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April 9th, 2003

  The Victory Dividend

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Now that the Three-Week War has become a mere mopping-up operation — a matter of winkling out a few last-ditch Ba'athists, getting civil administration going, and hunting for any bits and pieces of Saddam père et fils we may be able to identify — it is time to look at the victory dividend. We have rid the world of a dangerous tyrant, which is what we set out to do. What other things might we have gained from this war, things that perhaps we were not particularly looking for, but which come to us as bonuses? I can think of at least three victory dividends we might reasonably hope for.

•  We are the BSD nation.  For readers unfamiliar with my fondness for TLAs (that is, three-letter acronyms), I refer you to a piece I posted on NRO last September, in which I expressed my wish that the USA should be a BSD nation. I hid BSD behind an acronym in this case because, as I explained, the actual expression it stands for is somewhat indelicate: "The generality of NRO readers are sensitive, genteel people, who stick out their pinkies when holding a teacup, and I do not want to scandalize your feelings. Suffice it to say that the 'B' stands for 'big,' the 'S' for 'swinging,' and the 'D' for a regrettable, though rather common, four-letter word for the male organ of generation."

Being a BSD nation is not, as I pointed out back then, altogether easy. People don't necessarily like a BSD nation — though if you play it right, those that don't like you will at least have some measure of respect for you. It does, though, mean that you are much likelier to get what you want out of other nations, and out of international organizations like the UN, than the less well-endowed.

Cast your mind back over the shilly-shallying at the UN this past few months. It's hard to imagine that sort of nonsense going on for as long as it did in the aftermath of a demonstration of national resolve such as the one we have just given. Did the weasel nations know we really had that kind of resolve? Perhaps not. We all look out at the world through the distorting lenses of our own habits and prejudices. Since France, Russia and the rest would never have dared do what we did, perhaps it was hard for them to imagine us doing it. (I had some trouble imagining it myself.)

In any case, whether or not they believed we would go to war, I am sure they did not think that we would make war with such conviction, such skill, and such efficiency. Your average French diplomat is a guy in his fifties, who spent his salad days watching the US hacking lumps out of her own flesh in Vietnam. They didn't believe in us. Now perhaps they believe.

•  Tempered in battle.  Our military is sharper, wiser, and more confident now than three weeks ago, by an order of magnitude. Any auto mechanic will tell you that a car likes to be driven. A car that is driven a lot gets to smooth out all those bumps and seams left from the manufacturing process. Minor structural weaknesses get identified and fixed. The driver gets to know which squeaks and rattles need attention, and which are just the upholstery settling in. It's the same with armies. Not all soldiers are keen to fight, but armies need to fight. It keeps them tuned up.

In my own days as a weekend soldier, we used to have instructors from the regular army come in to give us classes on weapons and tactics. Often these guys were combat veterans, and would tell a war story to illustrate a point. This was always done with traditional British reserve and diffidence — soldiers in general, and British soldiers I think particularly, hate any kind of showing off about combat experience. The usual thing, in fact, was a pro forma request to us for permission to tell a war story: "Mind if I tell youse a war-y?" There would follow some graphic tale from one of the numerous British postwar campaigns — Malaysia, Cyprus, Aden, Northern Ireland. You couldn't help but sit up and listen at that point. He's talking about war, the real thing.

It is a great benefit to an army, even a peacetime army, to have a cadre of soldiers like that, who have actually been under fire, and can communicate the feel and stress of it to trainees. Being trained by instructors who have only known training themselves is like kissing your sister. Trainees in the US armed forces, for many years to come, will be learning the fighting arts from veterans of Umm Qasr and Al Najaf, Baghdad and Mosul. It makes a difference. And of course, should anyone else feel like taking us on, we have several thousand warriors who have seen blood and smoke, heard bullets crack past their ears, know from hard experience when to advance and when to take cover. You want to fight us? Bring it on — but know that our battlefield learning curves will be way, way shorter than yours.

•  Closing the gap.  A commercial republic like ours is not over-fond of its military and doesn't trust them much. This effect has been magnified over the past couple of generations by the emergence of a European-style intellectual class, leftist in general orientation and deeply critical of all traditional institutions. The conscripts of WW2, Korea and Vietnam at least brought home some knowledge of military life, and of the experience of battle shared with a random assortment of fellow-citizens. That knowledge has drained away this past 30 years, and our leftist elites were glad to see it go. To most Americans, the military is more remote today than it has ever been.

It is possible that this victory will accentuate that remoteness. The civilian world, especially the intellectual classes, have been very free with criticism and protest of the war. The fact that it was fought so well, to such a swift victory, may deepen the military's contempt for the ignorance and wrong-headedness of civilian critics and protesters. You said we should not do this — but look, we are greeted as liberators after all. You said we would be sure to screw it up — but look, it went like clockwork. You said we'd lose thousands — but look, the sacrifice was borne by mere dozens. You were wrong, wrong, and wrong. You don't know diddley!

On the other hand, I think I see a chance that this victory might do something to close the military-civilian gap. Not in the case of the intellectual elites, who are too far gone in hatred of their nation and culture, but among ordinary thoughtful citizens. If this happens, a big factor will have been the demeanor of our military and civilian leaders at all those press conferences and interviews. Secretary Rumsfeld, Generals Myers and Franks, Brigadier-General Brooks, and all the others who have shown up to give progress reports, have performed as well, in their own way, as our troops in the field. Unless your brain has been addled by anti-American ideology, it is hard not to admire these people, and harder still to square them with the twitching, snarling, borderline-insane stereotype of the military man served up to us by Hollywood for 20 years or so, in movies from Apocalypse Now to American Beauty.

One thing every foreigner notices about this country is the great deference we Americans show towards success. "Nothing succeeds like success" in any place, but in America even more than elsewhere. There is hardly any more bitter term of contempt in the American language than "loser." Well, our military have given us a stunning success. It's hard not to notice.

Sure, if you are Assistant Professor of Latina Studies hunkered behind the walls of some Ivy League donjon, you probably deplore what has happened as evidence that brute force and ignorance can triumph over subtlety, "discourse," and understanding. Go ahead, deplore it. It's been a triumph none the less; and one carried out by men and women who look calmly into the cameras and speak in careful, measured, respectful tones.

To the man in the street, it all looks pretty darn impressive. He is quietly wondering whether perhaps, instead of going from high school to college to grad school to the insurance business, he might not have gained something by trying out for a military career, as his grandfather suggested. Is it too much to hope that our military personnel might be greeted as liberators not only by the long-suffering people of Iraq, but also by the college-educated middle classes of their own nation? Perhaps even by Ivy League administrators and The New York Times? Yes, it probably is, but I'm going to hope anyway.