strategy (long term).

Similarly, McCain’s dedication to “victory” in Iraq is a sublimation of the strategic to the tactical. I can, barely, conceive of a tactical victory in Iraq.. A strategic victory, however, seems impossible, not least because the only reasonable strategic goal in the Iraq War was the deposition of Saddam, which we accomplished long ago. The rest — the “stable democracy” and all that — has never been coherently put forward.

The central event of McCain’s life is, no doubt and no wonder, the Vietnam War. However, his peculiar circumstances — he basically missed 1967-1973 — left him subject to a common conservative vision of that war, the old “stab in the back” myth that “victory” was made impossible because of the antiwar movement. This is patently absurd.

Again, a tactical “victory” in Vietnam is easy enough to imagine, but I don’t have to imagine it. One author has mentioned the easiest way to have won a tactical victory in the war. That author was Richard Nixon, who admitted later that he considered bombing the dikes of North Vietnam, or even using an atomic bomb on Hanoi. This certainly would have won a tactical victory, “won” the Vietnam War, but this would, leaving aside the moral aspects (which never bothered Nixon much) have been a strategic disaster.

The Vietnam War was fought not to protect the corrupt government of South Vietnam, but as part of the larger strategy of containing Communism, particularly of the Soviet variety. In this it failed, and soon enough not only South Vietnam but its immediate neighbors to the west had gone Communist, and the failures and activities of the United States had caused us incalculable harm in public opinion, particularly in western Europe. Use of a nuclear weapon would have rendered the United States a global pariah.

Post-Nixon Republicanism has been congenitally incapable of accepting this, and McCain is very much in the Republican mainstream. Their goal is to “win” at all costs, but these “wins” are always tactical, always “defeat of the enemy”. Bush the Elder was a Nixonite, and he brought us the quick-and-easy Gulf War, a resounding tactical and strategic victory that neoconservatives decried because it did not depose Saddam. Bush the Younger is a Reaganite, and brought the Iraq War, a quick tactical victory that turned into a nightmare because it had no strategic goal. McCain, of course, is a rabid Reaganite, and squarely in this tradition.


6 responses to “Victory

  1. He is done. He is just grasping at straws to get something going.

  2. Excellent point about McCain basically missing 1967 – 1973.

    His real problem, though, is not his vision of the world, but his repeated attacks that “Obama doesn’t understand…”. They are a part of a larger campaign to convince the American public that Obama is stupid.

    That’s not going to sell when Obama repeatedly displays his intelligence and command of the issues while McCain and his running mate consistently stumble on simple questions like “What do you read?” and fumble the facts.

    Here’s a little more on the topic:

  3. A few years ago, I picked up a collection of Vietnam reporting or Vietnam-related stories/essays from the time (Si Hersh, James, Michener, Sydney Schanberg, Hunter Thompson, etc.) In it, there was a very moving first-person account from John McCain about his time in capture, which was originally published in a periodical (US News & World Report, I think).

    There was a passage in there that really jumped out at me where McCain talked about how America was a better country since the time he left for Vietnam because we now have more of an appreciation of our way of life. He spoke about how, on his return, he saw so many flags and that indicated more patriotism. In essence, the war was good for us because it brought us together.

    And, though his overall story was riveting, I thought: Wow, he really missed everything. He had no idea what happened in this country while he was gone & nobody told him the truth when he returned.

  4. e. nonee moose

    the war was good for us because it brought us together.

    Wasn’t this the goal of the Bush administration as well? To get all behind him through the Iraq war? I mean when you get down to it, that’s the only real goal the war could have had. And it failed, thankfully.

  5. Interesting points Mac, I’m going to have to ponder how Victory could look in our current situations.

    *most of the rest of this is some of my random thoughts on the election season and not directly related to tactic/strategy/victory… sorry if it rambles*

    (I’m a Libertarian and sick of trying to guess which of the major candidates is the lesser of the two evils, so I’m going to vote for somebody I actually agree with on things and not worry about my vote “counting” or not)

    As somebody who knows he’s not going to vote for either of the two main candidates I was at least hopeful going into this election season that it would be a “better” race somehow. I disagree with both of them on most policies, and while I don’t think either of them are what America actually needs right now, I do realize that one of them is what we’re going to get.

    I was hoping Obama would win the democratic nomination (Hillary would have instantly made it a partisan election simply because she so reviled in republican circles), and McCain the republican one, because previously I felt I could respect both of them, even when disagreeing with them. I also expected some level of public discourse that wasn’t what the last few elections have been (what I feel is both parties trying to pull the right levers and push the right voter’s buttons to get into office, all while “playing to their base”).

    Sadly, it seems both sides have taken up the sniping fear-mongering politics (“if you vote for HIM he’ll get us into another horrible war, and give all the money to the rich, and let you die on the streets without medical care!”, “if you vote for HIM you won’t be safe and he’ll give the poor people all your hard earned money!”) and I’ve lost respect for both of them. The living in denial part of my brain is hopeful that both of them are just playing the politics game and wouldn’t be this partisan once they get into office… but I doubt that’s likely.

    In politics I fear it’s not turtles all the way down, but partisan hacks.

    Disclaimer: 4 years ago when Obama made his Democratic Convention speech I turned to my (libertarian leaning but republican voting) wife and said “He’s going to be the next president, and if not the next one, soon there-after” and she was of course confused as to who the heck he was and how I expected him to be elected when nobody knew him. I said I didn’t know him, and didn’t know his policies, but unless he ate babies, he was too good at giving a speech, and being charismatic, and basically owning the electable skills to NOT end up as a nominee at some point (for lack of a better way of putting it, he’s got the Bill Clinton electability quotient, without Bill’s lecherous reputation and appearance) . No, I’m not rooting for him just so I could’ve been right, but IF he wins at least for one moment in my marriage I won’t have always been wrong… so there is that.

  6. Pingback: Those darned liberals! « Thomason Tracts

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