Press Box

The Leading Indicator of Victory

When Johnny Apple says we’re thwarted, we must be on the verge of winning.

The best news to greet coalition forces all week comes in the form of an R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. piece in today’s New York Times (“Iraqis Learn the Lessons of How U.S. Fights Wars“). Apple plots Saddam Hussein’s learning curve and salutes the shrewdness of the Iraqi’s battlefield tactics, a bit of emerging conventional wisdom shared by the Washington Post’s Vernon Loeb today (“Tactics Show Iraqis Learned Lessons of War“).

But while Loeb charts the specific lessons absorbed by the Iraqi military, Apple dribbles out generalities to communicate Saddam’s tactical genius and the prospects for an American debacle—even in victory. He writes:

Like other leaders facing larger, technologically superior forces, [Saddam] has found ways to improvise and to take advantage of the fact that the fighting is taking place on his home ground. He is waging a campaign of harassment and delay. It is not likely to change the outcome of the war, but it will prolong the fighting, make it more costly for his adversaries and profoundly affect the way it is seen in other Arab countries and around the world.

Apple doesn’t use the word “quagmire” to describe the allied effort as he did on Oct. 31, 2001, during the early, shaky days of the Afghanistan campaign. (See “Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam.”) But the gist of his Afghanistan piece and today’s Iraq piece is the same. The United States has bitten off more than it can chew; the allied war effort is underpowered; we’ve underestimated the enemy—again!; air power is overrated; and guerrillas can do U.S. forces great damage as they did in Vietnam.

Apple’s fear that dropping bombs on civilians wouldn’t “win Afghan ‘hearts and minds’ ” and that the country would prove ungovernable even if the United States won turned out to be unfounded. Two weeks after his comparison of Afghanistan to Vietnam, the allies liberated Kabul, and 16 months later the place is at least as governable as San Francisco.

Ridiculing Apple is easy—he’s a large, slow target that bleeds profusely when hit. But many others in the press are guilty of Appleism, writing whatever story is required to fit the arc of the wartime news cycle.

In Part 1 of the wartime news cycle, the press stands slack-jawed at the withering display of U.S. air power and high-technology battle gear (Kosovo, Afghanistan, and now Iraq). Bombs have gotten smart! the press writes. In Iraq, the bombs have become so smart, many of them have earned advanced degrees in their spare time. Geniuses at the Pentagon are revolutionizing warfare with amazing tactics. Special ops are the ultimate force multiplier. The locals are about to rebel. And so on.

Having exhausted that vein, the press demands a new angle, and the vagaries of war supply them with Part 2 of the cycle. Victory wasn’t as instant as we were led to believe! U.S. forces have “bogged down”! The early blitzkrieg could not be sustained, and U.S. forces are increasingly vulnerable to counterattack. The uprising has failed to gel. You can’t win a war from the air; you need lots more troops on the ground.

After bogging down in the “bogged down” angle, the press stages a rally in Part 3. They discover that Milosevic, Bin Laden, Saddam, et al., are the real geniuses. The enemy commanders are cum laude graduates of the international war college and masters of the art of asymmetrical warfare as practiced in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, and Israel. The enemy is fighting the battle on its terms. Unnamed sources in the Pentagon fret about the previously lauded American tactics. Apple furnishes the boilerplate:

“We underestimated the capacity of his paramilitary forces,” said a senior uniformed officer at the Pentagon. “They have turned up where we did not expect them to, and they have fought with more resourcefulness than we expected them to demonstrate.”

In Part 4 the press informs us with great surprise that Saddam wasn’t the only warrior who learned from past battles. Unconventional warfare turns out to be unconventional for a reason: It is a superb form of suicide. Reporters pretend they never doubted the outcome. The United States wins and promptly loses interest in the region. So does the press—until the next war cycle and Johnny Apple’s prognostications.


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