A Little Bit Lethal


Back in 2002, while George W Bush was trying to gather support for his invasion of Iraq, the Australian Financial Review‘s Boss magazine held a lunch for business people to hear the US Ambassador present his Government’s case. I was lucky enough to score an invitation.


The then Ambassador, John Schieffer, gave a persuasive presentation. I was very ambivalent about US policy at that time, and I wanted to hear their side of things. Back then I believe many of us thought that Saddam Hussein did possess weapons of mass destruction, not just because our governments were telling us so, but also because Saddam had ignored 13 separate UN resolutions on the matter and had recently expelled the last of the weapons inspectors. One of those inspectors, the Aussie Richard Butler, appeared to be totally convinced that Saddam had something serious to hide. I wasn’t sure whether these weapons would turn out to be biological or nuclear, but either was nasty enough for me.

The arguments about Saddam helping Osama Bin Laden back then the apocalyptic shock of 9/11 had not worn off I could not judge; one lot of experts claimed Saddam had been part of the attack, another lot said he hadn’t. As a humble punter, I didn’t know what to make of that, except I thought it was deeply embarrassing for the Americans that they had failed to catch Bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Listening to the urbane and charming Schieffer (now US Ambassador to Japan), I had to admit he made a good case. However, I still had one serious reservation.

When the chance came to ask questions, therefore, I was keen to participate. I was somewhat surprised when we were told that we could not simply shove our hands up in the air if we wanted to ask the ambassador something, but must write our questions down on the provided form and have them vetted before the few deemed suitable were chosen for a response. So much for the bastion of democracy, so much for the land of the free, I remember muttering, sotto voce, as I scribbled out my question on the designated form.

Nevertheless, my question was one of the chosen few and despite my righteous indignation I couldn’t help feeling rather flattered. What I asked was this: since World War II, the US has fought a number of equivocal wars Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War. All have been costly (in both blood and money) and either completely unsuccessful (Vietnam) or caused as many problems as they’ve solved. Will this invasion of Iraq be just another of these equivocal wars?

The Ambassador was delighted to reassure me that it would not be a repeat of Vietnam or the previous Gulf War. No, America was going into this conflict boots and all, they were going to win, they would not rest until they had removed Saddam Hussein’s regime and brought the benefits of democracy to the Iraqi people, blah, blah, blah. I sank back into my seat, strangely uncomforted.

Of course, four weary, bloody and depressing years later, it seems the Ambassador was dead wrong. This has been yet another equivocal war, another Vietnam, another war the US seem doomed to lose even if they win.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The trouble with going to war quite apart from the whole moral dimension, of course, which I am not going into here is that it seems well nigh impossible to win a war that is fought for political or strategic reasons only, no matter what kind of super-power you are. You can’t go to war, it seems to me, if your intention is merely to punish an unruly country and then push off, relatively unscathed. And the reason you can’t has nothing to do with comparative power, wealth, technology or arms, but everything to do with the motivation to fight in the first place.

Any military evaluation of the relative strengths of puny North Vietnam against the behemoth US would have predicted a walkover by the US. And, indeed, had they put all their might into it that would certainly have been the result. But when you fight equivocally, pulling your punches, intentionally fighting in a ‘limited’ way even if for the very best and most civilised reasons you cannot actually win. In a sense, you misunderstand what war is an action of last resort, only undertaken when all else has failed, and when you either fight or die. Worse, you fatally betray the young men and women you send into battle, because you have sent them to fight in a conflict you only support with your head, and not with your heart.

The enemy they fight against, of course the Viet Cong, the Jihadists, whoever have an enormous advantage over your soldiers. Your enemy is fighting war as it must be fought, with their backs against the wall, where it is do or die, often on their own native soil. Their hearts are in it, whatever we may think of them, their goals are clear, their sense of purpose and righteousness unequivocal.

The last unequivocal war the US fought may have been in Afghanistan, where they were fuelled by their outrage and fury after the unprecedented attack on their own soil. Against such a passionate and powerful army the Taliban stood no chance. Flushed with their success, however, the Bush Administration then made the fatal mistake of invading Iraq.

Bush’s announcement that he will send in 20,000 more troops seems to me to be merely delaying the inevitable. Even if he and the Republicans are prepared to stay the course, American public opinion being what it is, the minute the Administration changes it is likely the US will retreat and leave the mess they have created in Iraq unresolved. No doubt the removal of Saddam Hussein is a good thing (ghastly though his and his crony’s ends have proved), but what else has been achieved? Even if the Coalition of the Willing stays, it is hard to see any kind of resolution to the sectarian violence anytime soon.

Maybe in writing this I come across as a bomb-them-back-to-the-stone-age warmonger, but that is not my intention. I am not arguing for total war in any of these cases, the opposite in fact. But I do think we need to bite the bullet so to speak on this issue. War cannot be a little bit lethal. Surely the major lesson of Iraq, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, even Korea (North Korea now being the world’s most terrifying rogue state), is that you should never start what you do not intend to finish. You can’t dabble in war: it has to be all or nothing.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.